Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #297: Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez

We expect to take stories literally, thinking that they express a single history and tell us about the same people from beginning to end, that signs don't switch signifiers in the middle or time periods suddenly shift without notice. But not all stories work that way: that's a pre-modern conception of story, to begin with, and many times it will fail us.

You can read Gilbert Hernandez's new standalone graphic novel Bumperhead as the story of one life in ordinary time, though you have to squint a bit to do so. But that doesn't seem to be what Hernandez is doing here, even though it looks like the story of most of one man's life, from early childhood through late middle age.

At first glance, this is clearly a follow-up to Hernandez's Marble Season from last year: it begins in roughly the same time and place, a small city in working-class Southern California, some time in the 1960s, among a group of kids mostly still in single digits. Our central character this time is Bobby, only son of a Mexican father and a mother whose only character traits are tight self-control and chain-smoking. And the story drops in on Bobby at five points in his life -- say ages 10, 15, 20, 25, and 50. (Those are probably wrong, but not horribly wrong; he's a child to begin, the middle three sections show him in extended adolescence and young manhood, and the last moves much farther into the future.)

But even though there are some clear signs of particular times -- Bobby gets very involved in punk in those middle sections -- there are other signs that point in contradictory directions. The precise year is only mentioned once -- the second section takes place in 1972. And the last section almost seems to be set a century ago, as if the century looped and went backwards from 1999 to 1900. And a secondary character carries an iPad -- called by that name, and a "future predicting toy," interchangeably -- throughout most of the story. So Bumperhead may draw on on its creator's life -- he was born in 1957, so he was fifteen in 1972, as Bobby was about that age, and twenty in 1977, for the punk explosion -- but it does so at a slight remove, through a filter to make it all more general.

It's easier to say what Bumperhead is not about: despite the publisher's description, this isn't really a story of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- Bobby does care about all three, at least for while in that middle, but none of them lead him anywhere. It's almost the story of his relationship with his distant father, but there's not enough relationship there for that, either. It comes close to begin the story of Bobby's childhood crush on Lorena Madrid -- but, even though Lorena passes through his life glancingly a few times, that's all it is. In the end, this is the story of Bobby, who moved from one thing to the next, looking for the good times in the future and mostly just existing in the present. (Except that's not really true, either: he did burn brightly in those energetic middle punk years.)

It may just be the story of a young man who didn't have any drive to do anything: he loved glam rock and then punk, but they didn't inspire him to make music, or to make anything else. Bobby's life is not exactly wasted, but it is a life without strong attachments to others, without any guiding ideals or goals, a life spent mostly passively. But, then, what else would you expect from a bumperhead?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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