Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
It was two years ago that an attempted insurrection of American democracy was turned back. On that day, even while reeling from the fear and distress of the attack, the duly elected representatives of the American Congress returned to work and they certified the results of the 2020 presidential election. What if the story had a different outcome?
Alan Jenkins: I'm Alan Jenkins. I'm a professor of practice at Harvard Law School and co-author of the graphic novel 1/6.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In a new graphic novel series, Jenkins and his co-author, Gan Golan, suggest what a dystopian alternative history of January 6th might be like. What if the insurrection had been successful? What if the 2020 presidential election had been overturned? These are powerful questions, but I wanted to know from Alan, why tell this story through a graphic novel?
Alan Jenkins: I guess they're at least three reasons. One is I'm a comic book geek from way back, and so I didn't need any incentives to write a graphic novel. Second is there's a long history of comic books and graphic novels advancing and defending democracy and taking on white supremacy and white nationalism. Captain America's first issue, his cover was of him socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw. That was nine months before the US entered World War II. Superman fought the Klan in the 1940s, and then again recently, just a couple of years ago, Black Panther fought the Klan in the '70s.
There's a long history. It's nothing new, and it's always been an important vehicle. I guess the last and maybe most important reason is that I wanted to be able to reach a broad audience; people who maybe don't have the time to read the January 6th House Committee's 820-page report, maybe aren't able in the middle of the day to watch hearings or listen to news coverage but are interested, who care about our democracy and want to know what's happening and importantly what they can do about it. A graphic novel seemed to be a great way to reach some of those audiences.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting to hear you say that, in part, because it's not only that you choose the vehicle of the graphic novel but it's also not a retelling. It isn't the January 6th report in graphic novel form, this is actually an alternate historical narrative. This is if that insurrection attempt had worked.
Alan Jenkins: That's right. We chose speculative fiction, which is a proud tradition from Orwell to Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale as a cautionary note, as a cultural marker, as a what if, which is also really common in comic books to really raise that question of what were these folks trying to do, the insurrectionists, and what kind of world and nation would we be living in if they had succeeded?
Importantly, what are the threats that still remain? Because these folks have not gone away. We wanted to really get our readers to envision this seriousness, the radical negative changes that the insurrectionists had for our democracy. The what-if scenario seemed like the best way to do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Walk us through a bit of the what if.
Alan Jenkins: Our democracy is very fragile, and we came very close to losing it on January 6th. A lot of those forces still threaten to challenge our democracy. There were 179 candidates elected in the 2022 midterms who were election deniers. There are dozens, I think 42 restrictive voting laws passed since the insurrection in different states around the country. That's on top of the voter suppression and other efforts that were taken.
Hate crimes are on the rise, antisemitism and transphobia are on the rise, even book banning. This is really a very real threat. Our graphic novel begins with-- the arc is from the true events leading up to and including the insurrection up until the point at which Capitol Hill police officer, Eugene Goodman, courageously lured the mob away from the Senate Chamber. In our universe, the mob turns right instead of left. They do everything they said they were going to do, then President Trump who does everything that he threatened to do, and our democracy is extinguished.
Then a group of everyday folks begins to try to restore that democracy. No spoilers, I won't tell you how it turns out, but that's the arc of the story. In this first issue, we meet the characters. We begin to get introduced to the dystopic and often outlandish America post-successful insurrection, and then we take off from there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: No spoilers, but do introduce us to some of the characters. This is just the first in a series. Tell us who it is you're introducing us to in this first edition.
Alan Jenkins: My co-creator, Gan Golan, and I thought it was really important to have a group of characters, number one, for it to be character-driven and dramatic and interesting and sometimes fun. We really focused on a core set of four characters, and they are diverse in lots of different ways. One is a MAGA voter who voted for President Trump in 2016 and was there at the insurrection and has a loss of someone he loves and then hears lies being told about what happened that day. It was Antifa, it was patriots and heroes, which he knows are lies.
It causes him to begin to question everything else that he's believed. We thought it was very important to have empathy with some of the people that believed their president when he told them lies about the 2020 election. We also have a character who is a Congolese refugee who's working as a producer at a cable TV show. They're declared enemies of the state and attacked and he barely escapes, and so he needs to figure out what is his role as a journalist to tell the story in an authoritarian-leaning state. We have a character who was a first responder, an ER nurse whose husband was one of the Capitol Hill police officers near [unintelligible 00:06:50].
When he is lost, she begins to figure out what she should do. In the classic comic book tradition, she becomes something of a vigilante. We have a character, [unintelligible 00:07:02]. She is one of the organizers of the resistance in Issue 2, which goes back to the original events leading up to the insurrection. We'll meet her and find out that actually she has a much more interesting backstory.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. We're going to take a quick break right here, but we'll have more with Alan Jenkins on the graphic novel 1/6 right after the break.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're continuing with Professor Alan Jenkins about his new graphic novel 1/6.
Alan Jenkins: When 40% of Americans believe that the 2020 election was stolen, we can't simply dismiss them all as evil or diluted. They were misled by people who they should have been able to rely on for the truth and also by social media algorithms and media pundits who were peddling falsehoods. I think we owe it to the country to try to understand those folks. If we're going to reach them, as I often tell my students, empathy is our greatest superpower.
If we can't understand people, if we can't try to put ourselves in their shoes, then we're never going to have any chance of persuading them or of learning from them. Thinking about the people on the inside or the people on the outside of the insurrection, 118 members of this new Congress who are waiting to be sworn in are people who voted against certifying the election for Joe Biden even though they knew that he had been properly elected in a free and fair election.
To consider them to be just victims I think is also a mistake. They were perpetrators even though the mob, the monster that they created turned against them. Except for some heroic folks, they would themselves have become victims of it. We need to understand the complexity of that in order to really understand where we find ourselves today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This weekend is two years since January 6th, two years on with the work of the committee, with convictions moving forward, with some level of accountability occurring. Yet as you point out, with elected members of Congress waiting to be sworn in, who denied election results, are there takeaways from that day that you are really hoping we don't lose?
Alan Jenkins: There are. We need recognition and we need accountability and reckoning or we're doomed to repeat it. One of the reasons why we're calling our graphic novel, 1/6, is because every year we appropriately recognize the anniversary of 9/11. January 6th, 2021 has to have at least that much importance in our nation and in our society. It's the moment at which our democracy was almost lost. Like 9/11, many of the threats that caused that day still remain. We need to begin acting it and taking that seriously.
We need to make sure that we are setting the records straight on the risks and threats of January 6th and the risks and threats that remain and what we can do about it. Here, I want to mention that we are creating an education and action guide for readers. It'll be free and available online. Anyone who wants to go deeper to learn more about the insurrection or importantly to figure out what they can do to protect our democracy, they can go and read the education and action guide at onesixcomics.com, they can sign up. We really want this to be a vehicle for people to be engaged, be entertained, and then take action.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alan Jenkins, professor of practice at Harvard Law School and co-author of the graphic novel 1/6. Alan, thanks for your time.
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