Hadia Moosvi, Contributing Writer
Torches fume the night sky as a mob covered in white attire and conical hoods congregate in the streets. An opposing group emerges with weapons, ready to take a stand for their identity and rights.
After unraveling an untold and violent part of history involving the Ku Klux Klan, writer Bill Campbell and Bizhan Khodabandeh, a local artist and VCU assistant professor, partnered to create the graphic novel “The Day the Klan Came to Town.”
The graphic novel is a fictional retelling of the 1923 KKK riots in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, according to Campbell. As the group’s membership grew nationwide in the early 1920s, it made its way into Pennsylvania and fogged itself as a civic organization to attract white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant individuals. The KKK soon established an intolerance for immigrants and Catholics, leading to a riot against a crowd of protesters.
“I grew up in the town and nobody ever talked about this,” Campbell said. “It was totally hidden history.”
Campbell said he first learned of the story from his brother in 2019 and that it sparked his interest in creating a graphic novel.
The research process for the project included a few trips to the Historical Society of Carnegie, a history museum, as there was not much written about the event, Campbell said.
“What the klan did that day is written about and what the government officials did that day was written about,” Campbell said. “But the participants, the people who met the klan in the streets — that wasn’t written about.”
As a result, Campbell said he retrieved census data and photographs from the museum during the time period of the riot to piece the story together. He was also able to speak with the people working at the museum.
Campbell said he discovered a small population of Black people in Carnegie at the time of the riot through pictures, as well as census data on immigrants based on what languages they spoke. He found people from a wide array of places, including Libya, Turkey and China.
“It’s a matter of reimagining and just re-censoring what American history actually is because it’s a lot browner than we ever think of.” — Bill Campbell, author of “The Day the Klan Came to Town”
Along with having to research outside of his own experiences, Campbell said his conversations with people about the immigrant experience and race fascinated him prior to writing the novel.
“My dad, when he came to America, he was like, ‘I literally had no idea growing up that I was Black because everyone was Black.’ It wasn’t a thing,” Campbell said. “I was talking to a friend from Colombia and he was like, ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t white until I moved to Boston.’”
The main character of the novel, Primo Salerno, is a Sicilian immigrant who the town relies on to take a stand against the klan. The idea for Salerno’s illustration started to form during his trip back home to Washington D.C. from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Campbell said.
“When I was driving late at night going around Carnegie [Pennsylvania], the main character of the book, Primo Salerno, popped into my head, and he popped into my head as Bizhan [Khodabandeh]’s art,” Campbell said. “It only made sense to ask him.”
After Khodabandeh expressed interest in being part of the project, they both formed a private Facebook page that included part of their research for the project.
Khodabandeh said the page served as a place to collect photos of clothing, food and Carnegie during the event’s time period to ensure the illustrations would be accurate to immigrants during the 1920s.
“I did some research when those pages came because it’s mostly Irish and Italian folks, but there’s some Armenian, Syrian immigrants, there’s some Chinese immigrants,” Khodabandeh said. “It’s interesting. It’s sort of a mixture between traditional cultural artifacts and suits.”
From that point on, Campbell said he would write scenes down as they came into mind while he researched, and he would give the scenes to Khodabandeh to illustrate.
Khodabandeh said the project is stylistically similar to his other artwork. His illustrations use a geometric style of art influenced by Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio, and artists such as Genndy Tartakovsky, the illustrator for the children shows “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.”
Khodabandeh said depicting the cars from the time period of the riot was his biggest challenge, as well as completing the illustrations within a year while having to teach and do other artwork.
“I decided to go black and white,” Khodabandeh said. “I decided to go a lot more simple in the cartooning than I typically do. I usually do a lot more detail. The pages would have taken a lot more time.”
The churches, coal cars and a shooting incident at the riot are all accurately depicted in the illustration and story, Khodabandeh said.
“There’s a lot of key moments, but the timeline is very loose,” Khodabandeh said. “It’s definitely a dramatization, kind of Bill [Campbell] reimagining what it would be like for these immigrants to engage with one another.”
Campbell said the project also aims to shift the lens of the immigrant experience and the dialogue around it.
“It’s a matter of reimagining and just re-censoring what American history actually is because it’s a lot browner than we ever think of,” Campbell said.
Katie Logan, a VCU assistant professor who studies graphic novels and social issues, previewed the novel’s pages and said it seeks to narrate history in a way that is accessible and eye-opening.
“Immigrants have had to confront xenophobia in the United States,” Logan said. “A text like this is really forcing us to do a lot of mental work as we engage with it to make these connections for ourselves and then to decide how we’re going to act on them.”
“The Day the Klan Came to Town” is slated to release in August, though a specific date has not been confirmed. It is available for pre-order on the project’s Kickstarter website.