Worth a thousand words

“I’m not really a superhero person,” announces Deirdre Jones, a member of First Aid Comics’s graphic novel discussion club as she snacks on Skittles.

On a weekday, Jones might be in First Aid buying Spiderman comics for her six-year-old son–the ones that feature Miles Morales, an African-American and Latino boy trying to get into charter school. But not tonight. Though many members of the group have children, none of their progeny are present at these Sunday evening gatherings.

Last week, the group gathered to discuss “Nat Turner,” the biographical graphic novel by Kyle Baker. Wesley Sun, another member of the group, recalls, “In high school we read a paragraph on Nat Turner, and I was interested. Reading this was the first time I learned more.”

Described by one member as a “silent film graphic novel,” the book probes the morally ambiguous elements of Nat Turner’s story. As Jones says, “Some people see him as a psycho, others as a hero.” While the cover of the novel is splashed with blood, the discussion group is careful to insist that these killings did not occur in a vacuum, but within the crucible of racism. They eagerly address the creation of historical narrative. A discussion breaks out about how Kyle Baker deviated from the typical telling of the Nat Turner story by playing with the relationship between text and visuals.

First Aid Comics’s discussion group is organized as a partnership between the owner, James Nurss, and the group’s regular members. Nurss provides a space and allows them to stay after business hours and order pizza; the group picks the novels. They meet at a table squeezed into a back alcove of the shop’s Hyde Park storefront. The interior is wallpapered with comic books: the shelves of Asterix, Archie, and Wolverine reach nearly to the ceiling. There’s a stuffed Batman flying near the heating pipes and a Spiderman peeking out the front window.

Two of the members, brothers Wesley and Bradley Sun, are working on a graphic novel themselves. Entitled “Chinatown,” it’s about the neighborhood’s haunted houses, and contains elements of magical realism and horror. As artists themselves, the brothers appreciate the visual dimension that comics bring to a story, as well as their possibilities for fantasy. For Jones and a few other members of the group, graphic novels provide a new way to plumb issues they’re already interested in, like race, ethnicity or history. These weekly conversations go far beyond favorite villains or plot twists. Though they don’t enjoy being labeled as intellectual, that doesn’t mean their discussions don’t pack a cerebral punch.

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