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Gilbert Hernandez remakes his graphic reputation

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There are certain things art-comics creators are generally expected to do: Find a tone and stick to it, concentrate their efforts on one major work every few years, stay away from the trappings of genre fiction unless they're putting them in ironic quotation marks.

Gilbert Hernandez, blessedly, has no interest in those sorts of expectations. In the early '80s, when he and his brothers were Southern California punks, they launched the long-running comic book "Love and Rockets" — a series that initially seemed extraordinary for not being genre fiction at least as much as it did for the startling originality of Los Bros Hernandez's visual and narrative styles.

These days, Hernandez is more prolific than ever: In 2013 alone, he's published four stand-alone graphic novels, and like a lot of his work in the last few years, they seem designed to smash the walls of his reputation.

Hernandez made that reputation with his Palomar stories, the first of which appeared in the third "Love and Rockets" in 1983. Set in a tiny, fictional Central American town, they were elegant and relaxed in their pacing; they focused on the psychological entanglements of ordinary life, with occasional, subtle fantasy elements. (In other words, they shared a lot of values with contemporary literary prose fiction.) But Hernandez has also always had a taste for the raw, experimental and ultra-lowbrow, which made the popularity of Palomar something of a trap. By the time "Love and Rockets" concluded its initial run in 1996, Hernandez had more or less washed his hands of the setting.

Still, he continued to spin out stories about some of Palomar's residents and their families, especially the tormented hell-raiser Luba and her actress-psychiatrist half-sister, Fritz. In 2006 and '07, Hernandez wrote and drew a gorgeous but incredibly odd miniseries called "New Tales of Old Palomar," collected this year as "The Children of Palomar." It presents itself at first as a lighthearted flashback in the mode of the earliest Palomar tales, in which we get to see all of the old characters as their happy young selves again. Then things get weird, in distinctly un-Palomar-ish ways. Spacesuit-wearing alien scientists kidnap a couple of cast members and tear out one of Sheriff Chelo's eyes; Tonantzin the slug vendor is haunted by a spectral "blooter baby"; there are fistfights and explosions. It's as if Hernandez is trying to crack the tone of the series he created to break Palomar's hold over him.

In the last few years, Hernandez has been unleashing the neon-bright, vulgar side of his work more often (see, for instance, last year's zombie splatterfest "Fatima: The Blood Spinners"). This spring, though, saw one of his sweetest and gentlest books, "Marble Season." Billed as "semiautobiographical" — the particulars of Hernandez's stand-in, "Huey," don't quite match his own — it's a nearly plotless but vivid evocation of being a kid in the mid-1960s, trying to figure out how to play, how to pretend, how to deal with other kids. It takes a few stylistic cues from another comic occupied solely by children, "Peanuts": identically sized panels, a particular range of distance from its characters, evoking the "outdoors" where most of the story happens with little scratches of clouds at the tops of panels.

"Julio's Day," published almost simultaneously with "Marble Season," has an entirely different tone and approach to time (the "season" could be just a few weeks, the "day" is a hundred years). It's a set of brief, alternately grotesque and ravishing glimpses of the 20th century, filtered through the life of one man, from birth to death. Hernandez has a particular knack for ellipsis — a single image or a few words in one of his stories can offer just enough context to suggest much more — and "Julio's Day" is all about silences, absences and punctuated space.

Julio himself is a closeted gay man, and that's one of many truths no one can acknowledge out loud in this story (even as Hernandez's gift for character acting in ink makes unspoken things clear). Wars follow each other in procession, bodies are created and destroyed, secrets are held and uncovered, and culture changes around Julio, but his self-suffocated emotional stasis is the book's anchor.

"Maria M. Book One," published this month, is both Hernandez's lowest- and highest-concept book of this year's crop. If you're new to his work, you can read it as pure sex-and-violence pulp, all surface and deliberately "unliterary." ("Exploitation Begins Here," reads a billboard on the second page of the story). The gist is that in 1957 — the year of the artist's birth, incidentally — a Latina bombshell with breasts three times the size of her head comes to the U.S. and gets involved with various gangsters. It's a physically small book, with a looser visual style than Hernandez usually uses and no more than four panels per page; it's constructed to be breezed through quickly.

Hernandez's longtime readers, though, can also experience "Maria M." as a fantastically knotty piece of metafiction. Maria is the mother of Hernandez's long-standing characters Fritz and Luba, and another version of her story appeared in his 1994 graphic novel "Poison River." But that was the "real" version, and this is the Hollywood version: an "adaptation" of an imaginary B-movie, starring Fritz as her own mother. (Hernandez has been adapting Fritz's "filmography" into a string of graphic novels that began with 2007's "Chance in Hell.")

It's a trashy entertainment, but it's also a story about history being reconstructed into trashy entertainment — both a flaming cannonball fired in Hernandez's ongoing battle against gentility and another point of insight into the richly constructed world he created decades ago and can't quite escape.

Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."


The Children of Palomar

Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics: 104 pp., $22.99


Marble Season

Gilbert Hernandez
Drawn and Quarterly: 128 pp., $21.95


Julio's Day

Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics: 112 pp., $19.99


Maria M.
Book One

Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics: 136 pp., $22.99


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