The Silence of Our Friends, a graphic novel released last month by First Second, details the experiences of Mark Long, his family and family friends during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Written by Long and Jim Demonakos with art by Eisner-winner Nate Powell, the book has already found success, reaching #6 on the New York Times Graphic Books Bestsellers list.
“I’d produced a graphic novel years earlier with my friend Nick Sagan called Shrapnel,” Long said, of the book’s origin “I decided I wanted to do another graphic novel, but I wanted it to be a personal expression. I really like the cinematic elements of the graphic novel. You can make a sense of mood when you turn the page.”
In the story, Long’s family, which is white, moves to a racist neighborhood in Houston. Long’s father is a television reporter who is sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement and befriends Larry Thomas, an African American activist. The graphic novel goes back and forth between the lives of the Long family and the Thomas family, leading up to a trial after African Americans are being falsely accused of murdering a white officer during a riot. Long’s father was witness to the death and knows what really happened. In the midst of this, Long himself is a child who is seeing but not yet fully understanding the ramifications of what’s going on around him.
Long, who is a video game designer and producer, made some changes to the story, but not many. “Mostly what we did was condense to tell the story better,” he said. “For example, the trial happened two years after the riot and after Martin Luther King was killed. My father was never called to the witness stand, although he was sole witness to the murder.”
One real change he made was making his sister blind in the story. “She was created as a dramatic device. We didn’t want the white family being the cliché transposing figures that help the black family achieve something greater. By having the disabled daughter, I thought that would kind of explain subconsciously their acceptance to difference.” He also views this device as a homage to Southern Gothic literature.
Writing this book was an intensely personal experience. “As my father was dying, we spent more time talking about our past,” he said. “I was really impressed by that generation that stood up when real physical violence was possible. You could get killed for doing what they were doing. When my father got older, his interest in equality shifted to sexual equality. He was an old, white straight man and he was in charge of the gay pride float at his church.”
First Second editor Calista Brill credited the book's success to the authors’ hard work to promote the book and publishing it during Black History Month. “In the past month, they’ve done over 35 events in five different cities around the U.S.,” she said. She emphasized that “I think a lot of the book’s success can be directly tied to how powerfully it taps into the American Civil Rights narrative, without being another treatment of the usual, well-known figures. The Silence of Our Friends has the advantage of telling a story that hasn’t really been told before in this context.”
Long is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to reach Larry Thomas. Besides being an important character in the story, he was a dedicated activist who laid his life on the line. “I just can’t find any trace of him and I’d be really happy to share the book with him,” he said.
One thing Long wanted to portray in the graphic novel was how banal racism could be. Children are seen in the book saying racial slurs, not because of any great hatred, but because they’re repeating what they’ve heard other people say. “When I look at the genre, racist whites are always portrayed as the fat, tobacco-chewing sheriff. They’re practically Nazis, right?” He wanted to show another side to racism.
Though it’s Long’s story, he hooked up with Jim Demonakos, to help him write it. Demonakos is a busy figure in comics who runs the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle and also fronts the nerdcore band Kirby Crackle. Nate Powell, who won an Eisner award for his graphic novel Swallow me Whole, came onboard to illustrate. “When I first outlined the book, I realized I had a collection of anecdotes,” Long said. “It didn’t have an arc. The book didn’t even have a viewpoint until Jim agreed to coauthor with me. We bounced the book back and forth and he fixed all that.”
It was also Demonakos who came up with the title, which is from a Martin Luther King quote: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
While King is never personally a character in the graphic novel, his importance can be felt throughout.
“Even though I was young, I very distinctly remember seeing Martin Luther King on television and listening to adults talk about King,” Long said. “When he was assassinated, the adults around me—except for racist whites—agreed with what SNCC and King were trying to do. It was like Americans finally came together on the issue. They’d killed this apostle of nonviolence and it’s incumbent upon all of us to take up that standard. To many young people, King is a historical figure; he’s not a real figure anymore. I thought it would be an interesting story to tell as a witness to it. I wanted a small sub-chapter in the great Civil Rights Movement to be told and not get lost.”