Listening to Adam Griffiths talk about his new graphic novel, Washington White, is a dizzying experience. It’s a science fiction spy thriller that takes place in D.C.—and also a parallel universe within an engineered disease that only the government knows about. In this mysterious world, the president of the United States authorizes the testing of mind-control drugs, a transgender drummer fights to rejoin her punk band, and a greedy developer tries to gentrify the parallel universe-within-a-disease with a sea of condos. At the center of it all is the novel’s titular newspaper, Washington White—a tabloid whose black owner tries to tell the public about all the crazy shit going on in the District because his dad is the one behind it.
All of this, mind you, happens in part one.
Griffiths, a local cartoonist and illustrator, has spent the past nine years writing and illustrating Washington White, which, from start to finish, runs approximately 600 pages. Illustrated like a cross between the seminal ’90s comic strip The Boondocks and the squashed-and-stretched surrealism of Rocko’s Modern Life, the work blends the post-structuralist science fiction of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder with a heavy dose of Japanese manga and anime. Reading the graphic novel, the first 70 pages of which Griffiths has only published on newsprint, one wonders if psychedelic drugs inspired such a mind-bending story.
Washington White is actually the story of Griffiths’ grandmother, Peggy S. Griffiths, a lawyer who died in 2012 and was best known for winning a landmark bias lawsuit against the federal government in 1977. Peggy Griffiths worked for the U.S. Civil Service Commission’s Appeals Review Board starting in 1968. She applied for a promotion in 1974, but didn’t get it, and subsequently filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Some white guy got it, and then was elected to be the Chairman [of the Board of Appeals] afterward,” Griffiths says. “It sounded like this really kind of redundant thing, you know? You work for the U.S. Civil Service Commission and you were definitely passed over for a job.”
Growing up, Griffiths, who comes from a family of lawyers, knew about his grandmother’s landmark lawsuit but says no one in his family really talked about it, and he was curious.
Adam moved into his grandmother’s house in D.C. after attending the Maryland Institute College of Art. At that time, Peggy was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a nursing home. No one had looked after the house for about five years. “I get there and things are growing out of teacups, no one’s touched it forever,” he recalls. “So I just start going through all the stuff that’s in the house.”
As he started cleaning up his grandmother’s house, he tried to find more information about her lawsuit. “I dug into all of these papers in her house and I still [couldn’t] really find anything,” he recalls. “I actually even put in an inquiry with … the Library of Congress … but they’d already been shredded by that point. So they had, like, two pieces of paper that I could look at to tell me something about [the lawsuit].”
Griffiths was working as an arts administrator at the time, first at the Provisions Learning Project, then at the Washington Project for the Arts, and drawing a comic strip for fun in his free time. His quest to find out more about his grandmother and her historic lawsuit had yielded few results, “so I thought, ‘How about I just make it up?’” he says.
With that thought, the Washington White project began. “I just sort of started with the case and then I just sort of built everything else up around it,” Griffiths says. In the graphic novel, Peggy Griffiths’ story is retold through the character of Peggy Fables, a bureaucrat who also gets passed over for a promotion. The outcome of Fables’ discrimination is rigged, at the behest of the president, in order to install a man who will help mind-control drugs reach the general public. It all unfolds in a surreal, dreamlike manner.
“I wanted it to be more structurally and conceptually irreverent, as opposed to, like, a story where lots of people are saying mean things to each other,” Griffiths says. “Washington White is a black-owned newspaper that is sort of modeled [after] some of those bad German tabloids where they have a ‘Beauty of the Week’ on the front of them.”
In the novel, Sam, a black character, has been given control of the newspaper by his father, “Rev’rund” Saranksby, a powerful and evil white businessman who created the mind-control drug at the center of the story. Saranksby puts Sam in control of Washington White as a way to manipulate the media so that he can cover up his wrongdoings. Sam, however, uses the newspaper to inform the public about what’s really going on in the District.
Griffiths’s experiences in D.C. over the past decade also inform Washington White. “I was sort of coming up with all of this stuff as D.C. was kind of gentrifying,” he says. “That part was always kind of weird, and sometimes I was just kind of going out of my mind because I would come up with something and then the next week it would seem like it was actually happening.”
The institutionalized racism that his grandmother dealt with during her lawsuit, is, to Griffiths, the most important part of his work. “People don’t really understand what fighting discrimination really looks like, except for, like, marches and those sort of grand gestures of exercising your freedom,” he says. “And so I wanted to have something that sort of emphasized the specificness and the terribleness and kind of the humiliation of having to file a lawsuit for something as humdrum as a promotion.
“In the version of Black America I live in, it’s all individualist,” Griffiths says. “It’s not, like, the ‘Kumbaya,’ ‘We Are The World’-type of thing that most people sort of perceive the black experience to be. It’s more like, ‘I need to keep every fucking body away from me, and get along in the world without making too much noise, without bothering too many people, without stepping on too many toes.’”
Washington White is currently available at Upshur Street Books, 827 Upshur St. NW, and Phantom Comics, 2010 P St. NW, and available online here.