Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White takes advantage of the generic pluralism comics have enjoyed, or suffered, since becoming “respectable” in the mid-1980s. Expertly drawn with pencil, ink, and gouache, with a dash of Adobe InDesign, this coming-of-age memoir is also an immigrant story of the author’s Argentinian family and a unique account of the civil rights era in 1960s Marion, Alabama, from the point of view of a young Hispanic girl whose skin color defied easy racial categorizing. Although other graphic novels have covered the civil rights movement (notably Ho Che Anderson’s King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Weaver’s vantage point allows for fresh insights into race, language acquisition, and immigration.
This memoir is deeply invested not only in a photographic sense of seeing, witnessing, and documenting, but is also caught in that liminal moment when “the latent image flowers” before our very eyes.
Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Darkroom blends family history with political unrest using a black-and-white palette, but the influence of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home looms large here, as Weaver deploys a similar archive of correspondence, diary entries, photographs, books, newspapers, maps, and graphs. In the book’s final pages, Weaver confesses: “Every image I have of Argentina is faded, borrowed, inherited, outdated, or imagined,” and this holds for the memoir as a whole. There is no discernible aesthetic difference between the imagined and witnessed moments; both are portrayed with the same photographic realism and superimposed seamlessly, interspersed with flowing strips of film that seem to conjure the “Black Belt” in which the story takes place.
Memoirs have come to be a dominant genre for graphic narrative, where the best graphic memoirists seem able to transpose the very building blocks of memory into the comics form, whose fragmented hybrid of words and images could be said to mimic the mnemonic process. Chris Ware claims that comics are “a possible metaphor for memory and recollection,”1 just as Art Spiegelman speaks of comics’ ability to “materialize” the past.2 This particular memoir, as the title Darkroom
suggests, is deeply invested not only in a photographic sense of seeing, witnessing, and documenting, but is also caught in that liminal moment when “the latent image flowers” before our very eyes. Eyes are in fact the most recurrent image in the book, staring back at the reader with serenity, racial hatred, fear, shock, love. The author’s own irises punctuate the story (those are her eyes on the cover), often blending uncertainty with tenderness, shrinking behind her thick glasses only to be finally rescued by contact lenses.
A historical event lies at the traumatic core of this tale: a 1965 march for African American voting rights in Marion, Alabama, that was interrupted by police brutality and murder. The sequence is treated with appropriate darkness; it is told in ten literally black pages (“full bleeds”) that constitute a sinister block visible even when the book is closed. Yet Weaver adopts an aesthetic and scholarly distance towards this horrific episode that weakens its impact, perhaps because she did not witness the events herself. Just as her father seemed to regard the march as nothing more than “an interesting experiment in low-lighting photography,” Weaver seems only cursorily interested in its political significance. The description of protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder as “a shot in the dark” is made trivial not only by the phrase’s photographic double entendre, but also through its intertextual allusion to the second Pink Panther movie cited earlier in the book. In fact, the night march sequence is nowhere near as frightening as the reproductions from Weaver’s Know Alabama history textbook, whose contents expose the racist ideology of the south better than any of her drawings do.
At their best, Weaver’s “illustrations”—as she calls them in a recent interview3—are akin to photographs that were developed in some magical, unknown substance that bestows a surreal vividness to the paper. But a few seem rushed and most tend to merely illustrate the narrative rather than add a deeper dimension (this is particularly the case in the epilogue); there are, however, some memorably clever moments such as the steak shaped like a delicious Argentina or the African-American students entering school from outside the panel borders to symbolize desegregation. In the end, one wishes Weaver had let the latent images “flower” a little longer in the darkroom of her “mind’s eye.”
- Chris Ware, “Introduction,” The Best American Comics 2007, ed. Anne Elizabeth Moore and Chris Ware (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), xxii. ↩
- The ways that literature and photography “materialize” history and memory have often been discussed; Hillary L. Chute expands on comics’ particular relation to “materializing” the past in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). ↩
- John Hogan, “Color Blind: Lila Quintero Weaver on Darkroom’s Past and Present,” Graphic Novel Reporter, accessed June 18, 2012, http://graphicnovelreporter.com/content/color-blind-lila-quintero-weaver-darkroom%E2%80%99s-past-and-present-interview. Weaver explains in the interview that she first wrote an “all-text version” that she “later developed” into “fully illustrated drafts.” This may help explain why some of Darkroom can feel more like an illustrated book than a comic. ↩