Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan

This entry is part 1 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

So, last year I tweeted about what I’d read, in part because some friends were doing it, but also because it helped me to resettle my reading habits, which had been somewhat upset since the start of the pandemic. (What can I say, a crazy workload and a kid at home full time for a year kind of… makes other things hard.)

But I have this blog here, and I’m not using it so much, so I figure I may as well post my readings here. It’ll give me a little more than 280 characters per post. I’m going to limit the posts to one item per post—with a flexible definition for what “item” means: maybe an audiobook, maybe a short story or a comic, maybe a magazine issue, or possible a novel or book. Chances are I’m posting weeks after I’ve read the thing, because my first impressions usually soften and take on nuance as I mull things over, and the world has enough hot takes.  

Not that everything I post will be as long as this first post for the 2022 books—I intend to keep things short most of the time—but my posts will be both considered, and also free of the burden of fitting in all I have to say in only 280 characters (or 560, or whatever). 

Anyway, to the first book. 

Lizard in a Zoot Suit by Marco Finnegan.

My wife found this graphic novel on the shelf at a newly-opened library in our neighborhood here in Sejong City. (Yes, at least some local libraries here have all kinds of unusual things available!) She borrowed it for me, and I read it the night she brought it home.

This is a YA graphic novel, so it’s bit outside the range I usually read in a few ways at once. The art style is more spare than I expected, and the book is clearly intended as a vehicle for exploring a chunk of history about which I knew only a little: I knew that zoot suits were controversial from jazz history, and that there was at some point during World War II there was a nationwide uproar in the States about them being a “waste of fabric” and thus “unpatriotic”… which, as so many other accusations of being unpatriotic in the US, just so happened to apply to mostly nonwhite folks wearing a flamboyant fashion pioneered by young Black men. Like, of course. 

(Can’t you just see the tweets they would have posted? “#ZootSuitGate is totally about ethics in wartime fabric consumption!”)

From this book, I learned that ground zero for the moral panic about zoot suits was Los Angeles in June 1943, with (white) military servicemen assaulting Latino-Americans and Mexicans1 en masse in the streets. A lot of modern accounts suggest it was “outrage about fabric waste” used as a pretext—and this was an excuse used—but it seems like “immigrant crime” was also a primary justification not only for the assault and battery. The obsession with Zoot Suits (which white conservatives linked to criminal subculture) was evident, though: the cops and soldiers who rioted are described as having literally stripped their victims of their clothes in the street—a form of public shaming and punishment that’s been around for centuries and cutting or burning the Zoot Suits:

Note the cop in the foreground looking on like this is completely fine and normal. (Some things seem never to change…)

In reality, some cops even participated in the racial violence. (Some things seem never to change…)

The “immigrant crime” story was whipped up in the local newspapers, too. (Some things seem never to change…)

When the military made L.A. off-limits to servicemen, things calmed down and then the cops arrested who? You guessed it: mostly just those victims who dared to fight back when assaulted on the street. (Some things… eh, you get the point.)

The moral panic and rioting local to L.A. traces back to the “Sleepy Lagoon murder”, which is worth reading about, but I won’t get into: Sleepy Lagoon comes up in the story, but not so much in this context, though it’s obviously mentioned on purpose, and the case was never really more than pretext for (and itself an example of) the awful brutality that dominant groups always mobilize anytime anyone they’ve oppressed pushes back or asserts themselves even a little bit.  

All of that is pretty heavy stuff, but I think it speaks to the fact that this book sent me off looking at the actual history. I wanted to learn more, and learn more I did, with more than one-rabbit-hole visited. (I’ve learned stuff about “pachuca” self-fashioning and fasion that I didn’t even know I hadn’t known.) I think Finnegan would probably be pleased to hear it, and I think he ought to be. 

The book manages to make some of this accessible by exploring it through an oddball, mostly-fun narrative: a lizard man is encountered by a pair of Latina sisters who save his life, heroically protect him from a mad (military) scientist, and fight to reunite him with his fellow lizard people. Along the way, it becomes necessary to disguise him… and yeah, you guessed it, he ends up in a Zoot Suit. Most of the story concerns those sisters: Flaca’s flamboyant, tough, dresses in zoot suits, punches bigots, and clearly has adopted a “pachuca” personal style2; Cuata is more mild-mannered and conventionally feminine for the time, and her calm head keeps them out of (avoidable) trouble. As they adventure through (and under) the streets of Los Angeles, vignettes explore the Zoot Suit Riots and the mechanics of racial injustice from a ground-floor level, rather than the bird’s eye view we usually get in history. 

I found myself pausing and questioning my immediate reaction to the book a lot. The art underwhelmed me at first, seeming to me a little sparse, but I came to suspect that Finnegan was consciously establishing setting and tone by using his own take on an older noir-comics idiom with which I’m not terribly familiar. I couldn’t follow all of the dialog since the sisters are bilingual and code-switch a lot, but, well: remember what I said above about white men policing nonwhite people’s use of language?3 Far be it from me to replicate that, especially since I’m guessing Latinx kids are likely the primary audience Finnegan is hoping to introduce to part of their history.

That’s what I kept coming back to: in a lot of ways, whatever disconnect I felt with the book in general probably comes down to the fact that I’m not its primary intended audience. It’s not that I felt excluded from it, just that it took a little more effort to really think about it in a useful way, or process what the book was doing. I think it mostly manages what it sets out to do, though I think it could be a little more explicit about some of the uglier aspects of the riots: I think the kids can handle it, and deserve to know the truth about what happened, and is still happening in so many ways. I fear they will have repeatedly to grapple with something similar to it over the coming years (just as too many of them are grappling with it right now), as we botch one after another of the existential challenges that the  21st century has in store, and the panicked terror of white racists gets vented in the habitual way.

(I suppose here it’s worth noting that, as detailed historical accounts show, the first victims of the riots were in fact 12 and 13 year old kids. Wrap your head around that.)

All of that said, if my son was old enough to have started reading, though, I would have given it to him as soon as I finished it, and had a talk with him about it afterward. I think that says something about the book, too. 

Oh, one last thing: the standout character for me is definitely Flaca and Cuata’s mom: she’s a proverbial badass and ultimately she’s integral to the story. She’s great! I kinda wished Finnegan had included a Lizard Man’s mom for her to meet and become pals with! But I guess that’d be a very different book. 

Series Navigation<em>Samurai Cat in the Real World</em> by Mark E. Rogers >>

  1. Also, some Blacks and Filipinos, as it turns out

  2. I’m not sure whether or not one scene actually implies that she’s a lesbian. She is clearly coded as not traditionally feminine or girly—her mother even complains about feeling Flaca’s more like a troublesome son than a daughter—but Finnegan keeps things somewhat vague… I think. It might be hinted in one spot that she has a girlfriend, I’m not quite sure.

  3. Or, men from the dominant group anywhere. Especially in Korea, I’ve been harassed and insulted for speaking English, or for speaking Korean imperfectly.

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