Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #132: The Silence of Our Friends by Long, Demonakos, & Powell

Last year, First Second published an acclaimed graphic novel about the civil rights movement in the American South of the 1960s: March, co-written by Congressman John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell.

I haven't seen that book, though I've heard a lot about it.

But all of the news about March reminded me I had a very similar book on my shelves: The Silence of Our Friends, another graphic novel about the civil rights movement, also drawn by Powell, also written by two men: one who was there, and one helping form it into a story afterwards. Silence, in fact, was published by First Second pretty much exactly a year before March.

Silence's eyewitness is Mark Long, who grew up the white son of a TV reporter on the "race beat" -- including, during the time of this story, in Houston in 1968. And his co-writer is Jim Demonakos, comics chop owner, comics convention organizer, and comics rocker -- though, as far as I can tell, not a comics writer before this book. And the artist, as with the later March, is the mesmerizing Powell, author of the amazing Swallow Me Whole and a major graphic novelist all by himself.

Silence didn't get the media attention March did; it's hard to compete with a sitting Congressman -- particularly one who was a major leader of the civil rights movement in the '60s -- but it's a fine, personal story, only slightly fictionalized and presented wonderfully here in Powell's atmospheric art, which immediately sets a tone and place and time.

Silence tells the story of a few weeks of that summer, mostly focusing on a white family that's closely based on Long's real life at the time: father working at the local TV station, reporting on unrest and ill-treatment; mother at home with three kids ten and under. There's also a black family -- the father is Larry Thomas, a professor at nearby Texas Southern University and a non-violent leader of the local protests. (Long and Demonakos have a number of moments of petty and nasty racism on the part of the whites towards the local blacks -- trying to hit kids walking along the street with their cars, for just one example -- to give a flavor of the time.)

The two men have met because of that reporting, and they strike up a friendship -- almost in spite of everything around them, as if spitting in the eye of their respective worlds to show that it's possible. Much of Silence is made up of relatively small moments -- going to the store for ice cream, back-and-forth dinner visits between the two families -- but it's all embedded in that racist time and place, so even those are fraught with tension, and that leads up to the big (historically accurate) confrontation at the end, when a peaceful demonstration at the university is met with riot troops and a barrage of bullets.

Any book like this runs the danger of being trite: hardly anybody, these days, is in favor of racism and prejudice. But Long, Demonakos and Powell ground this story in specifics -- it's about these people in this place, and how they got through some nasty times.  It's true, and real, and Powell gives it great life through his expressive art.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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