Tony Fyler recommends a dose of discomfort.
If you’re used to the anodyne, pre-chewed la-la-la predictability of romance in movies and comic-books, or if you think that racism is no longer an issue in 21st century America, you’re probably a) white, and b) deluded. Hass, issue #1, an independent comic-book written and lettered by B. Alex Thompson, drawn by Federico Santagati, and released by Approbation Comics, comes at you fully prepared to mess with your mind on every conceivable level. Reading it will make you uncomfortable. That’s exactly why you should do it.
It opens with an uncompromising scene – a gang of white racist assholes, beating the bejesus out of a young black man, deep in the heart of Texas. Today – 2015. Then it flings us back 24 hours, having cast a deliberate pall over everything that follows – all the smiles, all the coolness, all the wisecracking, we know, leads to racist assholes beating the crap out of a young black man. Today.
It sits heavy on our reading of the first half of this issue that we know that, because of course firstly, nobody should be beaten up by gangs, but as we read on, we learn one thing above all else – our hero, Josh Jones, is cool. He’s funny, and deep, and real, and sarcastic, all of which does a comic-book hero no harm whatsoever (ask Peter Parker), while also being a trust-fund baby who’s really switched on to moods, emotions, and sub-text. He likes what he likes and makes no apologies for it, refusing to conform to white asshole stereotypes (y’know what? He doesn’t use that language, he calls them Frodos, so let’s follow his example) – Frodo stereotypes of what he ‘should’ like because he’s black, or how he ‘should’ dress because he’s black. He wears some kickass clothes, and likes who he likes – in essence, he believes in the modern, civilized world we all love to tell ourselves we belong in and contribute to, the world beyond the boxes and the stereotypes of the less evolved mind.
So when he falls, on his first day at college, for the difficult girl – the girl with spiky edges and a pain she doesn’t let you see unless you’re worth it, the girl prepared to call you on your plays and make you work that much harder to earn her time, her talk, and her investment, it takes Josh, and we the reader, to another level. Wooing Maggie is not a game for the faint-hearted, and nor is it something to be entertained if you’re only after her body. What it’s important to realise as you read is that this feels like reality, not comic-books. There’s no guarantee of anything working out, no happily ever after promised, and the chance at every turn for the wrong thing, or a false play, to end the encounter. This is a real-life romance, rather than a rom-com romance – messy and fun and high-wire and real, and Thompson should be congratulated for managing to render it so thoroughly and without compromise in the comic-book medium, where too often, a flip comment or a great line is elbowed in to make our heroes seem cooler than real people. They’re cool in Hass #1, but they’re real, complex-people cool, not comic-book cool.
Hass #1 bills itself as Romeo & Juliet meet American History X, and it clearly knows what it’s talking about, because while the coming together of Josh and Maggie feels real and difficult and layered, it’s by no means all of the story. There’s a thin high whine of social racism that begins at a concert, and grows increasingly hard to dismiss. What’s important in the showing here is the attempt that Josh makes. One lone, loud, bloviating racist – one Frodo – he can stare down and ignore. Even three or four, in this so-called sophisticated age, he can deal with, but when the 24 hours comes round and Josh – modern, sophisticated young black man Josh – comes face to face with a gang of Frodos, his world dissolves into something out of a darker period in history, the liberal sheen of equality ripped away to reveal a bloodier, more terrifying reality that’s still alive today. To quote directly from the panels of this extraordinary, eloquent book – “I haven’t done a study or a poll, but deep down I think this is one of the worst fears for every black person in America… being alone and at the mercy of a huge group of racist whites. After all the school lessons of slavery with the pictures of black men hanging by their necks from trees… sometimes burnt, sometimes mutilated, sometimes both… we internalize and think, yes, if I was born a mere century ago this could’ve happened to me too. But this is a different time. A safer, more tolerant, and enlightened time. Yet even today with all of our advancements and our political correctness there’s still racism that festers under the surface.”
It’s a lesson that’s visited on Josh’s mind and his body, leaving him with the most horrifying reminders of its reality here, today in 2015, and one of the most interesting things about the ending of this issue is that as an origin story, it could go any way that Thompson decides to take it in future issues. It could be a story of horror, it could be a story of righteous anger, it could be a story of almost terrifying tolerance. The story could be almost anything, going forward.
Anything but ignored.
Why? Why is this such an important book? Why am I unhesitatingly telling you to get it, to read it, and to follow whatever the story becomes? Firstly, it’s an independent comic-book, and that should be supported simply because it shows talent, initiative and the fundamental burning urge of creativity to be seen. Secondly, it’s high-quality, eloquent work, with strong, complex characters, and some class-A artwork from Santagati.
But thirdly, because police officers across the States are shooting black people dead, often without provocation beyond the colour of their skin, which shouldn’t be enough to count. Because black churches are being burned to the ground across the South and it’s going largely unreported by the mainstream media. Because the first black President of the United States faced unique criticism for ‘not being born here’ even though he was, and ‘being a Muslim’ even though he wasn’t, simply because of his skin colour and his name. Because the Confederate flag is being resurrected as an emblem for specifically retrogressive thinking and flown with a pride that dishonours the intellect of those who fly it. Because politicians are claiming slaves had a choice in their slavery. Because it’s by no means a US-only problem. And because it’s 2015, not 1815, and maybe, just maybe, reading a comic-book that shocks people out of the notion that everything’s fine and dandy might do some good.
Buy it now.
Find out more about Hass #1 on the Approbation Comics website.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk