James Spooner, the creator of Afro-punk, joined Dawnie Walton (writer, editor, and author of one of 2021’s most celebrated books, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev) for a special conversation in celebration of the release of Spooner’s new coming-of-age graphic novel, The High Desert. Part artist talk, part cultural exploration, the discussion spanned Spooner’s career in film, music, culture, and now books. Presented by MoCADA in partnership with The Center for Fiction.
High Desert is a grabbing, angsty coming-of-age tale offers a sidewalk view of a creative subculture. It’s also a poignant ode to the power of music to fill voids left by family and circumstance, with provocations thrumming on race and identity that sound out like a smashed guitar.
The High Desert
By James Spooner
Published by Harper
From James Spooner, the creator of Afro-Punk, comes a stunning graphic memoir of his coming-of-age in a miserable desert town in California in the early 1990s.
The High Desert is the story of a young man’s immersive reckoning with identity, racism, clumsy teen love, and belonging—and the story of a search for salvation and community through punk. Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are back in the Apple Valley, California town after years away. The one silver lining—new school, new you, right? But the few Black kids at school seem to be gangbanging, and the other kids fall on a spectrum of microagressors to future Neo-Nazis. Mixed race, acutely aware of his Blackness, James doesn’t know where he fits until he meets Ty, a young Black punk who introduces him to the school outsiders—skaters, unhappy young rebels, caught up in the punk groundswell sweeping the country. A haircut, a few Sex Pistols, Misfits, and Black Flag records later: Suddenly, James has friends, romantic prospects, and knows the difference between a bass and a guitar. But this desolate landscape hides brutal, building undercurrents: a classmate overdoses, a friend must prove himself to his white supremacist brother and the local Aryan brotherhood through a show of violence. Everything and everyone are set to collide at one of the year’s biggest shows in town. Weaving in the Black roots of punk rock and a vivid interlude in the thriving eighties DIY and punk scene in New York’s East Village, The High Desert is an engaging and moving graphic memoir of a budding punk, artist, and activist.
James Spooner is an accomplished tattoo artist, illustrator, and filmmaker. He directed the seminal documentary Afro-Punk. Spooner is also the co-founder of the Afro-punk Festival. Spooner’s work has appeared in NPR, Vice, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, Vibe, Fader, MTV, NBC News, and Variety. He is an ongoing guest curator for the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, and previously programmed for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Photo Credit:Magda Wosinska
Dawnie Walton is a writer, editor, and author of the novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, winner of the Aspen Words Literary Prize, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and named one of the best books of 2021 by the Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, and former U.S. President Barack Obama, among others. The audiobook version of her debut also won the 2022 Audie Award for Fiction. Her work explores identity, place, and the influence of pop culture. Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly, she has received fellowships in fiction from MacDowell and Tin House, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Oxford American, Bon Appetit, NPR, Lithub, and Black Ballad. Born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband.