Civil Unrest, Panel by Panel

Writer Mark Long reconstructs childhood memories to depict Houston's monumental and harrowing events in a black & white graphic novel called The Silence of Our Friends.

Publisher: First Second
Contributors: Nate Powell (Artist)
Price: $16.99
Writer: Mark Long, Jim Demonakos
Length: 208
Graphic Novel: The Silence of Our Friends
Publication Date: 2012-01-17

Years before a now-infamous riot erupted on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, its students were already thoroughly vested in defying the community's pervasive white racist power structure. "Whites only" cafeterias and water fountains inspired lunch counter sit-ins back in 1960, as activists tested whether or not local authorities would enforce recent Supreme Court rulings, such as 1956's Browder v. Gayle, which ended bus segregation. Sit-ins and marches meant enormous physical risks for volunteer activist groups like the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that were challenging the status quo. The SNCC first organized at Shaw University in North Carolina, and partnered with the former outfit to take "freedom rides" across the deep southern region of the United States. The activists hoped to determine if said rulings were being enforced in notoriously racist areas of the country. When tensions rooted in a heavily segregated Houston of the era eventually exploded at Texas Southern in 1967, the SNCC found themselves at the center of the pot.

Writer Mark Long reconstructs childhood memories to depict Houston's monumental and harrowing events in a black & white graphic novel called The Silence of Our Friends. Named for a line in a speech from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Long's semi-autobiographical account of unrest at TSU and race relations in the 1960s is partly based on the writer's experiences, with some names and details slightly altered. With the help of co-author/organizer of Seattle's Emerald City Comicon Jim Demonakos and Eisner Award-winning artist Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole, Any Empire), Long establishes the atmosphere of an unstable, racially charged period of Houston history in his 200-page book. The days are balmy in The Silence of Our Friends, and repellent prejudiced utterances aren't relegated to backyard conversations with the neighbors. Dialogues of that sort do materialize out near the clothesline, but they're also made painfully public too, and left to bake in the afternoon sun.

Mark Long's father got a Houston-based job as a TV reporter in 1966. He moved his family east from San Antonio to cover race issues in the state's largest city. Long discusses the move in an essay that adjourns The Silence of Our Friends. While the havoc of the TSU riot is conveyed with great energy in the novel, Long offers more context on that fateful May 1967 demonstration in the afterword than that which is showcased elsewhere. The author's prose is very insightful here, but with respect to the pages that precede it, Long's strongest suit lies in communicating to readers the very personal experience of his family's relocating.

The composition is simple and rich in Nate Powell's wordless scenes at the start of The Silence of Our Friends. Sets of the artist's slim black vertical strokes darken the windows around the book's characters as well as the space under countertops, while Jack and Patricia Long tidy up their kitchen after scolding their blind daughter Julie for using racist language. She'd picked it up from kids in the new neighborhood, and it's the first her parents have heard of this from her. The Longs are frustrated with their recent move:

"Houston is more segregated than San Antonio. I never see any black people here," says Patricia. "That's because they all live in 'the bottom,'" answers Jack.

Although it isn't explored in detail in The Silence of Our Friends, this reference to the then-dismal condition of Houston's Third Ward shouldn't go overlooked. The Third Ward in 1966 was an area freshly indicative of the severe limitations that Jim Crow laws had imposed on black people, as well as the decline in commerce attributed to area highway construction and vast land value depreciation resulting from "white flight." In The Silence..., the Longs are situated in Sharpstown, on a street so white that when a black family actually visited the author's home as a child, "the entire block came out to gawk," writes Long. For those of us who attended Catholic grade school out in the suburbs, America's breeding ground for insular distrust of non-whites, the depiction of Sharpstown is stinging and familiar. I met few kids who weren't white and Irish or Italian until high school, and I entered ninth grade with considerably sad and shameful ideas of those who looked differently than I did.

Long's parents in the book are among the few people who don't resort to bigotry seemingly common to their suburb. Jack tosses a drunken racist friend from his home who spouts slurs that seem to him as natural as talking football, and kids' neighborhood games are rife with language as equally charged. In Houston History Magazine in 2010, editor Dr. Joe Pratt wrote of his youth in Texas, when adults "used racist language considered so vile today that people substitute such phrases as 'the N-word' for the historically-correct word that embodied Jim Crow attitudes and power relationships. Whites took this racially charged word as a common name for their black dogs, and they used it to refer to black people as regularly and as matter-of-factly as they said 'Hello.'"

Houston in the 1960s didn't cool much on the campus of Texas Southern University, which is seated inside of the Third Ward. It's where Jack Long meets Larry Thompson, a black activist and editor of a local progressive newspaper. This friendship, the fruit of a bold move across Houston's fiercely blatant color line, is conveyed beautifully in The Silence of Our Friends. Powell casts an awkward, affecting scene between the two families at the Long home with opaque facial expressions that soften as lyrics from a Sam & Dave record swirl over the page. During explosive exchanges at TSU, Powell is free to deftly bear out what The Comics Journal's Hayley Campbell calls the "palpable Southern humidity" that dampens the panels of his Swallow Me Whole.

Routinely biased media coverage and strong messaging from TSU officials helped cement an image of a violent and aggressive Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A "Friends of SNCC" chapter on school grounds was effectively dismantled in early 1967. University staff revoked the group's privileges with respect to their using campus facilities for meetings, and SNCC faculty advisor/political science instructor Mack Jones was notified that he would soon be terminated. The Harvard Crimson's William Bryson reported that the TSU campus newspaper had been considerably critical of the college's "approach to education" in the fall of 1966, and that the school's student body had begun to call for "wide-ranging changes in the University's standards and policies." The conditions for a storm were ripening quickly.

When demonstrators rallied to protest TSU administration's decisions relating to the SNCC, a large-scale riot ensued in May of 1967. A police officer was shot during the melee and after the officers fired blindly into a dormitory, nearly 500 students were forced out of their rooms. Some were in bath towels, beaten savagely by cops, and arrested. By Nate Powell's hand, each tick of the riot unfolds at a jittery pace in The Silence of Our Friends, with the artist's word balloons frequently taking the shape of buzzsaws and spiraling outside of the panels. In a visual nod to Jack Long's profession, an occasional bubble-like "TV screen" perspective dots the narrative here, while a single, powerful interior scene shows students scrambling for cover, bullets surging through dorm hallways. This part of the story is told with great care, but the pages that follow are among the novel's most resonant. Here, on courtroom steps and in dark, somber living rooms, we're privy to devastation and fresh wounds that are unlikely to have ever really healed, regardless of how "far" along we've moved since the spring of 1967.

The Silence of Our Friends, Page 24

The Silence of Our Friends, Page 26

The Silence of Our Friends, Page 33


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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