Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice

Tommie Smith is the subject of one of the most iconic images from the Civil Rights Era, of two black men holding gloved fists high in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics. In Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice, Smith tells his story behind that moment. The graphic memoir, co-written with Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile gives an account of Smith’s life leading to the Olympics, his choice to make the political statement, and the aftermath.

The book opens with a race, specifically the 200 meter sprint finals.  Despite a sharp pain in his thighs and a whirlwind of thoughts, Smith leaps at the sound of the starter pistol. We then immediately flashback to his childhood, 1949 in Texas. Throughout the next few chapters, Smith flashes back and forth between the story of his childhood and school years in the segregated South with his iconic race at the ‘68 Olympics.

Smith and Barnes juxtapose his pain and resiliency during the race with the harsh realities of living and growing as a Black boy surrounded by racial injustices. His parents were sharecroppers who were hardworking and kind, but treated in a way that was obviously cruel and unfair, even through the eyes of a young Smith. He talks about the ways he perceived these inequities, and the moment when he first came to the understanding that this was all about race. In college, Smith begins to realize that his voice matters. It is with that knowledge that he makes the decision to run in the Olympics and raise his fist to the sky. The last chapter details the trajectory of his life in the aftermath. Unfortunately, it felt rushed and included details that were not relevant to the theme of sports and the Civil Rights Movement. I also wish that the parallels with the 200 meter race and his life extended further into the story. However, these are small imperfections in an otherwise fascinating book from an important voice from history.

Anyabwile’s illustrations in gray, black, and white, are filled with texture, movement and emotion. Throughout the book, the illustrations add depth to the story. Much of the emotion and drama comes through in the backgrounds with textures, shadows or expansive black. Anyabwile also did a notable job capturing Smith’s growth from child to adult, sublely adjusting looks and style as time goes on.

At pivotal moments in Smith’s life, Anyabwile steps away from Smith’s story to illustrate more striking images reflecting the reality for Black people in America. When Smith’s family eventually moves to Southern California in hopes for a better life, the very next page features a haunting two page spread with a mother and her young children screaming in pain. In the background a Black man hangs from a tree next to a burning cross. Other images include references to such events as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and Martin Luther King’s Assassnation. Smith came of age at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, as he was finding himself and his place in the world, these moments and realities helped to shape who he became. Anyabwile deftly illustrates these pages. They are awash with black and expand beyond the panels typical of most pages in the book. These events are monumental and his illustrations reflect their importance.

Victory. Stand!: Raising my Fist for Justice is a notable addition to the graphic memoir genre. It is a definite purchase for my high school collection. Tommie Smith is an important voice from the Civil Rights Movement and I think this book will appeal to a broad range of readers.

Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice
By Tommie Smith and Derrick Barnes
Art by Dawud Anyabwile
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022
ISBN: 9781324003908

Publisher Age Rating: 13 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  African-American, Black,  Character Representation: African-American, Black,

Stitches: A Memoir

Stitches Cover Art
  In Stitches, artist and illustrator David Small tells the story of his early life. Given his whimsical children’s book illustrations, one would expect his childhood to have been similarly idyllic. Unfortunately, this was not the case. His family was dominated by the silent anger emanating from his mother. As he puts it, “Her silent fury was like a black tidal wave.” While his father and brother found their own ways to cope with the strain of her anger, David himself became ill frequently. Over the years, his doctor father subjected him to a variety of treatments in an effort to cure his ailments. One such treatment was regular x-rays. By age 11, David had a growth on his neck. It was not until he was 14 however, that his parents had the growth removed. When it finally was, so was one of his vocal chords, thrusting him into a life of silence and further emotional frustration.

Small tells the story of his family’s dysfunction with captivating subtlety. The simple and monochromatic art style allows the emotions of the characters to take center stage. David’s story is laid out in anecdotes, each one a stitch creating and holding together an emotional wound that is as destructive as his physical one. The brunt of the story is told visually; the narration and dialogue used only to support the story in the art. Small employs a number of subtle—and not so subtle—visual techniques to wordlessly convey his feelings about the people of his childhood and the circumstances in which he lived. In one scene, his grandmother’s dentures lay on the table, the exposed canine menacingly elongated and her claw-like fingernail resting nearby. As a teenager, David imagines the growth on his neck contains a frightening creature, just as the wound of his life contains a hateful secret.

Given the gravity of the content, it is more appropriate for ages fourteen and up. Adults and older teens will be more likely to appreciate the subtleties and multi-layers of meaning than younger readers. There are a few things that, while dealt with tactfully, may cause cautious parents to object (and for which some young teen readers may not be mature enough). One is an instance of (very roughly drawn) parts of the naked human anatomy. Others are the use of homosexual insults (by playground bullies) and an adulterous homosexual affair. There are also instances of attempted suicide and murder. Stitches would be an excellent adult book club selection. The complexity of the story and Small’s portrayal of his experiences will provide readers with hours of discussion.

Stitches: A Memoir
by David Small
ISBN: 9780393068573
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

forget-sorrow-coverForget Sorrow is a story that will let you do anything but. The title a translation of Belle Yang’s given name, Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale tells the Yang family story throughout different time periods. The structure of the book is built on Yang’s own difficulties. Homebound while a dogged ex-boyfriend stalks her, Yang busied herself with learning more about her family’s past. The narrative bounces around from tales of the trials of 1940s China to the modern difficulties of avoiding Rotten Egg, the stalker. Interspersed are some legends and anecdotes of Yang’s own trips to China.

While many stories are shared, the crux of the book lies with the father’s reminiscing of growing up in China. The drama within that story plays out between the patriarch of the family, Yang’s Great-Grandfather, her Grandfather, and her three Great Uncles, referred to as Second Brother, Third Brother, and Fourth Brother. As the child of the important Eldest Brother, Yang’s father had a front row seat to all of the falling outs within the family. As hard as it is to relate all of the family members in a review, (because there are aunts and mothers and cousins, and neighbors who are being left out), this is a confusion that does not pervade the reading. All of the family is distinct, if not in dialogue then by appearance.

No one is stuffed into the narrative without reason. Though the cast is large, they all have important parts to play. Especially for an American audience, how family is treated in 1930s-1950s China will seem eccentric. The dynamics of the family are allied to a powerful political formation. However, all of the candidates are in position for life, and you have to live together indefinitely. Your rights are determined by your patriarch, which causes great grief among the Brothers and their families. Since they are regarded differently in the eyes of their parents, the four brothers can appeal for different favors with varying results. One such appeal, that the irresponsible Third Brother take over the family farm in a time of war, drives a deep wedge in the family.

Family strife and internal struggles would be enough for any story, but Forget Sorrow relates the Yang clan’s story through a particularly harrowing period of Chinese History. The reason the family comes together in the first place is the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. This precursor to world war drives the family members that lived across China back to the family home. War and mismanagement of the family farm would see the Yang family through a tumultuous period were they first feared death by enemies abroad, then, when their supplies ran low, feared starvation. Yang’s own father has a trying ordeal simply attempting to become a student. Leaving home, fording rivers, being imprisoned, threatened, and at one point, homeless, were all part of his journey to a university.

Undoubtedly, the story of the Yang clan is riveting. Fortunately, Belle Yang has the ability to relate the family history with utmost skill. Trained as an artist, Yang knows her way around a brush. The story is all in black and white, with a simplistic look that echoes historic Chinese brushwork. Updating the style, Yang delivers a nice middle ground of strong inking with great cartooning. You’re never confused about how a character feels or how to read the story. What’s most fascinating are how sparse lines can transmit exactly what Yang wants us to see. A character may only be made of a few brush strokes, but the intimation of what the character wears and how they feel is captured. Similarly, the great variety that rural to urban China presents is captured succinctly. It’s shorthand that takes years to master, and Yang performs beautifully.

Condensed, Forget Sorrow may seem like an impenetrable read for a western audience. However, the Yang’s story, while spanning centuries, is tied together with all of the frustrations and joys that every family experiences. Told from a continent away, through a completely different history, Yang has woven and intimately relatable tale.

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale
by Belle Yang
ISBN: 978-039333996
W. W. Norton & Company, 2011

The Influencing Machine

infmachineThere’s supposedly an old Chinese curse that states “May you live in interesting times.” If that’s the case then Brooke Gladstone, author of The Influencing Machine, would not only most likely be happy, but be able to tell us all about it. The long time host of NPR’s On the Media, Gladstone has now put her fascinating thoughts and theories about the changing nature of our media landscape into a graphic novel manifesto, ably aided by artist Josh Neufeld.

Gladstone sets the bar high, tackling concepts that are not only difficult, but often hard to put in a graphic context. So she can be forgiven for at times foregoing a full graphic treatment, and giving us a page or two of typeset prose as she explores ideas more fully. But along the way, she and Neufeld are able to pull off their hard task: Not only giving us a look into the history of how we get our news, but a better idea of the concerns and issues that any reporter worth their salt has to understand in order to report that news to us.

Throughout the book we are guided by Gladstone herself, or at least her image in the straightforward manner chosen by Neufeld. As Gladstone acknowledges in her afterword, the style of the book is heavily influenced by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So it’s a cartoon avatar of Gladstone that helps us navigate through issues such as media bias, objectivity, disclosure, reporting during war times, and how journalists themselves are viewed by the public.

The answers Gladstone comes up with are often surprising, and refreshingly she often admits that she doesn’t have all of them. But each point she makes is extensively researched. The topics she chooses and the people she quotes, with references as varied as Dante and Rush Limbaugh, keep us entertained along the way. For instance on the subject of bias, the typical dichotomy of liberal versus conservative is given short shrift. Gladstone doesn’t say it doesn’t exist (even as she admittedly ducks her own bias), but that it’s not the important question. Instead, she illustrates other biases the media and audience should be more aware of, like commercial, bad news, status quo, access, visual, narrative, and fairness biases.

Large sections of the book deal with war reporting, and the subject of objectivity. The history of reporting during wars is fascinating, as well as the various ways people in positions in power learn to spin, suppress, and otherwise affect the news of their day. Likewise Gladstone shows how our concept of objective reporting has changed through the last century. She then ends with an interesting foray into how our own psychology influences how we take in the news that’s reported. She also suggests some interesting possibilities of what we have to look forward to as we increasingly are able to do a Google search to find the exact news we want.

Every step of the way, Gladstone’s flights of fancy as well as her depictions of real events and people are aided by the pen work of Josh Neufeld. The art is two-color, essentially black and white with a cool blue used for variety, tone, and contrast. Gladstone is drawn in a simplified, iconic manner, letting Neufeld stretch his artistic muscles in other places as he humorously gives us riffs on works by William Hogarth, Civil War newspaper illustrators, and Henri Matisse. There are also a plethora of caricatures of both historical and current media, political, and academic figures which rarely strike a false note. It’s an impressive juggling act and one can only imagine the discussions between author and illustrator as the book took shape. Neufeld deserves high praise for being able to draw seemingly any scene and make it coherent, boiling down the contents to a few concise lines of ink.

Overall, The Influencing Machine provides substantial food for thought, and is perfect for the adult graphic novel or nonfiction shelves. When we all too often blame the media for sensationalizing the news or reporting from an obvious bias, Gladstone is able to peel back the curtain and show us the reasons behind the news stories that irritate us. She frankly admits that sometimes journalists could to better, but also that we ourselves are the ones that make them what they are.

The Influencing Machine
by Brooke Gladstone
Art by Josh Neufeld
ISBN: 9780393077797
W. W. Norton & Co., 2011
Publisher Age Rating: (Adult)

Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood

There’s a general perception, somehow, that small town life holds the key to community in this country. That’s where you find the tales of ancestors past, traditions passed from generation to generation, and intimate knowledge of everyone and everything worth knowing. Will Eisner, known as one of the greats of comic art, is also a confirmed city-dweller, specifically New York and all its distinctive burroughs, histories, and neighborhoods. With Dropsie Avenue, he tells us in no uncertain terms that small town America has nothing on one street in New York. All of the petty differences, new ideas, and old traditions mix on the Avenue, forcing some old timers to leave in disgust just as new residents arrive with new hope. Taking us all the way from Colonial New Amsterdam to today’s suburbanite glory, this epic story elegantly proves that old adage, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood
ISBN: 9780393328110
by Will Eisner
W. W. Norton & Company 2006 (new edition)