Category Archives: Editorial Cartooning

Arctic Dreams and Nightmares: Into the Art of Alootook Ipellie

Note: While this is a review of the book “Arctic Dreams and Nightmares,” a collection of art and accompanying short stories by the late Inuk artist, Alootook Ipellie, we are also taking a look at Ipellie’s larger body of work, and the significance of his contribution to Inuit art and political comics in general.

“Arctic Dreams and Nightmares” originally published by Theytus Books, was Ipellie’s largest collection of published political cartoons outside of Arctic newspapers and magazines. The book is currently out of print.

The title “Arctic Dreams and Nightmares” is a woeful summation of this haunting journey through the imagination of a man who seems to have been, as the title suggests, a dreamer. But within modern memory, it is an easy thing to understand how any Inuk’s dreams might turn to nightmares.

“Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments” by Alootook Ipellie

Writing as a qallunaat from the privileged perspective of the south, it is outside my role to interpret these dreams for the world. But as a sometime-student of Canadian colonialism and its violence against the indigenous people of the Arctic, I can help to shed some midnight sun on the darkness of this genocidal history.

“I, Crucified” by Alootook Ipellie

Rachel Attituq Qitsualik wrote in Nunatsiaq that “The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now.” This Inuk hunter on the cross, pierced by the arrows and harpoons of his people, is a curious expression of the impact of Christianity on indigenous spirituality. For several hundred years,  missionaries were among the only European people in the north. The legacy of the Christian churches in the Arctic is inextricable from the legacy of the residential schools system, which saw many Inuit taken from their communities. The choice of wolves, harpoons and arrows to pierce the Inuk Jesus is difficult to interpret; is it intended to convey that the Inuit have done harm to themselves by adopting Christianity?

“When God Sings the Blues” by Alootook Ipellie

The Inuit have not so much adopted Christianity as adapted it, as they have done with so many things from the south. In the 1950s, when the government imposed a program to settle the Inuit into stationary townships, social workers would complain of bathtubs being used to butcher seals or dining room tables turned into workbenches. But as their success in the extreme conditions of the Arctic shows, Inuit culture is nothing if not adaptive. So there is perhaps an echo of this in the image of a 3-piece Inuit blues group like the one above. It is likely not a coincidence that blues, a music with its roots in articulating experiences of oppression and resistance, is the music played by the band.

“The Dogteam Family” by Alootook Ipellie

There is something viscerally disturbing about a woman being drawn along like a sled by a team of babies, still tethered to her womb by umbilical cords. Casual familiarity with the Inuit is enough to understand the historic importance of dog sleds to their lives, and some may know that snowmobiles have overwhelmingly replaced dog sleds as the main mode of tundra transit. But what goes woefully unacknowledged is the vicious extermination of hundreds of sled dogs by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who traveled the Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s, murdering whole teams of sled dogs. This systematic slaughter left a collective trauma shared by many Inuit, a violent break with traditional lifeways enforced by agents of colonial administration. It is difficult to discern the meaning of the children in place of the dogs – is it meant to convey that the Inuit continue regardless?

“After Brigitte Bardot” by Alootook Ipellie

The broader ethics of animal rights aside, there is a particularly sinister clash between traditional indigenous practices and glamorous celebrities who care more for seals than human life. The famed French film starlet Brigitte Bardot has had a long career as an animal rights activist, and at one point took the Inuit to task for their continuation of the seal hunt. Here she is re-imagined as an Inuk’s wife, stalked by the very creature she once sought to protect. Unchecked by the seal hunt, the creatures now turn on their former predators, seeking to club them in turn. If starvation would not be the literal outcome of ending the seal hunt, the scene is suggestive of the damage to Inuit culture if this long practice would be discontinued.
What is more, the damage may not only be cultural. In addition to it being a major component of Inuit culture, what is called ‘country food’ is in fact healthy to the Inuit diet, which has adapted to this nutritional intake from centuries of continuous habitation in the region. Adverse health trends in the north have been linked to the adoption of southern diets, encouraged by well-intentioned southern doctors.

InukTVRegardless of the historical context in which these works are placed, there is a critical meta-narrative at play.  Primitivism, an artistic movement that appropriates indigenous aesthetics for European audiences, has become an acceptable form of art – a kind of cultural erasure. Traditional indigenous art is permissible in the iconography of official Canadian cultures, because it is “historic”. Indigenous peoples are permitted in the canon because they are presumed to have assimilated, (AKA disappeared). Inukshuks, totem poles, soapstone carvings and bead-work are all relatively traditional indigenous crafts, co-opted by the Canadian state to suggest a continuity between historic indigenous peoples and modern Canadian settlers–use of indigenous culture by the colonial apparatus suggests a cooperation, or at least a submission by the former to the latter. Symbols of pre-contact Inuit spirituality are acceptable as well – traditional tales and legendary creatures that preserve the image of the Inuk as an unchanging “primitive” without the complex legacy of Christianity. This is effectively a denial of the violent rupture that occurred.

“The Woman Who Married a Goose”

Ipellie’s style seems to stand outside of this. His art is by turns haunting, erotic and grotesque, but always political. By deviating from southern expectations that Inuit art produces a pre-contact fantasy of seal hunting, igloos and polar bears, his art challenges white expectations of indigenous art. By smearing sex, violence and modernity across southern stereotypes of Inuit culture, Ipellie defaces the museum-exhibit sterility of the “noble savage” trope with the viscera of human vulgarity.

CdnGovtLabThe Inuit are not simply figures in the past, a culture to borrow as part of some settler narrative. They are figures in our present, affected by us, and, as is best represented by Ipellie and his work, affecting us in turn.


Sabo-Tabby Vs. The Bosses: The Political Cartoons of North America’s Most Radical Union

SaboTabbyAlthough the name might mean little to modern readers, there was a time when the initials ‘IWW’ struck fear in the hearts of bosses, police and all other respectable elements of society.  The Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905, was one of North America’s most radical and militant unions.  Though much diminished since its heyday in the 1910s and 20s, there are still active IWW chapters around the world, including here in Toronto.  What is less well known about the Wobblies, as they have been called for generations, is their rich history of political cartoons.

Their most enduring contribution to the graphic vocabulary of the left is undoubtedly the Sabo-Tabby.  Seen here with claws out and back arched, the Sabo-Tabby was probably created by Ralph Chaplin, more famous for writing the union hymn “Solidarity Forever”.  But their work also includes the hopeless ‘boss-head’ Mr. Block who could never quite see where his interests lay, and a proliferation of other editorial cartoons. The IWW truly forged an iconography of both union pride and class consciousness in their decades of activity.

An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers' sabotage.
An organized worker walks proudly with his good friend. Note the wooden clogs, another early symbol for workers’ sabotage.

In their cartoons, the IWW often sought to entice workers away from electoral politics.  The IWW emphasis on direct action – strikes, foot-dragging and packing jail cells over free speech – finds ready expression in this cartoon.  The heroic figure of the worker is coaxed by the politician on the one hand and the Wobbly on the other – where should he struggle?  Washington’s distance is matched by the factory’s immediacy, emphasizing the workers’ true and immediate priorities.  The stakes of this struggle are expressed in the preamble to the union constitution:

“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”

In the first half of the 20th century, when millions of working people lived in conditions of poverty unimaginable today, the rich enjoyed lives of equally unimaginable luxury. The appeal of the IWW’s call is all too evident.


The refusal to deal with politicians, seen as agents of the capitalist class, is recurrent in Wobbly cartoons.  The IWW’s antipathy to politicians began early, with a break from socialist politician Daniel DeLeon, who insisted on the primary importance of political struggle and the potential irrelevance of demands for higher wages.  The Wobbly response to this attitude is summed up wonderfully in “Now He Understands The Game”, where the looming figure of a class-conscious worker looks skeptically on the capitalist’s puppet show.  The demands clutched in his hand and the rising sun of the IWW at his feet are all a part of him seeing the political façade for what it is, and so the worker is labeled accordingly on his overalls.  That the various political puppets are all on the strings of the same boss, symbolizing the capitalist class as a whole, showed that the bitter partisanship of mainstream politics was an irrelevance to workers who could legislate on the shop floor.

Migratory_WorkersIWW cartoons tended to construe politicians as a class, usually not differentiating between Democrat or Republican.  But their jabs were also aimed at the parties of the socialist left. In this cartoon, the artist mocks the notion that transient workers can have their interests served by sedentary politicians belonging to the more mainstream Socialist Party, led by former Wobbly cofounder Eugene Debs.  Farmhands, lumberjacks and other temporary migrant workers were the focus of many successful IWW campaigns; the idea that these precarious workers would cast their lot in with a politician representing a congressional district they might not be in for even a year was duly mocked by the Wobbly press.  The only way to catch the pork chop of gainful employment was to join a union that would see to your getting a square deal – or at least a square meal!


IWW_misconceptionThe Communist Party USA was, if anything, less favourably regarded by the Wobs.  Like a great many other left organizations operating in North America, the IWW was constantly confronted with accusations that it was doing Bolshevik Russia’s work and that its members were agents of the communist state.  This allegation was not helped by the emigration of leading Wobbly ‘Big’ Bill Haywood to Russia following the revolution, and the publication of his happy memoirs.  But as this comic shows, the IWW did not want to be seen as leading the Russian Bear behind it.  The cartoon draws on the popular representation of Russia as a bear, and the high population of lumberjacks in the IWW to create an image of a sinister woodsman.  Other than the label, ‘One misconception of the IWW’, nothing in the cartoon indicates that the Wobblies and the Bolsheviks were anything other than friendly.

Although they were drawn by dozens of different artists, some of whom are speculated to have had separate careers as established comic strip artists working for commercial features, IWW cartoons share some commonalities.  They are seldom subtle, and some feature such extensive labeling of elements of the image that one suspects the artist harboured grave doubts regarding their abilities as an illustrator.  At times they attempt to incorporate too many elements to be coherent, though most of those selected here avoid that prospective pitfall.  But they serve their purpose in their simplicity: politicians and businessmen are ugly with expressions of sinister intent on their face. For hungry workers making a pittance for long hours, the straightforward message of these comics must have helped to win them over to the Wobblies’ cause.  When all the fiery manifestos in the world won’t do, sometimes a few comics can close the gap.


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Further Reading

Preamble of the IWW, by its membership: Rebel Voice: An IWW Anthology Edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh.  2011, PM Press. The Industrial Workers of the World: Its First 100 Years. Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken. 2006, IWW. Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood New York: International Publishers, 1929

For a comic book history of the IWW, check out:

Keeping the Faith: Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Mike Alewitz, Sue Coe, Sabrina Jones. Edited by Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman. 2005, Verso Books.

An Up-to-Date Listing of Comics on Israel & Palestine

Ad Astra Comix is pleased to provide an up-to-date listing of comics, graphic novels, and “bandes desinees” about Israel and Palestine. As a part of our growing interest in political comics education, we offer this information as a useful resource, and do not necessarily condone or support all the various viewpoints expressed in the following books. 

by José Gonzalez and NM Burton

palestineTitle: Palestine
Author: Joe Sacco
Published: 1993 (First Edition). Single volume edition published in 2001 by Fantagraphics, currently on its 14th or 15th printing.As a comics journalist, Joe Sacco visually documented his travels through the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a first-hand account of the people of Palestine. Over the past 20 years it has become, hands-down, the most lauded example of a comic depicting the reality of Israel-Palestine tensions. Sacco’s travels in between late 1991 and early 1992, mixed with comic-rendered flashes of significant historical moments, serves as a great primer to a history and conflict often misunderstood in the West.

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footnotes in gaza

Title: Footnotes in Gaza
Author: Joe Sacco
Published: 2009 by Metropolitan BooksA follow-up to Palestine, this work was released in 2009 documents Joe Sacco’s quest to discover the truth behind the events in Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956, when Israeli forces were responsible for the deaths of nearly 400 Palestinians. Using largely first-hand Palestinian oral testimony, the comic chronicles the people met and interviewed during his travels, which gives shape to a dark history some 5 decades old. History and its revisions are explored as Sacco’s depictions of the stories told by each interviewee sometimes conflict and circle around the truth of why those Palestinian people were killed.

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Title: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
Author: Sarah Glidden
Published: Vertigo (2011)What started off as a Birthright tour to Israel, special tours to help nurture a personal relationship with Judaism, became a challenging journey of personal discovery for Sarah Glidden. She traveled through many popular destinations like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, though the most striking voyage is her unescorted trip to the West Bank, forcing her to ask serious questions of herself and her identity.Glidden has explained that she found herself discarding many pre-conceived notions that she had about Israel/Palestine before leaving North America.

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jerusalemTitle: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Author: Guy Delisle
Published: Drawn & Quarterly (2012)Another travelogue, this one situated entirely in Jerusalem as comics journalist Guy Delisle documents the life of his family who have travelled there as part of his partner Nadège’s work with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Situated in the eastern part of Jerusalem, Delisle finds himself situated on the precise ground of conflict detailing the lives of people on land with a disputed border and what it means to revere a sacred city.

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exit wounds

Title: Exit Wounds
Author: Rutu Modan
Published: Drawn & Quarterly

Exit Wounds is Rutu Modan’s first full-length graphic novel, and tells an intricate story of a cab driver living in Tel Aviv who is suddenly faced with the possibility that his father has been killed by a suicide bomber.

Joe Sacco has helped open North American readers up to Modan’s complex and beautiful work by describing Exit Wounds as  “a profound, richly textured, humane, and unsentimental look at societal malaise and human relationships and that uneasy place where they sometimes intersect.”

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thin red lines

The works of Mohammad Saba’aneh

Though perhaps most known for being imprisoned for five months in Israel from February 2013, Mohammed Saba’aneh’s cartoons have been featured in newspapers throughout the Arab world and he’s had exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Jordan. His most recent exhibition, Cell 28, centres on his time in that Israeli prison. Much of his work describes a deep cynicism towards offers of peace coupled with a generally critical view of Israel.

"Arresting Mohammad Saba'aneh" - cartoon by Sherif Arafa. Photo courtesy of Cartoon Movement - click to visit site for a larger image view.
“Arresting Mohammad Saba’aneh” – cartoon by Sherif Arafa. Photo courtesy of Cartoon Movement – click to visit site for a larger image view.

hamas in comicsTitle: Hamas in Comics: Terror and Tyranny in Gaza
Author: Israeli Defense Force (IDF)
Published: 2013

Produced by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), this comic book introduces young readers to Hamas through the eyes of the Israeli military.  A prominent example of a comic being used as political tool to shape the mindset of children, it also provides a unique glimpse into how the Israeli military envisions its own role in the conflict. Hamas in Comics draws striking parallels with comics you would be more likely to see in WW2-era North America (a time period not often considered to be the most enlightened when it came to representing non-American cultures).

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Moussa et David

Title: Moussa et David: Duex enfants d’un meme pays (two children of the same country)
Author: Maurice Rajsfus and Jacques Demiguel
Published: 2007 by Les Edicions Tartamudo (France)

A slightly different approach to a comic book aimed specifically towards children, this work by French Jewish historian Maurice Rajsfus tells the story of two boys who learn they have far more in common than their different religions might suggest. It serves as a lesson that those who are most innocent in this conflict may be able to show the rest how to solve the region’s problems.

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Title: Histoires d’une Région Enragée (Stories from a Raging Region)
Author: Ouri Fink
Published: 2008 by Gabriel Etinzon

Best known for his long running series Zbeng!, Ouri Fink’s collection of short stories targets political and religious extremists and satirizes them with a number of colourful comparisons. Some of the stories include “Hamas – the world’s mightiest moron versus the Rabbi ben Death” and “Humaus,” which borrows a device from Art Spiegelman comic Maus, but instead casts the Israeli settlers as the cats and the Palestinians as the mice. Fink’s refreshing use of humour sets his work apart from most other somber additions to this category of comics.

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Farm 54Title: Farm 54
Author: Galit and Gilad Seliktar
Published: 2011 by Ponent Mon S.L

This semi-autobiographical collection of short stories follow a young Israeli girl, and eventually a woman grown, named Noga. The conflict between and Israel and Palestine is muted to Noga during her childhood, but gradually as the stories move forward to Noga’s mandatory military service where she is most directly confronted with the reality of the conflict when she is compelled to take part in a forcible evacuation of Palestinian houses. Created by the brother and sister team of Galit and Gilad Seliktar, it provides a counter-narrative from within Israel that humanizes their closest neighbours.

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Signals from Gaza and other Webcomics by Samir Harb

This webcomic is one of the few examples of a comic from a Palestinian, due to the scarcity of jobs for comic artist in Palestine. Based on a true story, it follows an American Palestinian family trying to build a home in the West Bank. The challenges of maps is brought into focus as the very lines on each map make placing a home so difficult, with the slightest breach in a line being seen as a form of aggression. Considering the story is literally about lines drawn on paper, it makes a comic the perfect medium to explore this, and other disputes on where Israel ends and Palestine begins.

First panel of "Signals from Gaza" - click to be taken to Samir Harb's website.
First panel of “Signals from Gaza” – click to be taken to Samir Harb’s website.

najiThe Political Cartoons of Naji al-Ali

Of all Palestinian political cartoonists, the most influential is arguably Naji al-Ali, not only for the impact of more than 40,000 cartoons that he drew in his lifetime, but for the creation of the Palestinian characature and icon known as “Handhala”. Handhala has had a life and history for decades, depicting a 10-year old Palestinian boy, shoeless and in shabby clothes, with his hands behind his back. Al-Ali has explained that he symbolizes both himself (he was ten when he was forced to leave his homeland), as well as a number of general principles, including an allegiance with the poor and an unwillingness to have problems solved by external forces. Like any who saw it first-hand, Handhala became the iconic witness of the Israeli occupation. And like Handhala, al-Ali insisted he would forever remain a child until he was able to return home to Palestine.

On July 22, 1987 Naji al-Ali was shot in the face outside the London offices of al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper he worked for. He died of his wounds 5 weeks later.

His is one of the truest examples of the power of political comics to move, inspire, shake up, and frighten those who see them.

Further Reading:

Panels for Peace: Contributions of Israeli and Palestinian Comics to Peace-Building. Chantal Catherine Michel.

“Life Begins At Incorporation: Cartoons and Essays” by Matt Bors

mattbors_lifebeginsatincorporationMatt Bors prides himself (perhaps reluctantly) on being “The Last” nationally-syndicated editorial cartoonist in the United States of America. While the rest of the “sequential arts” are in the midst of their own Comic Renaissance, political and editorial cartoons are withering away with printed newspapers—now used with more satisfaction for fireplace starter and nesting material for gerbils than reading.

Despite this, Matt has built a decent following through cartoons and commentary that are consistently present and politically poignant. What do I mean by “present”? Outside of his regular publishing in regional newspapers near his home in the Pacific Northwest, his website archives all of his comics—which, from the perspective of social media (which have been steadily replacing print as our chief news sources for the past decade) are all very “share-friendly”. The first piece I ever saw of Matt’s got passed along in my Facebook feed, I believe, by the The Occupy Wall Street Page:

steve jobs

Web comic celebrity Matt Inman once put it a few years back, “With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else.” I would argue that, er, Matt B. essentially does the same thing except with politicians instead of cats wearing ties (which does hurt his stats a little bit). In the realm of politics, though, Bors’ drawn conclusions are successfully competing with mainstream news media, (and they downright Haretsukan others in the domain of editorial cartooning). While the medium of the comic panels is almost defined by its accessibility, as Matt Inman hints at, the content of said panels remains a refreshing escape hatch from the suffocation usually associated with mainstream political discourse. It’s a pretty impressive balance.

For how long have you waited for an editorial cartoon–with mainstream accessibility–to point out the following:

(Check all that apply)

[ ] Most high-profile homophobes are probably gay (Matt keeps a list that’s about 2-score long)

[ ] The path to the Middle Class in America is arguably longer and harder than the path to citizenship

[ ] Despite being elected as the “anti-war candidate” against the GOP, Obama has continued the War on Terror, surged the troops in Afghanistan, NOT closed Guantanamo, and fully ushered in the era of drone-based warfare, currently occupying half a dozen countries in the Middle East / Central Asia.

[ ] Millenials, as a generation, aren’t “lazy”: they’re fucked (link goes to this gem of an essay, included in Matt’s book, posted on Matt’s website).

[ ]  Occupy wasn’t a bunch of hippies sitting in a drum circle, and “I am the 99%” wasn’t just an incredibly meaningful slogan thought up in between bong hits.


At this point you may be thinking, “Isn’t this supposed to be a book review?”

The book is Matt in 200 pages. It’s everything that he offers as a political cartoonist in both form and content. It’s editorial cartoons and comics journalism, satire and commentary, covering women’s rights, marriage equality, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, gun control, elections, debates and popular [mis]conceptions about all of these things. It’s a powerful and enjoyable showcase that makes you wonder why NO ONE else is doing it like Matt is doing it. Matt made fun of me, more or less, when I described him like that before–I guess I just don’t know how else to say it.

Is there anything I disagree with Matt on?

His cartoon about Julian Assange, which focuses on the allegations of rape against the Wikileaks founder, to me, is like looking at Obama’s foreign policy today and trying to focus on the 2012 Benghazi Attack. My point? That’s it’s sooooo not the point. And yea, I’m a woman and I know all about non-consensual sexual encounters; and yea, there’s an American diplomat to Libya out there, listening to Steve King or Lindsay Graham, going, “Give me a fuckin’ break!”

One cartoon not doing it for me, out of a thousand, is acceptable.

Matt’s book, Life Begins at Incorporation, can be purchased online through Matt’s website.

If you’re like me and live in Toronto, you can find it through the Ad Astra Comix Distro, The Beguiling, The Comic Book Lounge, Hairy Tarantula, and The Silver Snail.

The Political Comics of Matt Bors + Launch of Ad Astra Distro

Fellow Torontonians, I hope you’ll join us on Friday May 10 for an incredible presentation on political cartooning, political comics, comics journalism, and more at Ad Astra Comix’s first event: The Political Comics of Matt Bors. Matt will be in town for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) happening that weekend at the Toronto Reference Library, and to promote his new book, Life Begins at Incorporation.

Here is a copy of the poster we’ll be putting up beginning this week:


In conjunction with the event, Matt has agreed to have his book distro’d by Ad Astra Comix here in Canada, which is pretty exciting. So the event is also a launch for Ad Astra to begin actively distributing political comics!

I’m also extremely grateful to the kind folks at the Comic Book Lounge for inviting us into their space. It’s so nice to have comic shops that are not only supplying me with my next fix of comics, but also see themselves as an integral piece in an active and vibrant community- and Comic Book Lounge is an enthusiastic believer in this.

In addition to a presentation, where will be a book sale and signing, a bar lovingly stocked with local beer and wine, and free snacks. I can’t emphasize enough that there will be free snacks.

Folks can RSVP for the event on Facebook here. We look forward to seeing you there!