Author: Lila Quintero Weaver
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
04/16/2012 American readers are only recently becoming accustomed to graphic novels, in which the story is told with minimal text, in a manner like a comic book, only much more sophisticated and, in the case of a graphic novel like "Maus," about the Holocaust, not comic at all.
A perfectly logical development of the graphic novel is then the graphic memoir, of which "Darkroom" is not the first, but a pretty early example.
In this book Lila Quintero Weaver tells her life story. In 1961, at the age of 5, she moved with her family from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Marion, Alabama, where her father would teach Spanish at Judson College and Marion Military Institute.
The early chapters are, naturally enough, about Weaver's childhood. She looked different from her classmates; she was not a blondie with an upturned nose. Lila was, however, a champion assimilator who loved her Barbie dolls, television and Kool-aid.
Lila spoke only Spanish at first. She learned English quickly, and was uncomfortable when her parents spoke Spanish not only in the safety of their home, with the family, but actually in public, in the grocery store where other people could hear them!
Capturing events visually was solidly in this family's tradition. Lila's mom was herself an artist, especially portraits, and taught young Lila to draw.
Lila's father had been a Protestant pastor as well as a teacher, but he also took photographs and shot movies. It was his passion; he shot constantly and developed the film in his own darkroom.
In a sense, looking at these drawings is like watching a movie. There is often a wide "establishing shot" and then, perhaps, a drawing of two people in conversation, and then a close-up, in much the same way as a scene might be filmed.
As the years passed, the young Lila Quintero became more aware of the segregation and racial tension around her. In fact, being brown-skinned (her father's skin was designated wheat color), with full lips, put her into an uncomfortable no-man's land. She was not the same kind of Anglo white as her neighbors, but was not African-American either. And she had no culturally inherited racial prejudices.
Weaver has some fun and generates some social satire in what readers may recognize as a kind of post-modern technique. In this graphic memoir she reproduces, in pen and ink drawings, some pages, verbatim, of the actual 4th grade history textbook, "Know Alabama" that the Marion school children used. Weaver writes, "I did all my schoolwork, no matter how awful the textbook, which was especially true of "Know Alabama":
In the text a boy rides with his father through the fields of an antebellum plantation. The text reads "As you ride up beside the Negroes in the field, they stop working long enough to look up, tip their hats, and say 'Good morning, Master John.'
You like the friendly way they speak and smile; they show bright rows of white teeth.
'How's it coming, Sam?' your father asks one of the old negroes.
'Fine, Marse Tom, jes' fine. We got 'most more cotton than we can pick.' Then Sam chuckles to himself and goes back to picking as fast as he can."
In contrast to the world depicted in her textbook, the Alabama of the 1960s was undergoing a massive social revolution. When the voter registration drive and protest marches began in Marion, Lila's father documented the movement on film.
Many of the drawings in this book are of those tumultuous days: the rallies in the black church, the marches, the police and the hostile white crowds, the violence.
I hear it said that graphic books are extremely popular among school age readers, partly because they can be read quickly.
This may be so, but not absolutely. This book has hundreds of black and white drawings, many of them portraits. Many of these are so intricate, detailed and subtle, the reader might study the drawing for an hour, not the minute it would take to read a conventional page. The faces of the black marchers sometimes glow with their fervor. They are nearly beatific. The faces of the hoodlums shimmer with meanness, hate, savagery.
The climax to this memoir is the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death inspired the Selma to Montgomery march.
The denouement of the book is less clearly defined. Lila, filled with good will, attends an integrated school, and discovers good will is not enough. Race in America is not only more violent but much more complicated than she had ever believed possible.