Welcome to ‘Talk is Cheap’, our new newspaper-style comic covering the Canadian political scene – such as it is. Following in the tradition of Doonesbury, Bloom County and Weltschmerz, TiC aims to measure the space between rhetoric and reality with a mixture of surrealism, snark and snappy visuals.
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.
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.” (Quote from Ralph Wootton, official for United Mine Workers of Canada, April 30 1935)
‘Coal Mountain’ illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton and produced by the Graphic History Collective, is about the Corbin Miners’ Strike of 1935. The story remains relatively unknown outside of academic circles.
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of eastern British Columbia, Corbin was a company town of 600 in its first years. There was no power and now plumbing, and the only way in or out of the town was the railway.
Soon, families joined the miners. Miners without families stayed in the company boarding house for about a dollar a night – incredibly expensive housing costs for the time.
On the morning of April 17, 1935, the Corbin miners strike came to a head with a massive confrontation of miners, their wives, and Corbin Collieries company men, accompanied by B.C. provincial police.
Miners’ wives formed a front-line human shield ahead of the strikers. Linking arms, they refused to allow the company men to re-open the mines that had been closed for months.
The company, assisted by baton-waving police, lurched forward, slamming their way through the strikers and their wives. The brutality exerted on the miners’ wives prompted their husbands, behind them, to rush forward, making it impossible to clear the crowd.
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.
It is a simple thing for the analytical mind to pry open the panel of oppression and see the whizzing cogs and grumbling gears of race, class and gender working mechanically to produce social relations. How neatly our familiar intellectual frameworks structure our understanding of human life! There is a reassuring consistency with which these lenses are employed, reducing the world’s complexities to a comfortable, mechanical pattern. Useful as it is, the cold-blooded methodology that sees the operation of capitalism, patriarchy and racism in all things fails to capture the essential ambiguity of our humanity.
It is this ambiguity of the human experience that Kate Beaton has captured in her recent series, Ducks. Threaded beautifully into starkly political themes of environmental destruction, corporate recklessness and workplace safety are more explicitly human experiences: isolation, camaraderie and the moral complexity of survival in one of the world’s deepest wounds. The essential humanity of surviving in such a profoundly dehumanizing environment defines this painfully nuanced piece.
Humanity is a dangerous concept, but an important one. It is too often emphasized by exclusion, used to demonize some people to serve the ends of others. Still, it is too important an idea to abandon. When the easy tautologies of political analysis fail us, it is the idea of our shared humanity that helps to explain what makes people hang together. For students of struggle, insights into this frustratingly elusive element of history are precious.
Like generations of easterners, Kate Beaton left her home town of Mabou, Nova Scotia to make a living in the scabrous sprawl of the tar sands. With few economic prospects at home and the promise of good pay, thousands have followed its siren call into the maw of destruction. ‘Ducks’ recounts Beaton’s experiences working on one of these sites, centred around the deaths of hundreds of ducks in a tailings pond near Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
There are no easy truths framed by these panels. An action by Greenepeace that clogs a tailing pipe endangers the lives of workers on site. A sex worker finds herself frightened and cornered in a work site bathroom. Kate Beaton discovers that working in the tar sands comes with a persistent skin rash. Her equipment is covered in dirt, even indoors. Workers die on the job.
The comic is shot through with death: the ducks, a man falling from a construction crane, others killed in an accident on the highway. In the last case, Beaton hears the dead men were Cape Bretoners and seeks out another islander to see if she knew them. Even halfway across the country, the threat to home is real.
Beaton exposes a vein of callous indifference in her subjects. Men grumble about traffic on the highway on the day of the accident. Workers joke through an announcement on the death of the crane operator. The corporate response to the duck deaths is a scarecrow and some noisemakers. But for every example of inhuman indifference there is a counterpoint of dignity or sorrow.
There is the memory of home, too, in gentle jibes about Newfie Roundsteaks – a teasing nickname for baloney. A man shares photos of his children at home. The lethal crash is framed in terms of the phone call to the families. When Beaton confesses she hates it there, her coworker response captures the essential truth of the situation, and the strip. No one wants to be in the tar sands, watching the planet die. But they don’t have much of a choice.
Kate Beaton is not always a political artist – she is not even always serious. But in framing a part of her own experience, she has given expression to an often difficult truth. We survive in the little acts of kindness, in shared experiences and frustrations that complicate our day. Though we may grow numb or compromised, at the end of it all we are bound together by our common humanity and our ability to find beauty – and absurdity – in even the most trying situations. That is a political lesson than captures an intangible truth outside the reach of cold analysis. How we apply the lesson is up to us.
We are joined by a guest piece this week for Indigenous Comix Month – Sean Carlton is a PhD Candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Please follow the links for more on this in-depth piece!
Rebranding Canada with Comics: Canada 1812: Forged in Fire and the Continuing Co-optation of Tecumseh
In the current age of austerity, the Harper Government allocated over $28 million to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. For many historians this proved to be an unpopular decision. It even drew the ire of the much-maligned Jack Granatstein, who pointed out, “This is also a government that’s slashing the national archives dramatically and killing the national library by cuts. On the one hand they’re good for history and on the other hand they’re bad for history—you sometimes wonder if they really know what they are doing.”
While historians are right to critique the controversial costs of the bicentennial celebrations in light of cuts to crucial public services, it is important to understand the government’s commemorative project as part of a more pernicious strategy of nation-building that historians Ian McKay and Jamie Swift identify as the “rebranding” of Canada as a “warrior nation.” In short, McKay and Swift contend that today there is a concerted right-wing effort to use the power of the state to “change how we think about our country and its history.” More specifically, they argue that “new warriors” are trying to rebrand Canada as a country “created by wars, defended by soldiers, and kept free by patriotic support of military virtues.” Canada’s history wars, then, are far from over.
In the case of the War of 1812’s bicentennial, the Harper Government pulled out all the stops to use the celebration as a rebranding opportunity. The commemorative project included a new national monument, a television commercial, and even a cell phone application, all showcasing the War of 1812 as a “defining moment” in what the Prime Minister called the “Fight for Canada.” Yet, this paper focuses on one aspect of the commemoration that received no critical attention: the representations of Indigenous peoples, and specifically of Tecumseh, in a free comic book called Canada 1812: Forged in Fire. The comic book was funded by the federal government andproduced by High Fidelity HDTV in partnership with Parks Canada, Zeroes 2 Heroes Media, Bell Canada, and the Smithsonian Channel as part of a multi-media project.Canada 1812 will appeal to a broad public audience that will no doubt enjoy digging through the free comic book. However, like the other War of 1812 commemorative initiatives, Canada 1812, and especially its portrayal of Tecumseh,is a problematic “rebranding” of history to serve a nation-building agenda that must be critiqued and challenged.
The 142 page comic book traces the stories of six individuals—Isaac Brock, Charles de Salaberry, Laura Secord, John Norton, Enos Collins, and Tecumseh—who are all portrayed as distinctly Canadian heroes because of the pivotal roles they played in forging “Canada” out of the flames of the War of 1812.Canada 1812 memorializes these individuals in six separate stories, extoling each figure’s various virtues such as courage, bravery, and patriotism. The comic book opens with a hero-worshiping story of British military general Isaac Brock and the first panel of the first page depicts him as simplistically stating, “War is coming. Good.” Similarly, the story of Laura Secord is full of stereotypical tropes about gender, race, and the nation, the likes of which have been expertly examined by Colin M. Coates and Cecilia Morgan. As the work of Coates and Morgan suggests, it is important for historians to spark critical conversations about the ways in which past figures are used by different groups to reinforce troubling narratives that legitimize colonialism and Canadian nation-building. In hopes of sparking such a conversation about Canada 1812, I will more closely examine the representations of Indigenous peoples in the comic book, specifically the depiction of Shawnee chief Tecumseh.
In this article, I argue that Canada 1812 is a prime example of how people manufacture and manipulate the image of Tecumseh for the purposes of Canadian nation-building, a process that historian Robin Jarvis Brownlie has recently labelled the “co-optation” of Tecumseh. Despite his inclusion in the comic book to show a sort of multi-cultural coming together to defend Canada, I contend that the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 ultimately conform to racist stereotypes of Indigenous peoples that rationalize colonialism and Canadian nation-building as benevolent, even natural and inevitable. The way we are taught to see the past shapes our understandings of, and actions in, the present and future. Thus, the representations of Tecumseh in Canada 1812 are problematic not only because of their racist underpinnings, but also because they play important roles in forming perceptions of Indigenous peoples that continue to justify Canada’s colonial policies of coercion, displacement, and assimilation.