In Gary's Violent Spring (1994), P.I. Ivan Monk, working in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, must unravel layers of racism to solve the murder of a Korean merchant. The Warlord of Willow Ridge ( 2012) depicts a city where neighborhoods are destroyed by the greed of the housing financial crisis. The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir (2017), an Anthony Award-winning anthology that Gary edited, treats the zany right-wing conspiracy theories flung at the Obama presidency as if they were real, often with comic results. His latest graphic novel is no different. Gary (along with artist Dale Berry) goes back to 1955 to shine a light on the social ills of today in The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), a wildly successful mixture of jazz, comics and civil rights.
|The Be-Bop Barbarians|
Pegasus Books, 2019
When Ollie, a decorated Korean War vet, is beaten by a white police officer, Harlem's community leaders (and their Communist counterparts) use the incident to ignite a burgeoning battle for civil rights. As racial tensions escalate, our three heroes face life-altering decisions as they get swept up in Harlem's fight for justice. The Be-Bop Barbarians is an engulfing page turner, and Gary deftly brings to life the personal struggles of his comic book warriors as they navigate the rising tides of change.
|Kukla, Ollie and Fran welcome you|
to the 1950s.
The Be-Bop Barbarians takes place right in the middle of a decade often seen as history hitting the snooze alarm. In other words, an innocuous bore. World War II was over and the '60's Counter Culture was still in its pajamas eating Sugar Jets cereal and watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie. In reality, much was bubbling under the surface of the Happy Days decade that would change everything. Jazz, comics, and the fight for civil rights, all so important to The Be-Bop Barbarians, were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions that continue to ripple right down to the present day. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.
Bebop turned jazz on its head, making the Big Bands of the previous decades look like clumsy dinosaurs. Charlie Parker died in 1955, just as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take the lessons they learned from Yardbird and eclipse him.
|The Avengers, straight outta |
the Silver Age. Ever hear of them?
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
|Rosa Parks, on the day buses in |
Montgomery were integrated in 1956.
The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. I was excited by it, and when I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now. I couldn't wait to talk to Gary about it.
Lawrence Maddox: Gary, what inspired you to write about Harlem in 1955?
|Cartoonist Jackie Ormes, holding|
a doll based on her cartoon
|Zoot Suit ('81), starring|
Edward James Olmos, deals with
the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
GP: Not particularly. She's an amalgam of different people. There's a little bit of the real life Alice McGrath, the woman who helped the defense in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. That was a famous case here in LA in the '40s in which some young Chicano Zoot Suiters got railroaded for a murder that happened in Sleepy Lagoon, which was in East LA. Alice was in the Communist Party, and she was also a lawyer. Her and people like Dorothy Healey are the inspiration for Millie.
LM: You go into detail on the how the leaders of the black community use Ollie's beating to gain greater reforms. Are you pointing to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that happens at the end of the year?
|Adam Clayton Powell Jr|
It is important that our story takes place when the civil rights movement is starting to ramp up. It's starting to coalesce and things are starting to happen. It's not as if the folks in Harlem or elsewhere in New York had just been sitting on their thumbs. As any good community organizer knows, you had an incident like what happened with Ollie, when he's beat by the cop, it's only natural that you'd try to use it to highlight important issues. Ollie himself is seduced into it as well, and then tries to move forward on fairer hiring in places like department stores or police stations that were located in the black communities.
LM: Barbarians has cameos from Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ditko cracked me up. Care to elaborate?
The Amazing Spider-Man!
The Maddox Archives
|Steve Ditko's Mr. A|
I guess really the more pure expression of that thought from Ditko is the character he created at Charlton Comics, The Question, who had no face. But even The Question was kind of a crime fighter so it is always interesting that Ditko tried to meld Objectivism with the notion of being a superhero. That becomes even purer when he does the Mr. A character. He did several of those strips that were more for fanzines, after he more or less left formal comics. Ditko remains a very interesting character to me, in the sense that on one hand, he was a big believer in that stuff, but then on the other hand some people say he was getting checks for Spider-Man and squirreling them away in his little rent-controlled apartment in Midtown.
In Part 2 of Gary's interview, read about JFK's push for a black astronaut, Nipsy Hussle conspiracies, and Gary's work on the FX crime drama Snowfall. Drops Friday, May 31, only here at Sleuthsayers.
Gary has edited many anthologies, including the aforementioned Anthony-winner The Obama Inheritance. I was fortunate to have stories in Gary's anthologies Orange County Noir (Akashic), and 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback (Moonstone), which Gary edited with Robert J, Randisi.
I'm honored my stories passed through his hands before hitting print.