Gilbert "Beto" Hernandez is one of the comic medium's true humanists. Few of his colleagues can rival his ability to spin complex, sprawling sagas that are both deeply moving and full of genuine sympathy for an often flawed humanity. At just a hundred pages, Julio's Day is one of his most accessible works. But all the hallmarks of his personal style are there: The timeless quality, the fantastic bubbling just below the surface, a love for the rural, the occasional bursts of non-gratuitous sex and violence, the interconnected stories, the multicultural milieu, the multigenerational family saga, strong and independent women, fully rounded gay and minority characters, and of course all told in his minimal but expressionistic black and white cartoons.
Beto accomplishes this by breaking up the narrative into vignettes which last at most half a dozen pages. The story begins with the day of the titular character's birth to a working class Latino family in small-town America at the turn of the century. What follows are glimpses into his life as seen through various moments as he grows to adulthood. While much of his early childhood focuses on his immediate family, the cast naturally expands with his own evolving circle of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, random strangers, and fur flung relatives. Julio himself in not a particularly proactive individual, so the attention in the latter part of the book increasingly shifts to the various people who move in and out of his life. In fact, Julio is often emotionally and sexually repressed. He's the dull contrabass that hums steadily while other people around him experience the highs and lows: happiness, tragic loss, hatred and love. Some even leave to explore the wider world, and return to recount their varied experiences. As the focus pans back and forth between the characters and time moves forward in an unpredictable manner, what emerges is a highly contrapuntal representation of 20th century America, refracted through the lives of the citizens of one town. While never directly shown, the faint rumble of significant events can be vaguely felt like the gathering storm clouds that dominate the stark landscape.
And this is a surprisingly poignant story. The breezy pace doesn't allow the reader to tarry long with any one individual. In theory, each vignette could have been explored in greater detail. But the brevity touches on certain emotional points while deliberately leaving much to the imagination. Various connections are implied - Sexual denial being a recurring theme with Julio's family. It metastasizes in the form of the perverse behavior of one uncle who is eventually driven out of town. This leads years later into a quest for vengeance. And yet those events also lead to one member of Julio's extended family finding redemption and finally breaking free of those familial constraints.
It's a humble victory, but it's made more powerful by the absolute nothingness that bookends this economic but deeply affecting work.