In the graphic novel BTTM FDRS, Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore capture the horrors of gentrification in a Chicago neighborhood through a Technicolor lens. The book follows Darla, a young Black artist and Chicago native, as she grapples with the colonization of the Bottomyards, the fictional south side neighborhood that she was born and raised in. She comes to the frightening realization that there has been something living in the walls of her apartment building, a monster that will take her body over from the inside out.
The story articulates what gentrification means in a way that expands beyond Chicago and can be felt around the nation. BTTM FDRS is palatable thanks to the medium of delivery: 295 pages of brightly hued, visually compelling panels. “I specifically wanted to use really bright colors, but colors that are also unnatural,” Passmore says. “And I wanted to play with just sort of giving people a feeling of uneasiness.” Shades of yellow, green, red, and violet provide an electrifying feel to each page.
“One of my goals with BTTM FDRS was to bring these issues up in a candy-coated, hyper-color, fun graphic novel that will try to instigate these conversations with people that might be living in a situation where it’s relevant for them to be thinking and talking about it, but they’re not,” Daniels says.
The encounters Darla has with people from the Bottomyards present the sad realities of Black folks being pushed out of communities they’ve called home for decades. Meanwhile, the experiences Darla has with those whom Passmore refers to as “colonizers” show how privilege can distort how a person views urban communities.
An example of this ignorance is displayed when Darla presents some clothes she’s designed to an art director who has never been to the Bottomyards. This woman’s opinion of the community has been shaped by the demeaning views of others and hearsay from her friends. She says she knew someone who “drove through once and said it was crazy!” Obviously apprehensive of the neighborhood at first, the art director’s attitude changes when she hears of some of the artists who have moved to the area. Suddenly the Bottomyards becomes desirable and seen as a crazy yet alluring place that she must visit, no longer one that must be avoided.
“I think there’s a lot of common experiences with people feeling like their neighborhoods are judged in this way,” Passmore says. “Or sort of like measured as exotic and dangerous places.”
While on the surface this Afrofuturistic tale is a satirical take on gentrification, Daniels says that he constructed the arc of the story around cultural appropriation. He notes that he had a few stages of colonization in mind while writing the story as well. “You fear something, you covet something, you take something, and then you abandon it,” he says. Specifically, he built the story and its characters within and around the world of hip-hop.
“Darla and Cynthia [Darla’s rich white best friend] are kind of stand-ins for a Nicki Minaj/ Iggy Azalea type of conflict,” he says. “Then there’s another character who represents a record label exec who doesn’t really understand the culture but sees that there’s a way to monetize it. There’s another character of the aficionado who also does not understand the culture but is trying to bring all these conspiracy theories and background stories on something that don’t really exist, but they try to force it into it.”
The news media in the story (whom Daniels named after WGN-TV newscasters) take Darla’s experience and present it as if Cynthia were the one to go through it, a not-so-subtle nod to the ways in which white people are granted access to co-opt Black experiences and narratives, ultimately to their own benefit.
The book delves into social matters that plague disadvantaged communities of color across the nation by being direct about the issues at hand. Daniels and Passmore are based in Los Angeles and New Orleans respectively, and say they, too, have had to interrogate themselves about gentrification and cultural appropriation as they’ve moved from place to place. Daniels moved to Chicago when he was 24 and lived here for a decade. For him living in cheap Chicago neighborhoods “even as a person of color, is something that I had to reconcile with.”
Through Daniels’s words and Passmore’s visuals, the two effectively convey Darla’s internal conflicts. She’s a multifaceted badass, and Daniels says that her plight was inspired by his own experiences, as well as those of close friends and family members.
The story ends on what Daniels says was “not a happy or sad note, but a realistic note.” Through writing BTTM FDRS, he says that he found the ways in which gentrification and cultural appropriation mirror each other enlightening, and also frightening. Daniels says that the problem will only get worse as “the disparity between classes gets wider and wider.” Which makes the horror of the book all the more real. v