In the early 1940s, racial tension between the Chicano community and white servicemen in the Los Angeles area led to the Zoot Suit Riots, named for the baggy suits worn by Mexican-American youths at the time.
Lizard in a Zoot Suit is a new graphic novel from Marco Finnegan (Crossroad Blues) that uses these riots as a backdrop for a socially relevant tale of racial tension, family and magical realism. Inspired by playwright Luis Valdez and movies like LA Confidential, Lizard in a Zoot Suit features two sisters who discover a lizardman — a lost member of an underground species who just wants to get home. Amidst the chaos, the sisters do what they can for their new friend in a beautiful tale told in two colors.
I spoke with Finnegan about the book, his inspiration for it and more.
This graphic novel comes at a very interesting time, as it has elements of history that relate closely to things that are happening now. And then you have the magical realism aspect of, well, lizard men. How do you bring all these things together in your head to turn them into your story?
I set out to make an adventure book that was in the same lane as the ’80s pop culture I consumed as a kid, from E.T. and Goonies to New Mutant and Teen Titan comics. The difference is I wanted it to represent who I was as a kid: Chicano, son of a single parent who worked two jobs and spoke Spanglish. At the same time as I was outlining the story for Lizard in a Zoot Suit, I got really into researching the era so I rewatched Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit play and read Culture Clash’s play Chavez Ravine.
I didn’t want to make a nonfiction book, but I wanted to ground these kids in reality (even if it was a tense one) and show that, even with all of their day-to-day struggles, they could still be heroes like their suburban counterparts. I wanted them to be able to have a fantastic adventure amidst the chaos. Many kids struggle daily and need to see themselves as the hero, especially BIPOC kids, who are rarely shown as the heroes.
The book being released during the time of the BLM protests is fitting since the Zoot Riots were about kids of color being brutalized on the street because they were not conforming to what Mainstream America felt was patriotic. The kids were cast as the villains because of the way they looked. The sailors who beat on them were seen as heroes. I think that division still exists. Young adults today are learning how important their voice is…and it’s so similar to what the Pachucas of the Zoot Suit Era were fighting against.
How else did you go about researching this particular time in history?
I started with the plays listed above and then dug around and read books about the era, listened to podcasts, watched documentaries and tried to find articles from the era in newspapers. My mom was a big help with language, style, etc. She was a little young for the era and was from El Paso, but the memory and trends were still strong from her teenage years.
Speaking of moms, I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the family relationships you establish in the book. I like the exchanges between the sisters, but I think the mom might actually be my favorite character. Was she based on your own mom, and do you have siblings?
I’m glad you like Ma! She is definitely based on my mom.
My mom worked two jobs, was a single mother, and it was just me and my sister at home, so the dynamics are very similar. My mom also expressed concern through frustration and anger. We were all she had and the stress of keeping us alive could drive her to some colorful language and threats! Especially since I did some crazy things.
The girls, Cuata and Flaca, are amalgams of what I imagine my mom and her sisters were like as kids. I had a Tia Cuata (which means twin) and nicknames like Flaca ( skinny girl) often replaced birth names. My wife and I have four kids and we’ve gotten some hands on research about sibling relationships in our house!
And where did the idea for the lizard men come from?
The Lizard Chulito, came from digging around in L.A.’s past and discovering that, in the 1930s, an engineer believed that he had found the lost catacombs of a race of Mayan Lizard people. It fit perfectly with the era and the world I was building in Lizard in a Zoot Suit.
I saw that you attributed getting the pitch for this done to some of the help and support you received on Twitter. Can you talk a little bit about how those connections helped you? And is there any advice you could offer aspiring creators on that front?
I think Twitter can be one of the best networking tools out there. I got my first real comic gig, adapting Ace Atkins’s Nick Travers series to comics, because of fanart I did of some of Ace’s books.
Lizard in a Zoot Suit came together because I wanted to participate in #DVpit, a day where agents and editors look at tweets that are pitches for books from marginalized creators started by Beth Phelan.
The best advice I can give is to post work, hone your craft, and listen to all the great people on the site. There’s such a wealth of tips, calls for submissions and industry news on their daily. There’s a lot of noise on there, too, but if you curate what you look at and treat it as a way of meeting like-minded people, it’s pretty great.
What are you working on next?
Currently I am drawing a comic that is written by Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes for John Jennings’ new Megascope imprint at Abrams…it is so good and I am incredibly lucky to draw it!