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…
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.
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.
Which, 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.
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.
You understand science. Or more accurately, you could understand science. Although there’s no denying it can be difficult, I’ve too many times heard people exclaim that while they love science, they simply can’t wrap their heads around it. Instead, a love of science expresses itself as a fetish, with obscure facts, like how often a fly poops, being touted around as worthwhile knowledge.
When it comes to the biggest environmental issue of all time for the human species, climate change, you see alarming headlines that mix alarming (and sometimes misleading) facts without actually informing you on how it’s happening, and how your behaviour influences it. This is the gap Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoniv attempts to fill.
Title: Climate Changed:A Personal Journey through the Science Author: Philippe Squarzoni Illustrator: Philippe Squarzoni Published: 2014 (Abrams Comic Arts) Pages: 480 Dimensions: 16.5 x 3.2 x 23.5 cm Get Your Copy: In the Online Shop
Squarzoni’s book is as thick as a textbook, though far less dense and plodding. Its pages mix images of the author’s personal life with interviews and charts that make up much of the evidence for climate change. Though not as slick as a high budget movie, it walks the problem forward from the beginning, and then thoroughly examines the issue in a level-headed way.
Squarzoni found himself in a position many others share, a believer in climate change who only knew it was something to worry about. His journey through the research walks each reader through not only the changes we might be seeing, but how they’re happening. The way his life is juxtaposed with the research brings the science home, making it a journey that doesn’t just make you reflect on scary factoids, but genuinely try to understand them in the context of your own life.
It may be that being presented in a comic makes the subject far less intimidating, yet still gives you the chance to dwell on each page. Instead of a movie or TV documentary, you can linger on each page, rereading points that flow so easily off the tongue of an expert, better acquainting yourself with a trickier point. You can also take time to understand a graph or see the small changes in an image of landscape. You likely won’t finish it in one sitting, but it doesn’t take too much effort to keep it out of your shameful pile of unfinished books.
As excellent as it is, the book does have a few flaws. Some of the research, particularly the section on nuclear power, was a bit thin. For instance, a statement on nuclear waste taking decades to decompose with no solution to that in sight, when it’s been reduced to years, is misleading. Although small errors like that one inadvertently demonstrate one of the other great joys in science: being sceptical. If there’s one more thing a reader might take away from this book, it’s how to look at science not as something to be passively received, but something to actively engage with and attempt to understand personally.
By looking at the issue from so many angles, a reader can begin to grasp just what climate change means both scientifically, and in their own life. It makes science something that isn’t a fun curiosity, but rather a pursuit that belongs to all of us. One of the great limitations of science is how too easily people assume it’s a pursuit for the intellectual elites. Though scientists sometimes fail in communicating their ideas, it’s time people started making greater efforts in understanding it. It’s a knowledge base that belongs to everyone, and books like Climate Changed help bring it to us, if you make the effort in picking it up first.
Unlike most histories from above or below, Fluid Prejudice stands out as one that doesn’t provide a coherent narrative. Instead, it’s a dream-like journey through Australian history, haunted by the violence of colonization. Single-image cartoons jostle with longer stories, and well-known figures sit side-by-side with personal stories. Some characters recur in different forms across stories, shifting from the foreground to the background. This jumble creates a more radical approach to history which leaves questions and contradictions unanswered, rather than offering the reader an easy vantage-point.
Title: Fluid Prejudice Creators: Sam Wallman, Aaron Manhattan, Safdar Ahmed, Katie Parrish, and others (50 contributors in total) Editor: Sam Wallman Published: Self-published in 2014 Page Count: 175 pages Other Specs: Softcover, black and white interior with colour cover Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix online store
While it may be tempting for many white activists to dissociate themselves from Australian racism, the collection doesn’t allow the reader to imagine that they can be outside processes of colonization. In one comic, two environmentalists engaging in direct action query whether this is part of the continuing white colonization of the forest. In another, white Occupy protesters pause to consider the irony of following the chant “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land” with “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Similarly, we never get to wholly lose identification with the middle-class Australians who are so often the target of activist derision. For example, a comic about the destruction of old growth forests is followed by another in which a man looks at a newly-opened suburb, daydreaming about a home there. While the image hints at typical narratives of suburbia as a site of ecological destruction and bland whiteness, there’s also an element of sympathetic identification.
Australia’s history as a penal colony, too, is treated through a overlapping stories which never quite settle into a single perspective. Fluid Prejudice focuses on stories of escape, with convict William Buckley reappearing several times throughout the collection. Mary Bryant, a transported thief, escapes and is later pardoned. However, the optimism of these stories is balanced by the stark list of different convict occupations in 1847 Tasmania, and the subtle reminders that convicts also played a role in the violence of colonization.
Both cities and the landscape become haunted sites. The Tasmania tiger, hunted to extinction as a part of the effort to impose a European approach to agriculture, reappears throughout the book stalking the supposedly-tamed undergrowth. Within the city, state and social control is undermined by a lesbian beat, working-class resistance to restrictions on free speech, and an underground city of train station platforms and graveyards which remain below the streets. No place is more authentically a site of struggle than others.
Fluid Prejudice rejects the erasure of the violence Australia was built on, but it also highlights moments of solidarity and hope. One comic reminds us that the only known protest against Germany’s persecution of Jewish people following Kristallnacht came from the Australian Aborigines’ league in 1938. In another, people run over rooftops and onto the top of trams as part of attempts to escape police crackdowns on public speech. We’re reminded of a period when unions were more radical, and prepared to down tools to save public space and support other struggles.
As well as these more overtly political stories, many of the notes of optimism and humour in this collection touch on the politics of gender and sexuality: Percy Haynes is followed by a policeman and charged for wearing women’s clothes, only to have the magistrate decide that since women can wear pants, there’s no reason men can’t wear dresses if they choose. Zeki Müren, a Turkish singer, performed in drag in Sydney in 1974 to an enthusiastic crowd of homesick Turkish immigrants.
Part of the beauty of this collection is the inclusion of mundane scenes and lives that would not usually reach the history books. There are fragmentary scenes of an Aboriginal embassy, passengers on a tram, a trip to Healesville sanctuary, even a dumpster. We learn about Rosaleen Norten, the witch of King’s Cross, and then about cartoonist Ruby Knight’s mother. Arlene Textaqueen replaces the front cover of conservative newspaper The Australian with responses to the question, ‘Where are you really from?’
Through the combination of explicitly political and more personal stories, resistance is written through many different forms and spaces. This is a helpful alternative to the ‘one true way’ approach to activism, in which a single set of tactics and strategies is the only way to be radical enough (or, conversely, polite enough).
Fluid Prejudice, as we might expect from an alternative history, undermines the myths Australia is built on, from heroic stories of settlers eking out a living in the bush to the ongoing erasure of the violence against Aboriginal people and other marginalized groups. However, it also encourages more critical reflection on our positions as activists and the ways in which we do—or don’t—identify with others within Australian society.
We are very pleased to be releasing a new poster series at Word On the Street this weekend – “All Our HEROES Have Criminal Records“.
This visual campaign encourages lovers of comics to consider finding a different kind of hero in their reading, aside from the garden variety superhero. Each historical figure – Martin Luther King, Jr., Howard Zinn, Emma Goldman, and Judi Bari – has been chosen for to reflect different arenas of grassroots organizing. Each have appeared, at least once, in comic form. All artwork by Sean Richman.
We’re excited to be making these posters available for sale! Visit the Ad Astra Online Shop to get your favorite, or collect all four. Numbers are limited for this printing, so if you don’t get one – stay tuned!
Emma Goldman appears in A Dangerous Woman : The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, Sharon Rudahl; edited by Paul Buhle. Published by New Press in 2007 (ISBN 3: 9781595580641)
Howard Zinn appears in A People’s History of American Empire: The Graphic Adaptation, by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle. It was published by Metropolitan Books in 2008 (ISBN#: 978-0805087444). It can be purchased in our online store.
Judi Bari’s story appears in WOBBLIES! : A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World by Mike Alewitz, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones, Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. It was published by Verso Books in 2005.
The story of Martin Luther King Jr. can be found in many titles at this time. The first appeared in 1957, called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story (written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik, produced by the Fellowship of Reconciliation) , and has been re-released by Top Shelf Productions.
There is a persistent trope about great ideas: they are scrawled drunkenly on the back of a cocktail napkin. The following morning they reveal themselves as the spark of some divine madness that uplifts the author. But in the case of Robot Hugs, it was a forest of post-it notes, and less of an uplift than a very normal struggle with the darker corners of their mind. Which makes the whole proceeding a little less mythical, and a little more plausible.
“I was alone one summer in a little house, and I was drawing them as a kind of coping mechanism.” RH explains this to me as we sip Red Stripe on a rooftop patio looking east towards Toronto’s iconic CN Tower. The reply is in response to a question about the one-panel animal mash-ups that pop up frequently in the early years of the strip. “When my room-mates got back, the house was practically covered in these post-its. Kind of like when you look into a serial killer’s room and the wall is covered. Only with post-its.” They laugh.
Robot Hugs is a special kind of web comic. Running in a variety of formats since 2011, its genesis lies earlier in the above-mentioned summer. The comic consistently updates twice a week, though the precise days may vary. Topics include struggles with mental health, discussions of queerness and body diversity, interspersed with cats. Lots of cats.
According to its author, traffic spiked around “Interpretation” and “But Men”. Today, the comic is frequently posted around, showing up on Imgur, Metafilter and even Upworthy.
We started off with a conversation around issues of voice – how it is appropriate to discuss struggles that don’t affect you personally, as well as being mindful to articulate yourself in language that is accessible and respectful.
“I wish I could talk more on my site about figuring out what I can add to a conversation, when there’s so many people who say much better than me,” RH explains. “So if I can’t think of a unique way of putting it, or showing it, that’s OK because there’s really smart people with good voices and excellent ways of putting things.”
They can do the talking – I don’t need to add my noise to that. But we were talking earlier about not appropriating voice – so while I have strong views on issues of race, I think they’re better articulated by a person of colour. I think sometimes about issues with adding your voice is maybe you’ll be heard where an oppressed person wouldn’t, but at the same time, I don’t want to add chaff to a conversation.
They explained that their social circle acts as a kind of safety net where they can check in when they are concerned about speaking on behalf of others when they mean to be amplifying the voices of the oppressed. They describe the need to respect their audience as a major subject for reflection.
It’s OK to fuck up. We all do. The important thing is to be accountable.
They mentioned a pending project about the experiences of a trans friend working in the tech sector as an example of amplifying voice. Concerns around voice and representation are also a factor in the diversity of comics characters, RH explains. Race is simple to illustrate, but questions of technical skill make differentiating body types challenging.
When asked about the prevalence of penguins in the comic, RH expresses a kind of characteristically wry, anecdotal ambivalence. “I guess my affinity for penguins is because they’re my father’s favourite animal. But thinking about it, he probably just got so many penguins over the years that he’s likely sick of them by now. Like buying ties, he acted pleased so we kept buying him penguin things whether or not he actually likes them. My family has a history of penguins – they’re cute, and stoic.
It definitely takes a certain stoicism to publish web comics, given the climate of harassment and intimidation that pervades the internet.
“The weekend when Robot Hugs picked up a lot of traffic was very stressful. I was at a kink event geared to women and gender minorities; I was doing workshops and stuff. Then my comic blew up. I couldn’t reach my partner, I was getting ALL THE E-MAILs… So now I have the incredible MZ, who screens my e-mails and does most of my FB. I put up a harassment policy and negative stuff dropped pretty much to zero. I put something up to the effect of ‘If you threaten me, it’ll get forwarded to the police’ so now people just say horrible things on their sites. This was something very concerning to me at the beginning, and while it’s diminished, the echoes remain.”
But there are positive aspects to working in web comics, particularly the evolving community of artists who co-promote and organize events together. With regard to the broader community, RH explains:
“I follow a lot of comic artists: Erika Moen, Ryan North (I had a crush on him forever). People just do this incredible work, and the larger answer is that I look up to a lot of creators, but I haven’t quite broken into knowing them as people. I’d love to, though. For now I am happy to follow their work and learn from that.”
At times, Robot Hugs can be a very personal comic. Asked about the comic catching on, RH replied “More people visit my comic than I could ever know IRL and that’s great – but I am happy just doing what I am doing, and glad to know people appreciate it. I’m doing well. They give me positive feedback, and sometimes they buy my stuff.”
They do have one concern about a personal anecdote that might be taken as indicative of bad politics:
There’s one comic in particular I always worry about people getting to. It says “being a whore was harder than she had thought.” I worry people will think it’s anti-sex work, that I’m anti-sex work, and no, just no. I was dating a woman at the time who had started doing sex work and she literally said that, which I thought was the funniest thing ever.
With fame, such as it is, comes rewards. “What’s been cool about the feedback, especially around challenging things like mental illness, dermatillomania, depression, general world frustration, is the countless e-mails I’ve gotten and, holy crap, somebody else feels like this?! And that’s really, really, really good. I haven’t felt alone; I’ve worked in mental health support and know the feeling of isolation that defines mental illness. I don’t feel ashamed or upset talking about the inside of my head. Given that I have that particular outlook on my own head-space, and that other people are connecting and feeling less isolated because of it, sharing it with their friends, I think that’s great.”
At this point, I discovered that the laptop RH had loaned my broke ass to conduct the interview had reverse scroll on. When I exclaimed in dismay on this point, they replied.
Yeah, it’s part of my depression. Though it makes more sense for it to be part of my queerness – I even scroll backwards.
Returning to the subject of mental health, RH elaborates.
“I got a great e-mail from a man whose son had hard times in his head, and he showed ‘Nest’ to the kid, and the kid connected. So the father wrote to say that, and now I know about making safe spaces for him. Getting that kind of e-mail makes the risks associated with sharing personal content totally worth it. I don’t think sharing any of my personal life has backfired at all.”
Somewhere around here I all but hurled the laptop over the edge of the roof. A wasp had buzzed a little too near me, sending me into a flailing panic. As I struggled to regain my composure, I inquired about the name of the series.
“In high school I had a friend who thought I was totally emotionless, and I asked if he wanted a hug, and he said ‘No! They’re robot hugs. They mean nothing’.” I stifled an objection at this point; by all accounts, RH seemed genuinely warm to me, not robotic in the least.
Instead, I asked about how they conceived of Robot Hugs in terms of the internet zeitgeist. The past few years have seen a proliferation of social justice activism in digital spaces, challenging the traditionally very hostile culture of the internet towards diversity. Did RH see themselves as part of this rising tide of resistance, or as a lone voice shouting in the wilderness?
“Depends on where you’re shouting. Sometimes I get stats on people who post my comics, and sometimes I see them using me as points in arguments, in debates online, which is one of the really flattering things about making something that people feel they can communicate – it’s good to feel like you’re able to help in that struggle.”
“There are large sites mentioned earlier, and it’s always good to fight, and it’s always good to make sure these are voices that get heard. If my comic is part of that, amazing! I think the net has potential to be inclusive, and some places try to accomplish that, and some places fail miserably. As long as someone’s standing up and saying, “Don’t be an asshole”….!
“Kind of related to this – do you know Metafilter? It’s a link aggregator, but it’s heavily moderated. You can only post good stuff. The link has to be worthwhile, conversations are moderated so you can’t jump in and say problematic shit. If you’re being an asshole you’ll just get your comments deleted. That makes me feel like it’s the rare place on the internet you can read the comments. Recently I looked at the earliest Metafilter, and I found a lot more problematic stuff – racist apologizing, fat-shaming, slut shaming. But over 12 years it’s turned into a community that’s prioritized the inclusivity and safety we want to see in other spaces, where you can’t come in and say awful shit; you have to be a human being. There’s models for change that I’d like to see implemented. Looking at those old archives, if I’d gone then, I wouldn’t have stayed – I would have been like ‘fuck this’ and jumped ship. But it’s not like that now. It’s a model of a place where you can have critical discussions but can’t be a jerk about it. It’s one of my favourite sites.”
On the note of inclusion, I was curious about something: a few comics reference a conflict with a ‘Pregnancy Care Centre’. Were those true stories? Would they be up for talking about this?
They replied without hesitation.
“That was bullshit, I’ll tell you, it was fucking bullshit. You can print that. They have ads for that shit in the TTC, these stupid ‘Know your options’ ad. I get so mad, I put post-it notes on these ads.”
“I used to work across the hall from this pregnancy crisis centre. I’d leave research studies on their walls, but they caught on so it didn’t last. But people would come in looking for it, and I’d be like ‘I know where it is but you should know it’s anti-choice and they’ll give you medical misinformation and not give you all your options. Here are a few other places you can go if you need help and want someone to be straight with you.’”
“And I’d give out cards. I told people where it was, but I wanted them to know. The centre didn’t appreciate it – they didn’t know they were anti-choice, they just thought people should ‘know the realities’. Fuck them. In reality, it wasn’t that dramatic – I was polite and smiled a lot, while trying to keep people away from the wrongness that is Pregnancy Crisis Centre.”
I missed my mark with a question about influences, guessing at the Far Side, Parking Lot is Full and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
“If anything influenced me, it was XKCD. Everyone is influenced by it, people realize, ‘Hey, simple art can convey complex ideas. I was very taken away by its early whimsy. I was reading a lot of that during the dark summer of post-it notes, (which is actually what that’s called). I was trying to reach for that non sequitur style niceness. I’m also compared to Invisible Bread and Buttersafe, which is great, because it’s the perfect combination of weird and optimistically sweet. Those were concepts I was influenced by when starting out, starting to draw. Now I’m tackling more challenging things: mental illness, gender issues, general life shit. That’s what you do, right? You see what you like, try to get your own shit going, still refer to them fondly – everyone gets their own voice in the end. …I liked Far Side growing up.”
Influence is not entirely an aesthetic question, of course. As far as inspiration goes, RH had this to say:
I wrote a bunch of academic papers about kink communities, web communities and what they mean. Fascinating and challenging spaces which have a lot of possibility. I’m alternately fascinated and frustrated, enamoured and enraged. Any community that you identify with can have that effect.
I get angry. There’s a lot of frustration in me, and in the people around me. As I’ve continued to do this amazing thing where people follow me and I get to put up my work on this site, I have an opportunity to vocalize that frustration. I’ve had the advantage of doing that more, and getting feedback. I guess it’s that voice-finding stuff we’ve been talking about. As this comic develops into a whole “thing”, I’ve been able to put myself and my opinions out there more, and develop them as I get feedback.
I’m very lucky. I have a great space. People that want to see what I have to say do, and give feedback. People in my own circles that support me give me feedback, tell me when I’m being stupid, which is the most important thing someone can do for you. And I’m excited to see what happens.
Without gushing too much, I don’t mind saying: Me too.
All comics are (c) Robot Hugs and have been used with permission.
There is something about the emphatic way Alexandre Taillard de Vorms speaks that makes the reader almost forget he is talking nonsense. Although he isn’t the protagonist of “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy”, there is no question that he’s the star. This fictionalized version of French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin is presented as an orgy of contradictions. Everyone around him thinks he is incoherent, but insists he is a genius. His ministerial staff relentlessly mock and undermine each other even as he is presented as an effective statesman. Most of all, he stands like a colossus of morality over the geopolitical landscape even as the reader is aware the man is a dangerously self-involved opportunist whose only care outside himself is France’s strategic interests. Physically and by dint of sheer presence, this tower of inconsistency looms over Arthur Vlaminck, the lowly speechwriter and nominal main character.
Title: Weapons of Mass Diplomacy Author: Abel Lanzac Illustrator: Christophe Blain Translator: Edward Gauvin Published: SelfMadeHero (2014) Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Shop
Aesthetically, the comic is enchanting. For a story about civil servants it flows with marvelous action – dropping, running, drinking and above all gesticulating wildly. The reader may be forgiven for feeling it owes something to the aesthetic of Tintin. The author devotes a page and a half of de Vorms’ dialogue to praising Tintin as flowing, beautiful poetry. The homage is both explicit in the text and implicit in the style, making action out of a torpid subject. Above the narrative looms de Vorms, large as the rocket ship that took Tintin to the moon. It is easy, as the protagonist does, to allow this looming character to take you in. It is very plausible he is on some kind of just – if slightly absurd – crusade against a world of bureaucrats and hypocrites. But here is the danger of a story like this one, told from on high to those below. The idea of history as a tale of great men and their daring deeds has been tossed into the requisite dustbin. New movements of history from below have opened up space for voices of women, workers, people of colour and others traditionally left out of historical narratives. The beauty in this is that it allows us to reinterpret those great, white men from the perspective of those they exploited.
In some respects, “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” suffers from the ‘Great Man’ view of history. There are a handful of female characters in this male-dominated narrative. First is the minister’s secretary, and though it is a literary convention to depict secretaries as weirdly all-powerful, this one is built to be chastised by her boss. The protagonist’s girlfriend is the second of three notable female characters, but though she is evidently educated, she seemingly exists only to admire her partner then suffer disappointment and neglect. Finally, there is one staffer to the minister, but she is heavily sexualized, a scheming Jezebel. At no point do these women interact. Other women make brief appearances but it is a comic dominated by men.
So too one might rightly observe that they are all white men, at least apparently. While France, the United States and Germany are all featured as relevant global players, countries in Africa and the Middle East are fictionalized. Several African countries are given phony names, as is Khemed, a stand-in for Iraq. In one of these fake African countries, a horde of mostly faceless black bodies are shown menacing French citizens. Valerie Dumontheil, the ministerial staffer responsible for Africa, is white. So too is Stephane Cahut, whose file is the Middle East. It is a story about white people making decisions that will affect the whole world. The sole person of colour with much agency is a thinly veiled Colin Powell, point-man for American imperialism. One suspects his token presence in the comic reflects the tokenization he experienced in office.
What makes “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” worthwhile, then? On page after page, silk ties and designer suits flow before our eyes. First class flights, ornate corridors of international power and expensive dinners greet a reader who might well presume they are meant to be enchanted by it all. But satire, it must be said, is a subtle science. Reading closer, it becomes apparent that there is an empty pomposity to those dazzling halls of power. The first-class destinations are interchangeable sets for self-indulgent babble. The decadent dinners taste of hypocrisy and self-absorption. Most of all, designer suits notwithstanding, the emperor is quite naked.
All of which is fine from a literary perspective. They might still have made space for voices of irony or dissent, representing the oppressed. This is a fine thing, an admirable practice in modern narrative where it occurs. But the sad truth is that real life, like the comic, is often a story about white people making decisions that will affect many lives beyond their own. Including oppressed characters is an important ongoing project, but perspective is versatile. By taking the view of the rich and powerful and showing their arrogance, cynicism and isolation from consequences, the comic mocks their pretensions.
Without ever presenting a real voice of critique, the comic is the critique. Taillard de Vorms is an absurd figure, a bombastic bureaucrat with delusions of heroism. The sycophantic civil servants surrounding him are desperate courtiers, vying for the favour of one of the king’s men. The grandeur of their offices at Quai D’Orsay is the faded pomp of a decaying empire, struggling to maintain itself in a changing world. If the perspective is a privileged one, the narrative quietly exposes the destructive narcissism of the powerful. Pulling the thread of official narrative until it unravels, the ugly nakedness of 21st century imperialism is exposed for all to see. If stories are to be told from a privileged perspective, there is no better view than that.
Today marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. For those looking to comics for a quick and easy fix to explain how WWI started, there is indeed a comic for that. But for those looking to take advantage of the medium’s great ability to disseminate a deeper understanding of the conflict’s human impact, there are some exceptional titles available this year. These include anthologies like Above the Dreamless Dead and To End All Wars, as well as re-releases of classics like Charley’s War and It Was a War of the Trenches, to name a few.
Today we’re taking a look at Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), an anthology of comics written and drawn to WWI poetry and song. Contributions are made by Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Sarah Glidden, Hunt Emerson, Eddie Campbell, and many more.
The space between a human being, their pen, and a piece of paper is a place not for patriotism any more than any other compulsory thought. In a time when you could have been arrested for resisting a war that saw thousands die for every mile of ground gained, poetry gave precious creative room for soldiers and non-combatants alike to process the trauma and stress of a life at war. Counting the years both during and after the conflict (1914-1918), World War I poetry, has grown to become a huge body of literary work. It is within this section of 20th century literature that dozens of comics creators have put together a creative and aesthetically varied collection for Above the Dreamless Dead.
Soldier songs, like those illustrated by British cartoonist Hunt Emerson, satirize and make light of the harsh everyday of the soldier–whereas Eddie Campbell’s piece, illustrating an episode of Patrick MacGill’s “The Great Push”, plunges head-first into the darkest corners of the human soul. Still others transcend the ultimately subjective spectrum of human emotion, and attempt to seek solace in the naturalist truth that regardless of man’s follies, the earth will continue to be as it always has.
Within the larger category of WWI poetry is the subcategory of trench poetry. Noteworthy space is given to the most well-known of these poets, namely Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Bearing witness to some of the most hellish of situations imaginable, trench poetry takes the reader to another world of blood, mud, and pain, at one both impending and uncertain. The stress induced by the battlefield lent itself well to art, where soldiers could perhaps hold on to their sanity by airing their demons.
In Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Immortals“, adapted here by Peter Kuper, we get a real taste of the fear and paranoia of the gunner who is tasked to shoot at an enemy that seems immune to death. The feeling of this unending hoard of soldiers leads Rosenberg to feel that he is fighting not a massive army, but the same undying soldiers over and over again.
The aesthetic diversity of the art presented in Above the Dreamless Dead is a reminder that WWI poetry is in fact a huge genre–and one that the book doesn’t even illustrated to its fullest, in my opinion. Above the Dreamless Dead focuses mostly on the poets proper of the era, and in doing so missed an opportunity to take a critical look at the growing argument for sexual and racial diversity of World War I poetry.
Focusing on young white men in documenting the First World War is obviously the norm, whether you’re interested in comics, poetry, or history in general. But historian Dr. Santanu Das (King’s College, London) states that our understanding of the war’s poetry is changing as we come to recognize the diversity of the work written at the time and on the subject. “Today, no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling, or Margeret Postgate Cole.” Note that neither Thomas Hardy nor Rudyard Kipling were enlisted, let alone combatants, yet they both appear in this anthology. Margaret Postgate Cole, a wonderful poet, was not, although it is arguable that she was more personally affected by the war as a socialist and activist (her brother was jailed for refusing military orders, after his application for CO status was rejected).
Das continues, “We also must move beyond Europe, because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe. We cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multiracial framework by investigating, recovering, and translating First World War poetry that’s being written often in non-European languages.” Suffice to say that there is no poetry here from a non-white or non-English-speaking perspective, in addition to there being no women poets.
This criticism could surely be echoed for most graphic interpretations of World War I, but it is a point worth noting from the perspective of our mandate (see Harlem Hellfighters below, for the ONE exception to this rule that we could find!). As 2014 invites us to meditate on the “War to End All Wars” we encourage our readers to keep a lookout for examples, comics or otherwise, of marginalized perspectives/histories of the World War I.
We hope that you pick up and enjoy your own copy of Above the Dreamless Dead, or any of the other WWI titles following!
World War I in Comics: A Reading List
Title: Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics Poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas
Creators: Eddie Campbell, Sarah Glidden, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Luke Pearson, Hunt Emerson, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Isabel Greenberg, George Pratt, Hannah Berry, Phil Winslade, Stephen R. Bissette, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, Lilli Carré, Pat Mills, David Hitchcock, Liesbeth de Stercke, Danica Novgorodoff, James Lloyd, Carol Tyler, and Anders Nilson Edited by: Chris Duffy Published: 2014 by First Second Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.9 x 1.7 cm, 144 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Title: The Great War Creator: Joe Sacco Published: 2013 by WW Norton Dimensions: 21.8 x 29 x 3 cm, 54 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Launched on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme has come to epitomize the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted. In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going over the top and getting cut down in no-man s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.”
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters Author: Max Books Illustrator: Caanan White Published: 2014 by Broadway Books Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.5 x 1.6 cm, 272 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, including from their own government.
Title: To End All Wars : The Graphic Anthology of The Great War Creators: Brick, Jonathan Clode, Michael Crouch, Steven Martin, Sean Michael Wilson, John Stuart Clark, Ian Douglas, Petri Hänninen, Bex Burgess, Stuart Richards, Lotte Grünseid, Chris Colley, Lex Wilson, Susan Wallace, Dan Hill, Faye Turner, Joe Gordon, Russell Wall and James Guy, Colm Regan, Andrew Luke, Sean Fahey, Pippa Hennessey, Steve Earles, Gary and Warren Pleece, and Selina Lock. Edited by: John Stuart Clark and Jonathan Clode Published: 2014 by Soaring Penguin Press Dimensions: 26 x 17 x 2.5 cm, 320 pages Purchase: from their blog!
An omnibus of 27 short graphic narratives based on actual events, characters, circumstances, incidents, myths or consequences of the Great War WWI. £2 for every copy of this publication sold will be donated to Medecin Sans Frontieres. Featuring the four theatres of war (land, sea, air and the home front), spanning four continents and drawn from both sides of the conflict, the stories range from 4 to 16 pages, each by a different author and/or illustrator from the world of independent comics.
Title: Charley’s War Author: Pat Mills Illustrator: Joe Colquhoun Published: August, 2014 by Titan Books Dimensions: 26.8 x 20 x 2.4 cm, 320 pages Purchase: Through a few places on Seven Penny Nightmare
Arguably the most well-known WWI comic of all time. From renowned UK comics writer Pat Mills and legendary artist Joe Colquhoun comes a truly classic piece of British comics history, by turns thrilling, humorous and horrifying. From its initial publishing in the 1970s and 80s, it was widely considered to be anti-war.
Title: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August – September 1914 Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
One winter morning, Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he made an incredible discovery: the real diary of a soldier from the First World War. Barroux rescued the diary from a rubbish heap and illustrated the soldier’s words. We don’t know who the soldier is or what became of him. We just have his words, and in his own words and Barroux’s extraordinary pictures
Title: Tardi’s WWI: It Was The War Of The Trenches/Goddamn This War! Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
Jacques Tardi is responsible for two acknowledged graphic novel masterpieces about World War I: It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War! To honor the 100th anniversary in 2014 of WWI, Fantagraphics has now released a two-volume boxed set collecting these two perennial classics. The first book, It Was the War of the Trenches, focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, bringing that existence alive as no one has before or since with some of his most stunning artwork. His second WWI masterwork, Goddamn This War!, is told with a sustained sense of outrage, pitch-black gallows humor, and impeccably scrupulous historical exactitude, in masterful full color.
Title: Trenches Creator: Scott Mills Published: 2002 by Top Shelf Productions Dimensions: 21.1 x 17.5 x 1 cm, 176 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store When Lloyd and David Allenby arrive in the trenches of the Western Front, they have no idea of the misery and violence that awaits them. Can an aloof Major be the father figure and guiding force in their desperate battle for survival? Or will the estranged brothers be swallowed up before they can come to terms with each other, trapped in the clutches of the Great War? Trenches is about the beautiful stories that come out of dark times.
Title: The Ghosts of Passchendaele Creator: Ivan Petrus For more info: Check out his website!
Launched in 2014, this is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. Painted in bold, dark, muddy colours, his art powerfully invokes the iconic post-war Passchendaele landscape. Petrus said: “My first graphic novel was about Nieuport, my second about Furnes and Pervyse, so the battle of Ypres in 1917 at Passchendaele was the next logical step. It was an iconic battle for the British and Anzacs troops. Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable. Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit – in deep mud.”
Who doesn’t read that quote and not feel some bitter kernel of truth in the words? Such energy, and no direction! Such curiosity, burned on idleness and errant adventure alike! DANGEROUS adventures, at that. One can’t help but think of their own moments of hilarity and embarrassment when considering the folly of youth (I myself was almost blown up by a gasoline explosion when I was 12). Whether we look at child’s play from previous eras or to distinctly modern activities like social media and cell phones, the grievances of the old to the frivolities of youth reveal a full spectrum of conflicting impulses. On one hand, parents and adult community members wish to lovingly guide and protect. On the other, there exists a perennial fear of and intolerance to the unfamiliar hobbies and technologies ushered into social acceptance by the youth of the day. These manifestations of adult anxiety are the basis for the content of this landmark comic book.
Title: Bad For You: Exposing the War on Fun! Authors: Scott Cunningham & Kevin C. Pyle Illustrator: Kevin C. Pyle Published: 2014 by Henry Holt Length: 180 pages Other Specs: Includes a glossary of terms, and a resource listing of kids’ rights organizations. Written with young readers in mind (10+ yrs.)
‘Bad For You: Exposing the War on Fun’ is an impressive collection of information with a unique intersection of all that is bad for baby adults. In doing so, it invites the reader to ask interesting questions: What is bad for kids, and why?
The table of contents reads like an index to modern moral panics: comic books, digital technology, games of all kinds (“idle hands are the devil’s playground”, or so the saying goes), –even playgrounds have an intriguing entry. All of the aforementioned have had a history of being attacked and scapegoated as “bad” or “dangerous” for our youth until an acceptably sterilized pattern can been adhered to, or until enough kids and their allies can fight back. Noteworthy elements include graphs and narratives that help to distinguish science from pseudo-science, beginning with an introduction to the scientific method in the first chapter. The book offers a timeline beginning in the ancient world to demonstrate that the mistrust of youth is one of the most predictable social patterns throughout history. The book points out that there is even a term for this pattern: ephebiphobia, or a “fear and loathing for the young”.
Using statistical data and historical perspective, the book is prepping an entire readership of kids to be a bunch of real smart assess, and an entire crop of adults to rethink their own phobias. For the book’s primary audience, young readers can use the reading to get acquainted with concepts that are highly relevant
to their generation, including the ‘factory model’ school system, ageism, the criminalization of youth, the notion of civil and political rights, and the power of protest. The book is packed with inspiring instances of young people challenging (and making gains at odds with) the cobweb-thick thinking of older generations. Everyone can agree that winning and the all-around sense of achievement it brings is an important experience to have while growing up; naturally, these successful kid-powered push-backs are explored at length in the book’s final Chapter, aptly titled, “Good for You”.
Not surprisingly, we in 2014 have reached a point where fear and loathing of the young now requires its own brand! For the past few years, all challenges under the age of 25 have been invalidated by the fact that they come from a generation known as the Millennials (Did TIME Magazine call them the “ME ME ME Generation” because Tom Wolfe had already distinguished the Baby Boomers as the “Me Generation” and they just ran out of ideas?). Here are we, yet again, being dished the patronizing script of youth as lazy, self-indulgent, and playing hard and fast with their finances and futures. While the modern era has its own particularities, ‘Bad For You’ is good to point out that these are the dysfunctions attributed to every new generation of young’uns.
What this book truly brings to the table is empowerment for young minds. Notably, it critiques the status quo way of life for young people in North America as becoming largely devoid of educational lessons. It notes the ways in which young people are unheard and underrepresented, and offers intellectual and practical solutions for children and young adults alike to overcome obstacles. Overcoming the fractured–and in some ways obsolete–social systems imposed upon youth, in its own right, can and has become an important rite of passage for critical-thinking minds as they enter adulthood.
And to the reader who looks upon youth or childhood as that time in which they were simply a dumber, less reasonable, and more naive version of the person they are today: my condolences–that attitude is your loss. But it may mean that you have the most to gain from ‘Bad for You’. Learning to see our youth as a time in our lives that requires neither fear nor shame is exactly what this book is about.
“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”
How many times has some variation on this theme been thrown in the face of some well-intentioned person? They’re “just trying to understand”, and how can they do so if you won’t explain? As an upper middle class white dude, I remember asking such innocent-seeming questions myself, failing to appreciate what the Audre Lorde quote above explains: educating your oppressor is draining! I was lucky enough to have a kind and very patient friend to deliver a staggering series of savage defeats in debates I had imagined I’d won. It took years for the implications of her arguments to penetrate the murky sludge of privilege and teach me an essential lesson: it can be hard to understand what we do not experience. The experience of oppressed people and our difficulty in understanding it makes them an other, separate from us and outside our understanding.
For those unfamiliar with this academic term, the “other” describes the relationship of those excluded or oppressed by a group or society by virtue of their identity. You know what they say where clarity’s concerned: “a .jpg is worth a blog post but a meme will do in a pinch.” So there’s a kind of emotional truth to the expressions of the otters linked above that we wouldn’t get from a graduate course on the subject. The appeal of a snarling otter over the excruciating tedium of a dozen French philosophers is obvious. This otter is asks us to go beyond feeling bad about our privilege and understand it is disgusted with our failure to do anything about it – or maybe just disliked that chewed up watermelon.
But otters keep a busy schedule and can’t be everywhere! Luckily, there are comics. The internet has helped broadcast the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience than was previously possible. People who would struggle to get a speaking role on a third-string sitcom can have audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and comics are one of the most accessible media to do so. For regular people struggling to understand how their privilege can be harmful to otters, comics beat the heat of the librarian’s stare when your intellectual sweat starts to stain the aging furniture your local bibliotheque.
Comics can be an excellent way to visually represent concepts that take ages to present in text. That’s 500 years of exploitation in six panels, and if it lacks the nuance of a textbook on the triangular trade, hey, it’s a starting point. An interested person with good intentions can proceed from here to Google, Wikipedia or the nearest library. It is the beginning of a frame of reference. Most importantly, it conveys an emotional truth.
So much of oppression hinges on emotional truth. One can produce endless statistics on mortality rates during Atlantic crossings, the value generated by slaves for the American economy, the value of unpaid housework to the capitalist economy or whatever else suits you. But notwithstanding statistical significance, you know what they say: tell a human story, people can relate. If you want to bore them, use statistics.
While there might be a startling brutality to statistics on trans suicides, many may find it easier to relate the above comic to their own experience of breaking difficult news to their parents. It is always the case when unpacking your privilege that a dash of empathy goes a long way, and if the personal is political it’s electrical too. So comics are a place to plug in, and that’s always good. They can be especially effective when someone who shares your privilege uses comics as a way to speak directly to your experience, and acknowledges the frustration of being called out while you are trying to educate yourself. If this comes with two scoops of tough love, at least you can see yourself in the face of the person behind the pencil.
Nothing, of course, is universal. But the beauty of comics are their incredible diversity. Not every comic will illuminate every question. Seeking understanding is catching fish with your bare hands, slippery at the best of times, without mediating that search through art. For those of us hoping to improve our allyship, it is alright to admit that we just don’t get it. Sometimes, we may have no reaction to a given comic at all.
And that’s ok. In our journey to understand the differences that separate us, and the way our behaviour has the capacity to harm people, we do not need to instantly grasp every concept that’s presented. Some questions have answers you can’t put in comics, or books for that matter. Ultimately these are questions rooted in human experience and therefore best addressed through human interaction. Still, if you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth and potentially hurting someone’s feelings, comics can be a great place to start. You never know whose life you might make a little easier.
Ad Astra Comix is building an index of comics to help prospective allies educate themselves! In the meantime, check out some of web comics linked here with permission from the artists–or e-mail us if you think there’s a particularly crucial comic to have on the list! If the comic in question comes in print, we may be interested in ordering it, so feel free to contact us about that, too. :)
Title: UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Author: Tings Chak Illustrator: Tings Chak Published: Self-published as a 3-part zine in August 2014; published by in September 2014 Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Store For more info: www.tingschak.com
Architecture has been described as a synthesis of life’s components in materialized form. Its proponents describe it as the mother art, or the soul of a civilization, and one in which we have historically defined our understandings of home, safety, comfort. It is an art form that can seem invisible and yet cannot possibly go unnoticed. But what happens when buildings are not, as architect Stephen Gardiner describes it, ‘good people making good buildings by good design’? What if the desired architecture is one of discomfort, isolation, and transience?
Prisons, detention centres, and other “holding facilities” are the subject explored artfully in this premiere work by Tings Chak, an artist, activist, and former architecture student. “Undocumented” is a jarring 3-part exploration the intimate relationship we have with the spaces around us. By examining their physical, emotional and psychological toll when occupied, “Undocumented” posits that their architecture is ill-designed and of ill-intent, meaning it mirrors the economic and political architecture of global neo-liberal policy.
Part One: Landscape
What first strikes the reader in the comic’s first pages is the invisibility of migrant detention in countries like Canada. From the outside, prisons and holding facilities are often nested inconspicuously in suburbs and bedroom communities. Locals think little of their impact but as a source of jobs in increasingly desperate economic times. Despite their underwhelming appearance, their intent, by design, is diametrically opposed to all the buildings around them.
The construction of prisons and other involuntary holding facilities turns architecture on its head, and we experiences a sense of conceptual vertigo. Space and inhabitants alike are compartmentalized. The comic illustrates what inmates describe as a sense of isolation so intense that they feel they are becoming one with the walls in their cell. Aesthetically, this feeling is aided by the compartmental nature of comics as a “sequential” art form.
Part Two: Building
“Undocumented” steps beside the realm of a comic with a linear narrative and into a category of ‘statistics illustrated’. The cold delivery of information brings home the point that these detention centres are, in so many ways, an impediment to the human narrative of their captives. Each individual, in their life journey through spaces and other individual lives, is suspended and infringed upon. Here, life is devoid of free will. Schedules are fixed and micro-managed. Interpersonal interaction is withheld and restricted. In order to understand the stories that escape from these hellish conditions, one must acknowledge the adversities they have overcome.
Looking over the grounds and conditions of a series of holding facilities in Ontario, they seem underwhelming, banal where we might expect that they be ominous. In other words, they are deceptive, and intentionally so. By design and locale, they seem to embody the 19th century French “oubliette”: a dungeon where people are placed with the intention of being forgotten. Modern prison architecture shows that little has changed: rehabilitation, correction or even punishment are beyond the essential purpose of these facilities.
Part Three: Resistance
Here, the work takes a decidedly more human tone. We go from the vital statistics of carceral facilities to the descriptions of the lives of migrant detainees: precarious, vulnerable, and fearful. Quotes from men, women and children held in detention reveal a profound isolation – from spouse, sun and seasons – an example of the emotional trauma inflicted by confinement. Shine the light a bit further down this rabbit hole, and we consider the subject of solitary confinement, euphemistically termed “administrative segregation” by Corrections Canada. Here, a detainee could spend up to 23 hours completely alone, in what has been regarded by human rights activists for years as a criminal act that jumps the fenced definition of torture by any decent definition.
Ultimately, “Undocumented” is a look at architecture not as a thing of author-less objectivity, but as the physical legacy of accomplices to an agenda of discipline and exploitation. It helps us connect the economic policies of neo-liberalism that impoverish and displace populations to the detention centres they are confined in when they try to escape. With a cold, empirical lens, it demonstrates that the blueprints of migrant detention centres are drawn with the intent to isolate, agitate, and demoralize their human occupants.
Frank Lloyd Wright described architecture as a component in the construction of a civilization’s soul. What, then, can be said of the civilization responsible for these gaps in our urban landscapes that neither light nor hope can penetrate?
“Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres” is launching as a published book this week, and if you’re in Toronto, you are invited! RSVP for the event here, on Facebook.
July 30, 1905: Daniel Corbin, a Washington railway entrepreneur, gazed upon an 80-metre thick seem of high-grad bituminous coal in southeastern British Columbia. This find led to the formation of the town of Corbin, where, in 1935, workers would wage a long and bitter strike that culminated in the writing of “a page of unparalleled police brutality in Canadian history.”*
‘Coal Mountain’ is a comic in progress, illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton and produced by the Graphic History Collective, about the Corbin Miners’ Strike of 1935. The story remains relatively unknown outside of academic circles.
* – (Quote from Ralph Wootton, official for United Mine Workers of Canada, April 30 1935)
Here at Ad Astra, our focus is on comics. Hey, it’s in the name. But we are into political comics because we think they’re a great way to connect people with issues they might not otherwise have the time or the energy to learn about. We often have joking conversations around the office about what a social justice video game might look like. If we had the talent and resources to create one, we definitely would!
Without any formal training as a game designer, Chelsea Vowel has leveraged a simple set of game-making tools to create a promising effort at social justice video games!
It is simplistic, lacking in skill progression, ridden with bugs and built using software that produces Super Nintendo era graphics. As a video game, the “Idle No More: Blockade” leaves much to be desired. But that’s not really the point, is it? “Idle No More” takes you on a journey to learn about indigenous culture, challenge racist European myths and fight to defend traditional land rights! Your aim as the player is to prevent the construction of the Enkoch Pipeline over your sun dance field by rallying land defenders to confront the company on site. In a medium where overt social justice objectives are rarer than uncooked sirloin, this is a welcome prelude to possibility.
Framing the battles as confrontations with racist settlers was an inspired stroke. The player is confronted by white people complaining about “free houses”, “drunk Indians” and “blocking economic development.” The last boss is an RCMP officer who asserts the death of indigenous nationhood and insists the treaties extinguished their titles. All the enemies are represented as monsters from traditional Cree stories, helping to connect cultural memory to contemporary struggle. But the able player responds with statistics, history lessons and a good measure of sass. If you don’t have to fight the hipster girl asking about wearing a headdress to a Coachella festival, you kind of wish you could.
This is the value of “Idle No More” as a game. By making you an indigenous protagonist struggling to defend your land rights, the game encourages players to identify with the struggles of indigenous people. The first time I died in “combat” while educating an ignorant settler, I paused and reflected on how exhausting such confrontations must be. Seeking allies and finding ignorance, appropriation and patronizing cluelessness, I grew increasing frustrated. I was particularly annoyed by a “book of aboriginal law”, left with the elders by Enkoch representatives. You can take the book, but [SPOILER ALERT] using it on enemies only heals them! Which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
One of the most striking features of “Idle No More” is its emotional range. “I laughed, I cried” is the old cliché. In twenty minutes, the game had me doing both. I was all crystal tears, I don’t mind saying, at the prospect of a pipeline going through the sun dance field. And damned if I didn’t crack up when the character looked at a book shelf and exclaimed “Tom Flanagan? Yuck.” There is a whole vocabulary of non-verbal expressions associated with the oppressed: the raised eyebrow, the ‘side-eye’, the rolling eyes or the apathetic shrug. In between moments that are genuinely funny and those that are painfully sad, there is at once a piercing earnestness and a wry humour.
“Idle No More” is not much of a video game, but it’s a hell of a story. It seeks to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of indigenous communities, their contributions to humanity and their determination in the face of an ongoing campaign of genocide. In a game peppered with indigenous language, culture and politics, the player grows to identify with a people whose very humanity has been eroded by the narrative of our civilization. In other words, it might just help people shed some prejudice. So why not make video games that teach radical and oppressed history and culture more interesting than Big Macs and MTV? We look forward to seeing this budding art form grow.
You can download the Idle No More video game and play it for yourself HERE.