Friday, August 26, 2016

D&Q: Gilbert Hernandez

The only person who is Gilbert Hernandez's equal in accurately representing the ways in which children think, speak and act is his brother Jaime. The feeling that Gilbert creates is different from his brother's; it's more Charles Schulz than Hank Ketcham at times. The characters are a little sadder and a little meaner, and the world makes a bit less sense. His semi-autobiographical Marble Season depicted a sort of Kingdom of Summer ruled by the experiences of kids, for good and ill. The sense of wonder and awe with regard to small details was mixed with dread and pain regarding other areas of life, but the mythos of childhood was intact all along, with the numbing realities of adulthood not yet creeping in. His character design is magnificent, with the use of gesture and body language at the center of his storytelling. Keeping certain poses, like the lead character with his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, provides not only continuity but a key to understanding the true emotional states of his characters.

His second book for D&Q, Bumperhead, starts once again with the wonder and weirdness of childhood but this time keeps going all the way into old age, following a boy name Bobby and his friends through the prism of music and the ways in which identities tend to become wrapped up in scenes. Once again, this book has autobiographical elements, as Bobby is approximately the same age as Gilbert and listened to the same kind of music, but Hernandez throws in a number of quirks. Never afraid to throw in a bit of magical realism, there's a running gag in the story that warps the reader's perception as to when the story is set. That's because when we meet young Bobby, his friend has an iPad and promises to show him dirty images of the Pope. When the reader suddenly understands that the book shifts to the sixties and seventies, the iPad is suddenly referred to as the "magical predicting machine" and eventually dismissed as merely a child's toy. It's a great gag designed to unsettle the reader out of certain assumptions as well as subverting certain children's lit tropes that set stories in Anytime, Anytown, USA.

Bobby, cruelly nicknamed "Bumperhead" by some bullies who later become his friends because of his huge forehead, is a child not unlike his mother in that he's one extreme or other. He's either grimly pensive with a flatness of affect and energy or else finds ways to crank himself up to extremes. His father doesn't speak English all that well and pretty much runs out on his son the minute he's old enough to take care of himself on the pretext of having business to take care of in Mexico, leading to a life of isolation and disconnection alternating with a desperate desire to find a scene to fit into. That search leads to him identifying with various musical scenes, as he devours rock, pop and glam before settling into early punk. Punk rock was obviously very important to Hernandez himself and one can see how the punk ethos invigorated Bobby in the comic. There is an amazing page with four horizontal panels as Bobby is watching a punk band play and his eyes are wide as saucers with an expression that's beyond joy, beyond excited. It's like he's been electrified with so much juice he can barely control himself, and the dialog reads "I am alive again. No, I am fucking alive again."

The book does not end on that high point, however. It's more of a temporary jolt for a character whose detached nature leads him to ignore his own health throughout the book, as his weight see-saws thanks to habits like speed and alcohol. Bobby gets in a relationship but doesn't find it nearly as simple as his high school relationships, and it in fact comes to a head in paranoia and anger on her part. The joy of the creative possibilities of punk are muted by his lack of ambition and creative outlets; he's a walking example of the dangers of being part of a scene and then finding the scene changing into something one doesn't recognize. When his father returns from Mexico and reveals that he started a second family, it becomes a focal point for Bobby's incoherent rage. It's a rage that's as self-directed and existential as it as against his father. It's a rage against life.

Just as Hernandez doesn't end the book on the climax of discovering punk rock, he doesn't end it on that note either. Instead, Bobby simply gets older and finds it harder and harder to tap into that kind of anger. Walking with a cane after having a couple of heart attacks, old age is simply about acceptance. Even when he confronts his father on a daily basis, it's almost a routine by this point. He knows what answers he will get and isn't prepared for anything else. Music, Bobby's identity nexus in the other chapters, is hardly mentioned in the final chapter. Music for Bobby was a way of expressing things he couldn't say, giving himself a voice he couldn't otherwise articulate. In old age, he found himself needing to express himself and his anger less and less, and so did music fall by the wayside--with the sole exception of hating on the jazz music of someone he'd known and despised for years. Though unspoken, that conflict said a lot about Bobby. He hated his rival's garage music and later jazz stylings, in part because he saw them as technique unattached to real expression. His rival hated punk because he saw it as posing without talent and saw non-musician Bobby purely as a scenester. It points directly to the difference between Bobby and Hernandez himself, as Gilbert was part of a scene but was inspired by its DIY ethos to actually put in the effort to create something. Punk is not about not working hard, but rather it's about working hard on something you care about and finding ways to get it out there as directly as possible. Bumperhead is a meditation on a number of roads not taken and a number of paths that Hernandez no doubt so arrayed ahead of him. With the benefit of hindsight, Hernandez is not too cruel to Bobby, because he could have been a version of Bobby. Bobby made a lot of bad choices (when he wasn't drifting along), which Hernandez emphasizes doesn't make him a bad person. In the end, it makes him a human being, no better or worse than those people he grew up with.

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