Mongrel is a significant debut graphic novel by Sayra Begum. This is among the best works of 2020 as I look back on the year. You can read my review here. And, now, you can enjoy something more. Check out my interview with Sayra Begum by just clicking the link below:
Lloyd Scott has written a brilliant novel, ELECTION YEAR, that is part satire, political thriller and action adventure. On top of that, it is a heartfelt and insightful look at where we are today in the United States. You may have heard about Meghan Markle set to produce a film adaptation of this novel. Well, now you can hear Lloyd Scott, in her own words, talk about her work in this exclusive interview. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to interview Lloyd Scott. We are both writers and we are both biracial. I draw great strength from having this dual perspective. As I’ve shared before, I am Mexican on my mother’s side and Anglo-Saxon (is that a fairly good label?) on my father’s side. Well, we discuss race and many other things in this interview which you can listen to in full by just clicking below. Lloyd Scott also reads from one of her short stories. For more information on ELECTION YEAR, go to the official site: https://www.electionyearlloydscott.com/
Lloyd Scott’s novel features a biracial young woman working for a high powered politician, also biracial, who is on her way to becoming the first woman US president. You can read my review here. When I discovered Scott’s novel, I couldn’t help but make connections to my own novel, Max in America, which follows a biracial man who has lived all of his life in Mexico and is suddenly trying to make a life for himself in the United States. Both novels present an offbeat and idiosyncratic narrative, that can be enjoyed on many levels. A driving force in each novel is a searching for understanding from a biracial perspective. That is definitely true, and I’m thrilled to be in the thick of it. Being so close to this, I can start to wonder if I’m making too much of it. But I’ve gotten a thumbs up from Lloyd Scott herself so that will settle it for me.
In my interview, Lloyd Scott shares about her work as a sign language interpreter in the DC area. That makes total sense to me as she was able to draw from countless observations that contributed to helping her create some of the novel’s backdrop featuring political high-rollers. Asked about how she came to write her novel, Scott shared that it all began when she just happened to listen to a radio program describing what it might be like if Russian operatives actually infiltrated the White House. The highlight of our chat might be when Scott recited from one of her short stories, “Salsa,” a very funny tale of searching for meaning and avoiding misunderstanding. Talking about issues of race took on an interesting life of its own and, I sincerely believe, we had a very productive exchange. As Scott closed out our chat, she quoted the wise words of Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Wise words we can all try to live by.
Here is a book that would make one hell of a movie. There’s even a moment in the book when one of characters suggests they’re in the middle of movie-worthy activity. That said, you might have heard that this novel is well on its way to a movie adaptation thanks to no less than Duchess Meghan Markle and the new movie production company she is launching with Prince Harry. Well, this news calls for a proper review of the book in question and I’ll do my best to give you just enough of a taste without spoiling anything.
Part of what prompted me to write this review is a bit of serendipity. Lloyd Scott and I are both biracial and we both chose to speak to that within a political thriller. Well, mine is not quite as intense. Look it up, Max in America, and you’ll see what I mean. But still, I think that connection is pretty uncanny, especially how we both share our experiences with identity, being seen as the Other, and playing with being a raceshifter. You can say that our backgrounds provided the fuel for our work. I like that. Election Year is offbeat and eccentric, in the same spirit to what I’m doing too. So, let’s take a closer look.
Meet Maverick Johnson Malone, our main character, a Millennial working to help elect Suni Wainwright as the first woman, and youngest, U.S. president. It is the pivotal year of 2020, and there’s excitement in the air. The only problem is that Maverick hates Suni because she’s so fake! This summation is only based upon casual observation until one day it is based on far more than that. It turns out that Suni is a Russian operative–and so the plot thickens.
Ryan, Maverick, and Jay. illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Given all that we know about a certain occupant in the White House and his Russian connections, the plot to this novel has found a funny indirect way to tackle the issue. Lloyd has attached humor to her Manchurian candidate that provides a light and breezy way into her political thriller. The humor going in features Maverick Malone who, at first, seems rather klutzy and self-absorbed. It could be Rome burning in the background but Maverick will keep obsessing over why her ex is such a jerk. This adds up to a pitch perfect Bridget Jones vibe. Lloyd has also created a believable office culture made up of staff working to get Suni Wainwright in the White House. Often, it is Maverick Malone to the rescue with a new idea to put out the latest fire but that is usually overshadowed by her own disgruntled attitude.
Then things transition to a more serious tone. We do have the fate of American democracy to deal with, don’t we? Gee, that question has so many levels of irony that it leaves my head spinning. In fact, the story truly finds its groove just prior to the political intrigue, as the reader gets to know Maverick better. What emerges is the story of a young biracial woman who feels alienated. Part of the problem is her dysfunctional family. Her White mother and Black father are wealthy and distant. As much as she is frustrated by having to constantly explain her racial background, she finds the even greater divide to be money.
Like a good work of film noir or crime fiction, this novel is meant to please with its fair share of twists and turns. Lloyd has fun tapping into a style with the energy of a young adult novel. Maverick is already into her thirties but still full of Millennial spunk. It is this energy that carries the reader as Maverick goes deeper with her sleuthing. Along the way, Maverick finds love with Ryan, a dashing young biracial much like herself. And, to round things out, Maverick develops a greater sense of responsibility as she finds herself caring more for Jay, a Black girl who lives next door to her. It is this trio who all become caught up in the intrigue and danger that threatens to kill them all. And, even when the tension is high, Lloyd manages to insert a little irony as when Jay has a meta-moment. Jay wryly observes that the three of them seem to resemble yet another comedy adventure but with plenty of diversity.
Overall, this is a unique joy ride of a thriller. Yes, it provides those unexpected twists and turns. But the most unexpected revelations run deeper than any car chase. At the heart of it, this is a story about confronting the status quo and finding the right solutions to ultimately achieve the change that we all want. Lloyd Scott brings up many provocative issues, which pop up as events heat up. It is our main character, our shero, Maverick Malone, who is in a position to truly empathize with the Other in America. It is Maverick who can appreciate, even when passion might overtake wisdom, that life is full of complicated contradictions.
While there is plenty of humor, and action, to be found here, this is also a story about trying to understand some painful truth. For all the rip-snorting good action we find here, there’s also just as robust rounds of political fisticuffs, like this particularly pointed salvo: “You have no idea the extent of your privilege. The geographical luck of your births, freedom is a right from your first breath, and all you do is complain. We on the outside know, we see how endowed with opportunity you are and the means to do great things you have at your disposal, but all you Americans do is spend your time infighting. Refusing to see the truth of things, running down the climate clock for everyone with your pollution and your insolence. It’s time for it to end.” Well, now, if those aren’t some fighting words, I don’t know what is! Yes, if the action doesn’t get you, the heated political talk just might be enough for you to want to see how this political thriller all comes together.
UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.
With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.
Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921
Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?
Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:
“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.
The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.
During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”
As Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said at today’s funeral, “George Floyd was on a mission.” His purpose shines on as his memory moves progress forward. There’s no turning back. Rosa Parks. Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Some of us are on such a mission. Their memory sparks change. George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
A family terrorized.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
One family’s experience of the Vietnam War.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
Siagon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
Both Such a Lovely War and Saigon Calling are published by Arsenal Pulp Press. And be sure to visit Marcelino Truong at his website right here.
I juggle a lot of things. I read a lot of comics, I work on my own comics, and sometimes I’ll get into a zone as I read a comic and not even think of the intended readership. I kid you not, I will read comics that are probably most likely meant for a younger reader and think nothing of it as it fully resonates with me as an adult. That is the case with the current book on my radar, I Was Their American Dream, a graphic memoir by Malaka Gharib, published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This is a delightful read that falls neatly into an all ages category. I sincerely believe that an adult would enjoy this book just as much as a middle school student. With a sincere approach, this graphic memoir will bring to mind Persepolis but it is absolutely on its own quirky wavelength.
This is an immigrant’s story. And I don’t think we will ever have enough of these kind of stories as each is different and unique in its own way. In an ideal world, I think we would all tell our stories of growing up in some sort of graphic memoir. That said, a book like this does not write itself either. Ms. Gharib presents a wonderfully easygoing narrative that makes it all look easy: very conversational prose with an inviting simple and direct drawing style.
Page excerpt from I Was Their American Dream
We are invited to join Gharib in a tale that takes us to the Philippines (mom’s side of family), to Egypt (dad’s side of family), and then makes it way to California. But our journey has only begun. Malaka Gharib comes of age as a mixed race child in a strange land–but things don’t have to be so strange with a little bit of heart, courage, and a wonderful sense of humor. This absolutely speaks to me as a mixed race person. In my case: Anglo on my dad’s side; Mexican on my mom’s side. Gharib has so much to say that anyone can relate to. For example, Gharib brings up the classic question people like to ask someone of mixed race: “What Are You?” It is a question that depends so much on context and tone. It can come from legitimate heart-felt curiosity. It can also be perceived as adding up to an insult or slight. “What Are You?” Indeed. Now, there’s quite a loaded question.
Given the overall tone to this book, how Ms. Gharib is writing with an intended younger readership, I think it’s still valid to say this is fun for any age. As, I’m sure Gharib would agree, there’s something about the quirky content that fits in so well with alternative comics. It’s no surprise to me to find here in her book that Gharib shares numerous happy memories of being involved in the alt-comics/zine scene. That activity has led to Gharib becoming an artist and journalist at NPR. She is the founder of The Runcible Spoon food zine and the cofounder of the D.C. Art Book Fair. That DIY/indie community gets in your blood and can guide, encourage, and inform an artist’s work for a lifetime. It can result in compelling work like this book!
Page excerpt from I Was Their American Dream
I Was Their American Dream is a 160-page trade paperback, fully illustrated, published by Clarkson Potter and available as of April 30, 2019. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Penguin Random House here.
With Jordan Peele’s Us still swimming in my head, I went to see the first museum survey in New York of Jamaican-born, Harlem-based artist Nari Ward at the New Museum. You don’t have to know a thing about contemporary art for his work to resonate with you just like you don’t have to know a thing about the finer points of public policy and history to get it when a good comedian brings up subjects like disenfranchisement and slavery. You just get it. What you get with Nari Ward is an artist tapping and ticking at our collective conscious. This is a powerful show that will remain with you.
Things aren’t quite right, are they? Let’s take what’s around us, various found objects on the great landscape of humanity, and say something with them. How about bricks? They’re easy enough to find and don’t cost much at all. They’re practically giving those away. Let the bricks represent whatever feels right to you in this context: a struggle being evoked, brick by brick; a recovery, a rebuilding, brick by brick. Then take it further, add some copper on top of each brick; and then further still and add a design, some kind of pattern that all the copper-topped bricks put together add up to when displayed upon the gallery floor. That is what I first saw of Nari Ward’s work when the elevator doors opened upon the main show.
And then I saw the eerie elegance of all those bottles (with messages inside of them!) while I also tuned into the ironic and hypnotic sounds made up of bits and pieces of vintage banter from classic Warner Bros. and Disney animation. “Hey, come over here.” Some creepy whistling. Then, “So pretty!” It was emanating from some contraption made up of a menagerie of discarded parts and emblazoned with an all-American eagle. And there’s so much more to experience: all meticulous collecting forgotten relics and recontextualizing them. Some of the most striking work is a series of large circles sitting inside squares. Maybe 80×80″. They could be globes. And they seem to be tracking somethings with a multitude of nails holding up a vast network of wire. Are they tracking hope, or despair? Maybe both. They come in various shades and colors.
Much more. There’s a whole room dedicated to work constructed from old fire hoses. There are a bunch of small constructs that resemble battered luggage all leading up to a massive circular piece looking down on them. There’s also a room that displays a house made up of some many pages of the Madonna and Child and that encloses what looks like fish scales and dried bananas. And, just before you leave, make sure to view the stately grandfather clock, a tried a true fixture in countless wealthy homes. Take a good look at it. You’ll see an eerie burst of protest has replaced the clock’s face. There’s an odd-looking centerpiece to this burst that refers back to the big circular pieces. And inside, down below where the weights reside, there are two African figures trapped inside forlornly looking out.
Nari Ward: We the People is on view at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City, February 13–May 26, 2019. For more details go right here.
While Jordan Peele has downplayed any grand subtext to his latest film, I think Us may have an even grander subtext than Get Out. It comes down to privilege. The inspiration for Us comes from “Mirror Image,” an original Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling. In that story, pod people are replacing humans and they are assumed to be the superior versions. Peele reverses that and has his pod people as inferior to humans and seeking revenge as they attempt to replace them. A very scary prospect indeed: your less fortunate doppelganger, in a rage of resentment, is bent upon destroying you.
“If it wasn’t for you, I would never have danced at all.” That is the best line in the movie and speaks volumes to the super eerie tension between the humans and the subhumans, or as they’re called in the movie, “the shadow people.” Or call them whatever you like: the ugly, the misfits, the forgotten and the dispossessed. Or how about, “the silent majority” who find themselves thrust out into the open ready to wreak havoc and to “disrupt.” You see where I’m going with this? Well, it’s veiled social commentary in the best spirit of a good ole Twilight Zone episode. You don’t have to spell it all out for audiences. But, if there’s any doubt, all the shadow people wear red.
With Get Out and now Us, Peele continues to refashion the art house horror film, all too often exclusively made up of white actors, by replacing them with a predominantly African American cast. This act of replacement is subtext within subtext. Sure, it’s sad that such a movie should be a novelty on racial terms but that’s where we are today. It’s a scary movie for scary times.
There are a number of creepy coincidences in the movie that help to set the tone. But, in the end, truth is stranger than fiction. On the very date of this film’s release, March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on the Russia probe to the Justice Department. For starters, it’s scary to think of all the misinformation that lies ahead from the White House response to the report. That said, Peele’s movie is not so much political as psychological at its core, at least on the face of it. You won’t find any explicit message, per se. As a fine artist, Peele paints his canvas having brought in various elements to work with. We live in an era spiked with uncertainty and that creepy feeling makes it way into all our senses. Part of what Peele does is take that creepy feeling and give it a good tweak.