Tag Archives: Race

Review and Interview: ‘Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White’ by Michael Tisserand

George Herriman, hiding his race in plain sight.

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.

Michael Tisserand

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.

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Review: SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR by Marcelino Truong

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.

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Filed under Comics, Comics Reviews, Graphic Novel Reviews, Vietnam War

Review: I WAS THEIR AMERICAN DREAM by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream by Malaka Gharib

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.

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Filed under Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Graphic Memoir, Penguin Random House, Race, Race Relations, Zines

Art Review: Nari Ward: We the People

Nari Ward: We the People at the New Museum

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.

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Movie Review: US by Jordan Peele

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.

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Filed under Horror, Horror Movies, Jordan Peele, Movie Reviews, Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone

Captain America Caption Contest in Support of Tolerance at Wing Luke Museum in Seattle

Captain America Caption Contest in Support of Tolerance

Can you think of a winning caption for the above cartoon? Details follow.

When this cartoonist decides to put on a Captain America costume, he knows it will get complicated. New York based cartoonist Vishavjit Singh has set out to open the hearts of his fellow citizens and it looks like he’s gaining ground.

If you live in the Seattle area, you will want to especially take notice of a caption contest for Singh’s new art show, “Wham! Bam! Pow!” at the Wing Luke Museum! Email your caption for the cartoon at the top of this post to whambampow@wingluke.org for a chance to win a $50 gift card to GoPoke, a pair of general admission tickets to the Wing Luke Museum, and a framed drawing of this comic from cartoonist Vishavjit Singh with your winning caption.

WHAM! BAM! POW!

Vishavjit Singh began drawing cartoons in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: as a Sikh American with a turban and beard, he had become the target of a toxic mix of fear, anxiety and ignorance. Vishavjit set out to challenge the label of the ‘other’ placed upon him (and many others of Sikh, South Asian, Muslim, and/or Middle Eastern extraction) by illustrating stories capturing the joys and predicaments of Sikh American life. His simple imagery and gentle humor often come with an edge that pierces stereotypes, prompts self-reflection, and promotes action.

In 2012, horrified by the deadly attack on a Sikh Gurudwara (house of worship) in Wisconsin, Vishavjit decided the world needed a superhero who fights bigotry and hate in our midst. Wham! Bam! Pow! follows Vishavjit’s journey as he explores America’s inspiring, contradictory values and discovers the heroic power of compassion.

Wing Luke Museum in Seattle

Don’t miss “Wham! Bam! Pow!” from May 4th to February 24th, 2019.
Now on display at The Wing.

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Filed under Comics, Editorial Cartoons, Middle East, Museums, Muslim, New York City, Seattle

National Geographic Examines Its Own Racism and Adds to Discussion

National Geographic Examines Its Own Racism in April 2018 Issue

You could spend a lifetime finding ways to improve yourself and the lives of your fellow humans. You can do it all by yourself, without the help of workshops or committees. But, when it comes to institutions (government, media, assorted nonprofits and such) it can end up being all the more challenging, and rather clumsy. So, now we have the venerable publication which has presided over countless households and subsequently found in countless yard sales, National Geographic, founded way back in 1888. No surprise here that something going that far back would have some skeletons in its closet–the number one of which is rampant racism.

Today, in some of the what would seem to be the most progressive of neighborhoods, the racism has been dialed down to the most discrete of passive-aggressive levels. Oh, it’s there alright but it’s not talked about unless in some very pretentious public forum where everyone rolls up their sleeves to seriously tackle a subject they would rather not discuss. That said, the latest issue of National Geographic, with its biracial fraternal twins on the cover “daring” you to revisit the issue of race, is the perfect conversation starter for one of these particularly dowdy gatherings which all too often consists of white people who are at a loss as to how to engage with people outside their own race. These sort of gatherings take place all over the country. I’ve end up seeing for myself what they’re like in Seattle. They are well-intentioned, I guess. I came away with an overall feeling that people want to be heard and they want to come across as positive, intelligent, and “progressive.” But they are also prone to rationalizing their behavior as beyond their control, or even blaming The Other, that other group of races that seem beyond reach.

Race and Racism in Seattle

Just consider the above remarks from one of these community outreach gatherings. Feedback, like these typical remarks, was documented onto Post-It notes: “When I see black people walking towards me on the street, I’m not afraid but I also don’t think they like me.” And this one: “I know it’s not right, but every time I see a black person in my neighborhood (Fremont) I ask myself why they’re here.” Everyone earnestly discusses these sort of comments while also discussing an appropriate prop for the evening, in this case, “What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” by Robin DiAngelo, an expert on, get this, Whiteness Studies. You can’t make this stuff up.

National Geographic is world-famous for presenting The Other: decade upon decade of presenting people from other places, from other races, as exotic creatures. The cover of the April 2018 issue of National Geographic attempts to do good but, in fact, is right back to playing with The Other dynamic. Maybe this time any perceived bad is outweighed by any perceived good. In fact, there is a whole issue here devoted to confronting the issue of race and how the magazine has dealt with it over its long history. That is worth a lot of credit. Maybe I’ll check it out at my public library. Yeah, the library is another place I remember National Geographic from. I don’t know that this publication is truly resonating with Millennials or if it even matters. The magazine will know, I presume, when it’s time to just wrap it all up. For now, it is wrestling with its legacy–and that’s nice to see. National Geographic has a few irons in the fire. It’s on cable, right? I guess it’s one step forward and one step back–but they seem to be making an effort.

Visit National Geographic right here.

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Oscars 2018: Why ‘Get Out’ Could Win for Best Picture

After a startling presentation mix-up for the best picture award, Barry Jenkins, at the mic, and the Moonlight cast accept the award at the Oscars on Sunday.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Not so long ago, the Academy Awards had to contend with the #OscarsSoWhite movement with its goal of greater diversity in movies. And, some may argue, that led to “Moonlight” winning for Best Picture in 2017. Now, we also have the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements that all add up to the public demand for change from the status quo. In that spirit, to have “Get Out” win for Best Picture this year, would definitely further steer the Oscars on a more enlightened path. The Oscars ceremony this year is on Sunday, March 4, 2018 with predictions on the winners taking in all the factors.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in the throes of an existential crisis.

If all movies are cut from the same cloth and we keep to the old and wrong ways, then serious problem remain. That said, any movie will ultimately need to be judged by the quality of its content. In the new era that is unfolding before us, we really can have it all. A good part of what makes “Get Out” an exceptional movie is how it subverts your expectations no matter your background or race. The viewer can empathize with a person thrust into meeting their lover’s parents. We all have our advantages and disadvantages, whether they are real or only perceived as such.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams

Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter. There are specifics to this story. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is African American and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is Caucasian. From the moment Chris and Rose arrive at her parent’s home, it is emphasized in the extreme how race doesn’t matter but, in truth, it matters all too much–even to a life-threatening level. Everyone Chis comes into contact at this family gathering makes it painfully clear something is very wrong. This pushes Chris into an intense existential crisis.

Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton

For a new generation that believes it has seen it all, writer/director Jordan Peele brings something new. And this is not to say that we make a wholesale dismal of generations of moviemaking. No, what people are clamoring for now is a collective correction. When “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” came out in 1967, and presented viewers with a mixed race couple, it helped to stir a much needed discussion on race. Peele is able tap into that same energy. People are asking to tear down the old gods and build on all the good we have achieved. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Get Out” are part of a continuum of moviemaking at its best.

“Get Out”

At least both of these movies were nominated. It’s interesting to note that Sidney Poitier was not nominated for Best Actor for his pivotal role. However, Daniel Kaluuya is up for Best Actor this year. Step by step, we continue to make progress. We are just asking to pick up the pace. This is certainly not lost on Jordan Peele. “Get Out” came out in 2017, on the 50th anniversary of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” a big studio movie of its time, a little more polite and a lot more circumspect than we will tolerate today.

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Review: ‘Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours’ by Alex Nall

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” by Alex Nall

Comics is uniquely suited for any form of biography and to quite a fascinating degree. I’ve said that before and, to prove my point, I have all sorts of new things I can say about this theme in regards to Alex Nall‘s graphic novella, “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours.” This is a look at the life and times of Fred Rogers (1928-2003), the host of the landmark PBS children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Intertwined in this biography is a look at Nall’s own life as a grade school art teacher. As often is the case, the comics creator has created a mashup of bio and auto-bio. It’s a natural occurance among cartoonists to include themselves into the narrative. When done right, the results can feel like a smooth dreamy story.

A mashup of bio and autobio.

Nall’s artwork has a primitive child-like quality about it. He depicts himsself with a cumbersome bulbous pink nose. It is all hand-drawn, down to the lettering and color washes. This is a style that falls right in line with a lot of alt-comics: keep it simple; keep it slapdash. In this case, that look fits in. Nall evokes the frenetic energy of children: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kids, the little angels we’d wish them to be, usually are far from saints. Time and again, Nall shares with the reader the reality of the daily grind of interacting with these wee people. Ah, big segue: Nall comes to find inspiration in his nightly revisits on his laptop to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” This triggers an exploration by Nall thus leading to confronting more than he bargained for.

A young and feisty Fred Rogers.

First, some words on Fred Rogers and his monumental achievement. Keep in mind, the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” program ran from 1968 to 2001. There was nothing like it before and there will probably never be anything like it again. This is a show that speaks to kids on their own terms — and in a distinctive format that defies duplication. The viewership is mostly meant for 2 to 5 year-olds, but it appeals to any age. Fred Rogers became sort of a surrogate parent for countless children, spanning generations, simply by being there with kind and gentle entertainment mixed in with thoughtful observation and guidance. Everyone seems to fondly remember Fred Rogers and have a favorable opinion of him. You may have seen footage of a young and feisty Rogers testifying before Congress in support of PBS funding. Rogers was able to melt the heart of at least one tough and jaded senator.

Nall highlights a particular aspect in his story and provides an excellent example of how one element can affect the balance of the whole. Comics, with their panels and unique narrative structure, are inherently tricky balancing acts. You can include a scene in one panel and the ripple effect is under way. Refer back to it and the overriding subject behind it, and you’ve underscored it, boosted its significance. Return to the subject again, and the whole story points back to it, in a way, as if in service to that one aspect. These sort of shifts in focus happen all the time in big prose works. For example, a book on current events will have its most newsworthy items plucked for greater scrutiny by all the news outlets.

The Washing of Feet.

Nall makes a strategic choice to focus upon the relationship between Mister Rogers and Police Officer Clemmons. The scenes are from the point of view of Francois Clemmons. Rogers hired Clemmons to play the role of a police officer on the show. This was the late 1960s and police brutality was a hot news topic. In one particular panel, we see what looks like Mister Rogers washing the feet of Officer Clemmons. The unique nature of comics allows the reader to linger on a panel. The panel is already a highlighted moment, suspended in time, radiating beyond its borders. The actual moment that occurred on the show was held together by a very different medium. In the course of that scene with Clemmons, he and Rogers are indeed enjoying a moment of peace and quiet. As they are about to complete the scene, they both begin to get their feet out of the water. For a split second, Rogers takes a towel and passes it over Clemmons’s feet. It occurred so fast as to be subliminal. Certainly, it was packed with Christian symbolism.

Francois Clemmons speaks out.

That moment, both subliminal and highly symbolic, is what Nall sort of plucked and focused upon to keep the reader wondering. It is unusual. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Sure, it is benign. You could see it as ideal too. But it is also unusual. It was Rogers’s way of gently and kindly getting a message across, specifically of racial tolerance but transcendent as well. A moment of kindness. Done. We move on. However, Nall has tapped into something that he pursues further and which he would be hard pressed to avoid. His research consisted of four articles and two books. It is really the one book, 2015’s “Peaceful Neighbor,” by Michael Long, that is at the crux of this. In the book, Francois Clemmons claims that he was told by Rogers that, while Rogers supported Clemmons coming out as gay, the program was not ready for an openly gay character. If he came out, he would have to be let go. To further complicate matters, Clemmons claims that Rogers advised him to marry a woman and Clemmons did just that. Considering the era, Clemmons would certainly not be alone among closeted gays. Even today, there is no openly gay character on a children’s program.

Overall, Nall has done a good job in conveying some compelling facts. He is not bringing to light anything that was not already covered in “Peaceful Neighbor” but he has presented these facts in a different format and reached a number of new readers. Nall’s book is an achievement in the sense that any book of this kind put together by one individual is a small miracle in itself. So, yes, of course, I wholeheartedly congratulate Nall. It would be very interesting to chat with him on what parts of his book are style choices and what parts are simply the result of his current skill set. Personally, I am a strong believer in cartoonists perpetually pushing themselves to make the smoothest and most readable content.

I look forward to what Nall does next as he considers his next project. Nall has demonstrated that he’s not afraid to tackle as ambitious a project as the life and times of Fred Rogers. And, as I say, he has a good grasp of how the comics medium works. It can be a deceptively simple affair but, in fact, it has quite a built-in complexity. Once the process is set in motion, just like any other creative endeavor, it takes on a life of its own.

“Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours” is the latest installment of Nall’s “Teaching Comics” series. Visit him right here.

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Filed under Alex Nall, Alt-Comics, Alternative Comics, Comics, Independent Comics, Indie, Mister Rogers, PBS

Movie Review: ‘Get Out’

When I first saw the trailer for “Get Out,” I was hooked on the idea of a racially explicit horror movie. I had already written a script in my head of what I had expected to see. I took for granted that this would be a wry and revealing look at how African Americans can still be seen as the Other. And that is definitely there. We also have the opposite where it is those who are subjugating who are seen in the same way, as some menacing Other. And I expected some dark comedy mixed in. With all that in mind, I wondered, not if, but how far this movie would cross the line.

What “Get Out” does best is keeping to a true horror movie pace, gradually building up. Instead of a frog that is in a pot of water gradually set to boil, we’re all expecting a black man to be boiled alive, so to speak. No, there are no black men being boiled–just a metaphor. In fact, there are far more gruesome things up ahead. The remarkable thing is that there is a certain level of restraint that allows writer/director Jordan Peele to navigate deeper into our collective racial history than some of us out there are ready to go.

The opening scene alone is loaded with plenty of food for thought. An African American young man is walking through an upscale, and presumably white, neighborhood. He is talking on the phone and joking with his friend that he’s lost in what he calls with a whiny accent, “the suburbs.” As he proceeds down streets with tony- sounding names like “Peacock Street,” a white sports car pulls up blaring an old 1930’s song, “Run, Rabbit, Run,” a sly reference to the classic WASP novel, “Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike. The young man attempts to avoid the car by walking in the other direction. Ultimately, he can’t help walking towards the car whereupon he’s knocked out and thrown in the car’s trunk.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya)

We next see an interracial couple preparing for a trip. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), are about to meet Rose’s parents. Chris is hesitant and Rose asks him what’s the matter. Chris asks Rose if she mentioned to her parents that he’s black. Rose laughs it off and reassures him that’s it’s not an issue at all. It’s a tender moment. It shows that Chris is vulnerable while Rose is far more in control of the situation. The acting is quite believable. Rose seems clearly in love with Chris. But the focus leans towards Chris as we see events through his eyes. He’s convinced he’s entering the lion’s den and we easily sympathize.

The focus never leaves Chris and, once they arrive at the family estate nestled in the woods, the attention heaped upon Chris grows. It begins with the first meet-the-parents round. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener make for deliciously out-of-touch parents attempting to be hip. If only that was all that lay in store for our hero. Red flags go up one by one. There’s a quick aside by the dad, “Oh, that room leads to the basement. We closed it up due to a buildup of black mold.” Yikes, in the context of a horror movie, that says it all.

Things are gonna keep steadily getting freaky from here on out. And so they do, some artful and some more in line with standard-issue tropes. One horror chestnut, the comedy relief sidekick buddy, is given new life and put to fine use here. Lil Rel Howery as Rod Williams, one of TSA’s finest, adds another dimension to the narrative. While he may rob the movie of some of its more provocative and scary potential, that seems to be the right approach for a project that is unleashing so many racial issues. Overall, we end up with a number of compelling scenes and images without resorting to a heavy hand.

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Filed under Horror, Horror Movies, Movie Reviews, movies, Race, Race Relations, Racism, Satire