The Silence of Our Friends

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As the civil rights struggle heats up in Texas, two families—one white, one black—find common ground.

This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students ...

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As the civil rights struggle heats up in Texas, two families—one white, one black—find common ground.

This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.

The Silence of Our Friends follows events through the point of view of young Mark Long, whose father is a reporter covering the story. Semi-fictionalized, this story has its roots solidly in very real events. With art from the brilliant Nate Powell (Swallow Me Whole) bringing the tale to heart-wrenching life, The Silence of Our Friends is a new and important entry in the body of civil rights literature.


The Silence of Our Friends Author Q&A

How much of this book's story is based on real events?

Mark Long: Creating a book like this one required us to find a balance between factual accuracy and emotional authenticity.  Some details as well as names have been changed for storytelling purposes. But the facts are that in 1967 Texas Southern University students began a boycott of classes after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating  Committee was banned from campus, and on May 17th they staged a sit down protest on Wheeler Avenue over conditions at the nearby city garbage dump. The protest evolved into an police riot that night when an undercover officer was shot and over 200 officers responded by pouring rifle and machinegun fire into the men’s dormitory.  The police later stormed the dormitory and arrested 489 students after a policeman was shot and killed.  All but 5 of the students were released the next day. They came to be called the “TSU Five” and were charged with the murder of the slain officer. Only one of the students stood trial in Victoria Texas due to publicity in Houston. His trial ended with the dismissal of all charges against the five when it was discovered that the officer was shot accidentally by another officer.

With the civil rights struggle as a backdrop to the story, how did you balance a contemporary perspective on race with the reality of race issues at the time?

Nate Powell: While visualizing and adapting Mark’s largely autobiographical work on the story, I found myself calling on my own experiences as a kid in Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the 1980’s. Though the story takes place in a specific historical framework, many of the attitudes, details, atmospheric elements, and anecdotes were extremely familiar to me — sometimes too familiar. As the pages progressed, the twenty years between our Southern childhood experiences didn’t seem like much of a difference at all, which was certainly disturbing at times.

There were frequent case-by-case conversations about accurate depictions of racism, the privilege of authorship, and inherent charge carried by racism’s role in the book. Generally speaking, we determined that this was in many ways a brutal story but a very accurate one, and respecting the very real violence carried by certain words and actions allowed us to give them their ugly space in the narrative, for better or for worse.

Is much knowledge of the civil rights movement required?

Mark Long: Everything that pushes the narrative forward is contained within the story’s pages, and a lot of the civil rights and struggle-related content is specific to Houston in 1967-68. It definitely covers what readers might need to know without having expertise on the civil rights movement. Having said that, however, I think readers are rewarded throughout the book as characters are offered windows through which they witness a much more massive social upheaval, framed within the last few months of Dr. Martin Luther King’s too-short life.

There's no easy way to categorize this book, how would you describe it?

Mark Long: I’d say it’s a culture’s own coming-of-age tale. By that, I mean it’s first and foremost an exploration of shifting boundaries: towns and neighborhoods, friends and families, customs and attitudes all on the threshold of massive (and ongoing) change. The boundaries themselves take on lives of their own at times. In a more traditional sense, it’s also equal parts a story centering on two families’ internal relationships as they find themselves in each other’s orbit, struggle narrative, friendship-betrayal tale, and courtroom drama.

Why choose to tell this story in a graphic format?

Nate Powell: As the story’s climax is dependent on sorting through multiple points of view, it’s appropriate that comics are ideal medium by which to tell a tale with so many lenses. The book offers a pretty intimate view of the world through main characters’ points of view, but bringing the narrative even closer through Mark’s eyes and balancing them all without judgment highlight the strengths of comics storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From the opening scene, this graphic novel written by Long and Demonakos is compelling. Set in Houston in 1968, it tells the story of two families—one black and one white—who are witness to and participants in events that shaped the South in the late 1960s. The novel is a loosely autobiographical account of the Long family, who moved from San Antonio to Houston in 1966, and experienced the protests, violence, and struggle for freedom that characterized the Third and Fifth Wards. Long’s father had moved to Houston to take a job as a local television reporter, and there he met Larry Thomas, the editor of an antipoverty weekly. This graphic novel presents an engrossing narrative about race in America, while honestly dealing with a host of other real-world issues, including familial relationships, friendship, dependency, “other”-ness, and perhaps most importantly, the search for common ground. Powell—an award-winning cartoonist in his own right for Swallow Me Whole—tells a story in pictures that is just as compelling as what Long and Demonakos tell in words. (Jan.)
VOYA - Suanne Roush
In the tradition of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003) and Art Speiglman's Maus (Pantheon, 1993/VOYA June 1992), Long's graphic novel is a fictionalized account about living in Houston in 1968. His family moved to Houston from San Antonio due to his father's job as a television reporter. Because Jack Long covered the barrio in San Antonio, he gets labeled as the "race reporter" and is sent to cover the demonstrations on the Texas Southern University campus. They live in a very racist neighborhood, where the Klan attaches fliers to the doorknobs. One of the spokespeople of the TSU demonstration is a black professor, Larry Thompson, who lives in one of the poorest wards across the "color line." Thompson's wife and neighbors are as militantly racist as Jack Long's neighbors, but the two men realize that the only way things are going to change is to come to a common understanding and communication. This begins with Long and his wife reaching out to Thompson's family with an invitation to their house. Covering a time period of societal unrest from Viet Nam to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Silence uses realistic black-and-white illustrations to convey a subject that is not black and white. The novel could be useful in a history or sociology course for advanced students. The language, although accurate to the time, is a powder keg and will create more problems than it is probably worth. It should, even with that potential, be in the collection. Reviewer: Suanne Roush
Library Journal
Local TV reporting was not a glam gig in the late 1960s, especially when it covers racial ferment in the South. Long grew up in a KKK-leaning white Texas neighborhood, and his family walked a dangerous path in befriending an African American couple involved in the civil rights movement. In this lightly fictionalized account, Long's reporter father overcomes hesitation and supervisor prejudice to provide testimony that helped free five students accused of killing a white policeman during a sit-in at Texas Southern University. The sit-in was intended to protest harassment by hostile locals who had injured a black child while driving dangerously and yelling insults along the campus main drag. The title derives from a Martin Luther King quote: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends." VERDICT A moving evocation of a tipping point in our country's regrettable history of race relations, Long and Demonakos's story flows perfectly in Eisner and Ignatz Award winner Powell's (Swallow Me Whole) graceful and vivid yet unpretty black-and-gray wash. A concise time line would have been helpful as back matter. Great for history classes and interested readers, teen through adult.—M.C.
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up—The year 1968 was a tense time to be growing up in Houston. Mark Long, the white protagonist of this gripping graphic novel-like Mark Long, the author—is the son of the local TV station's "race reporter." The more contact his dad has with civil rights protesters and law enforcement, the more motivated he becomes to speak up against racism at work and at home. Bigotry, police brutality, and civilian violence, as well as nonviolent marches and sit-ins, are depicted from the point of view of young Mark, his father, and a black activist and his family who become acquainted with the Longs. Well-chosen scenes—among them a prison rodeo and a black church service—move the story along while illuminating it from many angles. Dialogue is so natural as to be completely unobtrusive. Powell uses a mixture of large and small panels along with a variety of frame compositions and points of view to give the book a cinematic realism. From this intimate vantage point, racist incidents are shockingly ugly, while happy domestic moments—as when the kids from both families belt out "Soul Man"—are unself-consciously beautiful. The youthful protagonist and graphic-novel format will plunge readers into a time that can seem very distant. Ideal as a class read, absorbing for solo readers.—Paula Willey, Baltimore County Public Library, Towson, MD
Douglas Wolk
…convincingly depicts the systemic racism, blatant and subtle, that suffused and corroded everything during [the] period…[Popwell's] imagery amplifies the effects of the book's multiple perspectives—the overwhelmed kid's-eye view of uneasy family dynamics and open Texas spaces, the hyperkinetic chaos on campus, the cropped literalism of TV newscasts.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596436183
  • Publisher: First Second
  • Publication date: 1/17/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 383,660
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Long is a video game designer and producer living in Seattle. The Silence of Our Friends is based on Long’s childhood experiences with the civil rights movement in suburban Houston, Texas.

Jim Demonakos founded Seattle’s annual Emerald City Comicon, as well as The Comic Stop chain of retail stores. He has written, edited, and promoted a variety of books for different publishers throughout his career. He lives in the Seattle area.

Nate Powell is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Swallow Me Whole (an LA Times Book Prize finalist, the 2009 Eisner Award winner for Best Graphic Novel, and an Ignatz Award winner). He is currently working on an illustrated novel for Roaring Brook Press, with author Cecil Castellucci. Nate lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife.

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Reading Group Guide

For Discussion:

The Silence of Our Friends is a graphic novel, a story told in words and pictures. How

do you think this story would be told differently if it was a novel, with only words?

How would it be different if it was a movie, with just pictures?

This book is based on a true story; the character of Mark is based on one of the

authors, Mark Long. How do you think you would feel about the events that occur in

this book if you were in his place?

The Silence of Our Friends is a black and white book. How would the experience of

the book be different if this book was in color?

This book is set in the sixties. What was your hometown like in the sixties? Was

there a similar amount of racial tension to Houston? Explain why things in your

hometown were similar or different.

The characters in this book live in the shadow of the Vietnam War. What would it be

like to think that you’ll grow up to die in Vietnam like Mark does?

Jack’s problems at work have to do with his boss and the company owner having very

different ideas of how he should be handling his job. What would you do in this


What do you think the children in this book will grow up to be?

This book contains a great deal of imitative play – kids pretending to be reporters,

inheriting their parents’ ideas, etc. What does this say about the influences in a kids

life? Do you think this is accurate?

One of the reasons to make a book about a less well-known historical event is to

promote attention and awareness about it. What other less-known historical events do

you think should become books?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 28, 2014

    This snapshot of the author's experience during the civil rights

    This snapshot of the author's experience during the civil rights movement was poignant and thought-provoking.

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  • Posted July 6, 2012

    not bad...but not great either

    as a lover of graphic novels, i was very disappointed. there was an okay plot line and complimentary pictures that showed the action, not the beautiful weaving interplay a true graphic novel should have. the topic of the book is important but the timeline is historically inaccurate to serve the author's purposes. all in all, it was a fast and unsatisfying read. i just really feel that with the great potential of that moment in history and the personal connection the author had to it, he could've done something more.

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  • Posted June 26, 2012

    Not worth the read

    When I found this one in the library I was really excited to read it, because I'm always very interested in the civil rights struggle and I had seen some pretty decent reviews of this one floating around the internet so I thought why not? Let's give it a go.

    Now while I understand that the author used some of his own experiences in writing the graphic novel I thought that the story line was flat. The graphic novel started out on a high note, but it quickly went down hill because the story was so fragmented in my opinion it was hard to know what was going on because it jumped so wildly from page to page in terms of the story line.

    I will say thought that the author did give a good portrayal of the south during this period and that came through in the illustrations which I thought were really good, I thought the style of the artwork suited the time period in which the grqaphic novel was set and for me the artwork was the only thing that I enjoyed about the graphic novel.

    I probably wouldn't recommend this graphic novel to anyone just because of how I felt about it though don't let that stop you because I seem to be in the minority for this one. If you are going to try it be warned there are some racial slurs in it as well as a few F-Bombs as well.

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