Telling the story of Frank Smith, a prisoner who was a central figure in the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York, was a life’s mission for Jared Reinmuth, an actor and playwright whose family was friends with Smith.
Reinmuth is finally seeing it fulfilled on Tuesday when the original graphic novel “Big Black: Stand at Attica,” which he co-wrote with Smith, arrives in book stores.
The novel recounts the siege, when inmates rebelled against conditions there and state troopers stormed in, killing dozens of people. Smith, known as Big Black, was tortured by officers because he acted as security chief for the inmates during negotiations.
Lawyers for 1,281 inmates filed a lawsuit against state officials in 1974 for civil rights violations, including being denied medical care and forced to crawl naked over broken glass. The legal battle culminated in 2000 with an $8 million settlement for the inmates and $4 million in lawyers’ fees.
Reinmuth spent significant time with Smith for “Big Black,” which is being published by Archaia, an imprint of Boom! Studios. Smith died from kidney cancer in 2004.
“I come from a very political family,” Reinmuth, 52, said during a recent telephone interview.
As a child, Reinmuth said, he saw news about Attica on TV in his living room. “My mom vowed that if there was any way to help the Attica brothers, we would,” he recalled. Years later, his mother, Joan Max Reinmuth, met and married Daniel L. Meyers, a lawyer representing the Attica prisoners in a class-action lawsuit. Once Meyers became Reinmuth’s stepfather, “Attica became this family project,” Reinmuth said.
The Reinmuths were friends with Smith and his wife, Pearl. In 1997, as a civil suit for Smith’s case went to trial in Buffalo, about 30 miles from Attica, Smith and Reinmuth talked a lot about his life, with the goal of telling Smith’s story. (Smith was awarded $4 million by a federal jury that year, but that award was overturned two years later.)
“He was such a wonderful storyteller,” Reinmuth said. “He would captivate you,” he added, “but he didn’t really write things down.” Reinmuth, however, took copious notes. The result was a screenplay, but a friend suggested that the story might work as a graphic novel.
“Big Black” follows in the footsteps of recent nonfiction graphic novels. “March” is a personal account of the civil rights movement by the U.S. Representative John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; and “They Called Us Enemy” tells the story of George Takei (written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott) and his family’s time in internment camps during World War II.
In 2016, a graphic novel about Muhammad Ali was written by Sybille Titeux de la Croix and drawn by Améziane, who also drew “Big Black.” “I love stories that tell the whole life of a character, and if you choose wisely, you could have stories that are better than fiction,” Améziane said in an email.
‘Big Black: Stand at Attica’ Events
Jared Reinmuth, Daniel Meyers and Pearl Smith will speak Feb. 17, 7 p.m., at Strand Bookstore, Manhattan; and Feb. 22, 3 p.m., at New York Public Library, Grand Central Branch.