Yesterday I received a review copy of a new book published by First Second, The Silence of Our Friends, written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos and illustrated by Nate Powell. It’s a graphic novel based on the experiences of Long as he was growing up in Houston in the 1960s. The narrative takes place in 1968, in the months before Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated, and the social environment is filled with racial hatred. The story revolves around the lives of two men: Jack, a white reporter for a local Houston television station, and Larry, a black professor (of law?) at Texas Southern University and activist in SNCC. The two men strike up a friendship, an unheard of mixing of the races in 1960s Houston, and the story that unfolds concerns the racism, protests, and strained relationships that exists around Larry and Jack’s families. Overall, I liked the book. Long and Demonakos’s narrative is engaging and clearly brings out the atmosphere of the times. They’re also careful to point out the potential dangers in abandoning non-violent actions, as you had going on with SNCC under Stokley Carmichael and especially H. Rap Brown in the late 1960s, with their increasing closeness to the Black Panther movement. At the same time, they demonstrate how African Americans could be pushed over the edge, beaten down (figuratively and literally) to the point that they feel that retaliatory violence may not be such an unlikely response. Powell’s art is effective and greatly complements the storyline. His sweeping, even at times elegant, art reminds me of Craig Thompson’s style. However, despite my appreciation of this book, I wasn’t overly thrilled with its ending. It just seems too neat, too hopeful. I understand that with a story such as this, filled with hate, it may be necessary to provide a positive, potentially uplifting ending that may ultimately transcend the divisiveness. We get that with the protest march at the very end and the people’s feet being lifted off the ground, all while the words of King are hovering near the images (and where the book gets its title). This occurs just after everyone learns that King has just been assassinated, and here the narrative seems to shift abruptly. Where you had the local tensions between black and white in Houston, at the end you get a more generalized and historic reference to protest. I know that the authors wanted to tie in the stories of Jack and Larry with the larger Civil Rights movement, and I was okay with them doing so in this mass protest that closes out the story. But to have the people levitate to suggest that there is a possible uplifting and transcending way to resolve these issues…it just seemed a little too contrived to me, too easy of a way out. Perhaps I am just too wedded to realism and darker, problematic endings. Despite this lack of a satisfying ending, though, I thought it was a pretty good graphic novel.
I’ve also just started to read one of the latests volumes from Eureka’s Graphic Classics series, African-American Classics. I have agreed to review this book for the journal Studies in Comics, and I’m looking forward to this one. As with all of the Graphic Classics books, this one features brand new work by contemporary comics artists. Lance Tooks is the co-editor of this volume, along with Eureka’s main editor/director Tom Pomplun, so I expect great things from this volume. Tooks is the author of, among other works, Narcissa and the four-volume series Lucifer’s Garden Of Verses, all incredible books.