Showing posts with label Rosa Parks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rosa Parks. Show all posts

31 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 2: The Be-Bop Barbarians and Beyond


by Lawrence Maddox

In Gary Phillips' graphic novel The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), three African American comic book artists, struggling to make it in the face of daunting racism, are caught up in 1955's burgeoning civil rights movement.  It takes place in Harlem, and happens at the moment when comics, jazz, and the civil rights movement were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. 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.

In Part 1, I got to talk with Gary about some of the historical elements that influenced The Be-Bop Barbarians. These included the civil rights campaign that was ignited by Rosa Parks at the end of 1955; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial; and the real-life artists who were the inspiration for his three main characters. But wait, there's more!

Lawrence Maddox: Last year you won an Anthony for The Obama Inheritance, which riffs on right-wing conspiracy theories and treats them as if they were true. I feel the '50s, the era of The Be-Bop Barbarians, had its share of conspiracy theories too. Any connection between The Obama InheritanceThe Be-Bop Barbarians, and how conspiracy theories are used to manipulate public opinion?

Gary Phillips: We've always had those who have been able to pull the wool over people's eyes and play into their audience's weird fears and night sweats, whether it's Alex Jones, or The Amazing Criswell, who was in Plan 9 from Outer Space. People are entertained by them, but some can get sucked in.

Soundtrack Beat Battle Judging Panel March2011 (cropped).jpg
Nipsey Hussle in 2011
Just recently, there was this conspiracy around Nipsey Hussle and Dr. Sebi. [NOTE: Dr Sebi was a Honduran herbalist whose remedies were said to be a challenge to the medical establishment. He died in police custody.]  The rumor is that Nipsey was murdered because he was planning this documentary about Dr, Sebi, and big pharma took him out. These things always persist. Are there truths to them? I just worked on this show [Snowfall on FX] that purports that the CIA helped bring cocaine into South Central in the '80s. Do I believe it? Well actually I do believe it, but there are others that say it didn't happen.

LM: When your graphic novel Big Water (2013) came out, I reviewed it for All Due Respect Magazine.  This is my second crack at one of your graphic novels.  Any connections you'd care to draw between Big Water and The Be-Bop Barbarians?

GP: Both of them, in various ways, deal with some parts of the socio-political landscape.  Big Water is about the fight, in a fictional municipality, to keep the water a public right as opposed to allowing the water rights to be sold to a private company. It was also about community organizing; it was about people coming together to work for a common cause.  Certainly we can see some of that in The Be-Bop Barbarians. That hearkens back to my days as a community organizer. Invariably my experience as a community organizer will show up in some form in my work. Not in all my work, but time and again it's a part of what I write about. For me it's still a fascination to place that world in the context of crime fiction. It's something I always come back to. It's the stuff I dig, it's the stuff I watch, read. Not exclusively, but it's the thing I always gravitate to. I guess I try to figure out ways to overlap those two worlds as seamlessly as possible.

LM: In your work you often have heroes, or antiheroes, that are destroyed by forces that are much larger than them. I'm thinking of Zelmont Raines in The Jook (1999).

GP: (Laughs) He's also done in by his lack of impulse control.

LM: Other examples are Deke Kotto and Tim Brady from Cowboys (2011). 

GP: For sure.

LM: Sometimes you've got heroes like O'Connor from Warlord of Willow Ridge (2012) who are able to make a difference and overcome these dark and powerful forces. 

GP: There you go,  but only in incremental ways, right? Only these little tiny victories.

LM: Can one person make a difference?

GP:Yes. The true heroic answer, Larry, is yes, one person can make a difference. They have to. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Delores Huerta, yes.  Absolutely. But as we also know, no matter how much will and drive one has, which no doubt is important, which no doubt sets a certain standard for people to rally around, in the end it is about people working together and making these things happen.

I do believe that certain things happen because an individual steps out, or something happens to that individual, but then other things start to work together to make bigger things happen. So even if we talk about Rosa Parks that evening not going to sit in the back of the bus, she was actually not the first black woman to do that. The difference was she was a part of a bigger thing, the NAACP.  She'd already gone to non-violence training school. She was already part of something. This incident became the thing, like Ollie in the book became the thing that could advance some tougher work. It shows you have to have these mechanisms in place so that when something like that does happen, you're ready to act. You're ready to move.

LM: You've got a lot going on this year besides The Be-Bop Barbarians. Let's talk about the The Movie Makers.

GP: It's out now. Down & Out Books is reviving the old serial thing.  It was Frank Zafiro's idea to center on a grifter couple, and they asked various writers to do a kind of, I guess it's not really a novella, it's too short.  It's an extended short story, a novelette. My story is twelve or thirteen thousand words, and we're doing these episodes centering on this grifter couple. Mine takes place in the land where make-believe is the coin of the realm, Hollywood. It's Harold Robbins meets Jim Thompson.

LM: I really liked your story "Demon of the Track" from the wickedly fun anthology Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror that came out earlier this year.  I noticed that Ollie from The Be-Bop Barbarians and Deacon Coles from "Demon of the Track"are both Korean War vets. What was your inspiration for Deacon?
I attended the Pop the Clutch signing in Burbank
 earlier this year. It was an incredible line-up of
authors, including Gary Phillips. Hoping to get
John  Floyd's signature on this baby one day!

GP: Deacon Coles in "Demon of the Track was inspired by Ed Dwight. [NOTE: Ed Dwight was a military pilot with a B.S in aeronautical engineering.] Kennedy was pushing to have a black astronaut and Ed was put into the program. He faced opposition due to racism. When Kennedy got killed Ed got squeezed out of the program. He actually became a sculptor after all that. Ed Dwight has always fascinated me. I thought it would be interesting to take this guy and make him a jet ace during the war.  Because of racism, he can't get a job as a pilot. So what does he do? He starts racing cars.

LM: You've also been writing for TV.

GP: Coming up I have a co-writing credit on an episode of Snowfall on FX.

LM: John Singleton was one of Snowfall's Creators and Executive Producers. His sudden passing must've been a shock.

John Singleton in 2013
GP: Crazy that John is gone. Fifty-one is way too young, but he got a lot done in that time. He had a drive and a love for all kinds of stories, but of course he really made his mark telling a tale of South Central,  Boyz n the Hood (1991), where he and I grew up. As a Co-Creator of Snowfall, he would often be in the writer's room with us, or on set. John would crack me up because there'd be a time when he'd insist on this or that detail, but it would be about authenticity. In the episode I co-wrote there's a scene set in the projects. When the cops arrive he had me add the "crip whistle," a distinctive call-out that trouble was coming.  A seemingly small thing that did so much to capture that time period.

LM: You've written books, short stories, graphic novels, comics, and now TV.  Is it hard to switch between these different mediums? Is there another medium that you still want to explore?

The many mediums of Gary Phillips.
From The Maddox Archives
GP: You're a storyteller, so you know that each medium defines how you tell the story. A script, as you know, is all short hand.  This is also the great thing about writing comic books and graphic novels. You have to think visually. Similarly in TV, you have to boil everything down. On Snowfall we'd spend hours of the day just talking about the motivation of the characters. Then you'd have to figure out how you'd boil all that down to this one thing. You'd have to get it right so when you're at the table-read the actors aren't saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

I always think about a scene in Scorsese's Howard Hughes flick The Aviator (2004). It's that scene where DiCaprio can't touch the door knob because of his own weird germophobia. It's such a great scene because it boils down so much psychologically about Hughes. Here's this guy who does all this incredible stuff, but he can't touch this door knob because it's full of germs and other people have touched it.

As a writer I'm always asking, "What are those things, those images, that one thing that will symbolize and crystallize what my character is about?" So whatever medium you're writing in, be it comic books, scripts, prose, or radio plays, whatever the hell it is, you just got to figure out how to convey the complexities in a simple and straight forward way, yet keep some of that richness that you want to maintain. I think we all try to figure that out as writers and storytellers. Not that you get it right all the time. You keep trying rework it and achieve that clarity on the page, or as presented by the actor, or what have you.

I'm very happy that I've been able to work in different mediums, and I hope to keep being able to do that.  It's always the next idea that fascinates me, or the next set of complications for my characters that keeps me going. Sally Wainwright, who wrote Gentleman Jack on HBO, said she likes to write the things that she wants to see. That's true for me, too.  I write the things I want to read or that I want to see. In my work, if I'm entertained, I hope others are entertained too, as well as intrigued. I also hope I've given my audience a little something to think about.

Gary was an initial believer in my debut novel Fast Bang Booze and helped it see the light of day. 

If you have a favorite Gary Phillips work, let me know on Facebook or Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 



10 May 2019

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


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.