There’s no denying the vast tensions permeating much of America. As the country continues to stumble through a global pandemic, political unrest and racial tensions have reached a fever pitch (spurred on, in part, by growing concerns from an increasingly militarized police forces nationwide). In this time, countless artists across multiple genres are engaging these feelings and social undercurrents to create art that both speaks to and transcends this dynamic moment in time. For Latinx cartoonist Marco Finnegan, his efforts have found a unique focus: a giant lizard.
Finnegan, a long-time high school teacher, is the author of the new YA graphic novel Lizard in a Zoot Suit, out tomorrow (August 4) via Graphic Universe/Lerner Publishing. The story focuses not on our times, but a moment in history rife with the same kinds of unrest and uncertainty. Namely, 1943’s Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, in which a dozen or so Mexican-American youths were wrongfully convicted of the 1942 death of José Gallardo Díaz, and the resulting Zoot Suit Riots that rocked L.A. in June of that year. (I won’t delve much into those cases, but there’s a great interview with Eduardo Obregón Pagán, author of Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.)
Lizard in a Zoot Suit places twin sisters Flaca and Cuata amid the backdrop of this moment as they try to help a five-foot-tall lizard find his friends and escape the clutches of a “corrupt military scientist.” It’s an engaging and thoughtful tale, one that grounds these profound historical lessons while still maintaining an air of fun and playfulness.
I touched based with Finnegan recently, where we talked about the importance of Sleepy Lagoon/the Zoot Suit Riots, the power of education in fiction, how to properly engage YA audiences, blending historical fact with sci-fi, and much more. If you haven’t already, Lizard in a Zoot Suit is available for pre-order.
AIPT: What, if anything, should readers already know about the Sleepy Lagoon story or the Zoot Suit Riots before they jump into the book?
Marco Finnegan: I don’t think that having a big background for what the riots were is necessary to enjoy the book, but I do hope that if some folks hadn’t heard about the era that this book will spark a curiosity to dig deeper. The Zoot Suit mythology is one of machismo and rebellion and cool cats, but really these were just kids who wanted to spend their money on suits and dancing and hanging out with their friends. Mainstream America decided they were troublemakers based on their looks and made them out to be unpatriotic thugs.
AIPT: What is it about Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot Suit Riots that really drew you in? Why is this such an essential story to tell, especially right now?
MF: I think what hooked me was how many people aren’t aware of the Zoot Suit Riots. This was a major moment in Los Angeles’s history, but they have been largely forgotten, aside from references to them in James’ Ellroy’s fiction.
The kids who lived through the Zoot Suit era share a lot with the young adults who are out marching in the streets today. They were told that their existence was unpatriotic and that they should conform. The press and the white community around them allowed and encouraged violence towards them.
AIPT: You mentioned in some press about not pandering to YA readers. What’s the process for deciding what to include and how to phrase things when you’re working with this specific and unique audience?
MF: I’ve taught high school for 17 years and have two teenagers and the number one thing that I can tell you is that kids are smart and wise. They know when you are talking at them, as opposed to when you are talking to them. I didn’t want anyone to feel insulted by the book. It’s one of the reasons why the folks in the book speak Spanish, English, and Spanglish. iI’s the reality of how I and many others grew up and I hope it has an authenticity that readers will relate to.
AIPT: Why go with a lizard? Were you worried at all that these sci-fi elements might trivialize this story, or did you always think it’s possible to spin in these new, “sillier” elements and still respect a very serious real-life story?
MF: I set out to make an adventure story that had all of the characteristics of the pop culture I devoured as a kid, but in a world that is often overlooked by that culture. Having the fun elements should not be exclusive to safe suburbia. Kids from all backgrounds need to see themselves as heroes.
The lizard came from a story I stumbled across about an engineer in the 1930s that was convinced he had found the lost catacombs of the Mayan lizard people, running beneath Los Angeles. He was allowed to dig up parts of the city as long as he promised to share the gold with the city.
AIPT: I love the dialogue throughout; it feels very snappy but also timely in a way. How do you create these conversations, especially writing and creating “on your own”?
MF: Thanks so much! This being my first time as a “writer” that means a lot!
A lot of the dialogue came from just playing with characters and finding their voice. I drew a rough version of the story first before writing and I would bounce some of the Spanish dialogue off my ma for authenticity. There was lots of talking out loud to myself, too. And Lerner editorial director Greg Hunter really helped me fine tune it.
AIPT: So much of the mood is conveyed through the two-color approach. What made you settle on that versus, say, black and white or full-color?
MF: I wanted the book to have one foot in the real world and one in this fantasy adventure comic strip land. The tone was also (hopefully) meant to evoke the feeling of Southern California in June, and how that adds to the tension of the moment.
AIPT: I think really great sci-fi can be a place to explore these huge issues of race and politics in interesting ways. What about this approach or medium for you helps in talking about some of these larger social/political motifs and themes?
MF: I totally agree and one thing that I really want to do with my work is to tell stories about eras that have been largely ignored by pop culture or misrepresented… the ’30s and 40/ms gave us some great adventure strips, classic monsters and sci-fi, but largely excluded Chicanos and other people of color. I like the idea that the kids in Lizard in a Zoot Suit would have enjoyed reading a book like this if they had been available.
AIPT: I love the way the lizard reacts throughout the story. Do you think having something so playful, and who doesn’t speak as much, is a way to better immerse readers (especially younger ones)?
MF: I hope everyone loves Chulito! Drawing a character who is all pantomime is one of the great things that you can do in comics, being able to have the girls react to him and play charades was a blast. I really did enjoy working on him.
AIPT: Are there any stories/series you feel like Lizard connects back to? Is there some larger literary tradition you hope this is now a part of?
MF: I think Chulito is in the same lane as The Narnia books, ET, Gremlins, Super 8, and Stranger Things. These stories at their core are about normal kids thrust into fantastic situations and having to choose to do the right thing.
AIPT: There’s a lot done to humanize some of the kids surrounding the Zoot Suit saga. What’s the challenge in creating “lives” for these kids? How much did you pull, perhaps, from your own experiences as a youth in Texas and SoCal?
MF: Cuata and Flaca have a single mom who works multiple jobs-my mom did that. The scene where she falls asleep on the couch, exhausted is right from my childhood. My mom would teach English to adults all day, come home, make dinner, take a nap ,and then go teach at night and then on weekends she’d teach English to factory workers. I really wanted to create real lives for these kids because so often people of color are merely footnotes and stereotypes.
AIPT: I think the best educational books provide a lesson without bashing readers in the head. Lizard does just that, and I’m curious about what you hope some kids/teens might take away from this book?
MF: Hopefully kids will enjoy and empathize with the kids and be interested in learning more about the era and Chicano culture. I never set out to teach a lesson, but one thing that I’ve learned from being in the classroom is that kids will be interested if they are engaged and feel seen-hopefully this book will do that for some kids.
AIPT: If you were forced to wear a zoot suit for a signing or other book event, what color/pattern would you choose?
MF: I’d wear the mustard yellow to rep the book! But for the sake of everyone I hope that never happens… I don’t think I could pull it off!