Growing up Black in Apple Valley is focus of graphic memoir ‘High Desert’

James Spooner was part of the punk scene circa 1990 in Apple Valley. Such as it was. There were no concerts to attend.

“It’s weird to be part of a music scene that has no scene,” Spooner recalls wryly by phone. “The foundation of any music scene is going to see bands. We didn’t have that.”

His small coterie of high school friends passed around cassettes and vinyl records and jostled each other in makeshift mosh pits. That proved of only limited help in the real world.

“I’d been moshing with my friends for six months before I saw an actual concert. A mosh pit is a circle and everyone goes counterclockwise,” Spooner explains. “I didn’t know that and went clockwise. I got pummeled.”

We’re talking because of Spooner’s memoir in graphic novel form. “The High Desert,” subtitled “Black. Punk. Nowhere,” is a coming-of-age story that he wrote and illustrated. HarperCollins published it in hardcover last year to acclaim by the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, American Library Association and others.

Before I knew any of that, I spotted “The High Desert” on display at Skylight Books in Los Feliz and immediately opened it, wondering if the high desert of the title was ours. Apple Valley, it turns out, is cited by name on the inside flap. What could I do but buy a copy?

As I later tell Spooner, a 46-year-old Highland Park filmmaker and tattoo artist, we missed each other in the desert by just a few years.

Now 46, he lived in Barstow and then Apple Valley from 1981-1991, other than two years in Panama. I lived in Victorville from 1994-1997 when I worked for the Victor Valley Daily Press. (Before that I was in Petaluma. Which … sounds a little like Panama?)

Nah, our experiences and backgrounds are totally different. But as urbanists at heart, neither of us really took to desert life.

Spooner’s memoir begins when he returns, with his mother and sister, to the high desert in 1988. As a mixed-race teen and full-time nerd just beginning to show an interest in punk music, he’s wondering where he fits in at his largely White high school until he meets a Black punk who introduces him to fellow skaters and outsiders.

Aspiring bass guitarist James Spooner practices as a high school freshman in Apple Valley in 1991, signals of his fandom all around him. (Courtesy James Spooner)

Punk lyrics and song titles thread their way through the story, but it’s a backdrop, just like the desert with its stiff wind, wide-open landscapes and scorching heat. “It could be a small town anywhere in the U.S.,” Spooner says.

His time in Panama had allowed him to be friends with a diverse array of people, making his forced return to the desert more jarring. But he gets to visit L.A.’s Venice, where he first hears the Sex Pistols, and New York City’s East Village, where he learns about zines (small-press magazines), attends his first concert — the one where he moshed all wrong — and meets other artistically-minded young people.

“I just wanted to be accepted,” Spooner says. “I wanted to not be singled out for my race.”

In the high desert in the late 1980s, he says, “random people would yell ‘(N-word)’ at us every day” out of passing vehicles. That’s in his book too.

Did being both Black and a punk make things doubly hard?

“Being Black in the high desert at that time, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was punk or on the football team, I still would have heard racial slurs. They weren’t yelling at us because we were punk, they were yelling at us because of our skin tone,” Spooner tells me. “It comes from the unworldliness that comes with living in a small town.”

He went on to live in New York City and in L.A., to direct the documentary “Afro-Punk” and to co-found the Afropunk Festival, which focuses on Black alternative artists in music, film, fashion and art.

James Spooner, a filmmaker and illustrator, drew upon his two years in Apple Valley as a teen punk fan for his 368-page memoir “The High Desert,” written and drawn in comics form and published in hardcover by HarperCollins. (Courtesy Lisa Nola)

Interested in telling stories again, he hadn’t considered comics as a form until his partner introduced him to such autobiographical cartoonists as Alison Bechdel, Liz Prince and Ellen Forney. He spent four years writing and drawing the 368 pages of “The High Desert” and a fifth year readying the story for publication.

It’s true to his experience and events, while condensing two years into one and making some of the book’s characters composites of two or three real-life people.

I thought it was terrific: warm, funny and vulnerable.

Incidentally, Spooner is part of a group show of Black artists, “Blueprints,” at Pain Sugar Gallery in Riverside (3635 Ninth St.) that’s in place until March 25. It’s worth a look.

Has he promoted “The High Desert” in the high desert?

He did. Wisecrack Records near Hesperia had him up for a book talk and signing last July. A Victorville-based punk label, Extinction Burst, co-sponsored the event. Local bands played.

“It was really fun,” Spooner says. “There were 80 kids crammed into the record store.” Spooner brought his daughter, who’s 13, to give her a sense of the place he’d left behind.

“It’s always special to me when people from the area reach out. If they were smart, any store that’s up there should have a couple of copies out,” Spooner tells me. “It’s so hard to feel represented when you live in a small town. Just to see ‘Apple Valley’ in a book would be so exciting if you live in the tri-city area.”

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Did he wish he’d had access to a place like Wisecrack when he was a punk teen?

“That would have been great,” Spooner affirms. “We had Hot Topic and Sam Goody’s. That was it.”


In her latest brush with the law, a Victorville City Council member was arrested on the dais during the Feb. 21 meeting and booked into jail on allegations of disrupting a public meeting and interfering with lawful business. Blanca Gomez was also arrested at a council meeting in July 2022, and the previous month was involved in a disruptive incident that, according to the Daily Press, caused her to be banned from a Panera Bread. Upshot: She knows how to pick a fight, but she can no longer Pick Two.

David Allen, the newspaper version of a bread bowl, writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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