From Horror to Heroes

For these Sudanese refugees, just surviving makes them real comic-book supermen

After recruiting Myk Friedman, a local animator, at the Dallas ComicCon in Plano, the team was assembled. The next step was getting the boys to tell their stories again, this time in front of a video camera. They got their chance on June 21, 2003. To put the boys at ease, Disco, his sister and Clark bought bagels and Cokes and invited Michael, Gabriel, Santino and Matthew to meet them at a neutral place, a comfortable room in the back of the Catholic Charities office. The boys were still unsure of what the trio wanted from them. Disco began with an explanation.

"Do you know comic books?"

Yes, yes, smiles all around.

James Disco came up with the notion for Echoes, which has already accomplished one goal: helping the boys heal.
Mark Graham
James Disco came up with the notion for Echoes, which has already accomplished one goal: helping the boys heal.

"Do you know Spider-Man?"

Another yes, more smiles.

"Well, you guys are heroes, too," Disco said, "and we want to tell your stories to kids your age, and kids that are the age you were when you started your running. We want them to know, because there are a lot of kids in bad situations in the U.S. If they hear your situation, they'll find a way out. You tell us your story, and you'll be the heroes. You guys are going to be Spider-Man, the X-Men."

They liked that idea. What kid wouldn't? Don't misunderstand: These guys are still kids, though they're all in their early 20s. They lost their first childhood, with the bang of that first shot, that first hurried step away from the village. This is their second childhood. And now they were going to be superheroes, helping to rescue the people they had to leave behind.

The bagels and Cokes went untouched. They started talking, telling their stories about running away from villages, finding each other in the forest, walking to the camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, coming to America. Even though their interviewers had heard most of the stories before, they were still hard to take. But the boys stayed strong. There was no pain in their voices or their faces. No tears.

Which posed a problem for Clark and Friedman. Friedman's assignment was to turn the boys' stories into illustrations, and Clark would provide the text to go along with them, using their own words. It was their job to relay these stories, get it right, make readers know how the boys felt when this happened, when Michael's brother was shot in front of him or when Santino finally found his younger brother after being separated from him all day.

"You have to, like, put yourself back there," Clark says. "Get the facts and then try to figure out 'What did that feel like? What did that look like?' So Myk kind of traumatized himself by imagining all that. I traumatized myself trying to write all that."

There was another problem: trying to tell the story the way it happened, the way the boys remembered it, without terrifying the young readers they wanted to reach. People die throughout the first issue, almost all of them violently.

"Yeah, we had a lot of trouble coming up with a tactful way to draw that in there and not be too openly graphic about it," Friedman says. "Well, graphic but not gory."

When they were finished with the first issue and they put it all together and showed the boys, Clark and Friedman had gotten it right. The words, the pictures--it was all too real for the boys. The old wounds ached yet again.

"They did a good job, but, you know, I don't feel good, because I just see my story there, and it take my memory back to the first situation that I'm in," Gabriel Akol says. "I don't feel good, but, you know, I offer myself, sacrifice myself, to tell my story for the hope that the world, that they can be able to do something for the people of southern Sudan. It's hard to tell, you know? But if you hope something good will happen from it, you commit yourself to do that. But it's, it's OK. If you sacrifice yourself to do something for your people, you have to sacrifice yourself to do it when it is difficult or not difficult."

James Disco has two full-time jobs now. The one that pays the bills is at Bison Corp., a commercial printing press that handles brochures and promotional items--coffee cups, keychains, ball point pens. Working on Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan doesn't pay at all, but that's what he spends most of his time doing these days.

Today, it might be a reporter from Newsweek calling. Tomorrow, a producer from BBC radio. The next, maybe he's hopping on a plane for Phoenix, where the first Lost Boys of Sudan National Reunion Conference is being held. That describes just one of the weeks he's had since the book hit shelves.

Between all of that, Disco is on the phone with book distributors, school districts, film studios, whomever he has to call to get the word out about Echoes. He hands out copies of the book to people he's just met; he's the good kind of pusher, hoping people will get a taste and want to come back and buy more. Whatever it takes.

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