Comic Solutions

Book review–“The Silence of Our Friends”

The Silence of Our Friends
First Second
January 2012
Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell

Every so often a book will come along that will challenge you, that will make you think, and that will hopefully leave you a bit better after you’ve read it.  And this is just one such book.  And yes some people are probably thinking that’s high praise for a graphic novel, but the story will give you chills within the first three pages and suck you in and not let you go until the very end of the story.

It’s 1968 in Houston, Texas and the fight for civil rights is heating up.  Young Mark Long’s father, Jack Long, is the local TV station’s race reporter and he’s embedded into the third ward, one of the poorest parts of the town.  Jack is attempting to cover the events occurring in town, such as the expulsion of the the SNCC (student nonviolent coordinating committee) from Texas State University, and do justice to the people that he’s covering.  He’s saved at one event by Larry Thompson, a local black leader, and the two become friends and their lives intertwine.  One white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the burbs and one black family from the poorest ward in Houston, come together and find common ground in a conflict that threatens to tear the city apart.  But before the end it may all come crashing down with the arrest of the TSU five.  Which will be the loudest before the end, the words of hate or the silence of friends?  This semi-autobiographical tale is based upon true events of Mark Long’s father.

One of the problem that I normally see with autobiographical stories, like this one, is that they often try to give the reader to much information about the story and invariably the reader gets lost or there are moment that leave us wondering why we’re supposed to care about the story.  But this book…this book doesn’t have that issue.  The authors have focused the story upon specific events of the race issues affecting the town in a given time period and give you enough information that you understand where the characters are coming from, but it never lets you wander away from what the focus of the story is.  And more importantly you don’t ever feel like you’re missing out on something. 

My favorite part of the storytelling though is how we get to see the story from two different perspectives–a white family from a racist neighborhood and a black family from one of poorest areas of Houston.  Living in many ways on opposite sides of the world and yet we get to see the overlap and the differences between the two families clearly.  And while that may sound like a cheesey way or stereotypical way of telling the story, Mark Long and Jim Demonakos tell the story in such a deft manner that you don’t really see it being told that way.  You see the characters as real people.  You get to understand a bit of what they went through, the troubles that each family faced for the actions they took and didn’t take, and that you want to know them in real life–just so that you could learn more from them.  One last thought about the story–the title of the book comes from a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “In the end, We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  And this book does justice to those words.

Nate Powell’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s done in his typical grace/style of capturing the human form oh so perfectly and it seems like this time he’s gone even further in his use of shading to give us the beauty of all different types of skin tones, each character’s is unqiue.  His artwork is perfectly suited for this story capturing the range and intensity of emotions–the sorrow, the joy, and the fear that sends chills down your spine.  That intensity, that feeling of life that he captures in their faces really makes them come alive.  And the last pages of the books are some of the most powerful of the book.  It seems like a rather basic layout of people walking in the street, with a closeup so that you can see the people’s skin tones–both black and white, and you can see their faces.  But then he starts pulling back and all you can see are forms of people all different sizes, both genders, and all muted gray.  No race and no color to divide them, just one people.

You can’t help but feel moved by this story and you can’t walk away unchanged.  The combination of story and art works perfectly in capturing this event and this time period.  I’m predicting this book will be one of the best graphic novels of the year, perhaps even one of the best books of the year.

A review copy of this book was provided by Gina at FirstSecond

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