Monday, 2 December 2013

Julio's Day Review (Gilbert Hernandez)

Gilbert Hernandez’s latest comic, Julio’s Day, tells the story of Julio, a Mexican gay man born in 1900 and who dies in 2000, and takes the format of telling the 100 year life of Julio in 100 pages. The book follows the lives of Julio and his family, and his friends and acquaintances that make up the small town they live in and how their lives change over the course of growing up alongside the major events of the 20th century. It’s a deep, complex, and absolutely captivating story filled with the horrors of life amidst its many joys, and deals with things like war, disability, sexual attitudes, child abuse, love, innocence lost, family, ambition unrealised, dreams and nightmares, life and death. 

Hernandez has been creating comics for decades now with the end result being that he is an incredibly accomplished comics storyteller. Eschewing narrative boxes, Hernandez tells his 100 year story without once naming any of its locations or times. Occasionally a character will mention an event that will place the scene in historical context like World War 1, or the Wall Street Crash, or Vietnam, but it’s up to the reader to judge for themselves the times certain scenes take place by looking at the characters’ appearances as they age. 

Hernandez doesn’t use exposition and never uses excess speech – it’s a lean script with perfectly placed dialogue. He knows when to let the art speak for the scene and when to accentuate it with conversation. Reading this book is like watching a master-class in how to tell a comics story. Bear in mind he’s not doing anything innovative, he’s using black and white panels in a grid layout to tell his tale like so many comics before, he just happens to do it so well that it feels fresh, vivid and new. 

He also incorporates dream sequences and hallucinations into the real story with no warning or signposting. All at once we go from a childhood scene to a nightmarish sequence that may or may not be real to another scene which is definitely dream-like to a hallucination from the perspective of a character who’s losing their mind. It sounds difficult to follow, but it honestly isn’t, and Hernandez’s totally unobtrusive narrative approach leaves all kinds of interpretations open to the reader over what’s symbolic, what’s real, and what it all means. 

If this surreal style and hands-off approach, coupled with the 100 years/100 pages format, make it seem like this book is going to be arty and pretentious, I assure you it isn’t. It’s simply the best way to tell this kind of story that’s subtle, clever and enthralling to read. It’ll be confusing but you can absolutely read this book for the story and still enjoy it immensely, but Hernandez is doing more here than spin a good yarn and readers who look for more substantial reads will find Julio’s Day very rewarding. 

Julio’s Day is a rich, character-driven, family saga full of memorable characters and scenes that’ll haunt your memory long after you put the book down. In some ways it’s a discussion of the changing, and unchanging, sexual mores of the 20th century; in some ways it’s a deeply intimate portrait of a lonely man always surrounded by people; and in other ways it’s an exploration of the most relevant and poignant themes of literature. If John Steinbeck were creating comics, he would write something like Julio’s Day, the book feels so much like his novels Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. I could talk about my favourite scenes and characters but I feel like discovering them yourselves, in this instance especially, really adds to the impact of the story – it’s so unpredictable and surprising in the best possible ways that you’ll never guess where it’s headed and never put the book down for an instant as you find out what happens next. 

I’ve enjoyed many of Hernandez’s comics over the years from his work with his brother Jaime on their ground-breaking Love and Rockets series to his own projects like the surreal and entertaining stories of Sloth and Speak of the Devil - Julio’s Day is my favourite thing he’s done. Brutal, beautiful, subtle, stark, compulsively readable, and put together like a true work of art by an artist at the height of his powers, Julio’s Day is one of the best comics of the year and a masterpiece of sequential art.

Julio's Day

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