This book looks at the collision of race and class in a repressive time, in this case the late 1950s.
“The groove is in the doing, hard driving bop and hard driving dreams.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Gary Phillips. Phillips was the chair of the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color committee and was a past president of the Private Eye Writers of America. He lives in Los Angeles. His book is The Be-Bop Barbarians A Graphic Novel.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Gary Phillips: In the sense that we know the past influences the present, Be-Bop Barbarians looks at the collision of race and class in a repressive time, in this case the late 1950s. The three main characters, Stef Rawls, Ollie Jefferson and Cliff Murphy, are inspired by real life black pioneers in an industry, comics and cartooning, that then was overwhelmingly white.
The three that inspired the characters in Be-Bop are Jackie Ormes, born Zelda Mavin Jackson, a staff reporter of the Pittsburgh Courier, she originated her strip in those pages, Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem in 1938. She was the first African American woman cartoonist to have her own strip, and today is in the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame. Oliver Harrington produced an observational humor strip featuring a character called Bootsie, covered WWII in Europe and North Africa in words and pictures for the black press, wrote and drew an aviation themed adventure strip Jive Grey, and produced hard-hitting editorial cartoons that ran in the likes of the communist Daily Worker newspaper. Langston Hughes called him America's most popular black cartoonist and a first-rate social satirist.
And then there was Clarence Matthew “Matt” Baker, one of the first black artists to work steadily in comics. He began his comics career in 1944 doing background art for the S.M. Iger Studio that supplied complete comics stories to publishers. This was where Elmer “E.C.” Stoner, the actual first black comic book artist, had worked several years before Baker. As Iger recalled in an interview years afterward, “[Baker] came to my studio in the early ’40s; handsome and nattily dressed.” Baker would soon go on to producing his own sequentials including creating the first black lord of the jungle called Voodah for Crown Comics.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The exciting incident in the story has to do with Ollie Jefferson being unfairly arrested after he defends himself and his Korean fiancé from some drunk whites coming out of a bar. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the cops was a soldier under Sergeant Jefferson’s command during the Korean War. This cat froze up during combat and he carries this shame since then. Added to that a black man had not only seen this, but reprimanded him quite harshly. So now the cop, Hammond, has the opportunity to exact revenge and beats Ollie while he’s in jail. But Ollie just isn’t some random brother as is too often the case and once his cartoonist and leftist friends find out what happened, it’s on. A big rally highlighting police brutality is planned and we see the principals in Be-Bop becoming involved in the effort.
That the age-old lesson then is about coming together, building a united front across racial lines, can real advancement be made. In the story one of the main characters is arrested and beaten by the police on trumped up charges and this incident galvanizes a collective response.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Not so much an ideology but seeing that some of the same issues we wrestle with today in terms of inclusion, police abuse, self-worth, are as relevant now as then. Graphic novels as part of pop culture can entertain but can also be used to tell our unsung stories. If there is an underlying ideology to the book, it would be the perspective that fiction can not only entertain but be grounded in certain realities. You have to put your characters through their paces, the dramatist always asks what do my characters want? What motivates them to do what they do in the course of the tale I want to tell?
But it’s in revealing their human qualities, their frailties and flaws, their greeds and aspirations, the writer can also illuminate how in some instances some of the characters rise above those petty concerns to sacrifice and do the greater good. How external conditions affect them internally. I wanted in the narrative structure of Be-Bop to show that as events unfolded. I hasten to add that as the graphic novel is a visual medium, the art is so important in conveying these elements. In this case, Dale Berry the artist and James Brown (yes, that’s his name) the colorist did a wonderful job in their storytelling.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I’m not so sure these folks would be considered intellectual so much as adepts of pop culture who used their mediums of expression to the fullest. Chester Himes’ so-called Harlem Cycle mysteries with his two detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. These two adventures had absurdist tendencies and offered wry observations on race. He was a craftsperson as well. For as Art Bourgeau noted in The Mystery Lovers’ Companion, “…his prose was like music.” Jack Kirby who was an influential comics artist. He creator and co-creator of the pantheon of Marvel Comics characters including the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer, Captain America, the Avengers and on and on. He had an indelible impact on my imagination as a kid and even today all those decades later. Rod Serling, creator and writer of the original Twilight Zone also had a significant impact on how I think about what I write. Lastly, I have to give props to Alexandre Dumas. While he was a man of color and as far as I know, didn’t write any black lead characters, his style and approach to his stories like The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo, affected me in my teen year when I read him. The cherry on top was recently reading The Black Count, about his pops who was a for real adventurer and so deserving of being better known.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I hope that readers take away from Be-Bop Barbarians the experience of enjoying a good story as well as reinforcing the truism that the fight for justice against the forces of injustice is ages old, but a fight worth fighting. The struggle is about us pursuing our wants not at the expense of others, but in conjunction with others. Not letting the status quo hold us back. The groove is in the doing, hard driving bop and hard driving dreams. In the words of E. Ethelbert Miller’s review in the New York Journal of Books, “Yes, this graphic novel is for readers who know how to snap their fingers while turning the page.”
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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