“Three Feathers”: Speaking in complete sentences

Richard Van Camp, a Tłı̨chǫ writer from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, based ‘Three Feathers’ off an incident in his town. There were three young men who robbed a number of residents of the town, including him. When they were caught, they were sent south to serve two years in prison. In ‘Three Feathers’, a Sentencing Circle sends the boys to spend nine months living on the land with some of the community’s elders. The difference in their experience is profound.

Three-Feathers

Title: Three Feathers|
Author: Richard Van Camp
Illustrator: Krystal Mateus
Published: Highwater Press (March 2015)
Pages: 48 pages

The comic opens with the boys returning from their time on the land. This beginning sets the tone for a non-linear narrative structure that challenges the reader to piece the story together while also making sense of what is, to most settlers, an alien approach to justice. This echoes our experience of learning about criminal incidents where we are often too quick to make assumptions based on a few snippets of information. The comic charts the events leading to the sentence, the experience of the boys on the land, and its ultimate effect on them. In doing so, it helps us piece together the story of how the boys came to be at odds with their community.

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‘Three Feathers’ paints a familiar portrait of the challenges faced by indigenous communities: children without parents, families struggling with addiction, and youth alienated from their traditional culture. But Van Camp, unsurprisingly, never stoops to caricature. His characters are emotionally complex, possessed of agency and sympathetically rendered. He provides a good answer to the question ‘Why does it matter that indigenous people write indigenous characters’? His portrayal of a deaf character, one of the boys sent to the land, is also nuanced. He isn’t reduced to his disability or played for laughs but is allowed to suffer from the same anger, frustration and imperfection as his peers.

The comic is not without its faults. It is not as long as it might be, and as a result we are not given much time to learn about the young men or their community. Similarly, though there are some aesthetic styles that benefit from the use of black and white, this is a comic that would have benefited from colour. Still, the sparse use of text accents the art and puts the environment in the foreground, particularly when the young men are out on the land. Given the moral and spiritual importance of their environment this is a good aesthetic choice.

three feathers greatest teacher

I don’t want to give away the ending. I will say, however, that I was surprised by it, though it reflected the moral arc of the story as a whole. The tale is one of restorative justice, of the capacity of a community to heal its wounds together instead of discarding people who behave unacceptably. It is understood from the outset that the boys have caused harm partially as a result of the harm they themselves have experienced. Their rehabilitation is not rooted in high-minded moralizing about human nature but in the very personal compassion and willingness to forgive shown by their community.

How radically this differs from our colonial conception of justice! For many Canadians, justice is inseparable from retribution. There is even still a surprising enthusiasm in Canada for capital punishment. The idea that ‘criminals’ could be sent out onto the land to fish and camp with the elderly probably sounds like a vacation to your average settler. Even successful experiments with rehabilitation, like the Kingston prison farm, end up up in the scopes of politicians looking for a soft target.

three feathers jail

Activists on the left sometimes like to imagine that they are above this kind of justice. They champion prison abolition and talk gravely about police corruption. But, in practice, I think most radical communities end up practicing a kind of ostracism, seeking to exclude people who transgress against the values of the community past a certain point. I’m not saying we can’t protect our communities from toxic people, privileged jerks who never shut up, or occurrences of sexual violence. But what I do think is that restorative justice looks a lot more ‘protecting our community’ than the ostracism that contributes heavily to activist turnover. That is not a comfortable truth for people whose social circle is a line drawn in the chalk of moral certainty. But uncomfortable truths are a powerful thing in the right hands. All I could think in reading this comic was ‘if only it worked that way for us’, …whoever ‘us’ is.

Talking with Educator, Writer & Comics Creator, David Robertson

There is a story dating back in time and region to the Roman Empire, in which a raven is observed dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the height of the water inside. From this, the raven drinks, and from this tale comes the notable phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

There is a terrible need in North America today for education about the history of colonization. As settlers advanced notions of Euro-centric “progress” for centuries, the catastrophic effects upon the first peoples of the land–from outright war to enduring forms of cultural genocide–were hardly noted, even by those claiming to possess a conscience. Now, like the raven, indigenous people and settlers alike are thirsting for this knowledge, and creative minds are coming up with new, innovative ways to bring generations of stories from the margins to the mainstream.

A strong indicator of the demand has been the public’s reception to the work of David Robertson, a Cree writer, comics creator, and educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In just a few short years, Robertson has developed his storytelling abilities to produce a number of works to great acclaim. This year alone, he has been nominated in three categories of the Manitoba Book Awards, including ‘Aboriginal Writer of the Year’, and ‘Most Promising Manitoba Writer’. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted that his graphic novels “take advantage of an important means of communicating that history to Canada’s youth, especially Aboriginal youth, who have gravitated toward this genre.”

We were honoured to chat with David about his vision, his work, and his plans for the future. All illustrations are courtesy of artist Scott Henderson and Highwater Press.

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Ad Astra: Looking over the stack of comics in front of me, first and foremost, I see the work of a storyteller. What brought you to this line of work? And secondly, what brought you to comics to tell many of those stories?

RobertsonSigning a bookDave Robertson: I suppose it’s a combination of three things: education, personal history, and writing. I grew up disconnected from the side of my heritage that is Cree. My parents were separated when I was very young, and I was raised by my mom in an upper-middle class neighbourhood. She raised me and my brothers well, but because my dad wasn’t around a lot, I wasn’t exposed to First Nations culture or history. So, I grew up exposed to the kind of ignorance we still see today. A lot of racism, either experienced directly or indirectly. I ended up having a low sense of self-worth. I saw myself how others saw indigenous people.

Then, when my parents reconciled, and my dad moved back in with us (this was over a decade later), I finally began to learn more about who I was as a First Nations person. So, it’s been a long journey, learning about myself in that way, and growing a strong sense of pride through knowledge.

Now, nine years ago, I wanted to do something so that other kids could be exposed to real history and real culture. I felt like, if I could bring something into schools that would engage kids with truth, it would help in some way to fight back against the difficulties we still see in our country. Education is knowledge. My parents are both educators, that’s probably where that came from. Now, I’d written since I was in grade three, so I knew I wanted to write something. And because all I ever read when I was growing up was comic books, I thought it would be an amazing way to get kids engaged and excited with history and culture. That’s how I got into writing graphic novels.

My thought was: if you gave a kid a comic book and gave a kid a text book, which one would they choose to learn from? Always the comic book. The thing is, after they read the comic book, they want to read more about the subject. So they read the text book afterwards.

AA: That’s an excellent point. There is an accessibility with comics that I find is really unrivaled. And unlike film or TV, it can move at the reader’s pace…

DR: They call that “Visual Permanence”. See, at first it was: ‘Comics are cool; let’s do this.’ After that, I realized all the technical ways they are so effective.

For example: reading comics connects with us in an almost primal way. And that’s because we used to communicate through pictures, not words. It’s the most ancient way to story tell.

AA: I feel like your first answer really knocks out several of my introductory questions, and you’re now moving into some of the deeper questions…

DR: I’m efficient. (LOL)

dave_presenting on TBS

AA: Regarding oral traditions and visual narratives… Dr Sheena Howard makes an interesting note in her new book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” connecting the comic medium to traditional African storytelling. Griots would memorize a lifetime of stories about the community or nation, heroes, gods and tricksters, and for many former slaves in the United States, there was no black-controlled medium of storytelling between these two (a bit mind-boggling to contemplate). I feel as though your comics are bridging the gap for indigenous narratives, in a similar way…

DR: I don’t disagree with that. At the launch of my first graphic novel, ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’, Murray Sinclair said that while we have an oral tradition, we now are finding new ways to pass down our stories to future generations. One of those ways is through the sequential art medium. It’s also through art, dance, music, and other forms of writing. But I think graphic novels and comics are the most effective. And I think that’s due to the format itself, and the visual nature of the medium. And it goes back, again, to how ancient this form of communication is. It’s taking it all the way back to wall paintings, the first way we communicated with each other and passed down stories. The old always becomes new again.

AA: You mentioned presentations in the classroom. What age groups do you work with?

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DR: That’s the other thing with comics. For the same book, I’ve been to visit a grade four classroom, a junior high classroom, a high school classroom, and I’ve guest-lectured in university classrooms. They are the universal medium. There are reasons for this, too. Because of their visual nature, they connect with struggling readers or readers at lower skill levels. But because [the good ones] often have complex narrative structures and character development and so on, they connect with sophisticated readers as well. What novel can do that?

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AA: There is, understandably, a real sense of loss and despair in a lot of the characters you depict in your work. A few colleagues, indigenous and settler, have noted that the work is a difficult read emotionally, sometimes almost paralysing. What do you see as the goal of bringing these uncomfortable, even triggering histories to comics? Do they present any difficulties in groups, or working with people who have experience similar forms of trauma?

DR: Sure, they are hard to read. I remember passing by two teachers who were shocked by the scenes in Ends/Begins, for example. But they were shocked in a good way, because they recognized the value in bringing history to students in such a real way. But, I should add, in a way that is sensitive and respectful. But these stories need to be told. People need to know the history, and the uncensored history. That is the only way there will be an understanding of the historical impacts on First Nations people in this country. In terms of how to deal with that pain, some of that is in the hands of the educators who are sharing the work. If you are sharing it with kids who are second generation survivors, or survivors themselves, you need to ensure you have supports in place to deal with trauma. If you are showing this to non-indigenous people, you need to prepare to continue the dialogue the book begins, bring in a speaker, bring in supplementary texts, etc. Teachers often say: how can I bring this into the classroom? The content is too difficult. I say to them, consider what your students are inundated with today through media. The violence we see on television. The Walking Dead, for example (which I love, by the way). Yet what you are bringing them in these works is reality, history, and things we all, as Canadians, need to know. There is just too much ignorance out there not to find the best ways possible to educate.

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AA: Can comics and cartoons be problematic or trivializing when exploring violent and traumatic histories? How do you feel about settlers attempting to tackle these subjects? Is this part of a larger legacy of settlers dismissing the need for consultation in their “indigenous solidarity” activism?

DR: Well, settlers need to ensure they are doing things right if they are addressing histories of First Nations people. They need to consult with elders, indigenous peoples, and do the research, and research from the right resources. You know, Scott Henderson is white. But he has done the work to ensure that he is depicting things accurately, and we run our work through the proper channels to ensure we are being accurate and respectful. I think comics can trivialize violence, or show gratuitous violence. But they can also explore violence properly when it’s within the context of reality. The violence in my work is purposeful because it has its place within the story and within true history. Nothing is gratuitous. So, again, educators and readers need to choose properly.

Do I like settlers telling our stories? Not really. I think there is a growing movement of reclamation that needs to stay within the hands of the indigenous peoples. We just need to encourage youth to continue to get involved in telling stories. Our stories need to be reclaimed by our people, as long as those stories can be held to the right standards of excellence.

AA: You mentioned you were a comics fan growing up… comics is a strange medium, where indigenous people have been very *present* in comic representations, but almost exclusively created by white settlers for a white audiences, and very much from the white imagination of ‘manifest destiny’ and other white supremacist outlooks. Did you have any native comic role models? Which characters did you like growing up, and why?

DR: Honestly, I didn’t have any First Nations comic role models growing up and I still don’t. Part of the reason is that it’s still a growing medium within the First Nations community. There just aren’t a lot of First Nations comic book writers out there. But, that’s changing too. You know, Richard Van Camp just did one through my publisher. The Healthy Aboriginal Network does some amazing work. There’s Red, too, which you mentioned. So, I feel encouraged by all of this. In terms of characters. I’m not sure, really. There weren’t and aren’t a lot of great indigenous comic characters either. It’s so hard to create characters without perpetuating stereotypes or appropriating culture, I guess. But I think it’s doable. I loved Elfquest growing up, that’s as indigenous as I got when I was young! Other than that, I was typically into Spider-Man and Batman. I’d like to see work done for our culture that has been done so effectively for others, like King or Maus. Riel is a great one, too. I’d put it up there.

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AA: Helen Betty Osborne: What compelled you to choose Helen’s story as one to tell?

DR: Well, it was the first one I did. I suppose I saw in her story the opportunity to tackle several issues that were important to me, and that I felt should be important to many. Through her story, you learn about the residential school system, segregation, racism, sexism, indifference, the justice system’s treatment of indigenous people, and missing and murdered indigenous women. So, it was really a story that embodied so much of what I love about graphic novels: it’s this incredible foundation in education that allows teachers to jump off into a variety of important subjects. And, today, her story is more relevant than ever. Sharing her story allows us to talk about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in ways that effect people powerfully. When it’s real, it’s effective. Her story becomes so real through the graphic novel medium. And we suffer with her and learn from her.

AA: I love the way the story is framed around grassroots activism as well. I find myself noting the misfortune of many of your characters, but they’re almost always complimented with characters that represent empowerment and agency–characteristics that are difficult to portray within the victim or survivor identity.

DR: Thanks! I think, too, empowerment so often comes from knowledge.

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AA: What’s next for you? a) upcoming projects? b) more broadly, where do you see your work going?

DR: I always have projects on the go. As you know, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is coming out in May 2015. I think it’s my best graphic novel yet, and I am excited to see what it can do to raise awareness for Betty and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada. I have another graphic novel coming out in my Tales From Big Spirit series called The Runner: Joseph B. Keeper. That’ll be out in the Fall, hopefully. We have a bunch of names on the docket for future graphic novels but no firm plans yet on who/what they’ll be about. The Tales From Big Spirit series is envisioned as an ongoing series, so we’ll keep it going forever if we can. I’m also working away at my follow-up to The Evolution of Alice (a book with no pictures!!!). I’m about 1/4 of the way through that novel. It’s about a man who plans to commit suicide but how his life changes as he gets to know his father for the first time, and how his father’s experience at residential school affected his life, and his decision to end it.

In terms of where I see my work going… First of all, I want to constantly improve. I want to learn and get better and become the best storyteller I can become. That comes through writing and reading and learning from the best. I want to continue to do graphic novels, but I want to do more with them in the future. Tell stories that concentrate not just on history but on the amazing legends and myths in indigenous culture, and maybe tell some contemporary stories, create a super-hero we can be proud of and look up to. I’d love to do some mainstream work on my own terms, too. I’d love to, for example, take a crack at Spider-Man. He was my comic hero growing up.

That’s in the “out there” realm, but I don’t think any dream is too big. I’d like to continue to write novels, as well. And all of that work, graphic novels and novels, all, will try to educate in some way, shape, or form. That’s important to me.

Aside from that, I’d like to get into doing more work in television. I had a taste of it with my show called The Reckoner, that is currently in limbo but might see the light of day. I worked with some great writers for that show as well, like Jordan Wheeler and Sara Snow. I’d also like to write movies one day, when I have time. So, that’s what I hope for my work going forward. I just want to continue to evolve, continue to get better, and continue to challenge myself.

We do all of that by taking risks. For me, those risks involve stepping outside what I might be known for, and trying new things.

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Many thanks to Dave Robertson for making himself available for this interview! Questions and comments to David are welcome below, through the WordPress commenting form.

19 Comic Characters Who Embody Women’s Liberation

There are many ways we can envision women’s liberation if we try. Since we total more than half of the world’s population, our experiences as women intersect with almost every other struggle against systemic oppression. The lessons learned are personal and political. Tapping into this well can sometimes seem like an infinite journey: where does one start? Well, with comics, of course! Here are 19 female comic book characters that you need to know about, whether you prefer your heroines fist-swinging, biographical, or of whimsical fantasy. All have earned our respect and adoration!

Contributions by Kate Barton, Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, and Nicole Marie Burton

priya1. Priya, from Priya’s Shakti

Somewhere in rural India, a young girl named Priya turns to the goddess Parvati for help after her life is torn apart by gender-based discrimination and violence. Hiding in the jungle after being rejected by her family, Priya is approached by Parvati, who tells her that she has the power to follow in the footsteps of India’s history of revolutionary women, showing her images of the Gulabi Gang and women who protested for India’s independence. The people in Priya’s village aren’t so quick to mock her when she returns, riding on an enormous tiger and preaching the virtues of gender equality. With the guidance of Parvati and other prominent figures in the Hindu pantheon, Priya sets out on a journey to spread her message to all of humanity.
Priya’s Shakti is currently fundraising to reach a broader audience. You can check out their crowdfunding page for more information!

Red_Tornado_Ma_Hunkel2. Ma Hunkel, from The Red Tornado

Although her place as the world’s first female superhero is in dispute, The Red Tornado (or Ma Hunkel, as she is also known) broke other barriers in 1939, and would aptly be hailed as a progressive comic book character to this day. Like many women of her time in the 1930s, she was a working mother: her first costume consisted of some altered long-johns, a mask, and a frying pan. But like many women who devote their lives to their families and communities, she  carried selflessness and a disdain for injustice in her core. And WHAT a core! Drawn as a muscular, fuller-figured woman, she disrupted gender norms by celebrating her size as a weapon of strength against evil-doers, and by dressing up as men for disguises. So if she doesn’t quite hit the mark for first super heroine, the award for first cross-dressing superhero still sits on her mantel. Hats off to Ma Hunkel: she’s earned it.
RED TORNADO

scout montana shadow eyes3. Scout Montana, from Shadoweyes

Shadoweyes, AKA Scout Montana, is a gothed-out, perpetually grumpy queer black teenager with bad asthma and a pressing social conscience. A shelter worker by day and shape-shifting superhero by night, Scout roams the dystopian streets of a fictional city called Dranac with her best friend Kyisha. Scout may be a powerful, ass-kicking supernatural being, but she’s also very human- she doesn’t have the rippling muscles or Barbie-doll build of traditional superheroines, and the first time she actually tries to fight injustice she gets smoked in the forehead with a brick. Like Campbell’s other works, Shadoweyes is centred around the lives of young queer women and features a beautifully rendered array of different body types, hues, and abilities.

Kamala-Khan-Ms-Marvel-Comics

4. Kamala Khan, from ‘Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel’s latest incarnation is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-­American Muslim teenager from Jersey City, and thanks to a strong readership that has once again proven that the mainstream comics industry has a lot of catching up to do in terms of diversification, the entire universe is now aware of her awesomeness. Kamala engages in conflicts with super­-villains as well as more personal struggles. In many ways, Kamala is a realistic teen: she enjoys superhero culture and writes Avenger fan fiction; she is conflicted by what her parents expect from her, and feels the impact of coming from a Muslim family in a majority non­-Muslim community. When given polymorphic powers, she grapples with whether she truly wants them, offering dialogue on rejecting the prospect of losing one’s true ‘self’. The narrative also echoes of a common theme for children from immigrant families, where one struggles in accepting the privileges that weren’t available to generations before them. Marvel’s first headlining Muslim character relays religion as a positive, helpful guide, creating space for religion within the superhero comic genre, as well as representing Islam in a manner that challenges oppressive media depictions found elsewhere. The power of this kind of imagery in popular culture was exemplified masterfully in a recent guerrilla posting of Kahn over top of anti-Islam bus ads in San Fransisco, much to the delight of the internet.

batgirl and yeoh5. Alysia Yeoh, from Batgirl

Although Alysia is only a supporting character in Batgirl, her mere existence as a transgender person is an anomaly in the world of mainstream comics, and that in and of itself deserves a mention. The artsy young bartender and self-described activist is Barbara Gordon’s roommate after the heroine moves out of her dad’s house, and ends up dating her brother, James Gordon Jr. Unlike other trans characters who have appeared in mainstream comics in the past, Alysia’s persona isn’t laden with stereotypes. With her choppy black hair and downplayed style, she doesn’t conform to the image of hyper-femininity which is often expected of trans women. The fact that she’s trans isn’t tied to a superpower or other supernatural intervention, which has been the case with past comic characters who have switched genders, such as Sir Tristan from Camelot 3000 or Shvaughn Erin from Legion of Superheroes. Other characters are not constantly questioning her gender, as is the case with Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, and unlike Wanda she also does not need to die a tragic death to serve the plot. In a world where the media is crowded with stereotypical and dehumanizing portrayals of trans women, the fact that Alysia is just a cool, likeable young woman who likes painting in her free time and dreams of becoming a chef is pretty groundbreaking.

assigned male stephie6. Stephie, from Assigned Male

Stephie, the cute-as-a-button protagonist of the independent webcomic Assigned Male is a grade school-age girl who speaks with the vocabulary of a womens’ studies major, and vehemently refuses to take any flack from parents, peers, or society at large about the fact that she’s transgender. Caught between a well-meaning yet sometimes misguided mother and a clueless, insecure father, Stephie’s everyday woes highlight the diverse issues faced by trans people in general, and trans women and girls in particular. The fact that Stephie speaks with an adult voice yet still has the desires, interests, and naivety of a child highlights how aggressive and unnecessary enforced gender expectations are. Her perspective challenges the reader to see a world which is not yet coloured by mainstream social mores; when we strip away the assumptions and cynicism of our conditioning, cis-normativity seems just as sad and illogical as many of the other things which adults take for granted without stopping to question why.

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7. Qahera, from ‘Qahera

“I can hear it–the sound of misogynistic TRASH!” That first statement in the first installment of Qahera pretty much sums up what Qahera is all about. On one end of the comic book industry, there is a struggle for the female characters who already exist within largely male-constructed narrative universes to be more complex and less a mere portrayal of sexy body parts. And yet, on another side of this is the push for more content–whatever it may be–from female comics creators, whatever their stories or experiences. One thing I love so much about Quahera is that she actually is a pretty one-dimensional character, but that dimension of kicking patriarchy’s ass is pretty, well, ass-kicking! Qahera also challenges Western/white notions of what it means to be a feminist, by showing that the hijab, like other clothing, is a cultural and religious choice and should not flag an individual for scrutiny any more than any other article of clothing. Quahera dons her hijab and dark robes, and proceeds to prowl the streets of Egypt, hunting down male privilege, wherever and however is may arise. Qahera reminds us that diversifying comics is about diversifying creators as much as characters. We can learn a lot from her short adventures!

tefe holland8. Tefé Holland, from Swamp Thing

Tefé Holland came into being when her father, the earth Elemental known as Swamp Thing, possessed the body of the occultist John Constantine, so that he and his human wife Abby could conceive a child. Tefé is a supernatural being like her father, but being born into a partially human body gives her the ability to control both plant life and flesh. After a long estrangement, Abby reunites with Tefé to find that she has been using her powers to punish humans for their destruction of the natural world. While Abby herself often has to depend of Swamp Thing for protection, Tefé is more powerful than her father. Among other things, she uses her powers to create gory punishments for those who harm the Earth and at one point comes back from the dead to kill her abusive ex boyfriend, who she later replaces with a female lover.

9. Julie Winters, from The Maxx

J WINTERSA tough yet compassionate do-gooder by nature, Julie Winters is a freelance social worker who sticks up for the vagrant population of the dystopian city which she calls home. Her companion, The Maxx, is a quasi-human street person with a lampshade for a head who she often has to rescue from trouble. Julie has a curvaceous yet realistic physique, and often expresses anxiety over her body image. Usually drawn in a tiny crop-top and some ripped up bluejeans, the fact that she has some stomach chub but still dresses revealingly is seldom seen in comics, or mainstream media in general. Julie is also a rape survivor, and one of the main villains in the series is a serial rapist named Mr. Gone, who is capable of telepathically invading the alternate reality which Julie escapes into to deal with her trauma. Julie’s character is groundbreaking in the sense that it humanizes survivors of gender violence, and offers a portrayal which goes beyond the stereotype of victimhood.

equinox10. Equinox, from Justice League United

When DC Comics artist Jeff Lemire learned about the untimely death of Shannen Koostachin, a teenage Cree activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation of Northern Ontario, he felt inspired to create a superhero based on her legacy. Equinox, whose real name is Miiyahbin Marten, is drawn in a blue, black, and white outfit reminiscent of the regalia which Koostachin is wearing in a popular picture of her. Equinox’s powers are based on the seasons, and she has the ability to defeat powerful evil beings by shouting “Keewahtin”, which can be loosely translated as meaning “Northern blizzard”, and creating a blast of blue energy. While Equinox seeks the help of the Justice League in order to learn about and control her powers, she also depends on the traditional knowledge and guidance of her beloved grandparents. Justice League is attempting to avoid the “cookbook” style of creating diversity in comics (“Diversity: Just add people of colour!”) and is actually working to make Equinox’s character the sum of her experience and cultural heritage. We just hope that her character doesn’t fall down the well-worn rabbit hole of indigenous comic book characters designed by settlers.

11. Erika Moen of Oh Joy! Sex Toy!

ErikaMoenOkay, so, Erika Moen is both a character in comics and IRL! But let’s not forget that her illustrated identity, appearing every Tuesday at Oh Joy Sex Toy! does so much to teach us about feminist approaches to relationships and sexual health. Something that makes this web series so important for the genre is that the comic industry has traditionally suffered from sporadic yet pervasive plagues of overt sexualization of female characters. With sex underpinning so much of the female form, how is it that these comics rarely (if ever) touch on any meaningful conversations about healthy sexuality? This problem has created something of a stereotype in feminism that women, and feminists in particular, don’t like sex (WTF, right?) when in fact, we may love sex but question its depiction as simply a mechanical or male-driven act. As feminists, we want our sexual identities to be on our terms, as something that empowers us. With her work in this field, Erika Moen takes on a subject that resists rudimentary generalizations (we’re all different when it comes to our preferences and discomforts), Moen has carefully balanced education with inclusiveness, which means there’s plenty of room for humor and fun! Understanding our bodies and our emotional needs is essential for having healthy sexuality, and healthy sexuality is a big step toward having healthy, fulfilling lives.

12. Alison Bechdel, from ‘Fun Home’, and ‘Are You My Mother?’

alison bechdelAlison Bechdel is a lesbian American cartoonist, with her primary work being the syndicated feminist comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For that ran from 1987 to 2008. Her graphic memoirs Fun Home (2006) and Are You My Mother? (2012) represent the intersections of her personal and familial narratives — the first focusing on her father, and the second, her mother. While dissecting the tangles of her relationships with her parents, the memoirs reveal Bechdel as a deeply reflexive, intellectual character. Bechdel’s self-representation depicts a woman who has a rich inner life, remaining a relatable character thanks to her humble wit peppering serious subject matter. In an increasingly anti-intellectual climate, Bechdel offers a refreshingly expansive analysis of how families affect our identities and how we engage with the world.

13. She Hulk

It can be frustrating as all Hell to revisit some classic comic book characters that you considered revolutionary, only to be… slightly disapointed. I recently looked into the background of Big Barda (who I love for her size and strength) only to discover that she was modeled after a photograph in Playboy magazine. A lot of female comic book characters have similarly disappointing origins, filling X-chromosome quotas in a universe’s character board. But of all of them, I wanted to take a moment to talk about She-Hulk. The name would have you easily dismiss this character as yet another “girl version” of an already established Marvel or DC character. As the cousin of Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters certainly was an echo of another character when her story began. But unlike most superheroes who hide their true identities during their meh day jobs, She-Hulk embraces both identities. In addition to her super-strength, She-Hulk battles crime with her ideas in New York City’s district attorney office. Her cases form the backdrop of many issues, as she takes on criminal activity in the city.

Like most mainstream comic superheroines, She-Hulk was the creation of male industry writers. Big Barda, Storm, and so many others fall in to this category. But their legacy is not so much their sensational back stories or one-dimensional dialogue as the memories we have of them from our childhoods: these strong, intelligent and assertive women were nonetheless an improvement against the backdrop of other characters we learned about as children: damsels in distress and princesses who waited for a prince to marry them.

Satrapi-Persepolis14. Marjane Satrapi, from ‘Persepolis‘ (Books 1 and 2)

As you’ve probably noticed by now, we feel like some of the strongest female characters in comics are as strong and multidimensional as they are because they’re largely autobiographical in nature! In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (referred to as Marji in the comic) articulates a complex identity beautifully–of growing up as a girl who speaks her mind in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, and later seeking asylum in Europe where she not only has to confront patriarchal norms, but also people’s xenophobia and Orientalist views towards her. Marji’s family raised her to be critical of the state, but nonetheless fear for her safety as she resists the Guardians of the Revolution’s policing of decadence and modesty. The comic’s high­-contrast ink style lends itself to the rigidity of public atmosphere under regime, but also Marji’s perceptive clarity as a narrator. Though she often does not have all the answers to what is occurring around her, her convictions to be herself and resist assimilation persevere in nearly every event that unfolds.

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15. Naima Pepper, from ‘(H)Afrocentric’

Naima Pepper is one of the main characters of (H)Afrocentric, a comic that follows a group of undergrads of colour through their time at Ronald Reagan University. The comic describes its characters as each representing political archetypes, navigating issues of identity and gentrification. Naima Pepper self­-identifies as a radical black feminist, and works through the various contradictions in her own life while actively ranting to her friends about racism, apathy, and gentrification. Naima is a strong representation of the critical, politicized undergrad that seeks to resist and overcome the oppressions brought about by white supremacist power structures, not frequently seen elsewhere in the comics medium

16. Kimberly “Skim” Keiko Cameron, from ‘Skim’

skimlittleCousins Mariko and Jilian Tamaki’s ‘Skim follows Japanese ­Canadian, Wiccan teen Kim, as she lets the reader in on her struggle of being different, unrequited love, and depression. The nickname “Skim” is thrusted upon her by schoolmates, a play on her name and also a reference to her, comparatively, not being as slim as the others. Kim shows strength in her introversion, by quietly maintaining independence in her opinions and desires, as well as perseverance through feelings of isolation. This is relevant to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by their emotional situation, Kim’s commentary on high school life adds another clear voice to the “coming­-of­-age tale” genre.

17. Suzie, from Sex Criminals

susie sex criminalsSuzie is a cute, nerdy, indie-rock-looking librarian who has the strange ability to freeze time whenever she has an orgasm. When she hooks up with a guy named John who has the same mysterious ability, they naturally conspire to use their powers to wreak havoc upon the world, starting with a bank heist to save her under-funded library. Although her superpower is sexual in nature, Suzie doesn’t come off as a hyper-sexualized character, and her appearance and behaviour don’t cater to mainstream standards of feminine attractiveness. She rocks her nerd-girl style with pride, and has no problem telling John to fuck off if he’s being annoying. Combined with her brash sense of humour and general lack of inhibitions, Suzie is a female figure who’s capable of being brazenly sexual on her own terms, without it detracting from the other facets of her complex and well-rendered character.

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18. Michelle, from Rent Girl

‘Rent Girl’ is an autobiographical graphic novel by Michelle Tea about her experiences as a young, counter-cultural lesbian woman working as an escort in San Francisco. Beautifully illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin, ‘Rent Girl’ challenges stereotypes of sex workers on a number of levels. Michelle neither loves nor hates her job; she doesn’t consider it to be an empowering or necessarily feminist act, but she also isn’t a victim. Sex work serves as the colourful backdrop to her day-to-day trials and tribulations, including ex-girlfriend drama, social alienation, and searching for meaning as a young queer woman in an urban environment. Because sex work is neither her burden nor her embodiment, Michelle helps folks outside of the field break through the stigmas and even the more positive stereotypes to see that sex workers, like all workers, are so much more than their services or labour.

sandman death19. Death, from the Sandman Chronicles

Finally, in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, the personification of Death is drawn as a moon-faced, eyeliner-laden goth chick with voluminously teased black hair, a classic 80’s death-rock style reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux, and a nearly constant cheerful disposition. The second child in a family of immortal beings who personify various archetypes, Death is often portrayed as being more powerful than her siblings, Destiny, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Her character departs from the classic Western image of death as a fearsome, skeletal male figure with a dark robe and a scythe. Death is always genial and funny, and shows compassion for the souls who she guides from this world into the next. She is present when people pass away, but also when they are born. Her almost maternal-seeming nature can be interpreted as a nod to age-old archetypes, from Kali to Mab, of female deities who personify not only the destructive force of death, but also its regenerative power and necessity in the balance of the universe.

Ad Astra to Release Work of Imprisoned Canadian Artist and AIDS Activist Peter Collins

Ad Astra Comix is excited to announce an upcoming anthology by Peter Collins, a Canadian artist, AIDS activist and prisoner.

Peter has been imprisoned for more than three decades at various prisons. In that time he has worked as a prison abolitionist, challenging the racism, incompetence and corruption of the prison industrial complex. He has also honed his skills as an artist and produced hundreds if not thousands of comics about Canadian politics, life in prison and social justice.

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” ‘Rehabilitated’ like a bug under a kid’s magnifying glass. ” At the bottom: ” (Psychologically tortured until burnt out) “

Recently, a friend reached out to us to see if we would be interested in publishing Peter’s work. After getting a chance to look at his biting commentary that alternates between very dark humor and very human vulnerability, we were happy to say yes. We are glad to be working with Peter as well as some of his friends and supporters to help crowd-fund and publish an anthology of his work to form part of a record of the life of this man.

On a somber note, Peter is currently suffering from an aggressive cancer that has spread from his bladder to his stomach walls, lungs and bones. He is entering the 32rd year of a Life 25 sentence. He has spent the better part of the last 3 decades trying to make amends for the suffering that he caused when he killed Constable David Utman. He has worked to personally transform himself, and to make the world a better place. His risk has been addressed long ago, and CSC refuses to release him because of his political advocacy and critique of the prison system.

We hope that undertaking this project will help raise awareness of Peter’s situation and help push for him to be granted compassionate release. This anthology will be our small part in amplifying the voice of a thoughtful, compassionate man who has overcome incredible obstacles to live a giving, creative life. To keep up to date on the details of Peter’s situation, you can like the Peter Collins Support Committee on Facebook.

To stay up to date on this project, follow Ad Astra Comix on Facebook and Twitter if you haven’t already done so. We will be posting examples of Peter’s work in the lead-up to the crowdfunder. Thanks for taking the time to read – Stay tuned for more details!

A teen’s horrifying tale of solitary confinement at Rikers

Originally posted on Fusion:

Every year, thousands of teens are held in solitary confinement in jails, prisons and juvenile halls nationwide. This is the story of Ismael “Izzy” Nazario and the time he spent in solitary confinement in New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Izzy’s dialogue is taken from transcriptions of audio recordings from several interviews.

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There are currently thousands of kids in solitary confinement nationwide. New York state prisons recently agreed to ban solitary confinement as punishment for inmates younger than eighteen. But this doesn’t apply to Rikers Island and other New York jails.

The New York City Department of Correction declined interview requests and would not let the Center for Investigative Reporting visit the box.

Izzy is now a case manager for teens and adults coming out of Rikers Island.

Reported by Daffodil Altan and Trey Bundy, and illustrated and designed by Anna Vignet. Senior multimedia producer: Michael Schiller

Graphic Culture home 

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To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

HarlemHellfighters

Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

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There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History

Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.

Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.

MendozaTheJew
Title
: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop

Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.

"What do you mean, 'your people', chump?"
“What do you mean, ‘your people’?”

Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.

After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.

dureaux_fisticuffsMendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).

The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.

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In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.

So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?

Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.

The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.

In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.

* * * * *

Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.

110 Comics Workers Sign Petition, Saying “No Business As Usual” with Israel

110 Comics Workers Sign Petition / Bondoux Refuses / Op-Ed by Organizers In French Newsweekly

An open letter addressed to the head of the of the Angouleme International Comics Festival and the broader comics industry demanding an end to “business as usual” with Israel has reached 110 signers as the Festival opened on January 29th, including Alison Bechdel, Jaime Hernandez, Ben Katchor, 2013 Grand Prix winner and Charlie Hebdo contributor Willem, 2012 Grand Prix winner François Schuiten, 2010 Grand Prix winner Baru, 1984 Grand Prix winner Mézières, Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle (author of Jerusalem and special guest at the 2014 Palestine Comics festival), and Lucille Gomez, the cartoonist hired to draw comics by Sodastream at the 2014 Festival.

The full letter and updated list of signatories can be found here.

The letter specifically calls out the Angouleme Festival’s relationship with the Israeli company Sodastream, which operates manufacturing plants in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and in the Naqab desert region of Israel. Franck Bondoux, the director of the Festival, who in 2014 denied that Sodastream operated in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, this week shifted his defense and claimed it was inappropriate to talk about Palestinian rights due to recent events in France. He was quoted in the French newspaper Sud Ouest on January 23:

“We are no longer in the same situation as last year,” remarked Bondoux, whom we reached last night. “SodaStream announced in 2014 that the factory under discussion will be moved. This means that the problem is in process of being resolved and has been understood.” The executive director of the festival further believes that the letter “moves into a broader proposal with terminology that goes much farther in its call for a boycott.” “We have moved from a discussion where one speaks of a specific problem to a total generality.” “This is an incitement to a stronger, more militant form of resistance.” Bondoux refuses to “judge” or “comment” if only to say “that in the current situation [reference to Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket attacks], I’m not certain whether this is a time to welcome such proposals.”

Organizers of the open letter, Ethan Heitner (NYC) and Dror Warschawski (Paris) published a response to Bondoux in the French newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

Open letter and signatories: lettertoangouleme.tumblr.com

To add your name: lettertoangouleme@gmail.com

‘Second Avenue Caper’ Hits Where ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Misses

This is not the review I want to be writing about Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper’. I’d like to discuss it on its own terms. Reading it, the Dallas Buyers’ Club was the first thing that came to mind and I thought how incredibly obvious that was. How it didn’t really need to be mentioned, particularly when people have done such a good job of critiquing the obvious flaws of that film.

Unfortunately, there is a striking parallel between ‘Second Avenue Caper’ and Dallas Buyers Club that needs to be discussed, because it’s typical of a trend in moving Hollywood dramas about moments of historical importance. It’s not just a question of who gets to be the hero and who gets to be the sidekick. It’s a problem with what gets put into these stories – moving, human drama – and what gets left out.

secondavenuecaper

Title: Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague
Author: Joyce Brabner
Illustrator: Mark Zingarelli
Published: November 2014 by Hill and Wang (a Macmillan subsidiary)
Pages: 160 pages
Dimensions: 19.9 x 1.8 x 21 cm
Other Specs: Hardcover. Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: 24.99 In the Ad Astra Comix Shop

“Second Avenue Caper” is the work of Joyce Brabner, distinguished comics author, dedicated activist and frequent subject of the comic ‘American Splendor‘ by her late husband, Harvey Pekar.  The comic is told as an interview with her friend, Ray. It is illustrated by Mark Zingarelli, an experienced artist who contributed to R. Crumb’s ‘Weirdo’ and to American Splendor. The comic uses the interview as a framing device to narrate the story of Ray’s experience of the early days of the AIDS crisis as well as the larger historical context. It is centred around his work as a member of a group that was responsible for smuggling experimental drugs into the US for AIDS patients. That is the obvious similarity with the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Dallas Buyer’s Club, here is a trailer:)

There is some obviously wack shit about this film that people haven’t been shy about calling out. Namely, it’s all about a straight white dude in a story about a crisis that overwhelmingly affected queer people and people of colour. It makes that white dude the hero of the story and hands him a plate of cookies for overcoming *some* of his bigotry. The film cast a cis man, Jared Leto, to play a trans woman. Leto’s performance was criticized as wooden and unbelievable and the character was criticized as being a stereotype.  All of this is pretty well putrid, but it’s also well trod ground.

SAC_2In the film, and in ‘Second Avenue Caper,’ a political narrative emerges alongside the human story. These narratives are sharply divergent and it’s in this divergence that I think the real value of a story like ‘Second Avenue Caper’ lies.

SAC_1Both are “based on a true story,” but Dallas Buyers’ Club is an outlier. The story of most people in the early days of the AIDS crisis is a story of queer people and people who used needle drugs. ‘Second Avenue Caper’ gives us an ensemble cast: it’s narrated by a gay male nurse, but his circle of friends stretches to include other gay men, lesbians, trans people, and people of colour. One character lacks status in the United States and is in danger of being deported even as he dies of AIDS. Instead, he ends up being driven across America in an RV being used to smuggle pharmaceutical drugs over the border. The narrator’s mother makes an appearance, doing her best to understand her son’s “lifestyle” and in the end criticizing her church for their un-Christian behaviour.SAC_7These characters enjoy more or less development – the narrator gets the most panel time, by necessity. But they speak, eloquently, about their experiences of a system that ignores them, at best. Some talk politics while others simply live them. There are artists and activists, rich gay men and a closeted pizzeria worker from a Mafia family. It’s an incredible story. And that’s great. So is Dallas Buyers Club when you get down to it. But while both have tender moments, heartbreak and human drama, only one acknowledges the political realities of the crisis.

SAC_5‘Second Avenue Caper’ calls Reagan out for refusing to even speak the fucking name of the disease. It features the revolutionary work of the direct action group ACT UP and the success of its confrontational tactics. (In general, ACT UP doesn’t get enough love. Check out this Oral History Project to learn more.) The comic goes out of its way to present an ensemble cast and include the contribution of lesbians in fighting in a struggle unlikely to affect their own bodies– a contribution that too often goes unacknowledged. And the comic is frank about how families abandoned their queer kids and hospitals turned patients away, isolating victims of AIDS when they were at their most vulnerable. It comes up more than once that the government and the public can’t quite be persuaded to give a fuck about what was seen as a gay disease and how that helped to spread the epidemic. Although it is a moving, human work with beautiful moments, it is also deeply personal.

SAC_6By contrast, Dallas Buyers Club is a free market fairy-tale. It is about a literal cowboy, a hard drinking, chain-smoking serial womanizer who wears his ignorance as a badge of honor. He is shown as defying arrogant government agencies who seem determined to block the entry of untested AIDS drugs into the US, mostly out of bureaucratic spite. The protagonist’s gradual, begrudging willingness to treat his oppressed clients like human beings is profoundly fucked. It’s not an improvement for bigots to slowly learn how to respect individual members of oppressed groups. That’s how the overwhelming majority of them already are. They are quite capable of making exceptions and recognizing the humanity of individual members of oppressed groups. There is nothing heroic about his tolerance.

SAC_4So here’s the larger point: Yes, representation matters. But even if a gay man or a trans woman had been the protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club it still would have been a libertarian’s fantasy. It still would have failed to acknowledge the deep, structural discrimination which worsened the AIDS crisis, put public health at risk and isolated tens of thousands of vulnerable people. It would also have failed to show the ways that people not only fought to survive, but fought back against the racist, homophobic reality of Reagan’s America. ‘Second Avenue Caper’ manages to do all those things while being every bit as funny, engaging and relatable as any Hollywood Blockbuster.

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Of Family and Terror: A Review of Nina Bunjevac’s “Fatherland”

When we are told, “Everything changed on September 11th,” it is easy for the cynic to note that the only true change has been the object of our cultural hysteria. By 2001 our old enemy, communism, was 10 years into the dustbin of history. There had been some effort to make the global justice movement into a new foe, but beating unarmed protestors made “us” look like the bad guys. …Then al-Qaeda more or less literally fell from the sky to rescue us from the anomie of life without an enemy. The pedestal, left by all those toppled statues of Lenin, now hosted dictators of so-called rogue states, each to be torn down in their turn. All the while, the idea that we had done something to create these enemies, much as we had failed to consider where previous enemies came from, went unexamined. But enemies do not simply rise from the shadows…

FATHERLAND


Title
: Fatherland
Author: Nina Bunjevac
Illustrator: Nina Bunjevac
Published: Jonathan Cape (Sept, 2014)
Dimensions: 8.7″ x 11.1″
Purchase: Hardcover in our online store

This is a review of Fatherland and how it negotiates the tension between terrorism, a cultural obsession and mental health, a cultural aversion. It is also an exploration of the resemblance we can find between the story in Fatherland and more current events. Here, the terrorists do not look like the ones we know today, but in a way, they have a similar story. They did not climb out of a smoldering cleft in the earth, clutching a detonator in one hand and a home-made bomb in the other. They are the products of their circumstances, circumstances we have more control over than we usually care to admit.

Peter Bunjevac Sr. was a terrorist. The comic is only half-finished when it is revealed that he has died. Nina Bunjevac goes to pains to describe her father’s upbringing and to illustrate the sociopathic tendencies he manifested at a young age. She describes the brutal beatings her grandfather gave her grandmother in front of her father. She explores the kindness his aunt showed him, the sole kind figure in a troubled life, who was herself an outcast when she got pregnant out of wedlock. She shows how her father was jailed for supporting a popular communist critical of party excess, and how he fled the country and came to Canada as a refugee. In short, she spares no detail in demonstrating all the little cruelties of life that might have helped to make him what he was: a terrorist.

Peter Bunjevac on left.
Peter Bunjevac on left.

There is something very old fashioned about the art style that leads us through nearly a century of Bunjevac family history. Combined with the black and white palette, the traditional use of panels and the drawings of family photos, one gets the feeling of leafing through a family album. But normally such keepsakes hide the truths we do not want to see; the drunk father, the scolding grandmother, and other dark secrets of the family. In Fatherland, we are presented with all of this. The scene changes very neatly from Nina and her sister bickering in the present day to her grandfather striking her grandmother as though it were all one story.

fatherland_edit1Which, of course, it is. In contemporary media we usually confront either the banal or the horrific, but rarely both at once. It is a mixture of the everyday and the extraordinary that works very well for historical dramas and was used to great effect in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It gives the reader a sense that the narrator is very reliable, and that they are enjoying a special relationship with the author. Indeed, Bunjevac occasionally interjects with her own feelings and deepens this sense of intimacy. ‘Here is my family’s story,’ she says. ‘Parts of it are boring. Parts of it are awful. Parts of it are cute, funny, even tender. Above all it is human.’

Which returns us to the present day. Humanity is the thing that society denies to terrorists when it makes them out to be senseless fanatics. We take them out of context, defining them entirely by the actions we wish to condemn, stripping them not only of humanity but their history. They do not need a reason to be evil in this narrative; they simply are evil. The truth is not so simple.

Terrorists are always hurt people and they are often sick as well. The two recent “terror” attacks in Canada speak to this point. Both Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Rouleau were identified by people close to them as mentally ill. Their lives had fallen apart – Rouleau’s business had failed and he had lost his partner and child. Zehaf-Bibeau was staying in a homeless shelter. He had a history of run-ins with the law. Rouleau was being monitored by government agencies. They did not drop out of the sky. This is also the reminder we get from Peter Bunjevac, Nina’s father. Although he was a terrorist he was not an inexplicable monster who no one could have anticipated. He was very plainly a man to whom the world had been unkind.

Of Zehaf-Bibeau, “’His behaviour was not normal,’ said David Ali, vice-president of Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Burnaby. He said: “We try to be open to everyone. But people on drugs don’t behave normally.” This is not an unusual attitude with regard to people who are unwell. We ourselves are busy or anxious or shy. We do not want to concern ourselves with people who struggle to stay sane. We are especially wary of those who look like they are losing that struggle. But it is the harm and neglect our society causes that creates alienated, desperate, miserable people. We cannot pretend to be surprised when these people resort to desperate acts or when they become desensitized to suffering. They have suffered too long themselves.

Fatherland4

Nina Bunjevac reminds us of this. She tells a very intimate story that many would not want to share. She shows the humanity of people who do cruel things and she shows the weaknesses of people struggling to do right. Her mother grapples with leaving her father in spite of his involvement with a terrorist group. People long to speak up about problems in Yugoslavia but fear state reprisal.

Only the panels are black and white in Fatherland; the narrative is all shades of gray. We would do well to remember that life is very much like that.

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