Smash Pages Q&A: Jorge J. Santos, Jr.

The writer and assistant professor discusses his book ‘Graphic Memories of the Civil Rights Movement.’

Jorge J. Santos, Jr. is the author of the new book Graphic Memories of the Civil Rights Movement: Reframing History in Comics, which was recently published by the University of Texas Press. The Assistant Professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts has been a longtime comics reader, but never made comics the subject of his scholarship in college and graduate school and only recently has been examining comics.

His book, which is an important and thoughtful work which has far-reaching impacts beyond the world of comics studies, is about rethinking the legacy and meaning of the Civil Rights movement. Santos looks at five graphic novels and considers the X-Men series in an effort to look at how collective memory is constructed and the ways that comics can be particularly useful in retelling and re-contextualizing history.

When I saw the title of your book, I thought, “This is a book I need.” I’ve talked with a lot of the creators you write about and I’ve gotten to know Nate and Andrew a little, and they’re very conscious about using the comics form in different ways to help uncover and explain history in March. It was nice to see a book like this which dissects how they do that.

Reading Ho Che Anderson and Nate Powell were the inspirations for this book. I love those books so much, and I love everything Nate Powell has done. I reread them and I taught King and The Silence of Our Friends and I thought, “There’s something happening here beyond the repositioning of a familiar narrative.” There’s something happening in the visuals, and so I really wanted to attend to the visuals of it because I was obsessed with it. King in particular, but the stuff that Nate Powell is doing is so subtle on the visual level but there was something happening that wasn’t announcing itself that the reader has to go find and unpack. I think all good art has nuances and intricacies and idiosyncrasies that reward a close relationship with the text, and I wanted to unpack those.

That’s good to point out, because Nate Powell’s work stylistically differs from what Ho Che Anderson did in King.

Yes, it’s very deliberate. Ho Che would say, “It was just what mood I was in that day.” Okay, sure, if you say so. I think that sometimes in scholarship we tend to take a bird’s-eye view. Especially when you want to argue for some cultural attitude, you stay above the fray. My mentor in her big book was making an argument about cultural memory about the Cambodian genocide, but she was looking at Cambodian hip hop, and the book was driven by really minute close reading of lyrical strategies. I thought, that can done with comics. My first attempt was to try and reach that bird’s-eye level, but do it from a ground-up close reading strategy as opposed to surveying the landscape. Not that I’m against that. One of my favorite authors is Frederick Aldama, and he loves to mention 100 books, but the price you pay is that when you mention a hundred things, you’re not delving super deep into any one. I did the opposite. I only talk about six books, but I’m making a pretty big claim based on those six.

You really deconstruct this beautifully — how in both books, Nate’s artwork is doing much more than just accompanying the text.

March wants to tell this Civil Rights story in a more expansive way, and I won’t say that the art takes a backseat, but it’s more subtle as opposed to King, where the visuals are driving everything. I make the same argument about Cruse and Stuck Rubber Baby, which I think is beautiful and the art is doing the heavy lifting.

Stuck Rubber Baby was one of the first graphic novels I read back in the 1990s where I went, “This is a serious work,” and rereading it, the book has some problems. For reasons it shares with a lot of work about the Civil Rights era, which is that it’s so focused and predicated on centering white experience and centering the death of black men. And specifically the imagery of lynchings.

And I think in its more troublesome articulations, it reduces it to those two things. The Silence of Our Friends does a good job of evoking that but not being limited to that. I hold that up as an exploration of the difficulty, but also the potentialities, of white ally-ship when I teach that book. I think that can be done. Lewis does a great job of showing the intersectional nature of those alliances. He has long sections dedicated to white men who died for the cause. I think that the centering of the white experience can be problematic, but it doesn’t have to be a nonstarter. I think sometimes it gets reduced to that. I think Cruse accidentally does that for a different cause, for the LGBT movement, but as I point out in the book, I’m not isolating Cruse. He was authorized to do that by culture. What my book is really wondering is, are we really going to pass along the Civil Rights story to whatever group needs it at the moment? Because once you open that Pandora’s Box, you can’t close it. That’s why I brought up Ann Coulter, because if we’re going to let anybody lay claims to the Civil Rights narrative, then anyone is going to lay claim to it and it’s going to be frustrating. I wanted to express that ambivalence. Because I’m 100% on board with the LGBT movement, but we have to be precise and articulate and not stumble into appropriation or erasure.

I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but one of the things you seem to be arguing is that Cruse appropriated the Civil Rights movement and used consensus historical memory to do so, whereas the other books you analyze are about deconstructing that consensus memory.

I think that’s a fair characterization. I would only add that that appropriation was culturally authorized.

When I bring up this argument people will go, “What about Matthew Shepard?” That happened almost two years later, so I don’t know that it applies, but I understand. It’s not like the violence against queer men isn’t real. But lynching is just so specific, it troubled me.

As you wrote there’s so much around the imagery of lynching, which is traumatic and which white people use for their own purposes, and can often be clueless even if well meaning.

If you take a long view, you have to do it wrong to eventually do it right. One of the things I tell my students is that with Marvel Comics you have to be patient because their first attempt is usually pretty ham-handed, but the second one is usually pretty good. You have to give them a second try. Muslim characters – Dust from the X-Men? No thank you. Ms. Marvel? Yes, more please. It’s part of the process. You have to walk before you can run, I guess. So sometimes you get these versions that are problematic or appropriative, but culturally speaking if that can be adjusted, when people try again they can get it right. I’m speaking as a Latino so I’m speaking as an outsider. I tell people I went to either predominantly white schools or predominantly black schools my whole life. Part of chapter three of the book is, “What does this mean for a Latino walking into this?” I hope that the chapter about Cruse doesn’t come off as antagonistic, but sometimes we have to critique our favorite things.

In one chapter you talk about X-Men and to what degree is it a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement. But more to the point, what was it meant at the beginning, and what did it become?

Superheroes in general are exciting, and Ramzi Fawaz’s argument is essentially that they’re an archive in process. You can see memory being negotiated, and that makes that archive super-exciting for me. And as a big geek, I’ll take any chance to look at superheroes.

You get at the idea that the X-Men became a Civil Rights allegory in the Claremont years with the new cast and especially with God Loves, Man Kills.

That’s the story for me. I think the Claremont years are when the subtext became text. Somebody made the point that you can’t argue that X-Men isn’t a racial metaphor from the inception, but specifically Civil Rights is questionable. That’s fair.

The metaphor comes in and out depending on the characters and the story.

Look at the Bendis issues that I close with. They were anticipating what was going to happen in Ferguson. Whether they realized it or not. As soon as reality started catching up with the art, they toned it down and backed off, so you have a year where the X-Men are just training in the mountains. They’re not engaging with the conversation.

At the risk of being deeply cynical about Marvel and DC, they regularly go, “We need to do something different and radical” and then, “No we need to pull back and just spin our wheels.”

No, that’s totally fair. I think it’s particularly fair of Marvel. DC has always felt resistant to being interested in the regular world at all. Down to the fake cities. They’re less interested in any sort of allegorical possibilities. There are moments like Dark Knight Returns, Denny O’Neil’s Green Arrow run, more recent Supermans, arguably Wonder Woman, but generally speaking, they try to stay above that fray. Marvel has always tried to jump in head first, but sometimes when you do that, you land on your face.

I think that’s fair. It was like from the start of the Marvel universe in the sixties of doing something new and different and riding these timely influences.

And a lot of it is perception. In the Vietnam era, Hulk and Spider-Man were thought of as anti-establishment figures and that’s much too generous. But not long after that, they actually became those things. Hulk in particular.

At the beginning of the book you cite your mentor who asked, “Why draw comics about Civil Rights when we have so many pictures and film reels about it?” That’s the heart of the book, and you make the case that there is a lot of historical and artistic space to rethink this period.

The answer I came up with ended up being – and I don’t know if this is satisfactory or unsatisfactory – that the answer is multifaceted. John Lewis wants to resuscitate the memories of people that were cut out of history. He has all those asides saying, here’s someone you never heard of. The history that rises out of all that documentation raises some voices and forgets others. For example I won’t say that there are no photographs of Bayard Rustin, but he’s not associated with the movement the way John Lewis thinks he should be. Part of it is this almost supplementary impulse of completing the photo. Darkroom I read as a much more meta commentary of the primacy of the photograph. I make similar gestures with Ho Che Anderson. So why draw when you have photographs? Because photographs are insufficient.

For all the information that the photographs and documentaries provide, they’re either streamlined into a curated story, or they’re simply incomplete. You see this logic in my Darkroom chapter, that that information needs curation. A narrative can do that in a way that curates the knowledge into a particular narrative while acknowledging the source narrative by simply redrawing a familiar photograph. That also allows us to have this meta awareness of the construction. No one forgets they’re reading a comic book when they’re reading a comic book. I tell my students – in the age of camera phones and the age of pics or it didn’t happen – we can just fall into the trap of reading photographs uncritically. With a comic book, that’s impossible. You don’t read a comic and think, this is the past conveyed into the future. Documentaries I think we tend to watch more passively. This is Susan Sontag’s argument too. She’s lending me a lot of her authority – without her knowing. When you have the control of visual art, it opens up possibilities that photographs alone can’t do. It’s sometimes an antagonistic relationship but sometimes a sympathetic one. Darkroom has this meta level of “Let’s not take photographs so seriously;” I don’t think it’s a takedown either. It’s a more synthetic gesture that these multiple ways of knowing history can combine for a fuller picture.

As you were saying that, I thought about the opening of The Silence of Our Friends, which you deconstruct really well as the characters are watching the famous execution during the Tet Offensive.

I spent so much time talking about it I guess it’s obvious that I love it. There’s so many television frame motifs. The little kids are literally performing history. On some level that’s what media has become, this performance of agreed upon history. Watching them do the performance reveals both its familiarity and its structure, but also it doesn’t overturn or undermine it, but makes us confront that any window into the past – whether civil rights or anything – is going to be mitigated by some level of artifice. It’s inescapable. Nate Powell masterfully makes that point in Silence of Our Friends. I always enjoyed the narrative but when I wrote about it I was more convinced of its brilliance.

And I remember the photographer said he was always bothered by that because it captured this moment but there was so much more going on before and around that, which the image didn’t and couldn’t convey.

I love that you brought that up because this is a point I make with my students. Photography is often treated as this snapshot of the past, but you have to consider what you don’t see, and one thing you never see is the photographer. The gaze of the person creating the image and what they think is important. With a comic you never forget that this is an artist making this while photography obviously you know there’s a photographer but I don’t think people are conscious of what that means the way we would be with something that is hand drawn.

Beyond the book, I wanted to ask about engaging these questions and these texts in an academic setting. What do you teach and how do you integrate comics into the classroom?

I’ve always read comics. I read comics as part of my literary diet, but it never occurred to me to try to teach them. They were over here and literature was over there. My dissertation was on the 1960s and multi-ethnic literature and stories about religious conversion and using the trope of conversion – new identity new mindset new moral structure – as a way to map a shifting racial hierarchy in the United States. I dealt with James Baldwin and Malcolm X, Japanese American internment memoirs where Christian conversion plays a central role in the narrative. I was very interested in this sixties moment, particularly in a moment we associate with racial rights, but in a way that’s overtly religious. I came across Frederick Aldama’s Brain on Latino Comics and I thought, “This looks cool.” I found in that book a comic called “Pablo’s Inferno” and it begins as a very traditional narrative of Chicano identity using religious language and metaphor and visuals to both address a problem of history but also to visualize it. It’s also just a fun comic. I wrote my dissertation and then I wrote an article about it. From Aldama’s book I also discovered Darkroom and then I started thinking, I should splice these books into my existing classes.

When I taught Latino literature, I brought in Los Bros Hernandez. When I taught Junot Diaz, you have to bring in Stan Lee. I don’t think you can separate the coming of Galactus from Oscar Wao. They’re so united in my mind. I started integrating it more and more to great success. Students loved them. Then I got an opportunity to do a year long freshman level research based class so I let them pick a superhero and track their history over the course of nine months and identify what is the agreed upon mythos of Superman, or whatever superhero they chose. And then pick one era that you think is either exemplary or an outlier, but interesting, and approach that era as either this is what you need to read to understand the character or is this something different. That class was super fun and the kids loved it so the college encouraged me to come up with more comics oriented classes. Now I do classes on superheroes, war narratives, a senior seminar on the graphic novel’s history.

In the midst of all that, Chris Gonzalez at Utah State said, “I’ve seen two of your papers and this sounds like a book idea.” Fred [Aldama] said, “I think you should write this book, screw your dissertation.” That was all I needed to hear because I hate my dissertation just like everyone hates their dissertation. The book came together fairly quickly, but I had been presenting chapters at conferences for years and in classes. I don’t know what’s going on in culture but there’s such an energy behind comics in any form, not just superheroes, but the medium itself. Holy Cross has a graphic novel library and one of our alums is one of the biggest comic book collectors in the country and gave us a few hundred books to start that. How did I become the comics guy? That was never my goal. I thought I’d be the religious rhetoric of the 1960s person. I’m teaching a class based on my original dissertation this fall and I have three comic books on the reading list. I’m lucky to have a department that’s either super supportive or indifferent, meaning they stay out of my way [laughs].

You teach Gilbert and Jaime in Latino literature? Which books do you use?

I have trouble imagining teaching that class without some Gilbert or Jaime Hernandez. I usually use Gilbert and the first Fantagraphics collection. I have a class on Junot Diaz and I use Poison River because he said that was the book that he has emulated the most in terms of what he wants to sound like and Gilbert is his biggest influence. The students are really receptive to it because it’s not plot oriented and the stories can be surreal. Gilbert Hernandez is like a Swiss Army Knife, he has so many interests that I can usually say that I have a list of topics I like to touch on and Gilbert will let me do four of these. Jaime I use less so. I don’t think I’ve taught Jaime successfully yet, but Gilbert’s a staple.

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