How one Baltimore comic writer brings James Baldwin's Parisian experience to life

In recent years, James Baldwin’s writings have found new life in the form of various media adaptations: a documentary (“I Am Not Your Negro”), a feature film (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and now, thanks to Baltimore comic writer Jordan Clark, a comic book.

“Still Not Equal,” by Clark and U.K.-based artist Nicole Miles, is a short comic inspired by Baldwin’s 1955 essay “Equal in Paris.” In the essay, Baldwin describes eight days in 1949, including Christmas Day, that he spent as the only African-American inmate in a Paris jail after unwittingly accepting a stolen bedsheet from an acquaintance. It was Baldwin’s darkly humorous and despairing account of how “something so benign” could quickly turn into something serious and even potentially tragic that struck a nerve, Clark said.

“These experiences continue to happen even though it’s been [60] years since he wrote this essay,” said Clark, who draws parallels between Baldwin’s ordeal and the often-tragic encounters that people of color, like Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland, continue to have with the criminal justice system today.

Recently reached by phone, the Mount Vernon resident spoke with The Baltimore Sun about why he writes comics, what Baldwin means to him and how living in Baltimore has shaped his work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you get into comic book writing?

I’ve been a comics fan basically my whole life. I was into all the superheroes when I was younger. Then I fell out of it a bit in middle and high school. Where I grew up in Montgomery County, there weren’t any comic book shops where I could go to read them regularly.

When I got to college at Morgan State University, I had a professor [Todd Steven Burroughs] who was really into comics and pop culture. He showed me graphic novels like Watchmen and Maus, things beyond the superhero set. That’s where I fell in love with comic books again.

Once I graduated — I went to school for broadcast journalism — I wanted to do TV, broadcast and film things, but it’s very difficult to get people together to finance those kinds of projects. But I had stories I wanted to tell, and I figured comics would be an easier, cheaper and more open way to do it. So I started writing comics five years ago and have kept at it ever since.

You often explore social issues in your comics. To what extent does your own cultural identity feed into your work?

My mom is Puerto Rican. My dad is black. I identify as both, and I definitely appreciate both sides of where I come from.

As a creator and artist, I feel like it can be tricky, because I think everybody has that mentality of: “It would be nice if people just looked at me for me. If it wasn’t a situation where everything I wrote was like, ‘black writer Jordan Clark’ or ‘Latinx writer Jordan Clark,’ and it was just ‘writer.’ ”

At the same time, I feel a responsibility to tell these stories, because the reality is, somebody else is going to do it. If people of color don’t do it, somebody else is going to do it.

So for me, something I think I’ve grown into more and more as I’ve been creating is — saying “owning” an identity feels weird. But I’m definitely embracing it more and putting more of it into my work.

Tell me about your collaboration with Nicole Miles, who did the artwork for “Still Not Equal.” How did that come about?

There’s a great website called Cartoonists of Color, which is a database of [diverse] artists, writers, cartoonists and illustrators. I try to match story content with collaborators, so I wanted somebody of color to help me tell the story. I was able to find and contact her there. [Miles is from the Bahamas and identifies as black Caribbean. “Serendipitously, I was also able to help a little with the French translations,” she said in an email.]

In Baldwin’s eyes, it was his American-ness rather than his blackness that put him at a disadvantage with the French police. What do you make of this observation?

At the time, there was a huge exodus of black artists and intellectuals who had left America to go to Paris. Paris was seen as a free-thinking, open space. But every place has its prejudices. There’s always going to be the “other” no matter where you go.

Baldwin also said that in America, he had a playbook of what to do when he was confronted by white people or the police. As opposed to Paris, where there was a language barrier, but it was also a situation where he didn’t know how to read people, since they weren’t necessarily treating him differently because of his race.

It is a very interesting counterpoint, that he escapes one form of stereotype and oppression only to find himself with a completely different type of stereotype and oppression, and neither one is something that he can shake himself out of.

This isn’t in the essay or your comic, but after Baldwin was released, he tried to hang himself in his hotel room on a sheet that he tied to a water pipe. Fortunately, the pipe broke, and he didn’t make a second attempt. I think that speaks volumes about his despair over the experience.

It’s also another unfortunately striking similarity to Kalief Browder, who spent three years in jail for a backpack that he didn’t steal and hung himself when he got out. That trauma is the other part of the essay that resonates, because there are a lot of times where the system is so ambivalent about the people that have to go through it. These events have real effects on people’s lives.

You’ve lived in Baltimore for 11 years. What’s your impression of the city?

It’s been great. Baltimore doesn’t feel like a city that’s putting up a front, if that makes sense. It feels very real and genuine, and the people you meet are real and genuine.

What about the local comics scene?

There’s a bunch of us out here. I’m part of a group called Bmore Into Comics. It’s a comics collective with writers and artists like Kata Kane, Monica Gallagher, Parker Hicks, David Crispino, Anna Sellheim and more. And obviously MICA [the Maryland Institute College of Art] is full of incredible students and professors who are doing really wonderful, inspiring work.

Has being in Baltimore inspired you?

Yeah, even just going back to the uprising [after the death of Freddie Gray], being here for that. … Seeing the buildup to that and the aftermath definitely inspired me in terms of speaking out and being more vocal about civil rights topics. Not just in my work, but also in my personal life.

All the good things that Baltimore has to offer go into my work as well. You see some stuff in Baltimore sometimes that you don’t see anywhere else. And you’re just kind of like, “That could be a story.” I definitely credit Baltimore for a lot of my creative energies.

czhang@baltsun.com

twitter.com/christinezhang

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