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Trees Never Grown

May 12th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

True story: I hated Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram. I read the first issue and found it impenetrable and kind of a hipster music snob’s version of DC’s incestuous continuity porn. I dug McKelvie’s art, and his name is now usually enough to get me to at least skim a new comic, but it wasn’t enough to keep me reading a book that I had absolutely no interest in. All of the references went whizzing right over my head, but they didn’t confuse me exactly. It was more like I recognized that the book wasn’t being written for me. I don’t think I’d even heard actual Britpop before, I dunno, Guitar Hero.

An off-hand comment by a friend about comic stories that she wants to be told led to me thinking about Phonogram. Phonogram is proof that comics can do basically anything. Phonogram is about, according to wikipedia, “a mage who uses the medium of Britpop music to interpret his magic.” Think Zatanna, but with Oasis instead of talking backwards. Alongside Phonogram stands superheroes, comics about depressed midwesterners, video game-inspired pop culture reference fests, and easily dozens of other stories.

So, where are the stories I want to see? I’ve got a wish list of things I’d like to read in comic form, and I think a few of these are interesting enough that people who aren’t me would be interested, too.

The Great Migration
Ever heard of this? The Great Migration altered the racial make-up of the populated of the United States forever. It’s my understanding that prior to the Great Migration, something like 90% of American blacks lived in the South. Racism, economic reasons, and a number of other issues led to the large-scale exodus. After it, blacks were spread all over the country, mainly in urban areas.

The jobs they found up north and to the west were largely industrial in nature, and in and around cities. This was a marked change from the rural life and farming to be found in the south. You couldn’t really leave to get a job and ship money back to your family at this point, either, so your whole brood had to come with you.

You have the makings of an interesting story there. An entire family, torn from everything they know, shipping off to somewhere new, where there are new dangers, but also new opportunities. Adults who’d only known one thing being forced to learn something new to provide for their children. In a way, it’s a classic american tale. The Great Migration was about pulling yourself up from less than nothing so that your kids could have a better future than you did.

Interestingly, I’m pretty sure the Great Migration is why so many city-based blacks have family down south nowadays. Not everyone could leave, and family ties are hard to break.

Music
Specifically, rap.

Nerds tend to hate rap unless it’s filtered through the hard-hitting lens of Transformers and Star Trek/Wars references. The media tends to boil it down to thugs demeaning women and promoting black on black violence, but that, as usual, isn’t the whole story.

Rap is based around wordplay and metaphor. At its heart, the emcees that stick with you, that stand the test of time, are either sick with the wordplay or telling amazing stories. The Notorious B.I.G. was pretty good with wordplay, but his real skill was in telling a story in a way that made you feel it. Yeah, his stories were about selling drugs, but he made it compelling. Big Pun is a wordplay emcee. In his own words, he’s “the first Latin rapper to baffle your skull.” He was all about spitting a verse at high speed, layered with double and triple meanings, and thick with tongue twisters.

Andre 3000 alone is amazing. Outkast is basically one of the most, if not the most, consistently great rap group of all time. Big Boi and Andre are the Pimp and the Poet, respectively. Big Boi is no slouch on the mic, but Andre is next level. He’ll take the concept of a song, invert it, and deliver a verse that puts everyone else to shame. That’s not hard on that track, I know, so maybe this is better.

So, when you think about it, there’s a generation of kids out there who grew up listening to people taking apart the english language and putting it together in new ways. How would that affect someone coming up in the city/west/south/rural area/anywhere, where rap is their only real outlet or link to the real world? I know that personally, rap and comics are the source of my love of words. I’d be curious to see how you could flip this story.

Post-Civil Rights-era America
True story: the Civil Rights movement collapsed. There’s a reason why it isn’t taught in school beyond Martin and Malcolm. A combination of typically human failings, government interference, and outright assassinations led to the scaffolding that’d led to Marches on Washington and Civil Rights acts buckling and collapsing. The remains of the Civil Rights movement today are corrupt and obsolete community leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

What must that have been like? To have been a part of something amazing, and then to see it all collapse around you? I don’t even mean as a top tier personality. I mean as one of the people doing the marching who didn’t get on the news, or someone who joined the Panthers once he got old enough because he was touched by them growing up?

The ’70s were a crazy time for America, particularly when you factor in Vietnam. There are plenty of stories to tell there. My first instinct is to go for the depressing, but hey, that’s me.

Something Set in Actual Africa

I love Unknown Soldier and the attention to detail that Joshua Dysart is putting into it, but I’d kill to see like a slice of life comic set in South Africa or Ethiopia. Maybe something about Ethiopian Jews.

Obviously, all of these are blue-sky never happen comics about black people, but that’s where my head is at right now. I’m reading a really good book on race, and it’s making tumblers turn over in my mind. Even still, there’s no reason they couldn’t happen. Actual book publishers are pushing graphic novels pretty hard now, and I know that an operation like First Second is both flexible and consistently excellent enough to produce a really great work.

Wu-Tang tends to refer to their rhymes and songs as darts. It’s because they are little focused bits of information that sting when they hit you. They’re aimed. I’d like to see a bit more of that out of comics.

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11 comments to “Trees Never Grown”

  1. There’s a very good short story by Ray Bradbury where a larger-scale “Great Migration” occurs – all the ‘second-class’ black Americans, following the invention of a Mars rocket, save up their money, build their own rocket, and emigrate to mars while the remaining white Americans on earth destory the world in an atomic war. The story is written beautifully, looking entirely from the POV of the bewildered White southerners as their hired ‘help’ simply pick up their things and go. The story is collected in Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”.


  2. Shit, these are good ideas. My advice: write them! Hell, I should heed that myself; I’ve got plenty of my own “wanna-see” stories…


  3. The best I’ve ever seen rap represented in comics is in the manga BECK by Harold Sakuishi. One of the main characters is a rapper who sings in a rock band. He’s inspired a lot by Zack de la Rocha, but with quite a few other influences as well. I highly recommend the series, although it sometimes assumes you know the histories behind different guitars and rock bands which can be overwhelming to some people.


  4. Hi David, great idea for a post. For “Something Set in Actual Africa,” I suggest the Drawn & Quarterly book Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Obrerie. There’s also a follow up called Aya of Yop City, and a third installment due some time in ’09 called The Secrets Come Out. It’s about some families living in the Ivory Coast, nominated for an Eisner in 2008, a very realistic, stereotype-defying story with beautiful art.

    Shameless plug… I reviewed the first volume here (scroll down to the bottom: http://thirteenminutes.blogspot.com/search?q=Aya


  5. I enjoyed Phonogram, even though I also didn’t get most of the references. Beyond loving Blur, I don’t really have any experience with Britpop either. However I dug on the main thread going through the comic, holding onto what you love, and yet still growing up and becoming a mature adult. That’s a topic relevant to all us superhero nerds.

    I’d be very interested in reading all of these. Have you heard of Ho Che Anderson’s King? While it naturally centres on King, it covers much of the civil rights movement at large. The book also provides a very interesting portrayal of MLK, that views him as a human being and is not afraid to depict his flaws.


  6. […] Keeping It Real May 13th, 2009 by david brothers Yesterday, Justin suggested I pick up Aya from Drawn & Quarterly. I’ve got some spare Amazon credit, so I’m going to order […]


  7. “I love Unknown Soldier and the attention to detail that Joshua Dysart is putting into it, but I’d kill to see like a slice of life comic set in South Africa or Ethiopia. Maybe something about Ethiopian Jews.”

    Seeing this comment made me smile. I can not tell you how much tossing and turning I’ve done over Unknown Soldier. The book practically hates itself for the way it perpetuates bad PR about a place I’ve spent time in and have come to love. I too would like to see a “slice of life” comic about Ethiopia (I’m more interested in East Africa than South Africa, but that’s just because all of my research has been in that region) or DRC or Sudan or Nigeria or Somalia. These books would be informed by the struggles of these nations, but only in the most realistic way possible. They would abandon the pulp that Unknown Soldier uses as it’s vehicle. Of course they would have an even smaller readership than we already have if they tried to take the monthly rout, but your right, a graphic novel might be able to pull it off.

    I have been pitching to my editor the idea of a GN that takes place in northern Uganda and tells the story of an abducted Acholi boy, but does so as honestly as possible, totally stripping away the “action” aesthetic that Unknown Soldier” rolls in (like a dog in shit!).

    Don’t get me wrong. I love, love writing Unknown Soldier. I’m really fortunate that I get to make a “mainstream” comic and still obsess on a part of the world that I’m passionate about and have fallen in love with. All I’m saying is that I hear you and feel you.

    Peace
    – Joshua Dysart


  8. Music
    Specifically, rap.”

    David, I can only think of one so far. Percy Carey wrote his autobiography Sentences : The Life of M.F. Grimm and Ronald Wimberly drew it.

    “Rap is based around wordplay and metaphor. At its heart, the emcees that stick with you, that stand the test of time, are either sick with the wordplay or telling amazing stories.”

    There’s even more to it too, or else I wouldn’t be able to enjoy rap in languages I can’t speak. :)

    Something Set in Actual Africa

    “Actual book publishers are pushing graphic novels pretty hard now, and I know that an operation like First Second is both flexible and consistently excellent enough to produce a really great work.”

    Would J.P. Stassen’s Déogratias : A Tale of Rwanda count? The English translation was released by First Second, but there’s some magic realism amid the horror instead of 100% straightforward realism.

    “Hi David, great idea for a post. For ‘Something Set in Actual Africa,’ I suggest the Drawn & Quarterly book Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Obrerie. There’s also a follow up called Aya of Yop City, and a third installment due some time in ’09 called The Secrets Come Out. It’s about some families living in the Ivory Coast, nominated for an Eisner in 2008, a very realistic, stereotype-defying story with beautiful art.

    “Shameless plug… I reviewed the first volume here (scroll down to the bottom:

    The fourth installment is already out in French! OTOH, it seems to be set in Paris this time instead of in Ivory Coast.


  9. Oops, sorry I messed up the href tags!


  10. @Hsifeng: I think I fixed your href tag. I actually talked a good bit about Sentences over this year and the last, and think it should’ve won the Eisner last year. C’est la vie, I guess.


  11. Thanks!