In a recent posting on DC Women Kicking Ass, sources have confirmed that comic artist Jeff Lemire has followed through on his projection from last year that he would be creating a new superhero based on deceased Indigenous teen activist Shannen Koostachin. They will be appearing in Justice League United #1, which comes out this May.
Who is Shannen Koostachin?
Shannen Koostachin was born in Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay coast, Ontario, Canada. Most recently Attawapiskat has made headlines for its dire living conditions, from boiling orders to inadequate housing insulation, which has drawn increased attention nationally and internationally to the reality that the conditions of many Indigenous communities in Canada are more comparable to the Third World than an industrialized democracy like Canada.
She attended J.R. Nakogee elementary school, which had been housed in makeshift portables shipping containers since 2000, when it was condemned and closed due to a decades-old fuel leak. Then a teenager, Shannen learned that Canadian government was not giving proper funding to First Nation Aboriginal Schooling systems around Canada.
In 2007, the federal government had backed away from a third commitment to building a new school for Attawapiskat. Using the power of social media like Youtube and Facebook, Shannen and other Indigenous youth launched the Students Helping Students campaign for a school for Attawapiskat.Koostachin spoke out about the experiences of her community in newspapers, at conferences, and on the steps of Parliament Hill in 2008. In 2009, at the age of 14, in 2009 she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
Tragically, Shannen died on May 30, 2010 in a car accident. Her legacy to improve the conditions of First Nations communities–particularly youth and students–lives on in a campaign called Shannen’s Dream.
Something significant and radical has occurred in the Georgia Ridley Salon at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Original comics artwork has steadily gained acceptance within the hallowed institutions of mainstream galleries and museums, but never in as bold a curatorial manner as this.
A stark black and white, inked, portrait of Louis Riel sticks out like a sore thumb. Surrounded by stacks of period specific, painted, (colour) artwork, in a setting that recreates the viewing context of a period spanning Canadian Confederation and the First World War.
A portrait of Riel would never have found its way into any English Canada salon of that time. A crusader for Métis rights, and charismatic leader of the 1869-1870 “Red River Rebellion”, Riel was branded a “traitor” by the federal government, and viewed as such in the province of Ontario, and particularly the city Toronto. How fitting then, that he should end up here of all places, today.
This decidedly contemporary juxtaposition provokes conversation, and challenges our traditional narrative as Canadians. The portrait incidentally, is the original cover art for the tenth anniversary edition of Chester Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography.
Riel remains controversial figure, and difficult to place within Canadian history. He’s a powerful symbol of Native and French Canadian rebellion against centralized English-speaking government powers. However, we now live in a society where Multiculturalism is espoused, and Bilingualism is national policy. Chester Brown’s graphic biography is a reflection of this current cultural paradigm, particularly since Riel is now viewed as a “Father of Manitoba”, in spite of his defeats. It is notable that the Canada Council, a government run funding agency for the arts, provided support to Brown in the creation of this work.
Tucked away in a small alcove in a corner of the salon, original artwork from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel graphic novel is displayed, revealing Brown’s process. Each frame showcases what are essentially small individual panels of the same dimensions, on separate small pieces of paper, a half dozen of each which were eventually grouped together to form a “page” of artwork. Imagine each of these panels to be a frame of film. In film editing terms, this allowed Brown the ability to “non linear edit” as he crafts the story… adding or deleting panels and moments from any point in the chosen narrative as he goes along creating the work as a whole.
We also need to note that Brown calls his biography a comic strip. Drawing from a more traditionally populist format, and defining itself away from the more literary pretentious term, graphic novel or even the more common place name of comic book. Both terms which come with a degree of cultural baggage in the current landscape.
During the process of creating this work, Brown adapted a large stylistic influence from cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. In fact, there are examples out there showing how Brown redrew panels he created earlier in the process to keep this aesthetic choice consistent. The choice of Gray is interesting in that Gray is largely considered a political artist himself during a tumultuous period of American history. Recall that the original Little Orphan Annie cartoon strip was a politically charged reaction to the changing times of the depression-era nineteen thirties – a fact largely forgotten in the shadow of the Broadway musical and cinematic adaptation that has taken popular root in its cultural stead.
Gray could originally be defined as a Republican during the pre-Depression years at the start of Little Orphan Annie (most historians cite the name of his character “Daddy” Warbucks as a suggestion about where the character’s initial fortunes came from), but many argue that the views expressed by his characters in later years were libertarian in nature. Brown became politicized during the creation of Louis Riel, and has run as a candidate for the Libertarian Party of Canada in the riding of Trinity-Spadina since the 2008 federal election.
The spine of Brown’s Louis Riel rests on the side of democratic process, with the elected leadership of the largely mixed francophone/aboriginal Red River Settlement majority (Métis), battling against the tyranny of an oppressive English Canada asserting its agenda and the machinations of The Hudson’s Bay Company, hoping to profit from this transfer of power and land rights. Though Riel’s methods and actions may not always be viewed sympathetically, you can understand his motivations of fairness. Particularly as the elected leader of the provisional government, negotiating its place in the developing country of Canada – and as an member of Canadian Parliament, elected multiple times, but never having sat in the House of Commons for fear of arrest.
Canada’s first Prime Minister John A. Macdonald is not painted in a flattering light, and his decisions shown here have far reaching implications. A political creature, choosing the expediency of arms over the complications of keeping his promises to Riel and the provisional government of Manitoba; a far cry from the Father of Canadian Confederation we learned about in our history books. More devious still were his manipulations around the negotiations with the Métis in Saskatchewan to incite rebellion, and justify the mounting expenses in construction of the Canadian Pacific railroad across Canada, by sending in troops.
Whereas his sympathies undoubtedly lie with Riel and the Métis, in the story he’s chosen to tell, Brown has selected moments that highlight a certain degree of ironic, even dark, humour to Riel’s story. Reminding us that this book is designed to entertain as much as it is to inform. Far from being a comprehensive volume on the life of Riel, Brown’s selection of vignettes within the allotted pages is equally fascinating.
Brown’s exploration of Riel’s years following Red River, institutionalized and gripped by “Divine Madness” is not surprising to those familiar with his earlier autobiographical work. Where his mother’s schizophrenia was not overtly stated, but often a strong subtext in the depiction Brown’s developing years. These visions and religious fervour haunt Riel, and follow him through the Métis uprising in Saskatchewan, leading up to his surrender to the Canadian authorities, and to the end of his life. The closing chapter, leading us to the final moments of Riel’s execution, depicts the courtroom where the question of his sanity is laid before those who knew and encountered him.
In some parts of the chronology, the narrative jumps years at a time, quickly through different characters and settings between panels on the same page. However, when Brown chooses to slow down the pace, utilizing what has commonly become known as “decompressed storytelling”, the quiet results are compelling and moving. Individual “moments” paced out in panels of the same size, six to a page stretching across multiple pages. Similar to Watchmen, which functioned similarly using a nine panel per page grid structure. With no variation in size and placement of panels, the panels become a singular viewing portal… a “window” into the world of Louis Riel.
The final sequence in Part One of the story, depicting Louis Riel alone in Fort Garry, and then leaving the Red River Settlement, stretches across a luxurious four pages. Dwelling on mundane, yet affecting moments of Riel rising from bed and eating a solitary meal, before being warned of the English troops descending upon him. Unlike the end of a traditional American cowboy movie, in this Canadian “Western”, Riel does not head triumphantly into the horizon and the sunset, but towards the reader, who is looking down above him as he walks in the rain.
You can view these particular pages of original art for yourself, showcased in the salon’s alcove at the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 2014.
Honours bestowed on Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography include 2 Harvey Awards, and its placement as a semifinalist in CBC’s prestigious Canada Reads program. It was the first Canadian Graphic Novel to become a best-seller, and on its heels has spawned a renaissance in the genre of graphic novel/comic book biography and similar non fiction illustrated work.
During an earlier regeneration, the author of this article found himself living as an academic. He held three degrees from Queen’s University in Fine Art, Art History and Film Studies in a death-like vice grip, describing himself at the time as an Installation Artist, Pop Culture Junkie and Film Maker.
Sam Noir is currently a rabble rouser, and maker of comix and toys. He claims Toronto, Canada–the most culturally diverse city on the whole damn planet–as his home.
Quite some time ago, I made a preview post about a comic book that I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on: A Residential School Graphic Novel, by Jason Eaglespeaker out of Calgary, AB. A few weeks ago, the book arrived and I feel that the review is now long overdue.
You can tell that Eaglespeaker isn’t messing around: he has a vision and he means business. This project has the righteous and unwavering purpose of educating native and non-native alike on the raw and real history of the residential school system and its effect on the first peoples of this land.
In addition to loving comic books, I am also a lover of zines, political literature, scrapbooks—in general, I am fascinated by ideas and how people choose to convey them.
Eaglespeaker’s Residential School Graphic Novel is a mix of all four of the mediums that I mention. There are original comic narratives here, mostly told in the Black Foot language. There are scores of newspaper clippings, compiling news coverage from around Canada of residential school abuses, even murders, that have never been solved. Overarching this are quotes and core ideas about the residential school system that the author has selected to point out some fundamental truths: quotes like Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1920, who said:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.”
…and so, generations of children were torn away from their families. Their heads were shaved, their clothes were burned, their bodies were bruised until they stopped speaking their language. Generations of children never learned what it meant to be a parent, because they had none. Family units and knowledge of the importance of those roles within a community began to disintegrate.
The format reminds me a lot of a zine: different sections use different methods of conveying these ideas. The beginning has quotes and newspaper clippings; the next section is oriented to look like a newspaper, called ‘Residential School News’ (it looks like the cover of Weekly World News). In it, the author uses his natural talent with slogans and sound bites to talk about some of the many issues that can be addressed with regard to residential schools: the psychology of being born with this severe emotional and cultural baggage, the storm of emotion at knowing that this baggage is not his people’s fault—that it was imposed, through the school system, by law; likening the treatment of native children to the treatment of POW’s in war-time; searching for what remains of native culture; and finally, settlement. Resolution. Eaglespeaker points out that the last residential school closed in 1996. (That’s right 1-9-9-6, as in less than 20 years ago).
Towards the end of the book are several short comics. The first depicts a native mother having her child torn away from her. The text is in Blackfoot, which, as a non-speaker of the language, emphasizes the realness of the story. It also makes me feel like I don’t have control—I’m an outsider, a bit, I guess—as I’m reading it, and I can only imagine flipping that around and being in her position as she approaches the residential school, asking for her child, and everyone is talking in English. Or the next scene, where the children are in school, and a nun slams a little boy’s head on his desk for speaking in Blackfoot.
Monochrome colours in the residential school depict a drab existence, devoid of culture or anything from the children’s previous life (their clothes are thrown away, and their hair is chopped off.)
The following comic is about two children who attempt to escape from the residential school. They finally make it home to their family, but the strip ends with their parent explaining that they have to go back to the school (it was written into law at the time).
The final comic is of a reality that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a comic, ever. I will note that I ordered the “uncut” version of the book, and that there is a PG version available for schools and younger audiences.
It is (essentially) titled “Will the circle ever end?” and depicts a young native boy who is the victim of repeated sexual assault at the hands of a white man of his residential school. It is unclear exactly who this paedophile is, but he is depicted as some kind of priest or pastor. The panels themselves are crumpled, torn, burned in some sections, taped back together. It’s so terrible and intense. Finally it depicts the boy growing into a man, and he himself has now become a predator-within his family and community. He then is charged and sent to jail, where he again becomes a victim of the other inmates. The story ends with the man, now old and out of life, holding up a black and while photograph of himself as a child. Below the panel are the words, “…my life is unredeemed.”
The volume, as a whole, is a tour-de-force on the realities of this history. Residential Schools are a behemoth of an issue: so many ideas, concepts and debates stem from it—one of the reasons it’s such a crime to dismiss it, or downsize is as “a native thing”, ignoring the fact that it would not have even been a “native” issue if whites had not imposed it upon them for a century.
Eaglespeaker rightly sees it as a past, a history, from which stem many, many, many stories. In this book, you’re looking at the system from the past, the present, and the future looking back; you’re feeling the abuse as the native and reading the first-person quotes of government officials, seeing how they justified the atrocities. It is well-rounded and no-holds barred. I’m extremely grateful for its existence, and hope it reaches every school, every student, every corner in this country, and beyond. It’s about time this book has come into being.
For more on Eaglespeaker’s work, his full catalogue of published work can be found on The Connection.