Monday, April 8, 2013

Gilbert's Year: Julio's Day Reviewed

Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez
A Love And Rockets Graphic Novel
Fantagraphics, 2013
Gilbert Hernandez is one of the most prolific cartoonists on the planet. The man seems to work at Jack Kirby levels of productivity, and the quality of the material he puts out is usually some of the best stuff being published in the comic medium. This year alone we get collections for Julio's Day, New Tales of Old Palomar, Fatima: The Blood Spinners, and the OGN Marble Season (his hotly anticipated autobiography) not to mention more Love and Rockets New Stories.

So Julio's Day, new last week from Fantagraphics, is just the first salvo in the Year of Gilbert. Collecting a bunch of material largely serialized in Love and Rockets, Julio's Day covers a man's life, one hundred years in one hundred pages. When going into reading this and thinking about whether or not I was going to review it here - because, honestly, if your last name is Hernandez of the Love and Rockets Hernandezes, at this point in your career you are review-proof - I was thinking of analyzing it along with Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library 20. More commonly know as the graphic novel Lint, Ware's Acme 20 focuses on the life of Jordan Lint (a minor character from his Rusty Brown cycle), with each page of the graphic novel representing one moment from one day of one year in Lint's life. Hearing about the 100 page/100 year concept made me think that Hernandez did something similar, but this is not remotely the case in Julio's Day - to appraise it with Acme 20 would do both an injustice. And damn the review-proofness of it, Julio's Day work certainly leaves an impression worth discussing.

Now, the story certainly covers a century in 100 pages, but by no means is it a page-per-year. The story is told in fits and jumps, covering events over a day or two for a few pages and then jumping forward a few months, or a few years, or a few decades. And the focus is not on just one character, but in flavor and tone so similar to his Palomar masterworks, the story encompasses Julio's family, his hometown, and society at large. In 1900, the titular Julio is born into a Mexican family in a poor town somewhere in the United States. We see his early upbringing, his large extended family, his hometown. The story's leaps are minor at first and easy to anchor in a point in time, but as the narrative drives forward, focusing on members of his family and the other residents of the town, the time of the story jumps forward. We are never told outright when we are, but must discern that from bits of dialogue, characters' dress, the apparent age of the people themselves. Exactly when is never as important as the who. This is a character piece that manages to weave in a lot of characters and in a very small amount of space tell volumes about them.

There is Julio, devoted to his mother, with his share of secrets - not dark secrets, just not easy ones. There is Uncle Juan, definitely hiding a dark secret, darker whispers surrounding him, whom none of the women trust. There is the "white trash" local boy Tommy, Julio's best friend who, like Julio, never leaves the town. There is Araceli, a school-mate of Julio's who volunteers to be a nurse in American war zones, a Florencia Nightengale of World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf. There is Julio Juan, Julio's grand-nephew, unapologetically bounding forward in his life in ways that Julio could only dream of. It's easy to say that Julio is only a supporting player in the story - the title is of his day, the time period on this Earth that he inhabits and those that inhabit it with him, around him, after him. Julio says little in the work, but with so much narrative focus spotlighting others this is never a problem.

¡Viva 'Beto, viva Los Hermanos Hernandez!
The pacing of this work is unique, never stopping in any time period for very long, giving just enough of a picture of when we are to build the larger story. And our picture of the people, who they are, come in tiny bursts, and the reader infers details, builds existences for the characters, that Gilbert only delicately hints at. Like in any life, there are tragedies, small and large, from Juan's betrayal to an epic case of mistaken identity. The unexpected quest for deserved vengeance. And there are victories. Julio Juan, who breaks free of the small town, seems to have the fullest life, in ways that speak of an entire generation of people who could be themselves when so many of their forebears were driven into the shadows.

This is a Gilbert Hernandez work through and through. Gilbert revels in certain things like sex, sex, sex (not licentious or pornographic but a simple element of the human condition) and bizarre gross shit (sometimes combined). After some vignettes of Julio as a child, the focus shifts to his father, on some journey, walking a far way. He gets caught in a landslide but gets infected by a mud-borne parasite, the results very extreme and very unpleasant.

Gilbert's cartooning throughout is magnificent. From pages of mood-defining storm clouds to extended sequences of walking or magnificently rendered dancing. His line is supremely confident, bold line is striking throughout.  Like life, characters flit in and out, sometimes only encountered decades apart, sometimes only seen once, briefly from a window.

This is a fantastic book, yet another example of a master cartoonist at work, an excellent representative Gilbert Hernandez for those unfamiliar with him, and a fine addition to the library of those who have grown with his work over 30 years.

For my definitive guide to Love and Rockets and all things Los Bros Hernandez, click here.

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