Showing posts with label Montgomery Bus Boycott. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Montgomery Bus Boycott. Show all posts

10 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 1: The Be-Bop Barbarians

by Lawrence Maddox
Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' crime novels (or short stories, anthologies, comics, or in this case, graphic novels–he really does it all) not only deal with with laws broken, but also with a broken social order where racism and corporate greed run amok.

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

The Be-Bop Barbarians opens on a jazz-feuled party raging deep into the Harlem night. We meet African American comic artists Ollie Jefferson, Stef Rawls and Cliff Murphy, three friends who lean on each other as they battle racism in their careers. Gary notes in his introduction that these three are inspired by real cartoonists from the same era.

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.
Comic books were entering what collectors call the Silver Age. Marvel's stable of heroes, such as Spider-Man and The Avengers, created by innovators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, would soon revolutionize the medium in a big way. Comic characters would be more human, grapple with real-world problems, and be more representative of minority communities.

Rosa Parks, on the day buses in
Montgomery were integrated in 1956. 
The events in The Be-Bop Barbarians point directly at the civil rights campaign that would occur at the end of 1955 when Rosa Parks would refuse to give her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would ensue, led by, among others, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow Laws would be declared unconstitutional a year later. The Be-Bop Barbarians puts you right there at the beginning, when so much was at stake.

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
character Patty-Jo
Gary Phillips: I have a fascination with history and the idea that there are unsung stories that have not been chronicled. In this case, the three characters in the story are inspired by real life black cartoonists who serve as the models for them. Stef is inspired by Jackie Ormes, who was the first black woman to have her own comic strip, which ran in the Pittsburgh Courier and several other black newspapers as well. Cliff is loosely inspired by Matt Baker, who was one of the first black artists working in comic books. He died young, I think he had a heart condition. Ollie is based on the real life Ollie Harrington, who was kind of a radical cat, who officially left the United States and lived in East Germany.

Zoot Suit ('81), starring
Edward James Olmos, deals with
the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
LM: I really like your Millie Hanks character, the African American lawyer who takes on Ollie's case and acts as a go-between for the black community leaders and the communists. Is she also based on a real person?

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
GP: In '41 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,  who was a congressman who represented Harlem, led a week-long bus boycott that was about hiring black drivers and mechanics to work on the bus lines. I allude to this in the book. That resulted in more hiring of black folk in those jobs for the city of New York. That boycott preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was about equal rights and not having to sit in the back of the bus. There had been other kinds of actions before Montgomery.

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?

Ditko-drawn
The Amazing Spider-Man!
The Maddox Archives
Ditko was a big Ayn Rand fan. She's all about elevating the individual and foregoing altruism,  and apparently you see some of that in the early Spider-Man. Ditko must have had some conflicting ideas about that, though. As we know, one of the things that propels Peter Parker to become Spider-Man and use his abilities in an altruistic way, is he's driven by this fantastic guilt. In the beginning when he's trying to make money with his new powers, Parker lets this robber go by him and that robber then kills his Uncle Ben. The phrase that Stan Lee came up with was "With great power comes great responsibility."  He had shirked his responsibility and now he's responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle. This is what sends him to chase the robber down and propels him to become Spider-Man. Maybe that is akin to Ayn Ran but I'm not really a fan of her stuff so who the hell knows.
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.