I Am Alfonso Jones, by Tony Medina, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings

The public’s current awareness of dubious law enforcement killings of black Americans seems to date from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, and the rise of Black Lives Matter in the ensuing protests. Medina’s story synthesizes the details of about a half-dozen of these tragedies into the vessel of Alfonso Jones, and uses the journeys of his shade to unlock a greater, longer, sadder history than most are aware of. Set to play the Old Hamlet in a hip-hop inflected high school production of Shakespeare’s play, Alfonso Jones is killed by a security guard who claimed to mistake the suit hanger in the teen’s hand for a gun. Instead of playing a ghost, he becomes one himself. The severed threads of his life – the crush he was shopping with and about to confess his feelings to, the soon-to-be-released incarcerated father he’d never met, and his friends and frenemies at school – carry on in various ways as he watches his name become famous around the world even as it’s dragged through the mud by the usual suspects. Recalling Stoppard’s exchange in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about the potential for the afterlife to be a form of transportation, here death is still not a boat, but rather a subway populated by those unjustly slain by police. Between following the lives of his survivors and trying to influence them in his limited way, Alfonso learns that he is the latest in a long line such casualties that extends well before his birth.

Medina weaves a compelling story out of disparate elements and scales, handling home life, school life, public life, and afterlife in their turns with exceedingly brief chapters of only a few pages each. Although the story presents a distinct point of view about its events, it remains well-rounded, using the Alfonso’s newfound omnipresence to show how his death has affected everyone, even his killer, in emotionally realistic ways. The rapid shifts between storylines can make the story somewhat choppy and difficult to resolve into a whole at times, but as plots resolve and interconnect, the forest becomes evident despite the trees. Individual characters are well-realized with distinct personalities, even for those mainly in the background. Medina also makes the community a character in its own right, with its own rhythms, symbols, and folk practices, inviting a possibly alien audience to experience Alfonso’s Harlem as a new neighbor might.

The art of Robinson and Jennings, even in its unfinished state, is fluid and varied, contributing to the different speeds and scales at which the narrative operates: often intimate, sometimes sweeping, and in a few places, kinetic. Layouts are largely regular, showcasing the setting during long conversations, with occasional inventive splash pages breaking the rhythm for effect.

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