The Wondrous Comics Life of Junot Díaz
Comics fans noticed a nice shout-out at the beginning of Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: The very first line of the book quotes legendary comic book The Fantastic Four. Díaz, a creative writing professor at MIT, sprinkles references to comics throughout the book, so it should be no surprise that this author has a love for the format that goes way back. Díaz is also responsible for one of the upcoming panels at the Miami Book Fair, one dealing with the topic of how race, color, and culture are represented in comics. We recently spoke with him about all this.
Did you grow up reading comics?
I did. I started out watching the 1967 Spider-Man series while I was in the Dominican Republic, was a HUGE fan, and actually have an enormous scar on my abdomen from getting carried away and trying to BE Spider-Man and falling out of a tree onto a barb wire fence. Nearly gutted myself. After immigrating to New Jersey, I read comic books sedulously.
What influence did comics have on you as a child?
Well, I would say they were a source of escape and comfort but more important, they were a way for me to understand the world. I came from such an extreme background. I had immigrated, which at that time felt like a form of time travel, was from a country that had been dominated by a Viktor von Doom–type dictator for more than 30 years, a country that had endured genocides, slavery, eugenic experimentation, alien contact—historical traumas that I didn’t see reflected in the realistic narratives of everyday New Jersey, but that I found always and explicitly in comic books. Those four-colored throwaways seemed to reflect the world I knew, in ways few other texts did.
Do you continue to read them today?
Yup. On any given Wednesday, you can find me at my local comic-book store: Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square [in Cambridge, Massachusetts].
Comics played a role in your prize-winning book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Why was that important for you to include in the book?
Well, it was one of the protagonist’s favorite mediums. And since I was talking about extreme humanity (dictatorship, immigration, the echoes of genocide, slavery, etc.), the comic characters and narratives that I included helped to explain and reinforce how weird all these things were.
What are some of your favorite comics, manga, and graphic novels?
These days I read Fables, Crossed, I Am Legion, Sword, Love and Rockets, Monster, 20th Century Boys, Eden: It’s an Endless World!, Cursed Pirate Girl, etc. But if we’re talking about my all-time favorites, I was a freshman in college when Watchmen and Miller’s Dark Knight and Otomo’s Akira were rolling out. Those three books, plus Miracleman and Love and Rockets and Mister X and Murphy and Zulli’s Puma Blues were and continue to be the most important.
The “Color of Comics” theme for the Miami Book Fair came about because of a conversation you had with John Shableski of Diamond about how different races are represented in comics. How did that conversation go?
There’s a lot of resistance—conservative, regressive resistance in the fanboy community to talking about issues of race or gender or homophobia in comics—it’s f---ing scary some of the s--t that gets thrown about online in talk-backs. All the main heroes in traditional superhero comics are whiter than white, whiter than even the U.S. Senate; in some ways, mainstream comics are still having trouble coming of age. Our country is far more interesting and diverse than most mainstream comics are willing or even capable of acknowledging. And yet on another level, comics are more diverse than they’ve ever been—at the level of artist and writers and editors, at the level of readership, in their attempts to represent the stupendously transnational, transcultural heterogeneous world in which we live. There are these tensions and there is the fact that the contributions of comic folks of color has been undervalued and the fact that if comic books want to survive, they’ve got to start speaking to more than just a couple types of peoples—all these things were what we were talking about, thinking about when we had our conversation.
How were different ethnicities represented when you first started reading comics?
Turk in Daredevil. That’s all I’ve got to say.
Do you see changes now? Is there improved representation?
Of course! In many areas, it seems, and I’m just a reader. I’m not a scholar. But still. There is much work to be done. Who the hell would want to be any of the women characters in most mainstream comic books?
The creators of comics are diverse as well. Do the comics they create represent that diversity well, in your opinion?
Hard to say. Adrian Tomine and Los Brothers Hernandez are doing amazing work and feel equal to the diverse world I live in. There are more folks too. But we need even more.
Why is this topic important to be talking about now?
I think it’s always necessary. How can you have a vigorous medium, a vigorous industry, if we’re not always challenging, critiquing, debating, if we’re not trying to open up the franchise, if we’re not dealing with the s--t we do poorly? Our future in this country and by extension in comics will be predominated by people of color. Are we ready for that reality? It seems that comics can imagine every other future except that one. The rest of the world is grappling with these issues, not often well or eagerly, but they’re doing it—so how can the comic-book world be exempt? If we’re not talking about these matters vigorously and consistently, what you get instead is silence and it’s in silence that all the toxic evils of our world—racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—do their best work and perpetuate themselves.
What are you working on now?
Just a crazy sci-fi novel. Still in its early stages.
Would you like to write comics?
To do comics well takes genius. At this moment, I don’t have that. Maybe that will change in me. Who knows?