Sunday, 5 May 2013

Marble Season Review

Reviewing Gilbert Hernandez’s newest masterpiece (for that is clearly what it is), Marble Season, is going to be difficult. Not because I’m unsure how I feel about the work, it’s a love letter to the magical delights and misfortunes of childhood, and not because I don’t know why this is an excellent example of why comics should continue to be celebrated among the most important literary works. The problem I’m facing is one that I’ve only just encountered since I started writing about comics on Shared Universe Reviews: other writers, professors and bloggers have written better reviews and analyses of Marble Season than what I’m attempting to write.

I know how it sounds. I sound like a whining wannabe who’s fishing for the pity of others. I sound like someone who spends more time trying to convince others that my fandom is real, that I am the actual number one Gilbert Hernandez fan. Despite having only discovered the Beto’s work, and the work of Los Bros Hernandez, specifically Love & Rockets, sometimes in 2008, I’m their biggest fan and you’ve got to believe me because I’ve real, not all, but most of their comics on several occasions and… well, you get my point. In the grand scheme of things, I feel rather unimportant but I really don’t think Beto would mind. Sure, I most likely can’t write a verbose and in depth appreciation of Marble Season to rival the afterword of academic Cory Kreekmur, which can be found at the back of the book but that’s ok, right? Just like Gilbert shows us there is more than one way to appreciate a comic, you can be like Gilbert’s stand-in, Huey, and read comics and analyse muscleman adds or you can be like little Chavo and enjoy tearing them up instead, there is more than one way to enjoy, appreciate and recommend Marble Season. The real important thing is that despite my limitations as a writer, I’m trying.

Enough about me, let’s talk about Marble Season. Gilbert Hernandez, my favourite of the Hernandez brothers (which isn’t saying much, they’re all masterful in their own right), has always excelled at writing convincing child characters in his Love & Rockets series. One of my all-time favourites is Guadalupe. I remember how I felt the first time I ever read “Heartbreak Soup”. I haven’t taken the time to count, but in that one story alone, Gilbert created nearly fifty characters and that’s not exaggeration. Out of all of them, Guadalupe was instantly my favourite. Her antics with all the other children in the fictional village of Palomar were an absolute delight. The nicest thing I can say about Marble Season is that it’s all child cast reminded me of the children of Palomar in “Heartbreak Soup” which is still one of Gilbert’s best known stories.

The story of Marble Season is rather simple, perhaps deceptively so. It’s about the day to day lives of Huey, his brothers and his friends. There isn’t much of a plot. The comic is episodic in nature which is apt since Gilbert’s is greatly influenced by the child centric comics and news strips of old such as Little Archie Comics, Little Lulu and Peanuts. Somehow the episodic nature that seems to contradict the publication format of a graphic novel is a very powerful tool in Gilbert’s hands. The themes are meaningful of complex for a work that, at first glance, appears to be slight. Long-time fans of the Hernandez Brothers won’t be fooled. The nearly completely silent pages that pepper the comic are an exercise in subtlety and are key for adding emotional depth to this story about the lives of children.

Consider one such page where little Chavo, Huey’s little brother, is walking outside quite content taking a stroll outside under the summer sun. He encounters something in the road. It’s a dead baby bird. Chavo is completely traumatized as to how the baby bird ended up in such a state. He continues on in with his stroll but his facial expression TRAHI the burdened mind of a young boy who has lost a bit of his innocence. The page is told entirely without text but it’s powerful. Perhaps little Chavo, despite his lack of speech, is aware of everything that is going on. Gilbert uses him to great effect in Marble Season. Chavo is the secret observer in the neighbourhood. That’s probably why he wanders off so much. He’s curious as to the affairs of the older kids. His bald, round head gives him the allure of a Latin American Charlie Brown which fools the reader into thinking this little child is as emotional troubled as Charles Shultz semi-biographic character. That’s not the case for Chavo though. On many occasions while reading Marble Season, I thought he was the only character to fully understand what was going on in the lives of the neighbourhood kids. As I said before, despite the simple nature of this book, there are a lot of things that happen or, more accurately, suggestions are made about things that will happen.

The vague yet marvellously descriptive title perfectly describes that period of every child’s life where they begin to understand the worlds of adults. The book is about growing pains as it is about anything else. A tomboy deciding to wear a dress in order to catch the attention of a boy, a boy more concerned who perhaps chooses to pursue the affections of a Latin American girl after being mocked by his friends for demonstrating feelings for a little white girl with freckles, another boy who is still as of yet unconcerned with the opposite sex, learns an important lesson about honesty, material desires and thievery. Marble Season perfectly describes that time in our lives where playing with your favourite childhood toy and being trouble by one of the mysteries of life happen in the same day, sometimes simultaneously. The Marble Season is the time in which you enjoy playing with your G.I. Joe all the while being embarrassed about what people think of you for playing with your G.I. Joe. Huey is encouraged to play with his G.I. Joe in ways he’d never done before in order to avoid such embarrassment during the course of the book.  Real boys are rough with their G.I. Joes, they toss them at the wall and throw them in the mud, and they shouldn’t be preoccupied with their toys getting hurt or other girly nonsense. Marble Season, among other things, is the twilight years of a child.

I could go on. There is a lot to consider in the relatively short 120 pages. I mentioned earlier that Gilbert is my favourite of the Hernandez Brothers but I didn’t say why. Gilbert is sneakily subtle in his writing and in his art. His art is simple but it can be full of energy and emotion. Gilbert carves his characters in the page. It’s harsh and beautiful at the same time and I adore it. His writing is the same. It’s straightforward but deceptively so. His writing will reward those who take their time. Linger on the quieter panels and pages. Take the time to flip back and forth and really see what’s going on. I described Marble Season as being episodic and it is, but all that really means is that Gilbert gives us little snippets of story that build on one another and weave together to form a tapestry. You can easily appreciate each little snippet on it’s on but it’s only once you stop and consider the whole that you think to yourself “I see what you did there, Beto. Well done!”

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