On the cover of Bumperhead, Gilbert Hernandez’s second book with Drawn and Quarterly, a boy looks out at the reader with a confident glare, suggesting he knows what he believes in and where he’s going in life. He’s caught the eye of a cute punk girl in the background and he clearly stands out from the crowd.
The boy inside the book aspires to be like the image on the cover. After a childhood marred by depression, bullying, the death of his mother, and smaller lessons on the unfairness of life, Bobby enters adolescence with a growing hostility towards the world. Fury is Bobby’s primary motivating force, as his anger about an important family secret and his father’s abandonment fuel his personality. He has a new identity: he’s an outsider. This doesn’t stop him from being open to people—he knows how to talk to and therefore date girls—but despite glimpses of humor and affection, Bobby tends to vacillate between rage and impassive observation.
Bumperhead follows Bobby as he drifts towards the future. He is sure that the future will come to him, even if he doesn’t have plans after graduation. In one sense, Bobby is right: the future happens whether you actively pursue it or not. Bobby is certain because his friend Lalo owns a toy that can see the future: an iPad. As children in the late ’60s, Bobby and Lalo somehow know enough to call the device an “iPad” and refer to its content as “the internet.” They are surprisingly blasé about what they see, discussing whether videos of defecating Popes are real or fake. The device stays with them through the ’70s and ’80s and on into middle age, through heart attacks and turbulent love affairs—always in the hands of Lalo, who can say that there will be a half-black President in the future or tell Bobby what happens to music.
Drawn and Quarterly describes the trajectory of Bumperhead’s plot as that of a slacker who “narrates his life as it happens but offers very little reflection on the events that transpire.” Many other reviewers see Bobby as a poignant figure, but for me he read as flat. My sense of the character was emphasized by the way Hernandez draws Bobby; rarely does Bobby’s face have any expression, except when he is screaming. Though he seemed bland to me, Bobby could be seen as an everyman, a cipher, and a consumer of popular culture who feels important at times but ultimately makes little impact on the world. This is why I was so distracted by the addition of the iPad anachronism: what role does it play, and if it plays none, why is it included? The story is so muted that the iPad became my natural focus—was it an experiment in the first chapter that Hernandez decided to try to keep?
The artwork lends itself to the story’s aimless feeling and the transience of life, despite how painful it can be. Hernandez keeps the backgrounds simple and focuses on the people in his usual black-and-white strong-lined style. These people pass in and out of Bobby’s life before his eyes, changing fashions and hairstyles and fighting about what it means and how it defines them. Although the artwork is typically on point—especially sequences where the sky turns dark and looms over Bobby in dreams and in life—it is not enough to make this book a memorable experience. Unlike Marble Season, in which small, meaningless moments held value for the characters, the moments of Bobby’s life never hold value for him and thus they never held my interest.
by Gilbert Hernandez
Drawn & Quarterly, 2014