Social Media Contradictions: Sharing Knowledges of Life and Death in Story of Helen Betty Osborne

Pamela Jayne Holopainen.
Amanda Sophia Bartlett.
Tina Fontaine.
Delores “Lolly” Whitman.
Maisy Odjick.
Jennifer Catcheway.
Elizabeth Mary Dorion.
Bea Kwaronihawi Barnes.
Lisa Marie Young. Leah Anderson.
Helen Betty Osborne.
Danita Faith Big Eagle.
Shannon Alexander.
Brittany Sinclair.
Danielle Creek.
Amber Marie Buiboche.

These are a few of the too many indigenous women missing and murdered across North America.

Works like Walking with Our Sisters commemorate and raise awareness of missing and murdered First Nations women and girls. This project began through social media as an attempt to value to the lives of missing and murdered indigenous women as well as raise awareness for the posthumous ‘violence of silence’. Here, social media has proven a powerful tool for amassing histories and sharing stories, like that of Cree woman Helen Betty Osborne, who had hoped to become a teacher, but was kidnapped and murdered while walking down the street in La Pas, Manitoba.

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Title: Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story
Author: David Alexander Robertson
Artist: Scott Henderson
Published: Highwater Press, 2015
Specs: 30 pages, B&W, softcover
Age Group: For grades 9+
ISBN: 978-1-55379-544-5
Price: $16.00

In the age of hashtag revolutions, social media can be a powerful tool for sharing histories and directing action. But it is a double-edged sword. At the same time that it is a vehicle for sharing love and honour, digital media also helps to spread hate.

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The social media producers and consumers that are portrayed in the opening of David Robertson’s ‘Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story’ (Highwater Press, 2015) are at once dismissive of indigenous existence and curious about realities that are troubling to comprehend. Some commenters express curiosity, sandwiched between others’ comments that victim-blame. They all reveal a similar truth: a lack of awareness of –and appreciation for– the weight of indigenous history in North America. This is a troubling fact that this powerful graphic novella attempts to address.

In February of 2014, a monument was unveiled to remember the over 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Winnipeg, MB. In ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’ this is depicted amid a packed ceremony, as a speaker proclaims, “We have heard this is a crime. That each time one of our sisters is stolen it is only one crime — that there is no epidemic”. Individualizing violences contributes to this erasure of the history of indigenous communities of Canada, and in particular the violences against indigenous women.

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‘The Helen Betty Osborne Story’ seeks redress for this erasure by connecting the lines between these many missing and murdered sisters. Much as the movement for black lives in the United States has done to centre the history of anti-blackness in the United States, this piece and the larger #MMIW movement on social media is a critical contribution to breaking this legacy. Like their racist American counterparts, the online instigations, blaming harm done to indigenous communities on their indigeneity, are a predictable expression of endemic racism in Canada, which manifests itself in the destruction of indigenous bodies.

Despite the trolls, who typically make themselves known very quickly, hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MMIW, among other social media channels, are invaluable ways for the unaware to understand that violence against these communities does not occur preternaturally. Similarly, we can do more to end the continuity of violence that has allowed women and girls to disappear from their communities with more than a state-sanctioned shrine.

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David Alexander Robertson, a Cree author based in Manitoba, pulls out Osborne’s painful history and honours her in these panels, despite the reality that she disappeared more than 40 years ago. In the way that it shares the power of her life by depicting her story apart from the violences she endured, it also brings the true crime of her murder to light: this woman was incredible, a leader in many respects, and she was disappeared and minimized to a number. It offers a cue on how to both remember and share lives. Osborne’s image isn’t exploited or exoticized in this story, a nod to both the writer and artist that should not and cannot be taken for granted. In just 29 pages, it charges the reader to understand how stereotypical images of indigenous women affect them in life as in death.

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Though social media is the primary lens through which we see these women’s stories in the comic, TLHBO prods the reader to wonder the many ways they can interrupt the cycle of silence surrounding missing and murdered indigenous women. If you aren’t able or willing to mobilize to a rally or ceremony, how can you engage the people around you to recognize the violences indigenous women are experiencing?

The story left me wondering what more can be done than spreading awareness — and at what point does the rubber hit the asphalt in a movement? In the case of the movement for Black lives in the U.S., many like the writer for The Kinfolk Kollective have deftly explained how social media in general and videos of murder in particular can desensitize or commodify Black suffering. How can we make space to share stories without exploiting the subjects in the process? And how can we demand a move away from simple, symbolic expressions of state sympathy towards reparations? ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’ is a powerful commemoration of a woman and her sisters, who deserve more in the telling of their histories.

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All artwork (c) Madison Blackstone, used with permission specifically for this review.

rheembrooks

Rheem is a Black Syrian woman born and raised in the woods of Northern Virginia. She is a student, organizer, and lover of comics and visionary-science fiction.

She writes and works so that she can help to create the new worlds her ancestors made possible for her to imagine.

Drawing the Line: An Exclusive Sneak Preview!

Drawing the Line preview coverAs Ad Astra Comix gears up to launch the pre-order campaign for “Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back!” here in North America, we wanted to give our viewers a taste of what’s in store. Below you’ll find an exclusive sneak preview of the beauty and power of ‘Drawing the Line’, which connects issues of gender, sexuality, shade/race, class, and inter-generational dialogue in one exciting volume. In short, we feel that this book includes a little of everything that North American feminism needs: international and intersectional perspectives on the ‘every day’ of womanhood.

We hope you enjoy. …And if you do, we encourage you to follow us on social media, and pre-order your copy of Drawing the Line on September 1st!

This preview is brought to you by the incredibly talented illustrator, Samidha Gunjal. Here’s what she has to say about her comic:

Someday‘ is a story about one day, a day unlike any other. The girl in my story has to deal with what is euphemistically called ‘eve-teasing’ from the men she passes on the street. This kind of sexual harassment is a daily reality for most women in India. Initially she ignores the cat-calls and whistles. Her fear grows but in that moment she finds her strength. Her anger takes over and her emotions explode- she becomes Kali !

Kali is a Hindu goddess associated with Shakti, the force of divine female energy. Kali is the fierce avatar of the goddess Durga who, in need of help summons Kali to combat Rakshasa – the demons. Kali is the goddess of Time, Change, and Destruction, and is often portrayed as dark and violent.’

Samidha participated in a week-long workshop with other Indian women to produce her comic. To get an idea of what that process looked like, check out this slideshow of her creating.

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Now that you know a little about the artist and the process, check out the incredible final product… Samidha Gunjal’s “Someday“.

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About the artist, Samidha Gunjal:

‘I am an artist who love visual storytelling through illustrations and animation. I enjoy drawing and painting using traditional mediums keeping it simple with multiple layers of meaning.

As a self taught artist I keep exploring and experimenting with drawing styles and mediums to develop my own style. Anything and everything from day to day life inspires me to draw but nature is the main inspiration! I love reading children story books, graphic novels and mythology which keeps me inspired and motivated to create more stories.

I started my journey as children story book illustrator but ‘Someday‘ is my first graphic narrative where I got full freedom to express visually, the way I feel I should be! And I am grateful to Zubaan who gave me that opportunity by publishing it as a part of graphic anthology ‘Drawing the Line- Indian Women Fight Back’! Currently I am working on my own drawing series called ‘Silent Conversations’ and an animation film project to be revealed soon!

Samidha has more work on display on Facebook, Instagram, Behance, and her blog.

For more information about the comics anthology ‘Drawing the Line’, or to get your copy today, check out our Kickstarter page.

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“Dude, Watch me Light My Pubes on Fire”: Marines at Work in ‘Terminal Lance’

*** TW – This comic contains references to sexual violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and in general is about the US Marine Corp***

Why is Ad Astra Comix reviewing a webcomic about the marines? It’s a fair question. I’m not going to tell you that ‘Terminal Lance’ has good politics – indeed, I think the author and artist, Lance Corporal Maximilian Uriarte (USMC) would be bothered if he thought we agreed on much. ‘Terminal Lance’ is unapologetic in its defense of American militarism, relies often on jokes at the expense of oppressed groups and has a fan base composed largely of active-duty and since-retired soldiers (with nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook, those of us on the Left can but feebly struggle and flail to comprehend TL’s popularity).
On the strength of its politics, I can only really recommend Sun Tzu, who advises that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

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And that is reason enough to recommend it. ‘Terminal Lance’ offers us an excellent opportunity to understand the mentality of militarism and of rank and file soldiers in the army. When compared to comics on the Left, it offers an equally important insight into our own efforts at making art that captures our experiences: comparatively, that is, we suck.

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There are some outstanding radical comics, of course, or we wouldn’t be in the business. But as my partner is fond of saying, she got into the business in part because she looked around the scene and said to herself, ‘Is this all there is?’ Lazy writing, cliché visuals and inaccessible language plague radical scenes, and radical comics are no exception. Even many of the best cater to folks who are already radicalized – for every accessible ‘V for Vendetta’, there are several ‘Great Moments in Leftism’ which relies heavily on sectarian in-jokes. (Scratch that, there can never be enough ‘Great Moments in Leftism’. But the larger point stands.)

‘Terminal Lance’ is, at its root, a comic written by a worker speaking about his experience of his workplace. Like any gag-a-strip comic, it hits and misses in equal measure. It relies to a certain degree on familiarity with workplace culture. But that is where I perceive its relevance: ‘Terminal Lance’ is the best comic I have ever read about a worker’s experience in their workplace. While its politics are often reprehensible, it shows a level of craftsmanship that we could all stand to learn from.

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Anyone familiar with old IWW comics doesn’t need to be told how effective comics can be as a tool for workplace organizing. They help develop culture and collective consciousness among workers. In an era of part-time, no-contract positions and rampant union busting, it can be difficult for healthy workplace culture to develop organically. Overworked and underpaid, many workers end up showing solidarity by working harder for their bosses to avoid fucking over their coworkers. Building a true culture of workplace solidarity means clearly identifying the privileges of the bosses, the injustices and outrages of the workplaces, and the common experiences of the workers. Comics can help do that.

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This is where ‘Terminal Lance’ excels. It sneers at the enthusiasm of the ‘moto-boner’, marines who buy into the motivational propaganda of the Corps. It walks us through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the military bureaucracy with its maddening regulations seemingly designed to punish marines for having independent thoughts. It explores the ways in which military marriage policies impel young men into ill-considered marriages just to escape the perpetual adolescence of barracks life. It even calls out predatory lenders who lurk near bases and exploit cash-flush but inexperienced young marines.

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But it has a lighter side to it, as well. It shows a real affection for the boredom and shenanigans of marines forced to work ridiculous hours under unreasonable conditions. It speculates that since port-a-potties are full of penis scribbles even with the integration of women into the marine corp, that female marines must also doodle dicks on bathroom walls. In short, it has its finger on the pulse of what is funny and essential to the marine experience – or so it seems to me as an outsider.

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What makes this so important? Workplace solidarity has always depended on identification as a worker. Our current economic order has conspired to break down that identification and make it harder to build ties between workers. In an era of multiple career changes, part-time hours and patronizing corporate dress policies, it can be difficult to develop an attachment to your identity as a worker. The army is a special case in this regard – it is often a long-term career path that offers a high degree of stability. Taking pride in your work and identifying with your workplace it not only encouraged by management, but by society at large.

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No one has ever let me walk into a restaurant and eat free because I used to work at a Subway!

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So ‘Terminal Lance’ has some things working in its favour when it comes to developing a shared imagination of a worker identity. But because that identity is already in place, it puts the artist in a better place to articulate and riff on it. Maybe the challenge for aspiring comics artists in most modern workplaces is to develop that identity rather than satirize it. But in identifying what is frustrating and rewarding to marines as workers, `Terminal Lance`offers important cues for anyone looking to do that.

If You Could See a Comic About Any Social Issue, What Would it Be?

This past May, at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (or TCAF), we joined 20,000 other comic and art fans at the Toronto Public Library. Dozens of publishers traded, hundreds of artists talked, and literally thousands of books changed hands… but how many of them were about social issues? Very few. And if that was the case, why? Do people not care about social issues? If they do, which ones to they care about?

What people told us, and how they responded revealed some interesting answers…

To download a high-resolution version of this poster, please e-mail us at adastracomix (a) gmail.com
To download a high-resolution version of this poster, please e-mail us at adastracomix (a) gmail.com

Many social scientists diagnose the problem of “low civic engagement” as a chronic but generally benign feature in our ‘free society’ (think democracy’s acne). The same tired symptoms –apathy, ignorance, and a lack of time and resources–would appear to be the standard-issue packaging that every common person is born with, according to these guys.

The trouble, of course, is in the framing.

Are folks ignorant/apathetic about all social issues? Or just the standard avenues by which we discuss and act on those issues in society?

Regarding the notion of free time: companies, and to some extent organizations, compel millions of people to spend time in ways that suit their financial interests: buying clothes, playing video games… TCAF compelled a small city’s worth of nerds to come and spend their weekend reading comic books (no complaints here). So citizens saying they don’t have time is really just a polite way to say that political issues, as they they perceive them, aren’t worth their time. And honestly, when it comes to a lot of stuff in governance, policy, and electoral politics, who can blame them?

But back to the TCAF survey…

We have put together this poster as the culmination of polling more than 50 individuals. It demonstrates that TCAF attendees, and by extension a small sample of Toronto’s population (young and old, diverse in racial and gender representation) would like to see comics that tackle a variety of subjects.

Two things became apparent as we were polling people…

1) Ask someone you don’t know what their political ideas are, and they may just make a face that would suggest they’d been asked for the colour and size of their underwear. Folks feel embarrassed by the question–they consider their beliefs to be something intimate, private, not to be shared easily. In other words, they care–but they worry that you don’t.

2) The opinions of individuals were, by far and large, not self-serving. Men wanted to see more comics by, about, and for women, as well as comics about problematic male behaviour. Settlers wanted to see comics about indigenous justice and reconciliation. People want to hear more from prisoners, and migrant workers. In other words, people were looking for comics to educate them about, and connect them to diverse experiences.

The world is changing. Some changes are good, some changes are bad. All things being said, there is a greater interest in being informed about the world now more than ever. But there is a very real disconnect between the halls of libraries and electronic archives, to our classrooms, workplaces and homes. The passages connecting them do exist, but they are often occupied by some troubling gatekeepers.

Online platforms and apps are here to help, but it’s not enough. As these tools increasingly become the territory of our workplaces, learning through them can become a source of increasing anxiety. Less “fountain”, more “cold, jet-spray garden hose” of knowledge, amiright? What if there was a format for information that could relax the anxious and engage the apathetic?

What if this sense of social and political disconnect could be mended–or built anew–with comics?

What if comics were keys to personal empowerment, community development, and social change?

Dear readers, we need not ask you “What if comics could save lives?”, because they already do. But we will argue the next biggest challenge: What if comics could change the world?

How much of a student’s attention could be saved with comics in their curriculum?

How much could a community benefit from comic art that promoted healthy relationships and living?

How contagious is important information that is an enjoyment to be shared?

The “market” of Ad Astra Comix is not in the back of a comic book store, where non-fiction comics are traditionally found. Our market is in every classroom and workplace, every neighborhood, every living room–even bedroom. (We will read comics about subjects that we aren’t even comfortable to talk about, and we might share those comics with total strangers via social media). We are only limited by our capacityy to produce on par with the demand–which is huge.

We hope you’ll join us in acknowledging that the concept of political comics will only appreciate in value. We look forward to a busy year of bringing you the kinds of comics YOU want to see. (And don’t forget, we’re starting the hashtag #TheresAComic4That on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to help you find what’s already out there!).

Until next time! …And remember: the Panel is Political.

Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

It probably doesn’t need saying that I love comics. I would not have committed myself to a life of reading, writing, researching and reviewing comics if they were not very dear to me, masochistic tendencies aside. But while I adore them, political comics put me in a jam so thick I consider spreading it on my mid-morning toast. Maybe my partner’s thinking has infected me; when she started Ad Astra Comix close to two years ago as a review site, she said it was in part because the quality of political comics was generally so low.

So I approach these reviews with a critical mindset, looking for a holy grail or at least a holy fail that will make appropriate review fodder. ‘On The Books’, appropriately enough, falls between these two categories. It is not going to knock Maus or Persepolis off their thrones but it is a good comic in a very specific way; something I haven’t often come across.

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Title
: On the Books
Author: Greg Farrell
Illustrator: Greg Farrell
Published: Microcosm Publishing (2014)
Pages: 128
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Store

‘On The Books’ is a semi-autobiographical comic by Greg Farrell, describing the experience of the author as a member of the United Auto Workers local at The Strand Book Store in New York City. If a unionized book store strikes the reader as a curiosity then they will not be surprised to read that the comic is something of a curiosity as well.

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It is, among other things, an oral history put to paper. Through a mixture of interviews and narrated recollection, Farrell recounts a narrative of workplace struggle replete with lessons, quips and uncomfortable truths. If the comic can’t claim to set an industry standard for art or narrative, it comes close to providing a blueprint for recounting political struggles in its expertly arranged assortment of narrative elements.

Perhaps in order to anonymize his co-workers, or simply for eccentricity’s sake, Farrell has rendered them in a delightful diversity of caricatures: Werewolves, wizards, enormous babies and wizened birds all stand in for Strand employees as they describe their thoughts, feelings and experiences around their work. Often they look as though the worker said, “I think it would be cool if you drew me as a yeti.” But sometimes, it feels like the avatar chosen to represent an employee may be meant to amplify the message. In any case, they make it more visually interesting to read through a comic with potentially dry subject matter.

Visual interest is important for ‘On The Books’ which does not fall neatly into the genres of political comics I am most familiar with. It reminds me most of thoughtful activist report-backs I have sometimes read. Although he is careful to provide morsels of context where they are most needed, Farrell’s comic is about a labour struggle. Although it can look very heroic when the cops open fire on a picket line of grannies, I remember from my undergrad days how boring endless discussions of percentage increases and safety minutiae can seem to the outsider.

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This is where ‘On The Books’ transcends amusement to be a genuinely enlightening comic. Report-backs from the ground are always very valuable and provide an intimate understanding of how to conduct campaigns. I find myself reading descriptions of activist struggles that do nothing more than overlay the politics of the author onto the barest bones of fact. Through a combination of context, interviews from people involved in the strike and a narrative of the strike’s events, Farrell transcends this kind of vapid ideological graffiti to produce what seems to me like an honest account of events. He discusses the problem of receiving support from activist groups outside the union, looks honestly at why members might have voted in favour of the insulting strike deal, and challenges the familiar narrative of rising costs and falling profits in a changing industry–which, of course, we can relate to. He is also prepared to be critical of UAW’s handling of the strike and implies that they were more interested in labour peace than winning. These are all things I am usually disappointed to find lacking in comics about labour struggles that tend to have a more simplistic moral narrative of the good union vs. the bad bosses. In real life there are scabs and people who will settle for a bad deal, and even the union itself can’t always be counted on. If you are interested in the wires and circuitry of a retail strike, this book is a great place to look.

A photo of the picket line from the intersection (featured in the book).
A photo of the picket line from the intersection (featured in the book).

After waxing so enthusiastic you could slip, I am sorry to raise some concerns. Farrell has clearly been around social justice struggles for several years and has a sensitivity to human emotion. Why, then, he would choose to include a metaphor (a visual one no less) comparing aggressive bargaining to sexual assault? This is the 21st century and one would hope he knows better. It is a disappointing moment in an otherwise encouraging book.

I also felt as though Farrell could have been either more or less of a presence in the narrative. Maybe because there are so many interviews he almost doesn’t appear enough to remember what his character looks like. I’m all for humility, but in trying to perch on the fence I think he falls down with a leg on either side.

These flaws don’t change my overarching feelings about the comic. For people interested in labour struggles, or simply in social justice, this is a must-read. Normally, I feel like I have some political point I’d like to make in these reviews that isn’t explicitly stated in the work, but Farrell’s “On The Books” speaks for itself – strikes are complicated, and you can’t conceive of them as a simple struggle between good and evil. It is a thoughtful text that I hope will continue to receive attention.

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The Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection & The Politics of Public Knowledge

sir arthur            Outside of the Library and Archives of Canada, there is a statue of Sir Arthur Doughty, the country’s first National Archivist. In a city of thousands, he is one only of two civil servants who has been honoured with his own statue – the other died a hero while saving a drowning woman. While Sir Arthur never dove into a frozen river, he is a hero of a very different kind to Canada. There is a plaque at the base of his statue inscribed with the following quotation:

“Of all national assets, archives are the most precious: they are the gift of one generation to another, and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.”

Our idea of nation and civilization are very different from Sir Arthur’s, and I don’t mind saying better. I grew up taking the idea of a national archives for granted – my mother worked for it, and my father worked in it. The archives is the glacial melt from which so much of the river of history flows. But in recent years it has been under attack.

Who would attack such an apparently non-partisan body? The Conservatives, we are not surprised to discover. But why? Surely nothing could be more stale, more status quo, than the National Archives, one might think. You’d be wrong.
The National Archives are a knife held to the throat of the government. Records held there were instrumental to building the case against the protracted cultural genocide waged by the Canadian state against indigenous peoples. There is information enough in the archives to lay bare proof of crimes past and present. Archives are a vital resource in the fight against colonialism. They are a weapon in many struggles for justice.

camille_callisonAll of which may seem like a strange way to introduce our feature on Camille Callison, the Indigenous Services Librarian at the University of Manitoba. But doing so sets the stage to help understand just how important – and potentially threatening to colonialism – her work at U of M is. Camille has recently coordinated the assembly of Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection (‘Mazinbiige’ is an Anishinaabe word meaning “beautiful images and writing”), of more than 200 titles written by and about indigenous people.

The collection not only captures the best of the genre but also the worst. It includes the most racist, stereotypical depictions of indigenous people as well as the most authentic ones. The reasoning for doing so is that these racist depictions are often far more visible and it is important to understand how settler culture portrays indigenous people.

It’s one of the very first such collections available at a Canadian university. Callison describes the increasing literary credibility of comics and graphic novels in society as well as the increased recognition of the medium as an educational tool. She sees comics as a way to engage youth with topics that they might find too try if they were presented with conventional writing on the subject.   Based on the buzz around the collection, it looks like she’s right. Not only the university but the student paper and even CTV have taken notice of the launch of the collection. Given the ongoing interest in innovative teaching methods, this is hardly surprising. Callison’s work will create a resource for critical discussion on the depictions of indigenous people, as well as greatly simplifying research for comics scholars interested in the subject. Accessibility is a major consideration for librarians and archivists, and indigenous peoples often find that their efforts to access residential school records at the Library and Archives of Canada was obstructed by bureaucratic obstacles.

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Photos from the launch of the Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection, November 2013
Photos from the launch of the Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection, November 2013

Callison notes the role of her son in interesting her in graphic novels as a medium; they were one of the first kinds of reading he became interested in doing. She says that they read them together and had critical discussions of the way women were depicted in the media so that he could enjoy them without absorbing sexist stereotypes. This is very much in line with her emphasis on critical reading as a way of understanding depictions of indigenous people in mainstream comics.

She also acknowledges the importance of working with Blue Corn Comics and discussions with Professor Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, an Assistant Professor in Department of Native Studies who teaches a course on graphic novels. In an article for the Manitoban, Niigaan Sinclair is quoted as describing graphic novels as a vehicle for self-determination.

There are a lot of great discussions going on about how mainstream comics reinforce sexism, racism and other toxic ideologies. Alas, these discussions seldom get beyond the politics of representation in terms of what comics can do. It’s great to see indigenous authors producing comics about indigenous superheroes. But The Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novel Collection includes more than good and bad portrayals of indigenous heroes – it includes diverse narratives of indigenous experience that can help to communicate trauma, share traditional knowledge, and help us decolonize ourselves.

The Rise of Kagagi! Talking with Algonquin Comic Artist & Writer, Jay Odjick

It’s not particularly surprising that Jay Odjick received his first rejection letter from a mainstream comic book publisher (Marvel) at the age of 10.

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Jay Odjick: “As a kid, I really dug Spider-Man – I’d read anything, but after a few years started to gravitate a bit toward the darker characters. They kind of fit more closely with my experiences and environment.
We would go and buy unsold issues for like a dime or something – the store would rip the covers off and sell ‘em cheap and we weren’t rich, so that worked out for us. Comics are a good chunk of how I learned to read.”

Needless to say, Odjick and Marvel had some divergent world views. Odjick was an Algonquin kid living off-reservation in a decimated neighborhood.

A young Jay Odjick with his Mom in Rochester, NY.
A young Jay Odjick with his Mom in Rochester, NY.

Jay: “I was born in Rochester, NY – which is where my mother is from. My father, like many other guys from Kitigan Zibi, left the reserve very young to find work, and he ended up seeing a good chunk of the upper East Coast.
I think he left home at like…13 or 14. There were quite a few people from my res working in the Rochester area – so he met my mother there, they got married and I was born in the US… like a block away from a comics store.
We moved from Rochester not long after a man was shot and killed right out in front of where we lived – chalk outline and all. [And I thought,] ‘Hey, what’s this Punisher guy like?? Ok, I get this!’”

Jay and brother Joel Odjick, co-writers of
Jay and brother Joel Odjick, co-writers of “First Hunt”, which will be included in MOONSHOT (AH Comics, 2015)

Fast-forward 25 years. Even if Jay was then the successful comic and cartoon creator he is today, Marvel would likely continue to sneer at his work. Why? Perhaps because it refuses to fit any mainstream indigenous stereotypes that industry leaders like Marvel and DC have made millions depicting for decades.

ApacheChief_OldSchoolJay: “I didn’t come across too many comics that featured many native characters as a kid – I think my first real exposure to any were in some Westerns – and then at some point, Apache Chief from Super Friends (not comics, but still). We had moved [back] to the res after leaving Rochester and I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this guy is very much unlike anyone I know – or anyone living on my reserve’. I never really felt like I saw anyone in comics who looked or acted like any native people and, as a kid, I found it weird even if I didn’t understand why.
I also didn’t understand why there were so few native characters on TV or in comics. Only later did I kind of begin to theorize as to why that was, and want to create a superhero character who did look and act like the Native people I knew.”

In his twenties, Jay created and began producing The Raven while continuing to live in Kitigan Zibi. This was his first foray into publishing comics.

Jay: “I had some some illustration work before and worked on a comic for a website – in the early days of the web – but The Raven was my first comic book. Basically, I thought there was a need for a cool, hip, modern native hero – one who native kids could relate to or who could resonate with them. Something a little dark, action oriented; something with a touch of Spider-Man maybe – but with some splashes of anti-heroes like Wolverine and Batman in there as well. It was something I’d been meaning to try to do for a few years – and decided to try self-publishing. I got out 3 issues of the series before realizing it was all too much work for one guy.”

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The life of an unseasoned self-publisher is one of constant trials—from the printer to the comic shop. While Jay struggled to create, produce, and promote the work on his own, his expenses were piling up. For his next project, he aimed for a graphic novel format, which took the pressure off the machine-gun publishing schedule of single issue comics creators (typically work reserved for an assembly-line team of comics writers, editors, artists, inkers, colourists, and promotional teams).

Jay: “I was going to comic conventions as a publisher around this time and met up with Arcana‘s Sean O’Reilly – who had a booth next to me at a Toronto Comic Con, and we struck up a conversation about my book and he said he’d be interested in publishing a graphic novel.

I tweaked the concept – made it less dark and violent and de-aged the main character, Matthew Carver, by about 15 years so that he would maybe appeal more to younger readers and created the graphic novel KAGAGI: The Raven.”

kagagi cover arcana
Kagagi: The Raven, graphic novel available through Arcana.

My thinking with Kagagi was always – he’s a superhero who is Native – and that plays a role in who he is, of course, but you should be able to come into this world without a lot of knowledge of Native culture or what indigenous experiences are like.”

As Odjick worked on the graphic novel for Arcana, he developed his creation. Kagagi is a native character based on Anishinaabe teachings and language. The project received critical acclaim, and Kagagi was approached by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) for a kid’s TV show adaptation.
As any creator knows, the task of character design is a meticulous one, requiring careful contemplation. Here, Jay made some interesting decisions with regard to
Kagagi as a realistic representation of indigeneity.

Jay: “In terms of visuals, I decided to steer clear of the stereotypes or tropes we tend to see associated with native super-people. I didn’t – and still don’t – believe a super person in buckskin will resonate with younger readers or maybe even readers my age.

I created a design and aesthetic that I thought would appeal to readers of all backgrounds and cultures. But in terms of Matthew’s alter ego, I really tried to visually create something that looked like Native kids today. I think that’s why so many kids appreciate the character and dug the TV series – if he’s going to be a superhero for Native audiences, those audiences have to see themselves reflected in him.”

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A key element in using dynamic media like comics, cartoons, and video games to communicate complex cultural or political information is a work’s ability to be engaging on a number of levels, from aesthetic, to entertainment to education. Odjick feels the design of the Kagagi graphic novel and TV series achieved this.

Jay:  “If we want to create native superhero characters who resonate with native kids, we have to speak the same visual language in the media forms they’re accustomed to.
Now, the Kagagi ‘suit’ itself manifests when Matthew transforms – based on his subconscious, and what he thinks a hero should look like. It’s something I never got to explore enough in either the comic or the show, but that’s why he looks the way he does as Kagagi. He’s a kid who grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons and playing video games!
We would have explored in other comics and episodes that previous Kagagi bearers looked different (based on their own perceptions of a hero). Still, considering Matthew is a kid who doesn’t know a lot about his culture or background, it’s interesting that, as Kagagi, his hair grows when he transforms into Kagagi. It perhaps is meant to symbolize, deep down, how he feels he should be connected with his traditional culture…”

Jay acknowledges that both inside and outside of his comic creations, it’s a fine line for indigenous youth to navigate society’s expectations of them—expectations that can be either helpful or harmful. Settler portrayals of indigenous comic book characters have traditionally catered to the male white child’s imagination of what is indigenous: think Daniel Boone, Davey Crocket, and The Last of the Mohicans.
A part of the imagination in colonial North America is that settlers are absolved of guilt for their complacency in genocide, because they wish to adopt an indigenous custom here or a style of dress there. All the while, indigenous artists and creators are ignored.

Jay: “[The line goes…] ‘It’s ok, we are showing respect!’…Right.

“As a kid, it was hard because many people wanted me to work in more traditional native arts – my father especially. He discouraged me from pursuing comics, but I was what I was.”

Ultimately, it burns down to that critical question, currently searing the mainstream comics industry: regardless of character diversity, who has creative control over the design of the characters, and the stories?

Jay: “I can’t speak to much beyond my own community – but people in Kitigan Zibi have really embraced Kagagi and especially the series, because even if we aren’t delving much into culture and myths, we have created a show that exists in English with a mix (20%) of Anishinaabeg and with a language version completely in Algonquin as well.

My hope is that if kids like the show, it maybe helps them to learn the language.

Jay at the school he attended as a kid - coming back for a visit and to launch the Graphic Novel section of the Library, 2014.
Jay at the school he attended as a kid – coming back for a visit and to launch the Graphic Novel section of the Library, 2014.

Learning from previous struggles as a self-publisher, Jay worked to make Kagagi a real community effort. Algonquin voiceovers were done in Kitigan Zibi, with Anishinabeg translations read by local teachers Joan Tenasco and Annette Smith. While most of the voices were from his community, Jay was happy he was able to bring in cast members from neighboring Barriere Lake. As he was already on tight deadlines and budgets, he paid for the Algonquin translation out of pocket, recording the voiceover work himself.
But in terms of finding a larger community of indigenous comic creators, Odjick feels that there remains a great deal of room for improvement and growth.

Jay: “I think the fact that I write and draw my own stuff maybe has a bit of an isolation factor!

When I was starting out in comics I was unaware of literally any other Native creators. I was very much trying to learn about the comics industry, about publishing, publishers, who did what, etc. Now, I’m seeing more and more Indigenous comic creators, which is awesome! I’m stoked about that – but have only been in contact with a few. I drew a story adapted by Niigaanwewidam Sinclair that’s in Graphic Classics’ Native American Classics, published a few years ago. I’m taking part in the Moonshot anthology with First Hunt, which I illustrated and co-authored with my brother, Joel. It’s a story about the role hunting played in Anishinaabe life back in the day, and illustrates some of the pressures that must have come with it.
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Odjick considers the Kagagi TV series a major victory with a dynamic and lasting impact. It allowed him and his community to create a powerful learning tool for language, and it convinced his community to be open to new forms of media as a way to pass on traditional teachings (Odjick is very proud that there is now a graphic novel section at the K.Z. School Library containing some 200 titles).  

Jay: “If I can keep doing my thing, keep telling stories, hopefully that continues to allow me to do some good with issues I’m passionate about, like language preservation and literacy for our youth.”

 

Kagagi: The Raven airs on APTN every Sunday at 10 am, and is available online at aptn.ca/kagagi!

Land, Labour, and Loss: A Story of Struggle & Survival at the Burrard Inlet

By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.

 

Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them.

So when I read “Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet,” from the Graphic History Project, my first thought was, “This will totally appeal to young people.”
Working on the Water
Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet
Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton
Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation)
To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles)
More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History Collective website.

Art has a way of connecting us to ideas, or, in this case, a time in Indigenous (and Canadian) history recognized or known by few. Writer and illustrator Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) uses relief print panels in captivating black-and-white to draw out a nonfiction narrative of economic survival. The comic was co-written by Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton with the Graphic History Collective.

On her blog, Willard says, “… [T]his work will tell the story of Indigenous [longshoring] on Burrard Inlet and how early labour organizing by Indigenous people [helped] to support the wider land struggle against colonization and capitalism.”

A quick geography lesson from the comic: Burrard Inlet connects the traditional territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s in area perfect for hunting and fishing, and easy-access resource exploitation.

working on the water1

The narrative itself is straightforward, and easy enough for elementary-aged readers to comprehend: Colonizers came in, territory was acquired, resources were identified, brief working relationships were achieved until guaranteed unfairness ensued, Indigenous people protested, protests were squashed by excessive force and bullying, and a legacy of underemployment began.

For context, it’s important to note the labour environment in modern times. Quick summary: It’s not good.

According to the Canadian Labour Program, workforce disparities for Aboriginal people include an over-representation in low-skilled occupations, and under-representation in managerial and professional occupations, according to the latest statistics. At 18 percent, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginals is three times the rate for non-Aboriginals; comparatively, the employment rate is just 48 percent among Aboriginals. If that weren’t bad enough, the wage gap continues to widen between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal full-time workers; the latest numbers show Aboriginals make 73 percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts’ incomes ($37,356 to $51,505). Dismal.

The government attributes this gap to lower educational attainment for Aboriginal people. Using that logic, the government itself is then responsible. Consider the history of oppression faced by Canada’s indigenous populations, in particular the education system dedicated to first wiping out Aboriginal children in boarding schools and then inadequately teaching (or simply refusing to teach) Aboriginal history, accomplishment, and impact on modern-day Canada in school curricula. In this light, one sees clearly the role and connection the government and its policies played in the contemporary Aboriginal workforce outlook.

But Willard’s comic flows matter-of-factly through basic labour moments from the mid-1800s through the 1920s and early 1930s and stops there, although the last panel notes how longshoremen continue to work the inlet today. The bulk of the narrative discusses how Indigenous workers unionized themselves to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, when the highly skilled Indigenous longshoremen went on strike in 1918 to earn 5 cents an hour more, non-Indigenous workers swept in and took those jobs, which left the tribal people of the inlet in desperate situations.

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I appreciate that the text isn’t pumped full of stylized drama. It’s very, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In an era where much of what non-indigenous people know about us is less fact, and more fantasy, the no-nonsense style of writing rings with authenticity, and is a breath of fresh air from shape shifters or mutants.

Reading as an outsider, the story Willard is telling feels unfinished, and perhaps that’s purposeful. However, the title (‘Fighting for the Land’) leads readers to believe there will be some sort of reclamation (or attempts, anyway) by the longshoremen or tribal communities. Outside of “processing ancient timbers,” there isn’t really anything land-based happening.

Regardless, the lino-cut drawings are the star of this show, and I went back over the panels again and again, because previously missed camouflaged images and symbols kept swimming to the surface with each pass. With Indigenous history – and ours being a history traditionally told through stories, not written words – perhaps this is the point.

A quote from Willard made during an unrelated interview 10 years ago addresses this: “I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”

The comic is part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles (to be published in 2016), which will focus on Canadian labour history. star

working on the water_final

 

“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.

sugar falls

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.

HBO story _ protest

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.

raven sketch

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.

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