When the River Rises Review

By | Monday, December 18, 2023 Leave a Comment
When The River Rises by D.C. Walker and Bruno Oliveira came out a few years ago from Mastermind Comics. It tells the story of a young Sydquan, who's being imprisoned for taking the fall for one of his friends who raped a girl. With Hurricane Katrina beginning to hammer down, though, he and the rest of the juveniles are moved to a more secure prison, one where Quan's estranged father Russell happens to be held. Katrina soon begins to overwhelm the prison facilities, and many of the prisoners attempt escape in the chaos, while an old rival of Quan's tries to murder him. Quan and his father manage to escape to go check on Quan's family, and then help them get to the relative safety of the Superdome.

While there's plenty of action and physical conflicts that are played out here, the crux of the story revolves around Russ trying to reconnect with his son and set him on a better path than the one that landed him in prison. We see a lot of Quan both pushing away his father and yet still yearning for a father figure, wrestling with whether or not his own father can fulfill that role. Russell, in turn, strives to prove his worth to Quan by repeatedly making choices that are bad for himself, but are ultimately in the service of Quan. There's a powerful story there, and Walker does a good job of balancing the external conflicts with the internal ones without ever losing sight of which is the stronger story.

That said, I did have a little trouble getting into it at first. Walker doesn't supply a lot of background information up front, and readers learn about everything as the story rolls along. Normally, I really like that approach, but it seemed sparse enough with enough scene changes in the first dozen or two pages that I wasn't sure which characters we were supposed to be following and/or why. Walker also uses very natural dialogue throughout, and while I was fine with the slang itself, the lack of tone in delivery made some lines difficult to parse before getting a better handle on the characters.

Oliveira's art was pretty solid throughout. He had a good variety of character designs, and they were so consistently drawn that you could easily identify all the characters regardless of their occasional changes of clothes. It also appears that the whole book was scanned directly from Oliveira's pencils, and it showcase some very tight linework throughout. There were a very fight sequences where I had a little trouble following the action, but nothing overly critical to the broader story.

The part that really stands out, though, and why I picked the book up in the first place is that it's based on what really happened during Katrina. Per the epilogue...
At least 14 prisoners escaped from Orleans Parish Prison Complex during Hurricane Katrina. The convicts and juvies held there during the storm were dispersed across the region in the aftermath. Inmates reported dozens of deaths inside the complex. Yet the state has not confirmed these fatalities. Instead it tore down the main Templeman facility without allowing an inspection by the press.
It then directs readers to this ACLU report about the abuses that took place at that time.

Like many who did not have to live through that tragedy, I watched the events of Katrina unfold online and on TV from the safety of a thousand miles away. I saw the flooding and the desperate citizens doing whatever they could to survive. I saw how ugly things got at the Superdome for those who had nowhere else to go. What I didn't see was how the Superdome was an improvement over what inmates, most of them people of color, had to deal with. What I didn't see was how they were effectively left to drown or starve or kill each other as they fought for survival.

While not laying blame on anyone in particular, the book does call into question how we treat criminals as less than human in the justice system. Race is never explicitly brought up in the book, but there is a seeming implication that the system as a whole is rigged against people of color. Most of the inmates are shown to be Black, and the guards are all white. (Probably. The book is in black and white, and some characters are drawn a little ambiguously in that regard.) The book shows the consequences of stacking the police and judges and lawyers against Black people, many of whom already have no one to rely on... since those family members have already been imprisoned.

Despite the implications that are easily drawn from the book, the story does end on a positive note. Russell has seemed to have had a positive impact on Quan and, while it's unclear just how well they've patched up their relationship, it's certainly a much closer one than they had before.
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