Gilbert Hernandez is 56 now.
His brother Jaime is 54. They grew up in Oxnard, on the Southern California coast, where, as kids, they read comics and drew constantly. They made crude, tiny books for themselves until their older brother Mario — the Hernandez family had five boys and one girl — introduced Gilbert to underground comix. Everything changed. Gilbert and Jaime became interested in punk, and, in 1981, their first stapled-together book of comics was noticed by a publisher. Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez became "Los Bros" forever more.
At least, that's what fans call Gilbert and Jaime, creators of the legendary alt-comic "Love and Rockets," which Los Bros have pumped out (Mario has also had a hand in it, sporadically) — in addition to their own, individual cascades of comics — for 32 years.
If alt-comics has a heritage brand, "Love and Rockets" is unquestionably it. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that if the Hernandez brothers' images of sardonic, spiky-haired, black-clad punk chicks had not become ubiquitous in the alternative scene of the 1980s, alternative culture itself would look different.
On the other hand, "Love and Rockets" often appropriated the look of the melodramatic romance comics of the '50s — picture Roy Lichtenstein's paintings, only played for more irony. The series became so vast that Fantagraphics, Los Bros' Seattle-based publisher, now maintains a long primer to the series on its website.
It's nothing like "Marble Season," Gilbert Hernandez's sweet, new semi-autobiographical remembrance of his comics-obsessed youth. Put simply, this is a book about what it felt like to be 10 years old, to have an unscripted afternoon to yourself, to make up games, wander the neighborhood in packs and not worry much.
It's not science fiction.
Gilbert, who appears Thursday at Quimby's Bookstore in the Bucktown neighborhood — he's giving a talk on the comic strips of his childhood — discussed those lazy afternoons on the phone recently from his home in California. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: I heard you had arthritis.
A: Yes, I do. But I squeeze a rubber ball for a while and I'm fine.
Q: So "Marble Season," about the freedom of youth, was made under the constraints of old age?
A: You know, that never crossed my mind, not once. Probably because I still feel 25 to myself and I still have nothing to do but comic books, which is what I felt like, and I did, when I was actually 25, ages ago.
Q: Your book also feels like a kind of homage to the influences of a childhood summer — you even include this page of footnotes to Don Drysdale, "Bozo the Clown," "Petticoat Junction" characters. But really, the most obvious nods are the characters themselves, which look like they wandered in from old comics. That little brother in the book could be a sibling of Charlie Brown.
A: A lot of it overlaps with classic newspaper strips because I read those strips so much (as a kid). A little round-headed boy with no hair, I suppose, will forever be Charlie Brown, regardless how close to Charlie Brown he actually looks. I didn't intend that, but "Peanuts" is ingrained in us. Actually, I pull more from "Little Lulu," "Archie Comics," "Dennis the Menace" — since the comic is about a 5-year-old boy, "Dennis the Menace" was the starting point. It's the most naturalistically told comic I've ever seen. Hank Ketcham did the famous square "Dennis the Menace" strips, the boxes, then he hired artists to approximate his style for the Sunday version, and the best was Owen Fitzgerald, who's like the Jack Kirby of kids comics. He's probably the biggest influence here. But the thing about using those old strips, the originals were limited by who the audience was — kids. So the writers told one kind of story most of the time. I wanted to go deeper.
Q: So there's this vaguely creepy undercurrent, just beneath the surface. Even "Archie," I suppose if you read enough "Archie Comics," could have a slightly twisted "Blue Velvet" thing going on.
A: Yes, because parts of it will strike you at times as, well, 'This could become a serious story if it went further. This is the way this character feels.' I think those reflections, inside those characters, drew me to comics in general — those moments when the writers of these strips just allowed themselves to be adults for like a short second. I think I related more literally to the early "Spider-Man" comics from Steve Ditko because it could be upfront and direct about the problems of being a kid. He captured being a teenager so beautifully.
Q: Actually you hit on something so prescient in "Marble Season," and I'm not sure anyone has said it yet: Old newspaper comic strips were really about unstructured childhood days, when you didn't have anything big to do, didn't have to be at soccer, weren't over-scheduled with activities.
A: Sure — wandering through childhood like Charlie Brown, the only rules to obey were at school or home, from parents. Otherwise, you were really on your own, with your imagination to keep you company, no video games and no cellphones. Time moved so slow, even the most minor change was perplexing and an event.
Q: This tomboy character in the book, who carries a baseball bat, one day starts wearing dresses.
A: Right. That's the big stuff I remember from childhood. We knew this tomboy, then over the weekend, with no warning, she starts wearing a dress. At a certain age, you have no idea what's going on now, what to say. And you don't ask. It's a small bump, but there's a flow to kids. At least there was: You have to do you homework, you have to mow the lawn, you have to take tests — minor stuff to adults but it doesn't feel that way to a kid. The tone of the average day was not super-happy, and not traumatic, and you just kept going.
Q: But there is unease here — an older kid is pelted by younger kids with water balloons? It's one of those seemingly innocuous antics you might come across in an older comic, but here, maybe because the characters don't quite get what's really going on, it feels unnerving. The older kid asks for the pelting, then gets beat up by his brother and the younger kids walk away, say nothing.
A: That's one of the things in the book that actually happened to me. An older cousin wanted to start this club and he invited all these kids and he gave them chores to do and the big reward, the water balloons.
Q: Which is weird.
A: Yeah, it seems weird now. At the time, and I have known this cousin my whole life, it made sense, because he was weird — not crazy, just random, eccentric. You would not really question this stuff as a kid.
Q: I have to admit, "Love and Rockets" always felt just as open-ended. It intimidated me when I was younger. It was like coming to a soap opera a decade after it began — where do you start?
A: We hear that. A lot of readers, and I forget until someone tells me this, think all of our work, from both of us, is connected: "How does this story fit into this story? And why did you use this character from your other comic in this comic?" It's usually a gag, but the way things connect is such a concern! And I guess we have created this universe that extends and retracts and looks similar but doesn't necessarily connect obviously.
The best way I explain it is, when we were kids we would walk to the corner convenience store near our house to see the comic book rack. And there were romance comics, army comics, superheroes, westerns, kids comics. We may have been interested in just the type of comic we were interested in, but we had knowledge of a wider world. We didn't read romance comics because we were boys, but we knew of them. We recognized people do many things. People are isolated now. Back then, we knew how to wander.