The Talk. Darrin Bell. Henry Holt & Co. 352 pp. $29.99 hardcover.
Darrin Bell does a remarkable job with his new book, in fact, his debut graphic novel. Bell is best known for short-form work: editorial cartoons (won the Pulitzer Prize) and comic strips (check out Candorville). The graphic novel format opens things up in ways that Bell takes to with grace and artistry. The goal here is not only to sum up his life but to go backwards and forwards generations. This graphic novel revolves around “the talk” that Black families have with their children to prepare them to navigate a world of prejudice and racism.
Bell begins his book by sharing what “the talk” ended being like for him as a 6-year-old. His parents had recently divorced and so Bell received two separate, and very different, responses from his white mother and his Black father. Bell’s mother was prompted into it after having to explain her choice in fulfilling his request for a toy gun. She chose a bright green plastic water gun. She explained it had to be very obvious it was a toy in order for Darrin not to be mistaken for carrying a real gun by police who were predisposed to assuming he was a criminal with a weapon. What happens next is pivotal. Darrin runs out to play with his new toy and ends up being harassed by a police officer who uses the toy gun as a pretext to still give him a hard time.
Later, Darrin faces another challenge when a white schoolyard bully taunts him about his appearance, calling him, “big lips.” Darrin asks his father what he should do about it and this sets up the father’s turn with talking about race. Bell returns to this moment throughout the book to say that his father had let him down by turning inward, distant, and just staring out into space. However, that’s not exactly what happens. His father may not explicitly respond with a road map on how to deal with bigots but he certainly talks about his experience. It leads to one of the most compelling moments in the book with Darrin’s parents as a carefree mixed race young couple who are abruptly forced to deal with the fact that the local folk are not amused about mixed race couples. That said, Bell lets the reader decide if his father perhaps did the best he could with his more guarded response.
Overall, I think Bell appreciated the chance to spread out and follow various threads of thought over the span of many pages. I know it’s a balancing act in terms of expressing feeling and citing facts. Every time you present a specific, as opposed to a generality, you make your case that much stronger. Buried deep in the book is one such fact I know still gives many pause: the manipulation of the vote count in Florida that handed the presidency to George W. Bush in the 2000 race. As Bells states: “The Bush campaign’s Florida chairwoman (who also happened to be Florida’s secretary of state, in charge of the election) purged tens of thousands of Black voters from the voter rolls. Reportedly, she used a ‘felon list’ to disqualify them, even though it turned out they didn’t belong on that list.”
Bell speaks of “the aether,” what some believe to be the foundation of our very existence. Bell uses this as a metaphor to describe those in power, the dominant culture, the white culture, inextricably linked to money, power and authority. Bell runs with it in one of the most inspired passages in the book that follows a college workshop of elite white students with Bell, the only Black student, discussing slavery. The white students push the narrative that people simply didn’t know any better when it came to owning slaves leaving Bell to argue that actually, at least 10 million people did know better: the slaves! Later on, Bell is called in by a professor who is threatening to fail him because he must have plagiarized his paper. How could he, an undergrad, possibly write so eloquently about “the aether” and such things when her own graduate students aren’t as articulate?
I know that there will always be a certain number of readers unfamiliar with the world of graphic novels who are ready to complain that a long-form work of comics could be pared down to just a few pages but that’s not the kind of world I’d want to live in. A graphic novel inhabits its own world where it will expand in order to process and contract in order to highlight ideas in concise ways. I’m sure any experienced reader wholeheartedly agrees. This book is an opportunity to explore issues of race, how Americans have gotten it wrong for so long, what’s at stake, and how do we move closer to a better place. Bell has honed his skills of cultural observation over many years as a social commentator in comic strips and editorial cartoons. He’s refined his skills up to the breaking point and back. This graphic novel is a testament to his efforts.