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This comic and others are best viewed on our Patreon Page, where we are collecting pledges to continue doing this work.
This comic is first of a series of interviews we are doing as we travel across North America. If you’d like us to visit your town, e-mail us.
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It’s not particularly surprising that Jay Odjick received his first rejection letter from a mainstream comic book publisher (Marvel) at the age of 10.
Jay Odjick: “As a kid, I really dug Spider-Man – I’d read anything, but after a few years started to gravitate a bit toward the darker characters. They kind of fit more closely with my experiences and environment.
We would go and buy unsold issues for like a dime or something – the store would rip the covers off and sell ‘em cheap and we weren’t rich, so that worked out for us. Comics are a good chunk of how I learned to read.”
Needless to say, Odjick and Marvel had some divergent world views. Odjick was an Algonquin kid living off-reservation in a decimated neighborhood.
Jay: “I was born in Rochester, NY – which is where my mother is from. My father, like many other guys from Kitigan Zibi, left the reserve very young to find work, and he ended up seeing a good chunk of the upper East Coast.
I think he left home at like…13 or 14. There were quite a few people from my res working in the Rochester area – so he met my mother there, they got married and I was born in the US… like a block away from a comics store.
We moved from Rochester not long after a man was shot and killed right out in front of where we lived – chalk outline and all. [And I thought,] ‘Hey, what’s this Punisher guy like?? Ok, I get this!’”
Fast-forward 25 years. Even if Jay was then the successful comic and cartoon creator he is today, Marvel would likely continue to sneer at his work. Why? Perhaps because it refuses to fit any mainstream indigenous stereotypes that industry leaders like Marvel and DC have made millions depicting for decades.
Jay: “I didn’t come across too many comics that featured many native characters as a kid – I think my first real exposure to any were in some Westerns – and then at some point, Apache Chief from Super Friends (not comics, but still). We had moved [back] to the res after leaving Rochester and I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this guy is very much unlike anyone I know – or anyone living on my reserve’. I never really felt like I saw anyone in comics who looked or acted like any native people and, as a kid, I found it weird even if I didn’t understand why.
I also didn’t understand why there were so few native characters on TV or in comics. Only later did I kind of begin to theorize as to why that was, and want to create a superhero character who did look and act like the Native people I knew.”
In his twenties, Jay created and began producing The Raven while continuing to live in Kitigan Zibi. This was his first foray into publishing comics.
Jay: “I had some some illustration work before and worked on a comic for a website – in the early days of the web – but The Raven was my first comic book. Basically, I thought there was a need for a cool, hip, modern native hero – one who native kids could relate to or who could resonate with them. Something a little dark, action oriented; something with a touch of Spider-Man maybe – but with some splashes of anti-heroes like Wolverine and Batman in there as well. It was something I’d been meaning to try to do for a few years – and decided to try self-publishing. I got out 3 issues of the series before realizing it was all too much work for one guy.”
The life of an unseasoned self-publisher is one of constant trials—from the printer to the comic shop. While Jay struggled to create, produce, and promote the work on his own, his expenses were piling up. For his next project, he aimed for a graphic novel format, which took the pressure off the machine-gun publishing schedule of single issue comics creators (typically work reserved for an assembly-line team of comics writers, editors, artists, inkers, colourists, and promotional teams).
Jay: “I was going to comic conventions as a publisher around this time and met up with Arcana‘s Sean O’Reilly – who had a booth next to me at a Toronto Comic Con, and we struck up a conversation about my book and he said he’d be interested in publishing a graphic novel.
I tweaked the concept – made it less dark and violent and de-aged the main character, Matthew Carver, by about 15 years so that he would maybe appeal more to younger readers and created the graphic novel KAGAGI: The Raven.”
My thinking with Kagagi was always – he’s a superhero who is Native – and that plays a role in who he is, of course, but you should be able to come into this world without a lot of knowledge of Native culture or what indigenous experiences are like.”
As Odjick worked on the graphic novel for Arcana, he developed his creation. Kagagi is a native character based on Anishinaabe teachings and language. The project received critical acclaim, and Kagagi was approached by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) for a kid’s TV show adaptation.
As any creator knows, the task of character design is a meticulous one, requiring careful contemplation. Here, Jay made some interesting decisions with regard to Kagagi as a realistic representation of indigeneity.
Jay: “In terms of visuals, I decided to steer clear of the stereotypes or tropes we tend to see associated with native super-people. I didn’t – and still don’t – believe a super person in buckskin will resonate with younger readers or maybe even readers my age.
I created a design and aesthetic that I thought would appeal to readers of all backgrounds and cultures. But in terms of Matthew’s alter ego, I really tried to visually create something that looked like Native kids today. I think that’s why so many kids appreciate the character and dug the TV series – if he’s going to be a superhero for Native audiences, those audiences have to see themselves reflected in him.”
A key element in using dynamic media like comics, cartoons, and video games to communicate complex cultural or political information is a work’s ability to be engaging on a number of levels, from aesthetic, to entertainment to education. Odjick feels the design of the Kagagi graphic novel and TV series achieved this.
Jay: “If we want to create native superhero characters who resonate with native kids, we have to speak the same visual language in the media forms they’re accustomed to.
Now, the Kagagi ‘suit’ itself manifests when Matthew transforms – based on his subconscious, and what he thinks a hero should look like. It’s something I never got to explore enough in either the comic or the show, but that’s why he looks the way he does as Kagagi. He’s a kid who grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons and playing video games!
We would have explored in other comics and episodes that previous Kagagi bearers looked different (based on their own perceptions of a hero). Still, considering Matthew is a kid who doesn’t know a lot about his culture or background, it’s interesting that, as Kagagi, his hair grows when he transforms into Kagagi. It perhaps is meant to symbolize, deep down, how he feels he should be connected with his traditional culture…”
Jay acknowledges that both inside and outside of his comic creations, it’s a fine line for indigenous youth to navigate society’s expectations of them—expectations that can be either helpful or harmful. Settler portrayals of indigenous comic book characters have traditionally catered to the male white child’s imagination of what is indigenous: think Daniel Boone, Davey Crocket, and The Last of the Mohicans.
A part of the imagination in colonial North America is that settlers are absolved of guilt for their complacency in genocide, because they wish to adopt an indigenous custom here or a style of dress there. All the while, indigenous artists and creators are ignored.
Jay: “[The line goes…] ‘It’s ok, we are showing respect!’…Right.
“As a kid, it was hard because many people wanted me to work in more traditional native arts – my father especially. He discouraged me from pursuing comics, but I was what I was.”
Ultimately, it burns down to that critical question, currently searing the mainstream comics industry: regardless of character diversity, who has creative control over the design of the characters, and the stories?
Jay: “I can’t speak to much beyond my own community – but people in Kitigan Zibi have really embraced Kagagi and especially the series, because even if we aren’t delving much into culture and myths, we have created a show that exists in English with a mix (20%) of Anishinaabeg and with a language version completely in Algonquin as well.
My hope is that if kids like the show, it maybe helps them to learn the language.
Learning from previous struggles as a self-publisher, Jay worked to make Kagagi a real community effort. Algonquin voiceovers were done in Kitigan Zibi, with Anishinabeg translations read by local teachers Joan Tenasco and Annette Smith. While most of the voices were from his community, Jay was happy he was able to bring in cast members from neighboring Barriere Lake. As he was already on tight deadlines and budgets, he paid for the Algonquin translation out of pocket, recording the voiceover work himself.
But in terms of finding a larger community of indigenous comic creators, Odjick feels that there remains a great deal of room for improvement and growth.
Jay: “I think the fact that I write and draw my own stuff maybe has a bit of an isolation factor!
When I was starting out in comics I was unaware of literally any other Native creators. I was very much trying to learn about the comics industry, about publishing, publishers, who did what, etc. Now, I’m seeing more and more Indigenous comic creators, which is awesome! I’m stoked about that – but have only been in contact with a few. I drew a story adapted by Niigaanwewidam Sinclair that’s in Graphic Classics’ Native American Classics, published a few years ago. I’m taking part in the Moonshot anthology with First Hunt, which I illustrated and co-authored with my brother, Joel. It’s a story about the role hunting played in Anishinaabe life back in the day, and illustrates some of the pressures that must have come with it.
Odjick considers the Kagagi TV series a major victory with a dynamic and lasting impact. It allowed him and his community to create a powerful learning tool for language, and it convinced his community to be open to new forms of media as a way to pass on traditional teachings (Odjick is very proud that there is now a graphic novel section at the K.Z. School Library containing some 200 titles).
Jay: “If I can keep doing my thing, keep telling stories, hopefully that continues to allow me to do some good with issues I’m passionate about, like language preservation and literacy for our youth.”
Kagagi: The Raven airs on APTN every Sunday at 10 am, and is available online at aptn.ca/kagagi!
There is a story dating back in time and region to the Roman Empire, in which a raven is observed dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the height of the water inside. From this, the raven drinks, and from this tale comes the notable phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
There is a terrible need in North America today for education about the history of colonization. As settlers advanced notions of Euro-centric “progress” for centuries, the catastrophic effects upon the first peoples of the land–from outright war to enduring forms of cultural genocide–were hardly noted, even by those claiming to possess a conscience. Now, like the raven, indigenous people and settlers alike are thirsting for this knowledge, and creative minds are coming up with new, innovative ways to bring generations of stories from the margins to the mainstream.
A strong indicator of the demand has been the public’s reception to the work of David Robertson, a Cree writer, comics creator, and educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In just a few short years, Robertson has developed his storytelling abilities to produce a number of works to great acclaim. This year alone, he has been nominated in three categories of the Manitoba Book Awards, including ‘Aboriginal Writer of the Year’, and ‘Most Promising Manitoba Writer’. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted that his graphic novels “take advantage of an important means of communicating that history to Canada’s youth, especially Aboriginal youth, who have gravitated toward this genre.”
Ad Astra: Looking over the stack of comics in front of me, first and foremost, I see the work of a storyteller. What brought you to this line of work? And secondly, what brought you to comics to tell many of those stories?
Dave Robertson: I suppose it’s a combination of three things: education, personal history, and writing. I grew up disconnected from the side of my heritage that is Cree. My parents were separated when I was very young, and I was raised by my mom in an upper-middle class neighbourhood. She raised me and my brothers well, but because my dad wasn’t around a lot, I wasn’t exposed to First Nations culture or history. So, I grew up exposed to the kind of ignorance we still see today. A lot of racism, either experienced directly or indirectly. I ended up having a low sense of self-worth. I saw myself how others saw indigenous people.
Then, when my parents reconciled, and my dad moved back in with us (this was over a decade later), I finally began to learn more about who I was as a First Nations person. So, it’s been a long journey, learning about myself in that way, and growing a strong sense of pride through knowledge.
Now, nine years ago, I wanted to do something so that other kids could be exposed to real history and real culture. I felt like, if I could bring something into schools that would engage kids with truth, it would help in some way to fight back against the difficulties we still see in our country. Education is knowledge. My parents are both educators, that’s probably where that came from. Now, I’d written since I was in grade three, so I knew I wanted to write something. And because all I ever read when I was growing up was comic books, I thought it would be an amazing way to get kids engaged and excited with history and culture. That’s how I got into writing graphic novels.
My thought was: if you gave a kid a comic book and gave a kid a text book, which one would they choose to learn from? Always the comic book. The thing is, after they read the comic book, they want to read more about the subject. So they read the text book afterwards.
AA: That’s an excellent point. There is an accessibility with comics that I find is really unrivaled. And unlike film or TV, it can move at the reader’s pace…
DR: They call that “Visual Permanence”. See, at first it was: ‘Comics are cool; let’s do this.’ After that, I realized all the technical ways they are so effective.
For example: reading comics connects with us in an almost primal way. And that’s because we used to communicate through pictures, not words. It’s the most ancient way to story tell.
AA: I feel like your first answer really knocks out several of my introductory questions, and you’re now moving into some of the deeper questions…
DR: I’m efficient. (LOL)
AA: Regarding oral traditions and visual narratives… Dr Sheena Howard makes an interesting note in her new book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” connecting the comic medium to traditional African storytelling. Griots would memorize a lifetime of stories about the community or nation, heroes, gods and tricksters, and for many former slaves in the United States, there was no black-controlled medium of storytelling between these two (a bit mind-boggling to contemplate). I feel as though your comics are bridging the gap for indigenous narratives, in a similar way…
DR: I don’t disagree with that. At the launch of my first graphic novel, ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’, Murray Sinclair said that while we have an oral tradition, we now are finding new ways to pass down our stories to future generations. One of those ways is through the sequential art medium. It’s also through art, dance, music, and other forms of writing. But I think graphic novels and comics are the most effective. And I think that’s due to the format itself, and the visual nature of the medium. And it goes back, again, to how ancient this form of communication is. It’s taking it all the way back to wall paintings, the first way we communicated with each other and passed down stories. The old always becomes new again.
AA: You mentioned presentations in the classroom. What age groups do you work with?
DR: That’s the other thing with comics. For the same book, I’ve been to visit a grade four classroom, a junior high classroom, a high school classroom, and I’ve guest-lectured in university classrooms. They are the universal medium. There are reasons for this, too. Because of their visual nature, they connect with struggling readers or readers at lower skill levels. But because [the good ones] often have complex narrative structures and character development and so on, they connect with sophisticated readers as well. What novel can do that?
AA: There is, understandably, a real sense of loss and despair in a lot of the characters you depict in your work. A few colleagues, indigenous and settler, have noted that the work is a difficult read emotionally, sometimes almost paralysing. What do you see as the goal of bringing these uncomfortable, even triggering histories to comics? Do they present any difficulties in groups, or working with people who have experience similar forms of trauma?
DR: Sure, they are hard to read. I remember passing by two teachers who were shocked by the scenes in Ends/Begins, for example. But they were shocked in a good way, because they recognized the value in bringing history to students in such a real way. But, I should add, in a way that is sensitive and respectful. But these stories need to be told. People need to know the history, and the uncensored history. That is the only way there will be an understanding of the historical impacts on First Nations people in this country. In terms of how to deal with that pain, some of that is in the hands of the educators who are sharing the work. If you are sharing it with kids who are second generation survivors, or survivors themselves, you need to ensure you have supports in place to deal with trauma. If you are showing this to non-indigenous people, you need to prepare to continue the dialogue the book begins, bring in a speaker, bring in supplementary texts, etc. Teachers often say: how can I bring this into the classroom? The content is too difficult. I say to them, consider what your students are inundated with today through media. The violence we see on television. The Walking Dead, for example (which I love, by the way). Yet what you are bringing them in these works is reality, history, and things we all, as Canadians, need to know. There is just too much ignorance out there not to find the best ways possible to educate.
AA: Can comics and cartoons be problematic or trivializing when exploring violent and traumatic histories? How do you feel about settlers attempting to tackle these subjects? Is this part of a larger legacy of settlers dismissing the need for consultation in their “indigenous solidarity” activism?
DR: Well, settlers need to ensure they are doing things right if they are addressing histories of First Nations people. They need to consult with elders, indigenous peoples, and do the research, and research from the right resources. You know, Scott Henderson is white. But he has done the work to ensure that he is depicting things accurately, and we run our work through the proper channels to ensure we are being accurate and respectful. I think comics can trivialize violence, or show gratuitous violence. But they can also explore violence properly when it’s within the context of reality. The violence in my work is purposeful because it has its place within the story and within true history. Nothing is gratuitous. So, again, educators and readers need to choose properly.
Do I like settlers telling our stories? Not really. I think there is a growing movement of reclamation that needs to stay within the hands of the indigenous peoples. We just need to encourage youth to continue to get involved in telling stories. Our stories need to be reclaimed by our people, as long as those stories can be held to the right standards of excellence.
AA: You mentioned you were a comics fan growing up… comics is a strange medium, where indigenous people have been very *present* in comic representations, but almost exclusively created by white settlers for a white audiences, and very much from the white imagination of ‘manifest destiny’ and other white supremacist outlooks. Did you have any native comic role models? Which characters did you like growing up, and why?
DR: Honestly, I didn’t have any First Nations comic role models growing up and I still don’t. Part of the reason is that it’s still a growing medium within the First Nations community. There just aren’t a lot of First Nations comic book writers out there. But, that’s changing too. You know, Richard Van Camp just did one through my publisher. The Healthy Aboriginal Network does some amazing work. There’s Red, too, which you mentioned. So, I feel encouraged by all of this. In terms of characters. I’m not sure, really. There weren’t and aren’t a lot of great indigenous comic characters either. It’s so hard to create characters without perpetuating stereotypes or appropriating culture, I guess. But I think it’s doable. I loved Elfquest growing up, that’s as indigenous as I got when I was young! Other than that, I was typically into Spider-Man and Batman. I’d like to see work done for our culture that has been done so effectively for others, like King or Maus. Riel is a great one, too. I’d put it up there.
AA: Helen Betty Osborne: What compelled you to choose Helen’s story as one to tell?
DR: Well, it was the first one I did. I suppose I saw in her story the opportunity to tackle several issues that were important to me, and that I felt should be important to many. Through her story, you learn about the residential school system, segregation, racism, sexism, indifference, the justice system’s treatment of indigenous people, and missing and murdered indigenous women. So, it was really a story that embodied so much of what I love about graphic novels: it’s this incredible foundation in education that allows teachers to jump off into a variety of important subjects. And, today, her story is more relevant than ever. Sharing her story allows us to talk about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in ways that effect people powerfully. When it’s real, it’s effective. Her story becomes so real through the graphic novel medium. And we suffer with her and learn from her.
AA: I love the way the story is framed around grassroots activism as well. I find myself noting the misfortune of many of your characters, but they’re almost always complimented with characters that represent empowerment and agency–characteristics that are difficult to portray within the victim or survivor identity.
DR: Thanks! I think, too, empowerment so often comes from knowledge.
AA: What’s next for you? a) upcoming projects? b) more broadly, where do you see your work going?
DR: I always have projects on the go. As you know, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is coming out in May 2015. I think it’s my best graphic novel yet, and I am excited to see what it can do to raise awareness for Betty and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada. I have another graphic novel coming out in my Tales From Big Spirit series called The Runner: Joseph B. Keeper. That’ll be out in the Fall, hopefully. We have a bunch of names on the docket for future graphic novels but no firm plans yet on who/what they’ll be about. The Tales From Big Spirit series is envisioned as an ongoing series, so we’ll keep it going forever if we can. I’m also working away at my follow-up to The Evolution of Alice (a book with no pictures!!!). I’m about 1/4 of the way through that novel. It’s about a man who plans to commit suicide but how his life changes as he gets to know his father for the first time, and how his father’s experience at residential school affected his life, and his decision to end it.
In terms of where I see my work going… First of all, I want to constantly improve. I want to learn and get better and become the best storyteller I can become. That comes through writing and reading and learning from the best. I want to continue to do graphic novels, but I want to do more with them in the future. Tell stories that concentrate not just on history but on the amazing legends and myths in indigenous culture, and maybe tell some contemporary stories, create a super-hero we can be proud of and look up to. I’d love to do some mainstream work on my own terms, too. I’d love to, for example, take a crack at Spider-Man. He was my comic hero growing up.
That’s in the “out there” realm, but I don’t think any dream is too big. I’d like to continue to write novels, as well. And all of that work, graphic novels and novels, all, will try to educate in some way, shape, or form. That’s important to me.
Aside from that, I’d like to get into doing more work in television. I had a taste of it with my show called The Reckoner, that is currently in limbo but might see the light of day. I worked with some great writers for that show as well, like Jordan Wheeler and Sara Snow. I’d also like to write movies one day, when I have time. So, that’s what I hope for my work going forward. I just want to continue to evolve, continue to get better, and continue to challenge myself.
We do all of that by taking risks. For me, those risks involve stepping outside what I might be known for, and trying new things.
Many thanks to Dave Robertson for making himself available for this interview! Questions and comments to David are welcome below, through the WordPress commenting form.
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.
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.
What is the One Tribe Anthology? What is the origin of the name, “One Tribe”, and how was that chosen to represent the work?
As part of our ongoing Indigenous Comix Month feature, we’re looking at how Indigenous comics creators are doing their work and supporting each other. We’re honoured to be joined by Lee IV of the Indigenous Narratives Collective for a discussion on culture, diversity, stereotypes, and supporting one another in the industry.
How did the INC come to be, and what is the goal of the collective?
Lee: “Originally pitched as an idea by Arigon Starr, Jacques La Grange (San Carlos Apache) and Theo “Teddy” Tso (Las Vegas Paiute) at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, a group of Native American comic book writers, artists, designers and creators convened at the annual Phoenix Comic Con in June 2012. The goal was to bring together Native American and Indigenous comic book artists and writers to create comic books that were representational of Native peoples in an authentic and meaningful way.
“The collective released its first teaser comic book in September 2012 and we will be releasing several titles this year (2014). We wanted to have an organization that would promote the work of Native comic book artists/writers and give them a chance to develop their professional skills to 1) change the stereotypical imagery associated with Native peoples, especially in comic book representations, and 2) allow Native folks the chance to hone their skills so they would be able to find employment within the comic book industry.”
How do INC folks help to support each other in an industry that continues to resist diversity in many ways?
“We try and build community and support the work. Right now, our artists and writers aren’t getting paid for their work (not yet, anyways), but they are dedicated to the cause, if you will. They are dedicated to promoting Natives as more than just historicized caricatures. We trade ideas and we get each other gigs when we can. Part of our efforts include working with Native students to access comic books and graphic novels, so we find ways to get into the schools and do that work.”
Were there any quintessential comic book characters that you were inspired by, growing up? Indigenous or non-Indigenous…
“I was always an Iron Man fan. Loved the technology. I am still enamored by technology, though as I have gotten older, I find myself drawn less to characters and more to the story or the way the characters are used in service of a compelling narrative.”
Indigenous people deal with stereotypes so much–in large part because they are so sparsely represented in conventional media.. What do you think comics (and Indigenous comics creators) can do to help with this?
“First, by being the creators. We have unique perspective of Indigenous culture, our own backgrounds of growing up Native in the dominant society. This comes out in our stories, our art.”
“Second, comics are part of the mainstream collective consciousness and if we can begin to change that, we can at least provide alternatives to the stereotypical narratives of Native people. For example, we can put our characters in space, give them superpowers (not derived from some mystical/Native/earth powered origin), have them fight zombies, or giants, or whatnot. We can tell fun stories that are not a rehash of something in a history book, but imagine a what if (what if Geronimo had access to teleportation technology which is why he could not be caught for so many years?). We can use the medium to tell more accurate and authentic stories in a way that captivates a reader and helps to break the stereotypes by putting Native people squarely in the mainstream of popular culture.”
For more from the INC, check out their website: INCOMICS.COM!
It’s been thirty-five years of World War 3.
As momentous as it sounds, no one could have known in 1979 that this self-published periodical based in New York City would become the longest-running anthology of political comics in the world–at least, that we’ve been able to find.