Best known for his groundbreaking documentary Afro-Punk, filmmaker and now comics artist James Spooner’s new graphic memoir, The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere., revisits the film’s examination of Black identity within the overwhelmingly white subculture of punk music in the 1980s and 1990s. The book will be published by Harper in May.
Spooner’s 2003 film illuminated the life experiences of a series of Black punk rockers and spurred the launch of the Afropunk Festival, a global concert series and cultural awakening for Black people who identify with the Eurocentric punk movement. In his new book, Spooner revisits his teenage years In Apple Valley, Calif., a poor and working-class mostly white suburban town near the Mojave desert. It’s the story of a biracial child of divorced interracial parents—a white mother who raised him, and a distant Black father, a champion body-builder, living in New York City—and vividly captures the impact on young Spooner of the anti-authority music and ethos of punk counter-culture in both its racist and anti-racist forms.
PW Talked with Spooner about his relationships with his mother and father, and the complex domestic trauma around teenage social alienation—the book also captures Spooner’s often funny frustrations around the seemingly unattainable girls of his teen imagination—and about complex relations with Black and white classmates in a high school punk music scene rife with white power anthems and violent wannabe neo-Nazis.
Publishers Weekly: The High Desert has a truly epic feel in terms of length and scope. What went into the decision to translate your life story into graphic novel form?
Spooner: The idea from the beginning was for it to be a graphic novel. My girlfriend heard my story and thought it would make a great graphic novel. I had been reading graphic novels like, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Charles Burn’s Black Hole and John Lewis’s graphic memoir March.
What can you tell us about the book’s African American characters from school and later in New York City. Which aspects of those relationships were real and which might have been embellished?
There was a very real dynamic among those four characters. Troy (a post-NWA gang-banging high school peer) looked out for me and saved me from getting beat up several times. I never understood why. Ty, introduced me to punk and simply by existing as a Black punk validated my experience and let me know it was ok. He is one of the most important figures from my childhood.
Brandy... she was a Black girl who I probably should have noticed when we were in elementary school but I was enamored by the blonde so cal beach type and had a crush on her friend instead. It’s something I’ve talked to her about since. Seven, is a guy who makes it into every story of my teen years because much like Ty he showed me that its okay to be Black and Punk but more important than that Seven, showed me how to Balance my Blackness with my Punk Identity without sacrifice. More than validating when we became friends I saw being Black as an asset. I was proud of the Black Punk legacy.
Your book is focused on the white-dominated realm of punk music. Can other marginalized people find kinship in this musical form?
There can be a kinship between Blacks regardless of the subculture. It’s very easy to find common ground. Black folks struggle with the monolithic identity that is pressed upon us. Prior to Afro-Punk there were efforts like Black Rock Coalition and Rock Against Racism (forged in the U.K. in 1976). BRC was broad…My film crystallized an experience. I didn’t do (the film) with the idea of creating an identity.
Do you think the wider recognition of "white privilege" has made the cultural landscape any different for teens of color today who may be in a similarly isolated social environment?
I think there are a couple of things. The ability to find community online. Representation…it’s not hard to find Black people who have been a part of legendary bands. It took me 20 years to find out that the Poly Styrene, leader of the U.K. punk band X-Ray Specs was Black. The language of being able to talk about white privilege, and intersectionality may have been something we were living but there was no intelligent discussion around ableism, transphobia, etc. Optimistically, I say things are getting better.
I have a 12 year-old. She is also mixed race (her mom is mixed too) but she identifies as Black. She has just begun sorting out her feelings around her racial identity. She hasn’t felt any negativity from white kids in a number of years but she did tell me more than one Black student has told her ‘I never seen a Black emo kid before.’ Doesn’t sound as bad as I had it but I wasn’t thinking about race at all when I was her age. So it’s anyone’s guess.
Did you make your feelings and observations on your upbringing known to your family in such detail before this memoir?
I had a conversation with my dad in my 20s and learned that I had to meet him on his own terms. As for my Mom, I had a strong identity crisis that led to conversations about being raised in an environment without a dynamic Black community. When it came time to share the book with her she appreciated the balanced perspective in it.
What were your biggest challenges in writing and drawing High Desert?
It was a learning experience. I had no experience in sequential art storytelling. My girlfriend was a literature major and she challenged me to amplify the story. I created thumbnails to get the pacing. I sought real people, shot their faces and drew off of that. There is a version of the book that is only photographs. We had thousands of faces. My partner would say ‘that is wrong for this scene or that is the wrong expression for what just happened.’
What’s you next project?
I’m currently writing a book that is mostly prose. It’s about one-fourth comic and three-fourths prose. It will pick up in New York City where I’m learning the elements of the DIY punk scene. It spans my life from ages 15 to 30 from when I moved to New York City until 2008 when I left the Afro-Punk Festival [which Spooner founded in Brooklyn in 2003]. There is no publisher attached, we are working on the proposal, but hey maybe this article will get some interest! Be sure to list my agent PJ Mark at Janklow Nesbit!
Correction: an earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that Spooner attended film school. He did not attend film school.