Little Rock Nine Review

By | Monday, July 24, 2023 Leave a Comment
It's not uncommon these days for publishers to produce lines of graphic novels on historical subjects aimed at younger audiences. Most of these publishers aren't exactly known for their graphic novels, so the lines tend to be short-lived and cover the same handful of people/events. So when I heard Aladdin Paperbacks had tackled the Little Rock Nine back in 2008, I was intrigued. That was a subject I have not seen in comics form before, and I hadn't heard of of the publisher so I wanted to check it out. (I have since learned, by the way, that Capstone published a version last year and Gareth Stevens Publishing did a book in 2012 that has some comic book elements to it, although it doesn't appear to be a full comic from what I've seen. So Aladdin isn't alone in covering this, but it's not a crowded market and, as far as I can tell, they got to it first.)

The book, aside from a two-page prologue, all takes place during August and September 1957. The US Supreme Court had ruled school segregation was unconsitutional in 1954 and the integration plans that had been suggested had seen effectively no progress, with a litany of excuses why things had to be delayed. Arkansas' Governor Orval Faubus had been giving lip service towards integration but had been pretty clearly trying to keep it from happening at all. Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, pushed things forward in as many ways as she could, everything from meeting one-on-one with Faubus to plead for equality and helping to file lawsuits against the Little Rock School District. Despite mobs of white rioters literally beating anyone who supported inegration, Faubus illegally using the Akansas National Guard to keep Black students from entering the school, and reporters deliberately trying to stir up emotions for the sake of good television, nine Black students eventually did get in to Little Rock Central High School.

That, however, isn't really the story being told here.

I mean, yes, it does broadly cover those points but the narrative largely follows William McNally and Thomas Johnson, two local teens who are mostly witnessing things from the sidelines. William is the son of James McNally, who is one of the lawyers fighting in the courts on behalf of the NAACP, and Thomas is a Black kid who had been in one of the earlier attempts to get into school but was forceibly turned away. They meet at a local baseball game but, as it happens, Thomas' mother works in the McNally family home. (Although it's a little unclear precisely what her role is. The kids are too old to need a nanny, so she's just a maid, I suppose? We don't really see her do much of anything in the house.) Will and Thomas' friendship provokes a few other local kids, and Will manages to stand up for Thomas against them even when the two friends are fighting. Because of the threats and actual violence from when Thomas tried going to Central High, his father has forbid him from attempting it again and would prefer the whole family -- and indeed even James and his lawyer friends -- to stop stirring the pot and just let everything carry on as it had before. The book ends with both families watching a TV report on the so-called Little Rock Nine entering Central High for the first time.

I have a few issues with the book. Ellen Lindner's illustrations are fine. I don't see anything particularly powerful in her layouts or her linework, but everything is clear and serviceable. I might've liked to have seen a little greater variety in people's faces, but there's still enough that I was never at a loss for quickly identifying who was who. My issues with the book are primarily in Marshall Poe's writing. Don't get me wrong; it's not bad, certainly. The dialogue seems natural enough and every character has their own voice, but the story's wrong. Not factually wrong (well, technically, there are some factual errors, but I'll get to those in a minute) but it's just conceptually wrong. I can understand wanting to avoid telling the story from one of the nine kids directly, and taking it from Bates' perspective could be tricky as well. But focusing on a white kid? That seems like the 100% wrong place to start.

"Hey, Sean, I thought you said it focused on a Black kid too, though?"

Yeah, Thomas is one of two protagonists here, but he's very much treated as the lesser of the two. He's not introduced until a fifth of the way through the book, his involvement in everything is considerably more passive, and during the riot, he is evidently beaten LESS than Will. (Thomas is only shown with a small bandage afterwards, while Will has a broken arm.) In fact, during the riot, the only "slur" used against him is "Negro," while Will is on the receiving end of being called a "n***** lover." Of the two, Will is readily shown to be the more heroic and, while Thomas is shown to be more than just a sidekick, the fact a story about racism focuses primarily on the white kid is not the right approach.

There's other things that I didn't care for about the specifics of the story. Will's grandfather is quickly identified as very racist right up front, and provides a point of conflict between himself and both Will and James. And eventually Will does win a confrontational moment against his grandfather, but James does not. And given that they all live in the same house, this seems like a decidedly unresolved issue when the book closes. There's also no resolution between James and Thomas' father. James, as I said, was a lawyer fighting for the NAACP, but upon learning this, Thomas' father offers a "just leave things well enough alone" speech... but they're interrupted by the television and they don't pick up the conversation again.

One other thing I disagree with here. I get that any historical story isn't going to be 100% accurate; if nothing else, we generally don't have precise record of anyone's dialogue. But I really wonder about the decision to make James McNally the lawyer for the NAACP here. Granted, there were several cases the NAACP were a part of surrounding this whole thing, but I can't find the name James McNally on any of them. In fact, the biggest Arkansas case -- one which is in fact depicted in the book and McNally is shown to be the lead attorney for -- the two lawyers on the actual case were Wiley A. Branton and Thurgood Marshall, both of whom were VERY prominent, VERY Black civil rights lawyers. Thurgood Frickin' Marshall! Making up an entirely new character to put in that spot and then not even making his associate Black means that both Will and James are given White Savior roles and it white-washes over the achievements that very real Black people had to work exceptionally hard for.

In looking it up afterwards, I see that Poe is a somewhat noted historian and that would normally give me pause since that doesn't usually translate well into being a good writer of fiction. He does a much better job here than I would expect in that regards. But he comes to this story with a decidedly white man's perspective, and has at best a superficial grasp of the systematic racism that's wrapped up in this incident. I'm sure it was someone at Aladdin who approached him about writing this and EVEN IF there was some contractual reason he couldn't say, "maybe you should get a Black writer and/or artist to work on this," it's pretty evident he didn't seek out any input from any Black people on his own either. The book came out in 2008, so I hope that's a lesson he's learned since then.

Aladdin seems to have been shuttered by Simon & Schuster, so I expect most bookstores won't have ready access to getting a copy. (It's been on my TO GET list for at least a couple years.) But unless you're completely ignorant of the Little Rock Nine in the first place, I can't say as I'd recommend it. I'm definitely going to have to check out that Capstone Press version now to copmare the two; that's at least written by a Black woman so it's a pretty good bet that it won't put the center of attention on a white kid.
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