While we were traveling America last year, we came across Vol 3 of Larry Gonick’s fantastic ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ series. Endorsed by everyone from Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau to the late Carl Sagan, the series more than lived up to the hype. This led us to his website whose work spans topics ranging from history to physics to pure math.
That’s how we found out that since the very beginning, Larry has seen comics as a way not only to entertain and inform, but to change the world we live in. Once we’d seen that, we knew we had to interview him. Thankfully, he obliged.
1) How did you get into reading comics? What was the first comic you ever owned?
My father used to read me the comic strips from the Sunday Denver Post when I was four years old. I’ve been reading comics ever since. I couldn’t possibly remember my first. I’m pretty sure I Go Pogo entered the house by the time I was six. Kelly was surely my strongest stylistic influence.
2) On your website, it says you dropped out of math in 1972. What’s the story there?
3) You also say that “My crazy hope is that this crazy medium will somehow improve this crazy world.” That describes our work pretty well, too. But you’ve been doing this since the 70s. What made you think comics were a good medium for social change?
4) Your background is in math, but your bibliography covers an incredible diversity of topics from history to chemistry to sex! Did you have co-authors for some of those titles, or did you research it all as you went along?
5) Something that really stood out to me when I was reading the first three volumes of ‘Cartoon History of the Universe’ was how deliberately you avoided falling into a Eurocentric narrative of history. The Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent and China all feature prominently in your account of world history, with attention paid to the Eurasian steppe and sub-Saharan Africa as well.
But in Vol 4 (rebranded by the publisher as Cartoon History of the Modern World, Vol 1) the focus shifts dramatically to Europeans, apart from a good account of Meso-American civilization and some coverage of the Inca. There’s still some coverage, but it isn’t at the level of the previous books. Why was that?
6) I know you’ve just finished a book, and there’s a question about that coming up. But do you have plans for any future ‘Cartoon History’ or ‘Cartoon Guide’ titles, or anything else?
I’m in the middle of The Cartoon Guide to Biology with Dave Wessner, a biology professor at Davidson College (Steph Curry’s alma mater. Go Warriors!). It will surely be the longest of all the science books. I’m also working on my first project explicitly meant for the classroom: a large series of quiz questions for beginning physics.
7) Looking at your website led me to the ‘Commoners’ series, which I read as short comics about the enclosure of different commons by transnational corporations. What led you to produce those?
An old friend and associate, the late Jonathan Rowe, who spent his life in activist writing, put me on to the idea and found some funding to support the strip.
8) Do you still make time to read comics? Have you read anything good lately?
I have the time to do it but little inclination. I mostly read novels, with a little non-fiction on the side. My problem with graphic novels is that they’re quick to read and you rarely want to go back. In this, they’re different from the great comic tradition of work like Pogo, which I re-read until all the pages fell out. I’m proud to say that the Cartoon Histories are books that people return to again and again. I realize this sounds dismissive, and in fact I still read comics. I love Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and check in with Randy Monroe’s xkcd pretty often. Of more-or-less recent book-length pieces, my favorite by was Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
9) You’ve got a new book coming out in the winter: “Hypercapitalism?” Can you tell us a little bit about it? What moved you to write it?
Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, approached me about doing a book on capitalism and responses to it. I thought, Hm, why not go back to my political roots? The time was right. I especially liked approaching the subject from an unconventional direction: the psychology of money-chasing and material gain and what it does to more humane values and pursuits like community feeling and care for the planet’s future. Tim insisted that we finish the book with a long section on what people are actually doing to address our out-of-whack values, and I’m hoping that the book will stimulate some productive discussion out there in the discussion-sphere.
10) Inevitably, interviewers miss an important question. If there’s a question you wish I’d asked but didn’t, feel free to pose it yourself and answer it here.
Although gentrification is now unraveling communities from Atlanta to Seattle, what happened in the Lower East Side was one of the earliest modern examples. Artists, people of colour, migrants, radicals, squatters, the homeless and regular working class people all called this crowded area full of abandoned buildings home.
Though no one book could ever hope to tell the entire story, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ contains a full cast of artists, anarchists, dog-walkers and ex-prisoners as they fight to build a future for themselves before greedy developers literally burn it out from under them.
Modern readers familiar with the history of internet-age social movements like Occupy Wall Street will be surprised how much they recognize in these stories. Gendered violence, police brutality, factional fights and hostile news media all come together to paint a very familiar picture.
Instructive as it is for activists, ‘War in the Neighborhood’ is above all a feeling, human portrait of life in a troubled time. As neighborhood residents fight the police, the cold and each other to make space for themselves, our own hopes for affordable housing, community, and safe space are reflected on the page. In an era of market crashes and rigged elections, we recognize our own struggle to build something that lasts in a world intent on tearing us down.
Click on panels to enlarge files.
This comic is shareable, but please cite Ad Astra Comix as the source, and provide a link to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission with any re-postings. Interested in buying a glossy, high-resolution poster of ‘Dogs’? E-mail us for details
Handling indigenous subject matter is always a challenge for settlers, and to be clear, we are white settlers. We have done our best to avoid speaking on behalf of the Inuit who are more than capable of making themselves heard when qallunaat take the time to listen. But it is a narrow beam to balance on.
Even before Franz Boas wandered into the Arctic and began scribbling, white people have been misrepresenting the Inuit. They were not trapped in the Stone Age until the 1950s; they had already been adapting European technologies to their purposes for more than a hundred years at that point. Southerners love to depict the Inuit as ‘noble savages’ who were ‘ruined’ by civilization. Needless to say, that is not only incredibly racist, it’s frankly wrong.
There’s a great NFB mockumentary called ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny” we recommend if you are interested in seeing the colonial gaze reversed. There’s also a film where the descendants of Nanook of the North (obviously not his real name) laugh at the many inaccuracies of that early documentary.
We have done our best to faithfully render the period and the people. This is a comic and we are working for free so in some places, we have gotten the details wrong. This comic is not a substitute to listening to the stories of the Inuit themselves, or visiting Nunavut to learn from them in person (assuming they’ll have you, which you shouldn’t take for granted). We both had mixed feelings about telling such a sensitive story – both because we are white, and because it is difficult to depict it in all its painful complexity.
Ultimately, the reasons we did it are close to the reasons for our concern. This story badly needs amplifying. It is part of the larger story of the genocide of indigenous peoples carried out by the Canadian state, but it is not so well known as the violence of the residential schools system. We hope this comic can be a starting point to help settlers find more substantial lines of inquiry and in doing so, reach a broader audience than the Qikiqtani Truth Commission has yet done.
Which brings a final disclaimer: Ad Astra Comix is not affiliated with the QTC and this work has been undertaken without their permission. Peter Irniq was contacted to give his consent for the quote we have used, but has not seen the comic as of its release. This is a labour of love and hope, and we only wish it calls attention to this period in Inuit history so that settlers can understand that people live up there, god damn it, not just inukshuks to appropriate when we need a symbol for some imaginary shared nationhood.
Hugh Goldring & Nicole Marie Burton
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” – Mark Twain
Review by Sky Croeser
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 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 and produced 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.
Read on at ActiveHistory.ca: