Review time! with ‘Big Black: Stand at Attica’

“But those people keep a-movin’ and that’s what tortures me”

I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect most white people my age know about Attica from Dog Day Afternoon. That’s pretty sad.

However, now we get a graphic novel about it – Big Black: Stand at Attica, which is written by Frank “Big Black” Smith and Jared Reinmuth, drawn by Améziane, and lettered by AndWorld Design. It’s published by Archaia through Boom! Studios. Frank Smith was a prisoner during the Attica stand-off, and although he’s been dead for over 15 years, his recollections while he was alive helped Reinmuth write the story. It’s a depressing slice of American history, and perhaps more depressing is that it really didn’t change anything. Fifty years later, we’re still dealing with a lot of the things that caused the inmates to revolt, take hostages, and seize the prison for a few days in September 1971. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating – one of the biggest problems in American history is that we don’t want to confront our racism, and therefore we can’t really heal. Stand at Attica is just one small part of that.

Stand at Attica isn’t the greatest comic, though, and it’s a shame. Reinmuth falls into the trap that a lot of writers do in that he assumes a few things about the reader’s knowledge and sympathies. He gives us decent background on Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York in 1971 whose political future was pretty much ruined by the way he handled the Attica crisis, and we get quite a bit about Smith and what kind of person he was and why he might become the calming influence among the inmates that the book portrays him to be. Those parts of the book work well. However, Reinmuth doesn’t go into the grievances that the inmates had about the prison enough. The takeover starts fairly early in the book, and by the time it does, we really don’t have a good sense that the inmates are treated all that poorly. I know it’s a weird thing to want – more brutality – but there’s not a lot of poor treatment by the guards and warden, and what we do hear about is just that – we’re being told about the poor conditions by the inmates, who talk to each other. The “bad guys” make the point later that these are murderers and rapists and other horrible criminals, and it’s obvious that during the siege the media is using racist code words (and occasionally being far less subtle), but early on, Reinmuth doesn’t do a good enough job making it clear that the inmates had been pushed beyond their limits. Smith himself mentions that he should have gotten probation, but he did commit armed robbery, so why should he have not gone to prison? I’m not saying he should have, but Reinmuth doesn’t go into that, either – Smith just tells us that he should have gotten probation, and we’re supposed to accept it because he’s struggling against a racist system. I’m certainly not arguing that the system isn’t racist, either then or now. It’s just that if you’re going to write a narrative about it, you can’t assume everyone reading agrees with you. It would have made the revolt of the inmates far more believable and powerful if we had seen – not just been told about – the abuses that the guards were committing. Reinmuth wants to get to the action, I know, and he wants to show Smith’s role in prison life both before and after the siege, and he does a good job with that, but at the expense of the context of the actual revolt, and the book suffers because of it.

The other thing that’s lacking is a sense of division within the prison population once the hostage situation begins. Again, the focus is on Smith, to a large extent, and the terrible reactions to the hostage situation from the outside world, but Reinmuth hints at some divisions among the inmates, especially between those who want violence and those who are trying to bring about a peaceful solution. As most of the inmates featured in the story are black, this kind of division is far more interesting than the simplistic “black inmates good, white guards/supervisors bad” dichotomy that Reinmuth employs. To be fair, he mentions a few of the guards who were decent human beings and when one of them gets wounded, Smith is extremely upset, but in general, he sticks to the racist narrative, which, while important, doesn’t tell the whole story. Rockefeller eventually orders an attack on the prison, and it would have been nice to see if there was a bigger debate among the inmates as to whether this was something they secretly wanted or if they really did want to end the situation peacefully. Such nuance is absent from the book.

Still, the account of the storming of the prison is harrowing, and Reinmuth gets at the terror of the inmates when they realize they’re trapped in a shooting gallery and the crazed reactions of the guards, who believe they deserve to shoot everyone they see. We get a good sense of how horrified yet inept the people on the outside who weren’t necessarily unsympathetic to the inmates were, and we get a good sense of how dehumanizing the conditions of the prison can be, both to the inmates and the guards, who certainly don’t see the inmates as people. Reinmuth also does a good job showing how the narrative after the fact was shaped, as the media tried to portray the inmates in as poor a light as possible, including simply lying about the torture they supposedly inflicted on the hostages. Reinmuth also does a good job in limited space showing how Smith – standing in for all the inmates, I’m sure – suffered PTSD throughout his life, and how whatever the government compensated him wasn’t enough. It’s a depressing story, and Reinmuth does a good job with that part of it.

Améziane, like Reinmuth, is good in some parts of the book and lacking in others. He’s not terribly good at action, so the scenes when the troops move in have a bit of a stilted feel to them, even though Améziane does a decent job hiding it. His use of special effects – smoke and other such things – isn’t integrated into the artwork as well as it might be, so it’s a bit distracting. But those are minor things, and while the lack of fluidity hampers the climactic scenes a bit, the way he structures the pages – with flashes of violence, the reactions of others to the violence, and then the aftermath of the violence – helps mitigate that a bit. The books begins well, with Améziane using full-page spreads to show the impending clash as the authorities begin to retake the prison – it’s well done, and because there are no words, we get the powerful impact of the brutal weight of the state moving in on these hapless men. Améziane uses a lot of silhouettes and black negative space to create a world of absence, turning the metaphorical into a slightly more literal telling, which helps make the void of prison more real. He manages to humanize even the most feckless functionaries and sadistic guards, showing the former as inept but saddened by their ineptitude and the latter – one in particular, who stands in for all the sadistic guards – as terrified of change, of black men, of a loss of power, of consequences for their thoughtless actions, hiding behind a veneer of cruelty. It doesn’t excuse the guards, of course, but it does manage to show us that they’re not monsters, they’re just scared men. The violence during the attack is visceral and disturbing, and it’s partly so because we don’t see too much of it – Améziane simply hints at it, which allows our imagination to run wild. When he does show more of it – what happens to Smith is particularly brutal – it has more impact and, because of the way Améziane shows it, it becomes almost messianic. It’s not subtle, of course, but it’s not meant to be. Frank Smith suffered for our sins, and Reinmuth and Améziane want to make sure we know it.

There’s a lot to like about this comic, and despite its obvious propagandist tendencies, it’s a powerful story that deserves to be told. Whenever I read something like this, about a part of American history that doesn’t get told often enough, it’s depressing, and I wish it were more widely known. There’s nothing wrong with slanting the story, especially as it’s being told from the point of view of one man, and I think that Smith’s grievances before the hostage situation would have made what happens to him even more powerful, but I also understand that Reinmuth wanted to get to other things, so it’s hard to fault him when the book is 170 pages long. This is a good comic, a gripping look at an event that should still bother us, 50 years later, as so much of what it’s about still hasn’t been dealt with in this country. And that’s a damned shame.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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