History By Way Of Righteousness And Heart: Ryan Carey Reviews “Big Black: Stand At Attica”

For one brutal, bloody week in September of 1971, New York’s notorious Attica state prison was the center of national attention. A simmering powder keg of racial tensions for many years, the violent over-reaction of mainly white guards and administrators to the slight “infraction” committed by a black inmate finally triggered a rebellion that was a long time coming, with the jailed turning the tables on their jailers and holding them hostage until some extremely basic demands for more humane conditions were agreed to.

As you’d likely expect from a state governed by a Rockefeller (Nelson Rockefeller, to be specific), those demands were not agreed to, and state troopers stormed the prison, indiscriminately firing in all directions and eventually leaving a pile of 43 bodies in their wake, including 10 guards/hostages. Just to add insult to injury, though, false stories were leaked to the press that those 10 had their throats slit by inmates, effectively hardening the resolve of the Nixon voting bloc against the inmates even more — but that was as nothing compared to the reprisals that followed within the walls of the prison itself, where the beatings, torture, and other deprivations that were already depressingly commonplace increased exponentially. And at the center of all this, as both leader and victim, was Frank “Big Black” Smith, a physically and intellectually powerful figure who was chosen/conscripted to act as head of security during the uprising and a kind of de facto negotiator between inmates and the state — and who paid the price for daring to stand up to a racist and corrupt system that maintained power through casually-inflicted extreme violence and wantonly cruel humiliation. His story is a compelling and ultimately inspirational one, to say the least, and is finally given the “graphic novel treatment” thanks to writer Jared Reinmuth and artist Ameziane in their new Archaia/Boom! Studios book, Big Black: Stand At Attica.

As first-person POV comics documentary, Big Black: Stand At Attica is a largely effective work. While the decision to put Smith’s name at the top of the credits may strike some as curious, given that he passed away in 2004 after devoting his post-release life to counseling and advocating for prisoners and former inmates, it makes perfect sense in the context given that this is, indeed, very much his story. Big Black: Stand At Attica is scripted in very much the style of a memoir by Reinmuth. And while putting “Attica” in the title is, of course, going to reel in readers — this critic included — it’s the events that followed on from the uprising that form the book’s most compelling section from a literary standpoint, the hard fight for minor reforms in the face of horrific reprisals (Smith’s injuries dogged him for the remainder of his life) playing out as a textbook example of “against all odds” crusading, while deftly managing to avoid reducing the narrative to mere hagiography. It is, then, a gripping and, by-and-large, very well-written work.

And it’s well-drawn too, although the standoff and subsequent battle between cops, guards, and inmates really does offer Ameziane — who previously illustrated a comics biography of Muhammad Ali — the greatest chance to shine, his sleek and cinematic style really driving home the visceral impact of motion, most especially violent motion, with a gut-punch accentuated by his smartly-chosen computerized coloring choices. The “talky” scenes — of which there are many — certainly offer enough to keep the reader glued to the page and examining the panels, but don’t necessarily offer a lot to distinguish themselves from the Eurocomics forebears he’s clearly learned so much from. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you — it’s highly communicative, emotionally- and intellectually-resonant artwork — but it’s not tremendously original, even though it’s highly competent and professional.

The fluctuating colors and inventive tones and shading remain consistently strong and borderline-inspired throughout, however, and well-placed “flashback” panels are frequently put to ingenious use in order to “break up” otherwise-static sequences. I’m not sure how much of the credit for this smart visual pacing is down to instructions in the script or decisions made by the artist — likely it’s a combination of both, I suppose — but it not only works, it works incredibly well, and will likely go some way toward keeping even the most attention-span-deprived reader fully engaged in the proceedings. With a comics narrative that’s entirely dependent upon touching both hearts and minds in equal proportion and in unison, this kind of smart storytelling isn’t just welcomed, it’s essential — and given that the history being relayed here is absolutely essential in and of itself, getting the balance between the dry and the dramatic precisely right really is priority number one. The creative team of Reinmuth and Ameziane maintains that balance with a mix of authenticity and creative flourish throughout that, by and large, never fails to impress.

Viewed in its totality, Big Back: Stand At Attica is a nearly-unqualified success, a vital combination of historical reportage and memoir that not only draws attention to, but fully places readers within, a brutal tragedy, its brutal aftermath, and the hard-earned reforms that eventually came about as a result of both, told from the point of view of one of its most central figures. It’s shocking, enraging, moving, heartfelt, and necessary — especially in this age of resurgent racism and authoritarianism. The story of Frank “Big Black” Smith is one with which everyone should be familiar — and to the extent that this book helps accomplish that goal, its publication may end up standing as a historically important moment in and of itself.


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1 Response
  1. Hi Ryan, Ameziane here. First i thank you opfor review our book. We poured so much love and work into this one that reading such a review is a true joy. And as you ask a question, i could bring sole kind of answer here.
    Jared wrote the story of Frank with Frank with in mind to get it done as a movie. Sadly Frank passed away, and the film was never made. Patrick J. Kennedy had the brilliant idea to do it as a graphic novel. Jared saw my ALI biopic at Strand and contacted me.

    Jated gave me a script (whom he had previously reworked to add more voice over by Frank. And he totally trust me for the visuals. My main goal was to not cut one word from the script to reciprocitate the respectbhe gave me. We were really in sinc while working on the book (me in Paris, him in NY, while never talkingbto each other).
    He wanted to add a scene where the cop shout “white power, white power” (page 132) but nit finding the right place in the story, he cut it.
    One day after watching the scene in a documentary, i was so shocked that i ask if i could add it to the book. He was awfully happy about that.

    Take care Ryan, and stay safe.
    Amé

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