THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos with art by Nate Powell
First Second's THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS puts names and faces to the Civil Rights Movement, powerfully giving voice to two young families in the wake of the TSU riots. Writers Mark Long and Jim Demonakos and artist Nate Powell humanize the movement with clear voices and nuanced characters.
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This April marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights leader famously said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Borrowing from these lines, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos gives readers a glimpse of the Civil Rights Movement. First Second’s reprint of the semi-autobiographical work tells the story of Mark Long’s family in Houston, Texas, in 1967-1968 and their friendship with activist Larry Thompson and his young family. Nate Powell’s artwork, in symbolic greyscale, sets the tone as the two families navigate life in a city plagued by racism. Despite the 50 year gap between now and the events it portrays, the comic resonates. The powerful comic explores many elements of the Civil Rights Era, underscoring the importance of taking direct action against injustice.

Image courtesy of First Second.

The Long and Thompson families’ intertwining stories are set to the backdrop of events including the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Specifically, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS depicts the historically black university, Texas Southern University, as the center of protest when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was banned from campus. Following a peaceful protest of mainly black students, predominantly white police brutally mobbed the protesters and arrested nearly 500 students. Five students, who came to be known as the TSU Five, were accused of killing a police officer in the “riot.”

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Depicting a Moment that Defined an Era

Many events define the Civil Rights Era. Interestingly, Long and Demonakos open the comic on an image of the Vietnam war rather than the racial tensions in Houston. After watching the execution of a Vietcong soldier on TV, the young Mark fears he will be drafted and sent to his death. The comic brilliantly draws attention to the fact that the Vietnam war was a household focus. Moreover, Long and Demonakos skillfully demonstrate that the hypocrisy of violence in Vietnam in the name of democracy made inequalities in America all the more egregious. Indeed, the Civil Rights movement saw the links between militarism, economic oppression, and even environmental injustice, that tie into racism. The comic subtly keeps this and other betrayals of American democracy in mind as it moves forward.

Image courtesy of First Second.

The rest of the comic is dedicated to Mark’s father, Jack Long, and Larry Thompson’s experiences in the aftermath of the TSU arrests. By focusing on the events at TSU, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS demonstrates the presence of the Civil Rights Movement in the daily lives of Americans in the 1960s and tells an important story about Houston’s past. Regardless of your location or history, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS is a striking piece.

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THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS is all the more poignant thanks to Nate Powell’s masterful illustrations. Powell skillfully weaves together images of family life, protest, and war to draw attention to critical themes in the comic. Powell’s work is not in plain black-and-white. He instead emphasizes grays, especially in scenes involving televised news. As a result, readers are required to leave black-and-white reasoning behind. Additionally, Powell captures differences in perspective to great effect. In some instances, the frames extend the children’s perspectives, emphasizing their impressions. Indeed, many scenes show Jack and Larry from below, which suits the narrative. Figuratively and visually, readers will look up at the two men.

Powell manages to capture both the chaos and the hope of the events in Houston. He accomplishes this by emphasizing different-sized frames and speech bubbles. Many of the more hateful speech layers on top of more hopeful words. Sometimes the comic feels frenetic. However, this only adds to the reader’s experience. Powell carefully brings songs and speeches into the comic’s pages, allowing them to wrap around the protesters and the families to lift them and their purpose up.

Image courtesy of First Second.

Men of Conscience: Heroes of the Movement

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS carefully depicts the relationship between the Long and Thompson families as the two men build their trust. Interestingly, Jack and Larry embody key elements of Civil Rights: the press and education. Jack is a reporter whose testimony becomes significant to the TSU prosecution. Larry is an educator and advocate. Long and Demonakos combine the men’s ethics, conscience, and their professions to highlight key aspects of a just society. Thematically, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS outlines democratic values and the justice movement.

Additionally, Long, Demonakos, and Powell hint at other social justice issues. For example, one of Mark’s sisters is blind. Her experience of the world adds an interesting question about accessibility, education, and inclusiveness. Moreover, there are several hints towards women’s empowerment. The Long and Thompson mothers and daughters play active roles in fighting for justice, despite social barriers.

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The focus on the two men and their families humanizes the movement, which had many heroes from Dr. King and Rosa Parks to all of the freedom riders and protesters. The Civil Rights movement remains a key point in American history. Not only did it tie together peaceful protest, anti-Vietnam War activism, and even environmentalist efforts, it taught America the power of organized political activity. Despite the title, THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS acknowledges the ways in which the Long and Thompson families were not silent.

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS is an important comic in terms of historical depictions. However, many of the issues it portrays are still significant today. Especially in the current political climate, police violence against people of color, growing threats from hate groups, and economic oppression of black communities are still critical issues. In this sense, the reprint of  THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS could not have come at a more critical time in American culture.

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS is available here.

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