Talking With Marco Finnegan About His New Racially-Charged Adventurous Graphic Novel ‘Lizard In A Zoot Suit’

by Olly MacNamee

Lizard in a Suit Zoot is a new YA graphic novel that sets it’s pulp sci-fi story against a racially charged tense backdrop of the Zoot Suit Riots of June 1943 as well as the “Sleepy Lagoon murder” which saw 12 Chicano men convicted of second degree murder and serve nail time for it. We had the chance to catch up with wrier/artist Marco Finnegan to discuss his new book, his choices and more…

Olly MacNamee: From the title of your new YA graphic novel, Lizard in a Zoot Suit, one wouldn’t immediately know its set against a backdrop of real life events, and specifically the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. Why was it important to you to include in this story?

Marco Finnegan: I initially set out to make a book in the style of the 80s movies and comics I consumed as a kid, but with the conscious decision of casting Chicano kids (like me) as the main characters. In looking into how Chicano’s has been represented (or not represented) in pop culture I was stuck by how the Zoot Suit Riots were less glossed over by most pop culture. I had seen Luis Valdez’s play as a kid and wanted to know more. I did some digging and really was struck by the reality of what happened in that era, versus how most of the media had covered it. I wanted to shine a little light on this moment while still making an “adventure” story.

OM: We get to see events unfold through the eyes of sisters, Cuata and Flaca. The eldest sister, Flaca, has something of a rebel about her, hasn’t she?

MF: Oh yeah, Flaca is not one to conform to anyone’s expectations, she is a rebel in the best sense of the word. If she witnesses anything that she feels is not just, she acts on it in her own way. I imagine that the fights she has in this book were not her first and definitely not her last, but she has a huge heart and is protective of her family and friends, as we see in the book. 

OM: She also acts as a guide, some might say bad influence, to her younger sister, doesn’t she? It’s thanks to her that the adventure really gets going.

MF: I think they both influence each other, Flaca is very quick to action, but if it wasn’t for Cuata’s protective nature, Chulito would have been left in that sewer. Like all siblings, there is a power shift from time to time, but they always support each other…even in the bad decisions.

OM: But, Cuata is our “Elliot” to the Lizard’s “E.T.” isn’t she?

MF: Totally!  I love stories like that, where kids ignore danger in order to protect an innocent.  I think it’s a trait that some adults lose as we get older. We spend our time weighing pros and cons while kids just do what’s needed at the time. 

OM: The book starts off with a very uneasy tension building. The girls and their community are made to feel like foreigners in their own neighborhoods. But, the introduction of the eponymous lizard in a Zoot suit brings a softer tone to the book, and more of a sci-fi bent. But, where did the idea of the lizard in a Zoot suit originate?  Why take a sci-fi route to tell this true-life tale?

MF: I wanted to make a book that was an adventure story that starred main characters that we do not typically see, the supernatural/sci-fi element was also going to be a part of it. When I settled on the era I stumbled upon a news article about an engineer who believed that the lost catacombs of the Mayan Lizard people ran under Los Angeles and it fit perfectly with what I wanted to do. Truth inspired the fiction!

OM: Family and community play a big part in this book too don’t they? Cuata and Flaca have each other and their mom and community, while the Lizard has no-one. 

MF: Yep. I grew up in an apartment complex in Southern CA and most of the residents were hispanic- the parents had an unspoken agreement that they all were in charge of us. it was one community, we ate at each other’s homes, slept at each other’s homes and could be disciplined by any of the parents. It’s a unique thing that I have not experienced since…I wanted that sense of family to be a part of the Barrio the girl’s lived in. 

OM: I really enjoyed the way you laid out pages to guide the reader’s eye, particularly your use of smaller, whited out boxes within panels to bring focus to a particular feature. A simple trick, but very cinematic. How did you come up with this particular artistic technique? Were you influenced at all?

MF: Thanks! I think I stole that from either Humberto Ramos or Paul Gulacy!  It’s my comic version of trying to do a zoom in or out shot, the hope is that I can control where the reader focuses first in a given panel. I love film and comics so I am constantly trying new things to see if I can control the eye flow in a page. Glad this one worked! 

OM: Finally then, Marco, you’re a teacher and an artist, and now a writer too. What next for you? Or, are you just glad to have a rest from what must have been a rather busy time.

MF: I’m getting ready to start teaching in the fall, trying to enjoy the last few weeks of summer with my family and working on a new graphic novel for Megascope (an imprint of Abrams) that is written by Tananrive Due and Steven Barnes that is fantastic! I’m also prepping some new pitches that I’ll be sending out soon…no rest anytime soon, but it’s all great stuff to be busy with!

Lizard in a Suit Zoot is available to buy now from Graphic Universe.

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