The Adventures of Venus by Gilbert Hernandez
The Adventures of Venus is one of my favorite books by Gilbert Hernandez, and since I usually think he’s incapable of going below four-and-a-half out of five stars, I obviously think this comic is another five-star work of genius. It’s a collection of short comic strips in a simple cartoon-style about a young girl, Venus, and her observations on life. It’s really Peanuts-meets-Calvin and Hobbes with more realism. In fact, much of what I said about Marble Season applies to The Adventures of Venus, except Marble Season is more for adults and has violence in it to convey its realism. And though The Adventures of Venus can be read by kids, it will resonate more with adults than with children because Hernandez is asking his audience to perceive Venus and her friends through nostalgia-colored glasses.
I like Venus because she takes us around her neighborhood and into her home and tells us about her world. Sometimes, in fact, she tells us more than she means to: At one point, she’s disgusted by another girl’s jealousy of her, when we can see clearly that Venus is the one who is jealous. I think Hernandez always captures accurately what it’s like to be a kid: He reminds us how strongly we felt about the smallest of occurrences when we were young, while at the same time we had an amazing ability to move on quickly after such apparently dramatic emotional upheavals. Venus, upset in one panel, gets down on the floor to read a comic in the next, her worries forgotten, as her baby sister rolls around on the floor next to her. Hernandez seems to be saying that Venus, even at her age, is in many ways not much different than a baby in being able to lose herself in her imagination.
Venus’s imagination gets the better of her at times, and it even starts taking over the comic, which is why Gilbert Hernandez is often compared to Garcia-Marquez: At times, we can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. But, if you can roll with it, you’ll enjoy the comic. If you don’t need or want extra explanations for supernatural events happening in the middle of a realistic story, then you won’t have any problems with this comic book. For example, at one point Venus joins up with an old lady on an odd adventure. They pick figs from a tree and feed them to an imaginary boy who flies through the air and haunts certain people according to folk-tale logic. I do prefer the realistic interactions Venus has with her friends and family, but I find these supernatural elements refreshing, and I like the atmosphere they bring to the overall book. My wife, not a big fan of comics to begin with, was not impressed with the book to start with, but when she got to the flying, fig-eating baby, it was all over for her.
Most of the book, however, is focused on Venus and her best friends Yosh and Glinda, of whom she is constantly jealous, even though they grew up together. They even started reading comics together, or tearing them up initially, as Venus tells us, but she gets really concerned when Glinda starts getting interested in boys and announces she no longer likes comics. In one of my favorite lines in the book, Venus comments on Glinda’s literary betrayal: “Anybody who doesn’t like comics has got very serious emotional problems.”
The flashbacks take place in one of the best sequences in the book: Glinda and Venus are on opposing soccer teams, and Yosh and another boy, one Venus has a crush on, are watching the game. Venus’s mother is the coach. The dynamics between Venus and her mother, who comforts her when she cries, and between Venus and Glinda and the boys—in front of whom Venus tries to hide her tears—reveals Hernandez’s masterful storytelling. He communicates volumes with only four panels per page and with very little dialogue. In fact, most of the words in the book are seen only in Venus’s thought bubbles, as we are privy to her fairly self-centered view on events and people.
If you are familiar with Gilbert Hernandez and like his work, this book is another gem. If you are new to his work, then The Adventures of Venus is an excellent place to start. It won’t give you the Dostoevskian scope of his Palomar stories (start with Heartbreak Soup) or the fully bizarre writing of which he is capable in Grip, but it shows off his skill in portraying the world of children through the mind of child, much as he does in Marble Season. Overall, out of these four books, my recommendation is to start with The Adventures of Venus to get a small dose of Hernandez before tackling some of his other works.