R. Alan Brooks Takes on White Supremacy in His New Graphic Novel, Anguish Garden | Westword

R. Alan Brooks Plants Awareness of White Supremacy in Anguish Garden

This Sci-Fi Western sheds light on some very dark places.
Dion Harris
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R. Alan Brooks woke up on Christmas morning feeling pretty good. It was a holiday, sure, but the Colorado Sun had just covered the upcoming launch of the Denver comic-book podcaster (Mother F**ker in a Cape) and author’s second comic-book title, Anguish Garden, an allegory for the suddenly-very-21st-century act of leaving the white-supremacy movement, told through a sci-fi/Western lens. He expected holiday greetings, maybe congratulations.

What he got was death threats.

Within 24 hours of the Sun posting that article, Brooks had received three death threats through Instagram, all from the same person. “Comic book writers and comic book artist in this day in age should be drug out in the street and shot execution-style,” advised the first nasty, ungrammatical message. Then it got more personal: “Remember dude if you get shot execution-style I’ll find your grave just to piss on it.” And then: “Don’t worry comicsgate folks I’m writing a book to and it has a lot to do with murdering comic book artists and writers.” He finished by noting that his theoretical book was “just fiction,” and that he hoped “nobody tries to copycat it.”

While his concern for copycatting was vague, his reference to Comicsgate was a direct call-out to an online community that claims not to be a hate group but has become “known for carrying out targeted campaigns of online harassment against women and people of color who work in the comics industry,” according to Brooks. 

“Their talking points are typically along the lines of not wanting ‘forced diversity’ or politics in comics, and generally being unhappy that the trend of most comics characters being white males is beginning to change.”

After soliciting the advice of a few friends in the black activist community who were more familiar with getting threats, Brooks posted the Instagram messages on Facebook. “Making the threats public is a key element,” he explains, “because it gives good people a chance to rally behind you, and makes it clear to the threatening parties that they won’t be able to enact violence and return to their anonymous lives.”
click to enlarge
R. Alan Brooks fights racism with comics.
Joe Rogers

Brooks’s other response to the threats was to talk about them and, more important, the graphic novel that sheds light on some very dark places in the current American experience.

He’s completed the story for that novel, as well as some advance pages reproduced here, but will be introducing a Kickstarter project to cover the cost of producing and printing Anguish Garden. In advance of that February 2 launch, we reached out to Brooks to discuss both.

Westword: Tell us a little about the central concept of the comic itself.

R. Alan Brooks: Anguish Garden parallels the path of someone leaving white supremacy by telling the tale of Zola, a girl who is raised to hate — and hunt — people who she believes to be infected by an alien virus. She thinks that she’s doing something benevolent by hunting down infected people, as she considers them a danger to humanity. She’s trying to be heroic but is misled, so she eventually finds her beliefs challenged, particularly about whether these people actually pose any threat.

It’s interesting that your take on the growth of white supremacy is a story about the escape from it instead of a direct battle with it. What drew you to approach the story in that way?

When someone embraces any of the -isms (racism, sexism, ableism, etc), it generally comes from either a refusal or a failure to see the humanity in another person. If you refuse, you’ve made a choice, and it’s unlikely you can be reached. But if you are simply failing to see another person’s humanity, then art is a powerful way to communicate these themes to you.

With that in mind, I had some thoughts after having read Eli Saslow’s book Rising Out of Hatred, which tells the story of Derek Black, a man who was raised in white supremacy but left it. I found myself interested in exploring the idea of someone who, at least on some levels, embraces hatred because they think they’re doing something heroic: saving their family, protecting their culture, etc.

There are white supremacists who are good parents and loving to their families, but have been raised to believe that I am a threat to them and their families, just by existing. So where does that duality come from? And what is the path to redemption for someone like that? How do they find their way out of this confused, racist haze, constructed from fear and anger? That’s the path that is laid before the main character in my book.
The first page in the Anguish Garden Kickstarter preview.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
You talk about the story being a “post-apocalyptic Western.” The sci-fi/post-apocalypse themes seem baked into the metaphor, but what about the Western tradition are you borrowing?

Well, although there’s a heavy undercurrent to the story, I wanted it to be a fun, gunslinger type of adventure. So in keeping with that, Zola is a loner, and quick with a gun. She has a raw, detached fearlessness that confuses people, given her size and age. These are traits that often save her life, but also constantly put her in danger.
You’ll see an example of this — the Western type of showdown — in the preview pages we’ve done for the book.

That scene reminds me a little of the Han Solo/Greedo Cantina scene that’s been so mistreated over the years of special editions and edits. (Han shot first, of course.) Was that somewhere in the mix, too?

Ha! I hadn’t thought of that specifically, but as Star Wars is often referred to as “a Western in space,” I think it’s an appropriate comparison.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
So what about those death threats?

The Colorado Sun interviewed me about this project just before Christmas. I posted that article on Instagram. On Christmas Day, I woke up to several death threats, from someone who’d likely only read the headline: “Cartoonist R. Alan Brooks takes on white supremacy.” Apparently that, along with my photo, was enough to provoke these threats.

I’ve actually never received death threats for my work before, so it was jarring, especially on Christmas. But it reminds me of the importance of creating art like this, because there are people out there who want me dead, for no other reason than the fact that I am black and breathing.

Seeing them use this graphic novel as an excuse for that racism only shows how important it is for us to band together as a community and get this book made.

So how does that affect you on a personal level? How worrisome is
it to create art that challenges racism, intolerance and exclusionary nationalism in the Trump era of America?

Yo, I’m frankly more worried about the proliferation of racism, intolerance and exclusionary nationalism.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
Fair enough, but clearly this project is drawing attention to you individually.

I understand this question, but I think it presupposes that concerns about white supremacy haven’t been a constant in my life. I grew up in the American South, and it’s been ever-present. This Trump era has simply made white supremacists more direct, so that liberal white people can see their presence. It’s not a new concern, so it’s hard for me to answer that question.

So you create art to directly challenge it.

If I didn’t challenge it, I’d be squandering the sacrifices of the generations before me. My grandmother’s grandmother was brought to this country at the age of nine and enslaved. Can you imagine doing that to a nine-year-old girl?

I can’t. Your great-great-grandmother must have had some stories. What of her history got passed down through your family? What do you know of her?

All we have are oral histories in our family, because during American slavery, black people weren’t allowed to have records, birth certificates, education, etc. In many cases, we weren’t allowed to marry, and our children were taken from us and sold. So the details about most black American family histories are few, but my grandmother’s grandmother was Ghanaian and kidnapped into slavery at age nine, then forced to marry around the same age.

All of my family since then has accomplished so much, and I’m so filled with love and appreciation for all that they overcame. So when I create art, I feel compelled by the undefeated buoyancy of their spirits.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
Is there something about graphic novels and the comic-book medium in general that speaks directly to social commentary? I’m thinking about all that’s been written about Superman having roots in the Jewish experience, about the X-Men coming out of the civil-rights movement in America, of the modern Black Panther storylines that address race and nationalism and African identity.

To paraphrase another comics creator I know, Melanie Gillman: Comics and graphic novels are the only visual mediums that don’t require a large team to create — like movies or animation. Comics can be created by one person, or a small team of people. Therefore, comics bear an intimacy, a closeness to the experiences of the creators, that lends itself to bringing a reader face to face with social issues in a very personal fashion. So you get stories like Maus, which explores a personal story of a Holocaust survivor, or Persepolis, which tells the tale of a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

As a reader, you’re engaged by the words and the illustrations, and the experience of reading is just as personal as the experience of creating the book. You’re reading it alone, and living with these characters privately. So that makes the social commentary in graphic novels and comics resonate in a powerful way.

Does it ever feel hopeless, the act of creating art with a social agenda in this post-truth era through which we’re living? How do you get argument of any sort — direct or indirect — through to people who are willfully and purposefully blind? And for those readers who are open to the discussion, isn’t it just preaching to the choir? So what value do you see in a readership like that?

I’m not concerned with people who have chosen to deny my humanity. I’m of the firm belief that there are extremists on either side of an issue, and they yell the loudest. Then there are a large majority of people who are closer to the middle and are open to hearing something that seems sincere and reasonable, to help them make a good decision. Those are the people that art can reach.

I’ve learned so much about women’s and LBGTQIA issues through art, for example. I had limited exposure to the latter growing up, and so my ideas about them were formed without direct contact with any real person from that demographic. I eventually made friends from that world, but before that, art definitely helped me humanize their struggle.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
Do comics do enough to counterbalance the more jingoistic origins of some characters? Captain America comes to mind, having had to be reinvented after it was no longer 1940s wartime, and racial slurs (especially aimed at the Japanese) were no longer okay.

That’s an interesting question. Any American medium that’s existed since the late ’30s — like the superhero comics you’re referencing — is going to have to face the challenges of repairing racist and sexist themes inherent in the early work that was generated from it. I don’t know that I feel compelled to decide whether enough is being done in that regard. I will say that changes are continuously being made to evolve these older characters, and I look forward to seeing that continue.

Your last big comics project, The Burning Metronome, was both successful and well received. How did that lead you into Anguish Garden? What did you learn from that project that you’re bringing into this one?

The Burning Metronome was the first graphic novel I ever really tried to write from start to finish. I learned a lot about story structure and how to build characters on that project. With Anguish Garden, I’m getting to explore a lot more of the visual symbolism that can accompany my scripts, and how that aids in the storytelling and character development.

It’s a particularly great opportunity to explore this, because I’m getting to work with such talented visual artists on this project. For example, Kevin Caron is doing all of the layouts — the camera angles and staging of scenes — which is vital to setting a tone. If we were comparing to movies, and I’m like the scriptwriter and director, you can think of Kevin as the assistant director and cinematographer.

Dailen Ogden is doing the pencils and inks for this book — defining the characters’ emotions and body language, and the detail of the settings. You could think of her as being responsible for all of the acting and set design.

And Sarah Menzel Trapl is the color artist for this book. She heightens the emotional impact of the scenes with the colors she chooses, by deciding how they reflect the emotions of a scene. So she’d be like the composer of the musical score for the book, highlighting emotional impact in subtle and powerful ways.
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
You’ve got a launch event planned at Mutiny Information Cafe on February 2, at the same time the Kickstarter officially begins. Sounds like a fun — and important — party.

Yeah, I’m thinking it’s going to be pretty dope!

For anyone who makes a pledge on my Kickstarter campaign while they’re at the party, I’m going to give them exclusive art posters for Anguish Garden that won’t even be available on Kickstarter. Most of my collaborators will be there, and we’ll have a Q&A about how we’re creating this book. I’m still working on some of the other details for that night, but it looks like we’ll have sponsorship for the event from the Colorado Sun and Nerd Team 30, which is also offering a “Mystery Nerd Box” as a prize for at least one person. We’ll also have a few computers set up for people to log in to their Kickstarter accounts.

And not just the folks working on the book itself; I hear local musician Carl Carrell will be there, too. He’s doing a soundtrack for the project?

Yes. Carl is someone I’ve known in the artistic scene for a number of years now, but I didn’t know that he was such a huge sci-fi fan! We had a meeting and discussed the themes of Anguish Garden, and he’s going to compose a musical score for the graphic novel. It’s very exciting, and I’ll be sending him art from the book as it’s finished so he can draw inspiration from it.
and the story continues....
Kevin Caron, Dailen Ogden and Sarah Menzel Trapl.
In the end, what do you hope readers take from the book? Once the project is launched and the books are distributed and the story is told…what do you hope to have accomplished with Anguish Garden?

I want them to be inspired to think about how easy it is to be misled when we’re trying to do something that we think is noble, particularly if we’re failing to recognize the humanity of another group of people. I also want them to enjoy the story, because there’s some dope action in it!

R. Alan Brooks and the creative team of Anguish Garden will throw a Kickstarter launch party at 4 p.m. Sunday, February 2, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway. Learn more on the Kickstarter Kickoff Party Facebook page.
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