Mark Long Interview

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Mark Long, a video game designer, co-authored the graphic novel The Silence of Our Friends. The book spans Long’s childhood, covering his memory of the civil rights struggles taking place in Houston Texas. I met with Mr. Long during his book signing at the new Guzu Gallery space in Austin.

Mark Long: “I am Mark Long, co-author of The Silence of Our Friends, new graphic novel that I co-authored with Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell by Frist Second Books. So in 1967 I was 11 years old and my father moved us from San Antonio Texas to Houston Texas and he was a television news cameraman. Back then television news was more like newspaper reporting, decidedly unglamorous, hard work, and they shot on 16 millimeter film instead of video tape. My father was the city’s race reporter. The space race and NASA is what most reporters were interested in, but not my dad, he was interested in race reporting, 67’, 68’”

The Daily Texan: “A different kind of race.”

ML: “Yeah. It was exciting, dangerous, and he had been the race reporter in San Antonio covering the barrio and wanted to cover the 3rd and 5th ward in Houston. In 67 the Civil Rights struggle moved on to campuses in the south and there was an organization called SNCC (“snick”), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, that was agitating to meet on campus. And it sounds funny today that something called SNCC won’t be allowed on campus, but SNCC was run by Stokely Carmichael that year and Brown the next year. And so, Black Panthers which were were the militant arm of the civil rights struggle at the time were perceived or portrayed by the media as if you allowed SNCC on campus you were basically allowing these outside agitators and violence onto campus. Also going on in the city the 3rd ward, which is the most northern neighborhood in the city, was where all the blacks lived in the city and all the whites lived everywhere else and the living conditions were just appalling. There were white slumlords, absentee slumlords, who were gouging their black tenants. There was also a city dump where the city was like literally dumping all its trash in the 3rd ward and was an open wound in that neighborhood. The crucible of all this racial tension was a street called Wheeler Avenue which ran through downtown and into Texas Southern University, which is a historically black college in Houston and racist whites would go out of their way to drive up and down Wheeler and yell racial slurs and sometimes do violence. Early April that year the administration refused SNCC their civil, their constitutional right to meet on campus and students responded by staging an classroom strike and boarded up the administration building and were marching across campus and ran into my white father, this one lone, white man in this sea of angry black students and he was attacked by the crowd and a black activists named Larry Thomas came and rescued him.”

“Thomas was the editor of something called the voice of hope which was an anti-poverty weekly that was the most grassroots level activism that was in the 3rd and 5th ward at the time. And so they struck up kind of a friendship and  Larry really radicalized my father, my father was liberal up then, but he became a radical then afterwards and they started putting their politics were their families were going.

“I wanted to talk about what I remember and show as a child, but also dramatize events and try and make these simple heroes of the of the civil rights struggle real people because I think at this point they’re in danger of turning into historical figures. When we think about them and the Freedom Riders and all these really brave man and women tend to think of them as kind of these stoic heroes that aren’t really real, but they were my parents and they were the Thomas family. They were naïve and idealistic and got themselves in over their head and had conflicting motivations and emotional responses to all that and I wanted to humanize them. That’s the reason we chose this story to tell.

"When we wrote the manuscript we wrote it in what’s called the ‘Marvel style’ which is, comes from when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were producing all the great superhero characters in the 60s. They were both auteurs and worked fast and loose, so they didn’t do a comic manuscript in the normal fashion were you would say ‘Page 24, six panels, panel number one, medium shot, Jack is in foreground Larry’s in the background, Larry’s mad Jack’s sad,’ and then write dialogue. Each panel would be described that way. We wrote it ‘Marvel style’ because Nate had just won Graphic Novel of the Year Eisner, the year prior. I wasn’t going to tell this auteur how to illustrate our book. I think as a result the book is a lot more organic and, and has a much better storytelling vision.

"For example, that page prior, that short paragraph just describes Houston Texas, so Nate chose to have a shot of Sharpstown from way above and then kind of zoom in from a silhouette fashion onto the first piece of dialogue, which is my character playing in the backyard. Normally a comic or a graphic novel might have a writer, an editor, a penciller, an inker, and colorist, and letterer. It’s a pretty large team, six or seven people. There were just three of us and Nate does his own lettering. He was actually nominated for an Eisner for lettering the year he won for graphic novel. As a result you can see that Nate took into account were his bubbles would go in each panel.

"That’s markedly different from the way an artist normally works, were he just draws his panel and then the letterer has to decide where the bubbles going to go. So it has a really organic feel where dialogue moves sometimes cross panel or he uses a lyrical sense of lettering to accentuate the emotion. I also felt like when we first got pages from Nate that the Eisner had really given him a deeper sense of confidence. Like, one thing I love about Nate is he really takes chances as an artist. If you think about it if you’re a writer you kind of what to show off how smart you are and clever by what your characters say. The same is true with an artist, an artist is dying for somebody to say something like, ‘And then 10,000 bicycles came around a corner,’ so he can kind of show off how he can draw 10,000 bicycles. So doing the exact opposite of that, just silhouetting and showing no detail just to me shows an incredible sense of confidence and the book really benefits from it I think. For the cover we wanted something really iconic and we went through several permutations of concepts ‘til we settled in on the idea that the book was really about Larry and Jack.”

“And he’s produced this really great piece were they’re both responding to something emotionally off panel and it leaves this question in your mind, ‘What’s going on? What are they looking at? And who are these two characters?” For me it begins together what a genius Nate is and how fortunate we are to have our manuscript in his hands. So we’re on a three week book tour and you’re one of three cities I’m visiting. I’m visiting DC next and one thing I like about graphic novels is just the change to talk to readers. Normally as a video game designer I work, I’ve been secret two years on a game. As it ramps to come out I only talk to reviewers or editors and maybe a friend or two tells me they played my game and they thought it was OK.  Just ZERO ego gratification.”

[Laughs]

“So, one of the things I’m really drawn to in graphic novels is a more profound exchange with the people that are reading the book and we get a chance to talk about what each one of us thought, like why I did something or what could have been done better. That’s my spew.”

DT: “I’d really like to know how you got together with these two and actually start the creation of this graphic novel.”

ML: “Well, Jim Demonakos lives in Seattle and he’s just kind of the penultimate comic nerd. He owns four comic shops, he runs Emerald City Comic Con, which is the biggest con in the northwest. He’s also in a nerd-core band called Kirby Krackle and he writes songs about comic super heroes. And so he’s just an all-around awesome comic dude and as a collaborator, an editor, or somebody that could guide me through my first book. And then Nate, we went after Nate very deliberately. We were both blown away by Swallow Me Whole, before he had won the award. And Nate grew up in Arkansas and so he knew about the south and also his books have a political bent to them and so we were all of the same mind set. It was a fantastic collaboration.”

DT: “Since you as a child, I assume, mostly got the perspective from your white family, how did you manage getting the side of the black family? Who did you ask, or were some things assumed?”

ML: “Well, that’s a really good question. There’s very little in the book that’s fictionalized, it’s almost entirely from memory. And it came to that point in the story where I’d outline thing and realize, ‘Oh shit. Now I have to write about the Thomas family.’ I don’t know what it’s like to be a black family in the 3rd ward. I mean we visited them a number of times and I played with those kids, but that’s all I know. And then I realized this truism of writing where you write what? So I just transposed my own experience onto them. It didn’t matter if they were black or white, right? It was about dramatic interest and so all the things you see happening to their family was something I witnessed.”

DT: “Though this is Powell’s field, I’m curious rather the characters designs were based on the actually people or not.”

ML: “Yeah, I provided Nate with a lot of reference and you’ll notice though that the character of my father is blonde. We did that so that it was easy to tell the difference between Larry and my father in a little bit smaller panel. But I gave him a lot of reference, including the rodeo and picture of our home to work from.”

The Silence of Our Friendsis availible now in fine comics stores everywhere, with signed copies avalible at Guzu Gallery and Domy Books.