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Gilbert Hernandez

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14.99

Page 45 Review by Stephen

“This is the greatest discovery of my life!”

There! Over again in this truly great graphic novel Gilbert Hernandez nails the experience of childhood – its actuality and expression – but he does it best there.

We have no sense of perspective when young, nor should we – how could we?

Instead there are the immediately uttered explosions of over-excited ebullience and awe-struck wonder when lucky; the silent, destitute chasms of confusion or desolation when disillusionment comes knocking on our door. When we are disappointed by others, or disappointed in ourselves.

Here, for example, our Huey has expanded his own comic collection after relatively new friend Chauncy invites him over to play. Chauncy has quite the stash, and when he pops out for five seconds Huey can’t help himself from helping himself, slipping an issue under his t-shirt before stealing it home, flushed with fear lest he get caught. He doesn’t, but he’s startled to find Chauncy standing in the street and staring into space the next morning.

“Chauncy!”
“You could see a rainbow earlier this morning.”
“Oh, uh… I was inside all this morning.”
“You can keep that comic book you borrowed.”
“W – wha…? I mean…”

He didn’t borrow it, of course, but I don’t think the ethereal Chauncy even suspects the foul play involved: it is his instinct not to imagine the worst, but to assume automatically the best in everyone around him. Huey is shamed by Chauncy’s good will and sets about rescuing the situation, but events back home have since moved on and so, I’m afraid, has the comic.

I don’t know how popular a pronouncement this will be – given Gilbert Hernandez’s enormous body of work, so complex, accomplished and critically acclaimed (oh, see the entire LOVE AND ROCKETS canon) – but this for me is his finest work to date, although last month’s JULIO’S DAY was pretty darn special too. It is certainly the best evocation of childhood in comics bar none, so many of its truths, we are told, garnered from his own early experiences.

I don’t mean that it is bleached into the lowest common denominators we can all immediately recognise in our own lives (although yes, I remember bubblegum cards and I remember hesitantly learning to jimmy a few freebies from their packs’ free-standing receptacles without the legitimate exchange of coins – sorree!), for this is full of surprises. It will teach you about your own experiences and maybe exhume a few memories long since buried and misunderstood until now.

Huey is the middle of three brothers. Chavo is too young to even speak, but Huey loves him dearly, constantly interacting with Chavo as if he understood Huey’s every wild imagining. And Huey has quite the imagination, acting out stories he makes up as he goes along, either alone in the street with his GI Joe action figure or with friends he’s corralled to perform a Captain America Vs The Red Skull play or similar scenarios of extemporised adventure. When they threaten to disband through boredom or disbelief, it is Huey’s older brother Junior who keeps them on board.

Indeed, throughout, Junior is Huey’s guardian angel. There’s a refreshing and heart-warming lack of competitiveness in that family and it is, all of it, firmly seen from the children’s perspective. Just like the Tom & Jerry cartoons where humans are heard but not seen, Huey’s mother appears not once in person, only through second-hand pronouncements.

“Hey, Mom said that she doesn’t want you to have a play in our backyard, Huey. Everybody has to go home.”

There is some exquisite cartooning going on here. There’s the opening scene in which Huey saunters down his safe street alone, dwarfed by the not-too-wide world around him, absorbed in his the contents of his new comic. When Junior casually questions the appropriateness of a prop in Huey’s play, Huey shoots back a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression so genuinely aghast at his brother’s rare lapse in the cardinal rule of play that it’s actually very moving:

“PRETEND!”

It’s the ultimate answer and a moment reprised, one page on, after they’ve transformed together a plain public Frisbee into Captain America’s shield with a lick of paint and some wire… then Huey slips the shield over his forearm. In that shining moment, costume or no costume, mask or no mask, Huey is Captain America.

The power of pretend!

The relationships between the various young neighbours are endearingly complex. There are the bullies, as you’d expect, and those slightly older who see themselves therefore as infinitely wiser, but also moments of honour and generosity, far from rare. And this is what I mean by complex:

Huey is the local marbles expert: he expects to win. So when Patty asks to play, he agrees and instructs her “Don’t fudge!” But Patty’s a very quick learner and wins.

“I won’t take your marbles. Let’s keep playing.”
“Naw, you won.”
“Can’t we keep on playing?”
“No, I’m going inside and watch Superman.”
“My favourite show is Bozo The Clown.”
“Bozo? Jimmy Olsen is funnier than Bozo! Superman is boss and Bozo’s for dumb little kids, Patty!”

The expression on Huey’s face there is like a venomous toad. He has turned in a split second on the quite innocent Patty who so evidently ‘likes’ Huey, lashing out in a deliberate attempt to devastate her with a killing verbal blow. But when older, baseball-bat wielding tomboy Lana backs Patty up by declaring Bozo new and Superman mere “old reruns”, Patty instead sticks up for the visibly stricken Huey with an emphatic “Mind your own business!”

It’s sweet, and the scene plays itself out until Lana’s alone in the alley.

“Children!”

Several are the transformations which will occur over the course of the next new months, some more subtle than others. Huey, for example, grows from shorts into long trousers. There’s a brief burst of disruption as two delinquents move in, provoking fights and threatening to lead some astray. Although, again, it’s far from the black and white this is printed on: energy is an attractive attribute in childhood. There’s Elvin the footballer (or will he be chef?) whose body language gives much away; and club-leader Dave who, his brother implies, shouldn’t be playing with children. There are also the crises of confidence, and my hastily scribbled notes make much of even more recognition boxes I ticked: comics without covers (none of the comics in my Gran’s hairdresser’s had covers) and the kid whom none of us really knew declaring the public path by his house completely off-limits.

Truth be told, either this or JULIO’S DAY would make prime Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month material. They are both flawless graphic novels and although Los Bros Hernandez are already famed within my generation of right-minded comicbook lovers, they’re not attracting the level of attention they deserve in newcomers. Plus this is an original graphic novel: none of it appeared in LOVE AND ROCKETS.

So at the time of typing it is May 22nd 2013, with just over a week before we declare our hand, and I have yet to consult Jonathan or Dominique so we shall see. I’d buy it now and be done with it. Oh wait, I already have.

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