The Civil Rights movement has been depicted in film, on canvas and now in a graphic novel. Released in January, “The Silence of our Friends” is based on the historical events surrounding the Texas childhood of author Mark Long in the late 1960s.
The co-author is Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell illustrates the novel, which is set in late-1960s Texas. The historical fiction book centers around the childhood of author Mark Long, whose father was a news reporter in the area.
The white family becomes wrapped up in a trial surrounding a murder that resulted from riots on a college campus. Their lives become intertwined with a black family as they seek justice.
We spoke with Long, Demonakos and Powell. Their book tour stops at the Watha T. Daniel - Shaw Library in the District on Wednesday.
Mark Long, your father worked as a news reporter in Texas during the time that the novel took place. How did his experiences help you to form the novel?
My father died the year I worked on the manuscript, and the last time I saw him we were working on the manuscript together. He helped me correct things and find the right dialogue.
When I first proposed the story to Jim, it was really just a collection of anecdotes and didn’t really have a story. Jim helped me shape it into a larger story, and then after that I began working with my father on some of the details and the mood of the time, particular words. We traveled to TSU (Texas Southern University) together and I walked around the men’s dormitory and he pointed out where things happened.
Jim Demonakos, you helped to put the story ideas that Mark had into a linear format.
We wrote this a little more cinematically. We really wanted to feel like you were experiencing a story from a very specific perspective, because we didn’t have a narrator. We very specifically didn’t create caption boxes. We wanted you as the reader to experience it at whatever pace you’d start reading it.
And just like in any comic - which is something that is great about the medium - is [that you can say] “Oh, did I just miss something? I want to flip backwards.” You can do that in a book, you can do that in a comic, but it’s not something that you can do in a movie, except if you’re watching it at home.
Nate Powell, as the illustrator, what was your motivation as to how you wanted the characters to be portrayed?
As far as the look and feel of the characters, I did have a lot of photo references for getting started, which Mark provided about his family and about his dad, Jack. I’m from Arkansas, so I’m pretty familiar with the area, especially with the time, but they didn’t really offer too much direction when I was constructing characters.
[The authors] felt that while they could, it was important to give certain allowances so that I could inject my own sense of connection to the visuals. Largely, I went with the script, went with my own guesses as far as how people would be operating, what they would be wearing and passed it back and forth with the writers.
As I would move through it there would be so much that would really help capture the time and place that would specifically not be indicated in the script. I feel that not only subtext within the scene - the ways in which the topography, the humidity affects people. The ways in which just getting in there and trying to nail down the visual components of what it was like to be in Houston really added an extra dimension to the narrative arc that was driving the story.
I feel like all this, of course can be done very well in prose, too, but one of the strengths of comics is to be able to round out those extra dimensions - the setting, time, place, feel and subtext - without using any text. So, a lot of it was just trusting the kind of descriptive information, the kind of contextual information that comics can provide when done correctly.
Do you feel that adults and children will be able to understand where the book is coming from through this format?
Jim Demonakos: We provide all the tools for someone to read this without having a deep knowledge of the Civil Rights struggle, because we’re also presenting a very specific incident during the civil rights movement, and I think there’s a couple of takeaways from the whole thing. One is that if you’re interested in the civil rights movement, this isn’t just based on what we would call one of the popular parts of talking about the [movement].
I think as a piece of history it’s interesting because it’s not just what you’ve always read in books. I like to think we created a layered graphic novel that on its surface it’s a ...story about the Civil Rights movement, but the more you read it it’s a story of people, and it’s a story about what some people do.
Author Mark Long will be at Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library at 7 p.m., located at 1630 7th Street Northwest, and again at Takoma Park, Md. Library on Thursday (101 Philadelphia Avenue, Takoma Park) and Big Planet Comics Friday in Vienna (426 Maple Ave. East).
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