In a narrative landscape increasingly peppered with multiversal potentialities, Prof. Alan Jenkins joins Andrew Irvin for a conversation today on his recent collaboration with co-writer, Gan Golan and artist, Will Rosado, on the gripping 1/6: The Graphic Novel, which contends with the reality that may have eventuated had Trump's administration and supporters succeeded in their ill-conceived insurrection attempt.
Comic Book Yeti: Thank you for joining us, Alan! How are things back in Cambridge? Prof. Alan Jenkins: Thanks for having me! I’ve actually been traveling most of the summer, including to San Diego Comic Con and Washington, D.C.’s AwesomeCon. It was my first time at both, and they were as great as advertised. 1/6: The Graphic Novel was also a hit with these hard-core comic book fans, which I view as the real test of our series.
CBY: That's great news! In sharing 1/6 - though we’re now more than two years on from that horribly conceived coup attempt - the specter of fascism, challenges on democratic norms, and assaults on civil rights continue by various elements of the American Right Wing and Neo-Conservative movement. What sort of perspective have you gained in the period since January 6th, 2021, and how long did it take you to distill your alternate future into a cogent story for illustration by your collaborators?
AJ: Taking your second question first: the authoritarian, hateful, dystopian regime that we depict in the series came to me before the Insurrection had even ended, because that’s the nation that Donald Trump tried to create throughout his presidency. I knew that if Trump were left to his own devices, he would immediately lurch toward totalitarianism and away from democracy, toward bigotry and away from the idea that we’re all created equal. But when my co-writer Gan Golan joined the project, he immediately brought a wealth of new ideas and specific details—for example, the battle drones, the militias’ obsession with swag, and the golden Trump statue. The same thing happened when our penciler and inker, Will Rosado, came on board. He created compelling images that neither Gan nor I had thought of.
As to your first question: I’ve been stunned in the months and years since the Insurrection at how many politicians have cynically defended the Big Lie (that Trump somehow won the 2020 election) and tried to deny that a deadly and seditious Insurrection even happened. At least 179 election deniers were elected or re-elected in 2022 and many of the political leaders who condemned the Insurrection and Trump’s role in it at the time have since become apologists for both. On another front, we learned a huge amount about the details of the Insurrection from the House Select Committee hearings, from the successful prosecutions of Proud Boys and Oath Keepers leaders, and from the indictment of Donald Trump for his role in the Insurrection. Each time there are new revelations, we have to decide whether to update the script to include them.
CBY: You’ve already included a brief Q&A at the conclusion of issue #1, so I don’t want to tread on worn ground. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood both garner mention, and I wanted to explore the distinction between speculative fiction and science fiction on your terms. How would you separate the two, and to what degree do you utilize an overlap in the two approaches to the medium? I am gathering we don’t see any sort of multiversal phase shift allowing a better reality to resolve the civil unrest and fascist consolidation of power that emerges in 1/6? What can we expect in terms of what constitutes heroism in your narrative world?
AJ: I think of science fiction as a sub-genre of speculative fiction (which also includes alternative history, fantasy, and horror). In issues #1 and #2, there is no technology or science that doesn’t exist in real life (including the surveillance drones), so it’s really the alternative history brand of speculative fiction. Things are going to get a little weirder in Issues #3 and #4, but I’ll let readers find out how on their own. We were inspired by comic book classics like X-Men Days of Future Past and Marvel’s What If? series as well as novelists like Butler, Atwood, and Orwell.
Readers are going to encounter heroism in many forms in forthcoming issues, primarily from everyday people struggling to reclaim our democracy. And, importantly, our characters won’t always agree on what the pillars of that democracy are or should be. We think that empathy for all kinds of people is an important principle for storytelling, as well as for our democracy. That’s why our protagonists include progressive activists and MAGA voters, centrists and radicals, all portrayed, we hope, with dignity and respect.
CBY: I’ve done a lot of work with organizations of all types over the past decade, and I often say, the three pillars of poor governance are; incompetence, laziness, and corruption. We saw all three rampantly present in the previous Republican administration. In the context of 1/6, which do you feel takes center stage? In the context of our current reality, which of these three levers can civil society exert the most force upon to instigate change in the interest of broader social equity?
AJ: Haha, well said. A prominent driver of the 1/6 Insurrection was a particular kind of corruption: a willingness to trample our democratic principles, our Constitution, and the truth in order to hold on to power. Another driver was hate. This was an attack on our democracy fueled by antisemitism, white supremacy, and Christian nationalism, as well as by lies and disinformation. Those forces are not new in our nation, but it’s been a long time since they threatened to overturn our very government or received the endorsement of our Commander-in-Chief. Fortunately, the best antidote for political corruption and bigotry is the activism of Americans who believe in the tenets of equality and democracy. Their voices, their votes, and their inclusive vision can chart a path back toward our nation’s highest values. CBY: Putting on your Law Professor cap for a moment, can you lay out in comprehensible terms for the average Comic Book Yeti reader (dapper, erudite, etc.) the sort of scenario that you speculate would have taken place upon the seizure of the presidential office in the wake of the insurrection on 1/6? What kind of world are we stepping into if the current conservative movement in the United States is given any room to exert its power without checks and balances?
AJ: It’s impossible to know for sure, but in the wake of violent mob rule, I believe insurrectionists at every level would have done the worst of what they tried, promised, or threatened to do leading up to the attack on the Capitol. Martial law, suspending of the Constitution, and the calls to “Hang Mike Pence” were all in the real-world mix that day, and I see them as all likely outcomes if the coup had succeeded. Trump had long labeled news outlets like CNN and the New York Times “enemies of the people” and called anti-racism protestors “terrorists.” It’s safe to assume that he and his forces would have acted on those declarations in the wake of a violent coup.
CBY: Yes, it's important to reckon with the fact there were significant factions of the Conservative Christian Right essentially threatening an American Kristallnacht, and they haven't stopped waiting impatiently in the wings for any opportunity to assert control. To return to the medium and step back from the message, can you tell us how you met Gan Golan and formalized your collaborative process? When did Will Rosado come into the picture on pencils and inks, along with Lee Loughridge on colors and Tom Orzechowski on lettering?
AJ: Gan and I had worked together on another, much shorter comic book: Helvetika Bold. From that, and from his own graphic novel, The Adventures of Unemployed Man, I knew him to be a gifted artist and storyteller with a wicked sense of humor and a knack for pulling in readers. I pitched the idea to Gan and he was immediately in. It was Gan who recruited Lee Loughridge and Tom Orzechowski, with whom he’d worked before. We were very lucky to attract veteran Marvel and DC inker and penciler Will Rosado. Will has a breadth of experience across genres and has brilliantly brought this world and its characters to life. He was also the illustrator behind La Borinqueña, the first female Puerto Rican superhero. It’s a great team.
CBY: I had the opportunity recently to speak with Edgardo about La Borinqueña, and it's good to see Will lending his talents to visually support crucial voices advocating civic engagement and equitable representation. You’ve pulled together a number of artists for variant covers, and I can’t help but notice thanks extended to a variety of foundations, which is not always the case when funding the launch of a comic book or graphic novel. Can you elaborate a bit on what sort of promotional efforts when into enlisting artists for alternate covers and bringing other institutions into the production of this story? How did you make your vision and intent clear prior to the finalization of the title’s publication?
AJ: Variant covers present a great opportunity to incorporate different tones, visions, and visualizations of our characters and world. Soon after establishing our main artistic team, we reached out to a range of talented folks—Pia Guerra, Alex Albadree, Jamal Igle, and Shawn Martinbrough to depict the world of 1/6 through their own eyes and sensibilities in variant covers. In each case, they revealed new perspectives that we hadn’t thought of, but are incorporating going forward. We did a Kickstarter, and we’re very grateful to the many, many supporters who helped us make this idea a reality. A number of foundations have also been helpful on the charitable aspects of this project, including producing an Education and Action Guide with the Western States Center and sending several thousand free copies of Issue #1 to libraries and universities, as well to as pro-democracy and civil rights organizations around the country.
CBY: I’m sure it was worrying to many organizations and individuals the potential widespread consequences of what happens in the event our governance systems and social norms are successfully undermined. I’d like to turn now to what’s happening in our Supreme Court, hopefully drawing upon your professional experience with former Justice Harry A. Blackmun. We’re seeing the ramifications of a variety of appointments made under the previous administration that have flaunted broadly norms and are proving dangerously retrogressive in their rulings. Outside the amplification exercise provided by infusing popular media (like comic books) with cautionary tales such as 1/6, how can concerned citizens address the law of the land not coinciding with the popular sentiment? Do we fight this at the level of lower courts through prosecutorial and judicial elections to prevent key issues from getting elevated to an unbalanced and non-representative Supreme Court? How do we assert our rights individually and collectively to achieve greater justice and equity?
AJ: It’s a great question. First is voting with the courts in mind. Presidents nominate federal judges and Supreme Court Justices, and U.S. Senators confirm or reject them. People who care about democracy and constitutional rights need to stay educated about the issues that come before the courts and vote for presidential and senatorial candidates who are committed to upholding those principles. At the state and local levels, you are definitely correct that judicial and prosecutor elections are critical—most questions of justice play out at the those levels and voting can have an outsized influence. Organizing and speaking out on the issues is also important; courts do pay attention, even if they don’t always follow suit. More broadly, it’s important to push for civil rights and freedoms through local, state, and federal policies when the Supreme Court fails to protect them.
CBY: After only one issue, I’m curious to see how the plot of 1/6 plays out - without spoiling anything from the forthcoming issues, can you comment a bit on how domestic civil rights challenges might connect to the broader fight for justice and equity on an international geo-political scale? How do we connect the socio-economic and racial struggles taking place for centuries in the United States to those underway across the world?
AJ: Democracy is under threat around the world, and scapegoating people of color and immigrants is a common tactic of dictators and demagogues trying to aggregate their own power. From Hungary to Sri Lanka to India, from Poland to Venezuela to Turkey, we see would-be strongmen (they are almost always men) vilifying their country’s most vulnerable minorities and abusing power. Political and physical attacks on immigrants, people of color, and Queer folks are, sadly, not unique to the United States. The good news is that we can collaborate and learn from each other across borders to promote democracy and uphold human rights. The characters in 1/6 will be drawing from past and present freedom struggles around the world, as well as the deep roots of our own movements for freedom and equality, to resist and hopefully overcome. And they won’t be the first. In 1956, the comic book The Montgomery Story detailed Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks’ nonviolent victory over segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama and beyond. The comic book was passed across generations of changemakers, including copies (translated into Arabic) read decades later by organizers of the Arab Spring. It turns out that a comic book can help to save democracy, but it also requires courageous and strategic activists and leaders.
CBY: I don’t get to ask this sort of question very often, but since you’re a law professor with an interest in creative pursuits such as scriptwriting for both comics and the screen, let’s delve into your course offerings. If you could craft your class schedule with four courses over the year on any topics - departmental requirements notwithstanding - what are the names/one-line descriptions for your four courses, and in each course, what would one key required reading be for your students?
AJ: I. Communication, Law & Social Justice—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail
II. Race & the Law—Derrick Bell’s Chronicle of the Space Traders
III. Narrative & Supreme Court Jurisprudence—Peggy Cooper Davis, et al., The Persistence of the Confederate Narrative.
VI. Pop Culture Strategies for Social Change—Superman Smashes the Klan By the way, I already teach the first three!
CBY: It sounds like anyone starting at Harvard Law in the fall is in for a treat, and hopefully they let you add the fourth course before too long! It also sounds like you’ve got a wide array of irons in the fire, so I’m curious - what other comics, film, literature, music, and other media is garnering your attention lately? When you do find the time, what is helping you find creative energy and recalibrate yourself?
AJ: I’m a martial artist (Northern Eagle Claw style) and kung fu movies are my refuge. Watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon for the 7th time (this month) is all the recalibration that I need. I’ve also been digging American Born Chinese, Polite Society, and Everything Everywhere All at Once (Michelle Yeoh is a goddess!).
CBY: You can't go wrong with the giants of kung fu cinema. Alan, thank you for taking time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule to share with our readers some of your insights on the role of comics in the fight for social justice. Along with your social media and links to where we can find more information on 1/6, please let us know any organizations or initiatives that may enable us, as citizens both in the United States and abroad, to better engage in dialogues around civil liberties and support meaningful action.
AJ: Thanks so much, it’s been a blast! Readers can buy 1/6: The Graphic Novel on Amazon, at www.OneSixComicsStore.com, and at select comic book stores. I hope your readers will also check out Western States Center (www.westernstatescenter.org). WSC is an amazing pro-democracy organization that is doing great work at the grassroots level around the country. The Education and Action Guide that we produced with them (www.onesixcomics.org) is chock full of things that everyday folks can do to uphold our nation’s highest values. Finally, The Opportunity Agenda (www.opportunityagenda.org), an organization that I co-founded over a decade ago, offers tools and resources for expanding opportunity and upholding human rights through communication and popular culture.