Review time! with The Silence of Our Friends
The Silence of Our Friends is co-written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, and it tells a story that occurred in Long’s childhood (his father is that white dude on the cover). It’s drawn by Nate Powell, who’s a superb artist and a pretty good writer, too. First Second Books published this, and it costs a mere $16.99.
The comic tells of the Long family and the Thompson family, one white and one black, and the events in Houston 1968, at the height of the civil-rights era. Jack Long is a reporter for a local television station, and Larry Thompson is … well, it’s a bit hard to figure out exactly what he does. We meet him when he’s leading a protest against the administration of Texas Southern University because they won’t allow the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to form an on-campus group. Later a character mentions that his teaching contract hasn’t been renewed. Later still he’s defending people in court. In his afterword, Long mentions that the person on whom he’s based was the editor of a weekly newsletter. Whatever he is, he and Jack are friends when the book begins, and through the course of the comic, they become closer. Long wants to cover the racial tensions in Houston and give a fair portrayal of what’s going on, and Thompson wants to bring attention to the plight of the blacks in the poorer parts of the city. Their families meet and get to know each other, too, because both men want to cross the divide that separates them. Thompson organizes a protest during which a policeman is killed, and the climax of the book is the trial of five people arrested for the crime.
With fiction of this sort, there’s always the chance that it’s going to turn something like The Help, which was criticized because it focused on the white people learning about how terrible racism is and ignored the black people who had to suffer the cruelties of racism. The problem with that criticism is that for any injustice committed by a dominant culture against another, the only way it will get rectified is if members of the dominant culture understand that it’s wrong. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if White America hadn’t realized oppressing others wasn’t the best thing in the world – remember, blacks had been agitating for decades about the injustice they faced, and they were brutally suppressed. I understand that focusing on the whites at the expense of the people actually suffering the injustice might lead people to ignore the contributions of those who suffered, but that doesn’t invalidate stories that show how whites react when their eyes are opened. In this book, Long and Demonakos strike a pretty good balance between showing how the white family reacts to racism and how the black family suffers its effects. The book is about how the two races need to work together, after all, so Long and Demonakos have to show both sides.
The best parts of the book are the small details, because the actual trial is a bit of a disappointment. Long encounters his share of racists, including his boss, who wants him to tell the standard story of how all black people are Communists and anti-American agitators. Mark Long, the author, goes “nigger-knocking,” which is apparently just ringing someone’s doorbell and running away – I don’t know why it’s called that, but it shows how ingrained racism was (and is) in American society. Even Jack slips into stereotypes on a few occasions, mainly because he learned terms from his parents. The interesting thing about the book is that the blacks are also portrayed as less than absolutely noble. Thompson’s wife is suspicious of his friendship with Long, for instance, and she accuses Thompson of using him to get his message out through a sympathetic white person, which is true (and Thompson admits it). And, of course, there’s the small instances of racism all over – when Thompson’s daughter almost gets run down by a white guy in a pickup truck, the family is shunted aside at the hospital, and they can’t comment about it. When Thompson is the target of a racist storekeeper, who tells him to take his business elsewhere, he takes it out on his son (although he quickly apologizes, it’s an clever way to show how racism affects so many aspects of society, including family dynamics). The district attorney prosecuting the case at the end of the book is obviously leading Long, who’s a reluctant witness for the prosecution, but Thompson doesn’t feel like he can object without drawing the ire of the judge. All of this is much more interesting than the court case itself.
The problem with the court case is that it lacks drama. I know this is based on actual events, but Long and Demonakos fictionalize some parts of it, so why not that? The case is set up very well – the scenes of the protest that turns into a police action that leads to the death of a cop is an intense part of the book. But even that lacks some drama because it escalates so quickly – it’s as if Long and Demonakos take it for granted that the cops are a bunch of racists who will shoot black people without provocation. Maybe it looks that way from the outside and with hindsight, but I’ll wager it wasn’t like exactly like that. Then, in the court case, the writers have a very good chance to show how difficult it is for whites and blacks to trust each other in this situation – Long saw Thompson getting knocked down but didn’t help him, and Thompson, in the trial, tries to retaliate a bit before he realizes that Long knows how to get the defendants acquitted. The tension between the two is defused almost immediately, and it weakens the idea that it was a difficult thing to bridge the racial gap, but people still did it. The case itself is finished incredibly quickly, and it seems to imply that racism wasn’t that bad in Houston in 1968 because black people could easily get a fair trial. I assume that if Long and Demonakos, who really want to focus on the two families, had tried to expand this, it would have been too cost-prohibitive, and that’s a consideration, but it’s frustrating getting a lot of good writing when it comes to the smaller stuff but somewhat sketchy stuff when it comes to the larger events. The Thompson kids grumpily wearing “traditional” black outfits when they want to wear cowboy clothes (and their father going behind their mother’s back to allow it) and the kids touching each others’ hair when they meet are great moments. It’s too bad the “big” moments aren’t as good.
Powell’s art, naturally, is excellent (I should point out that his lettering is great, too, but then again, it always is). He’s very good at drawing wide-open, dusty places – his Houston feels hot and dirty, and I imagine it’s exactly what Houston in the 1960s felt like. His characters are great – they all look like real people, and even though Powell is a bit on the cartoony side of artistry, he’s able to give them gravitas when necessary and silliness when it fits. Some of the set pieces are brilliant – the Longs go to a prison rodeo at one point, and Powell does a wonderful job with the action. The protest is staged beautifully, with Powell switching back and forth between “reality” and Long’s camera shots, giving us a jumpy feel without the annoying jump cuts dominating action movies these days. The camera shots are wonderful – pencils with no inks, contrasting wonderfully with the more solid lines of the actual action. Powell does a nice job NOT using all the space on the page – he lays things out in some places so that there’s quite a bit of empty space, and it helps give his drawings room to breathe a bit. Powell is a great artist, and it’s interesting to see his work when he didn’t write the book.
As it’s 1968, you might be able to guess where the book ends, and it’s a nice moment. Long and Demonakos, who have never beat us over the head with their themes, allow Powell to illustrate an almost transcendental moment, and it works even if it stretches the realism of the book a bit. The Silence of Our Friends falls a bit short of greatness, but it’s a good comic that tells an important story, and I do Recommend it, even though it feels slightly like a missed opportunity. Still, it’s full of very nice character moments and gorgeous art, and that’s not a bad thing at all.