Category Archives: Political Comics

Section of my blog devoted to analysis and review of political comics: their origins, significance, and impact as both literary and political tools.

Political Comics at #TCAF 2013

It’s safe to say that this past week was one of the busiest for me in recent memory. On top of working a 40 hour week at my day job (in 4 days), the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was in full swing and I was pulling together what I’d hope would be two kick-ass events for the weekend.phone photos 058
TCAF breaks records every year–has since I’ve been attending at least. If this year didn’t reach fire-code-breaking capacity at the Toronto Reference Library (in addition to several off-site satellite locations), and to be sure, they’re still still waiting on the official numbers, then it was awfully close. More notably there was an insane amount of talent at the show: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of RAW Magazine / MAUS / New Yorker fame. Jaime + Gilbert Hernandez, Tagame, Matsumoto, Chester Brown, Seth, David B… the list goes on.
Unlike my previous years at the festival, I saw a notable rise in interest (as well as work available) pertaining to political comic books. This is despite the skiddishness that remains around the term “political”. But whatever people want to call it, I found much more to chew on over the weekend than in years past.
Before I go into some books, a note on Comics Journalism.
If there’s one way to get people to talk comfortably about political comics and their viability, it’s Comics Journalism. I think it’s seen as a happy medium for a lot of  different interest groups, whether it’s non-comic folk looking for some different non-fiction, or comic fans looking for a different type of page to turn. In turn, the sub genre doesn’t effect the topic. Joe Sacco really birthed the term, from his thumb-to-index-finger loins, with work like Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, using comics to take on some pretty acceptable topics of intrigue in the journalism community… but since, really, you could do a comics journalism piece on just about anything and it would have the potential to be amazing. I look forward to seeing more and more come to maturity in this genre over the coming years.
…And secondly, a brief note about Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. I did not include MAUS in this list, because 1) I think it’s deserving of a little more commentary than one paragraph, for all it has done to influence the world of political comics… and comics in general. 2) It was put out 20 years ago. I feel like it’s a bit silly to put it among a list of up-and-comers with newly released works. (In other words, there will be more on MAUS as a specific work to come soon on Ad Astra!)
OK. To the books.

mattbors_lifebeginsatincorporation
LIFE BEGINS AT INCORPORATION by Matt Bors – I’ve never considered myself a fan of editorial cartoons, so when I decided to back Matt’s Kickstarter campaign, that really just meant that I liked his work more than I cared to admit. After a bit of discussion and a lot of planning on both ends, Matt was able to make it up to Toronto to promote his book at TCAF, in the midst of some type of Eastern-Time-Zone-only book tour.
The book is a collection of political cartoons and essays spanning years of wonderful American political drama- from the gay marriage debate that is still somehow being discussed, to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the reality that war-time simply seems to be the perpetual reality for Americans, post-9/11. I have plenty to say about this book and have already uttered plenty of niceties here. My recommendation over reading my book-length review is just to buy the book. It’s better.
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)

I will add, however, that Matt gave a great presentation to an engaged crowd at the Comic Book Lounge on May 10, the night before TCAF–despite monsoon thunderstorms and a competing 10th Anniversary TCAF party down the road (we had this shit scheduled MONTHS ago. We’re not the splinter group. THEY’RE the splinter group!). Attendees included at least one other fellow Kickstarter backer, which was great to see.
On Saturday evening, Matt and I shared a table with comic creators Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan to discuss “Comics & Politics” at TCAF to a great crowd who asked lots of questions–from comics journalism to comics activism, free speech and “to draw or not to draw” (discussing the Mohammed cartoon), stereotypes, backlash for work done… it was great. And what’s more, it shows a genuine interest in political comics from a variety of entry points.
sarahglidden_howtounderstandisrael

HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS by Sarah Glidden – Right in there on the topic of Comics Journalism. Sarah Glidden went to Israel on a Birthright trip and came out of it with How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Not only is it a journalistic piece about the country, it is journalism of herself experiencing it. The artwork is very much a European comic book style, with simple, expressive line work and really nice coloring (these are pretty much the first two things I think about when someone says European Comics). It’s packed with a thousand little stories that maybe tell us more about an American’s viewpoint on Israel than Israel itself, in all its historical and political turmoil. But I like the frankness that Glidden gave when describing the outcome of the book while at the TCAF panel (at the risk of seeming “wishy-washy”), when she said that this place became real when she traveled there, and the people in it became human beings. While I may not agree with Sarah on her political conclusions (and I’ve yet to see, as I’ve yet to finish the book!), it hardly seems relevant when we’re talking about a work of art that is depicting a personal experience.joshneufeld_ADNewOrleans

A.D. NEW ORLEANS by Josh Neufeld – This book has been on my list to pick up for some time, and it was a pleasure to share a stage with Josh and talk to him about this project. I’ve yet to fully pinpoint my thoughts on this, but there is something to be said about  a writer’s perception of an experience, and a visualist’s perception of the same thing. Neufeld seems to pick up on details of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that go missing in other accounts–and it’s not just a matter of mainstream vs. independent media. The wreckage, the crowds, the sweat, the loss of cherished items… all pulls at you differently when you are immediately able to absorb the information through a drawn depiction, without the filter or process of language. I particularly like the variety of people interviewed and their respective color palettes in the book’s pages. This will be a great one to finally read cover to cover.

I also got two other books that were illustrated by Josh Neufeld – The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and Stowaway, written by Tori Marlan. Both works of comic journalism, although entirely different.


davidB_bestofenemiesBEST OF ENEMIES by Jean-Pierre Filiu et David – When I first eyed this book at TCAF last year, I’d already spent all my money. Good thing I have a better job this year. Best of Enemies explores the long and complex history of U.S.-Middle East relations. It is part 1 of 3: 1783-1953, and so incredibly fascinating. David B.’s illustrations are absolutely addictive; despite history typically being considered a dry subject matter, he ads enough art and style to the panels to keep even the subject’s most un-enthused reading on. In my limited French comprehension, David had to tell me in English that he and Jean-Pierre, an historian and former diplomat, are busy working on the next book, despite their own crazy schedules traveling around the world. I look forward to reading this one, as well as the coming two.


vendittihuddleston_homelanddirectiveTHE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston – One of the few works of fiction that I picked up over the weekend, this self-described ‘political thriller’ is available through Top Shelf Productions, one of my favorite publishers. I always worry about books that look like this one… I don’t want to read a comic book version of the Bourne Identity, although the plot to this one sounds a bit more like the BBC TV show, Utopia. What pushed me over the fence with this one was the attention to detail that I can see–the stylistic and color scheme differences in the artwork as the pages change scenes, the elaborate plot that all ties together at the end (according to the dude from Top Shelf…. who I believe, cause they’re usually believable). Great cover art, too. I will get to this one, albeit a little later than some of the others. Suspicion ensues….


harveypekar_clevelandHARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND with art by Joseph Remnant – In hindsight I’m trying to remember the reason I purchased this comic. It may have been the incredibly detailed pen and ink cross-hatch artwork, or the wonderfully vivid content of working class history in the Midwest, or the introduction by Alan Moore. All are good takers; combined, they won me over. It looks like a great read that most people would greatly under estimate.


7SbooksSEVEN STORIES PRESS at TCAF
Was so psyched to see Seven Stories Press –traditionally not a comics publisher–at TCAF this year. What a great addition to the exhibitors list. Tons of historical and political comics to choose from. I would place them as pretty much the only contenders to have stocked radical comics at the festival. Kudos to them coming and to TCAF for welcoming change and getting them on-board!

THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN FALL by Stephanie McMillan – Yet another work of comics journalism, documenting the nature and relevance of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. This book was the 2012 winner of the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights Journalism Award – not an award that I’m familiar with, but impressive nonetheless for a type of journalism not yet fully grasped. I am particularly interested in this because it is a political comic that isn’t afraid to take a side- it clearly sees its prerogative as educating a broader audience about the Occupy Movement and inciting a greater level of political participation in the world around us. Can’t wait to read.

AS THE WORLD BURNS by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan – Also at the Seven Stories Press table was this title, also one that I’d never heard of. This book teams McMillan up with notorious deep ecology activist Derrick Jensen to make satirical play on the impending environmental and ecological crises of out time. While it is fictional (perhaps allegorical?) it is undeniably meant to shock people at just how close we’re getting to a great collapse. Looking forward to the read.

PARECOMIC by Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson – Also by Seven Stories Press, about Michael Albert and his development of Participatory Economics. I will probably pair this one up with another comic I plan to review about capitalist economics and see how many of you are still awake at the end. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. See, now you have to buy it.

canadian books

CANADIAN POLITICAL COMICS at TCAF

If political comics can be construed as typical, then it is assumed that the great bulk of them at the festival would be from the U.S. Despite TCAF being a Canadian event, there’s just more of everything coming from the U.S. in comics. But to my delight I was able to find some great work available through Conundrum Press, a publisher based out of Nova Scotia.

THE HERO BOOK by Scott Waters – Not so much a graphic novel or comic as an illustrated memoir (it says that right on the cover), The Hero Book is an artistic yet journalistic look at the culture and psychology of Canadian soldiers. At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the ABSOLUTELY JAW-DROPPING artwork to read any more than a couple of sentences. Holy shit, this book is beautiful. And from what I can tell, the content is right up my alley. Looking forward to the read.

CHIMO by David Collier – While dealing with the topic of Canadian soldiers like the work above, Chimo appears to be much more comic book-y. As a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (seriously, I was surprised as well to hear that such a thing existed), Collier actually went through basic training to be able to write this book. As far as I know, he was in his early 40’s at the time. Impressive, David! It makes drawing out 100 pages sound pretty damn easy!

PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS by Michel Rabagliati – This book fascinates me. The folks at Conundrum described it to me as something from their ‘Young Adult’ section, but pointed out that it covers a lot of the FLQ crisis in Quebec during the 1970s. What an interesting combination! I love the idea of mixing political and non-political plot lines (isn’t that more like real life?). Paul is the author’s semi-autobiographical character, so it would appear that the work draws from a lot of first-hand experience. Looks like a great piece – can’t wait to pick it up.

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Incredible Talent to Discuss Political Comics at #TCAF 2013

Hey Y’all – It’s official. I will be moderating a panel of incredible artists on at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) – this next weekend. The panel is a presentation and discussion on Political Comics, and features Matt Bors, Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan. Here are the deets:

Political Comics Panel
Saturday, May 11
at the Marriott Hotel
90 Bloor St. East
(Around the corner from the Toronto Reference Library)
5pm – 6pm

Let’s Meet the Panelists!

profile picMATT BORS  is a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist and editor based in Portland, OR. He was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for his political cartoons, which appear regularly in The Sacramento Bee, Portland Mercury, Pittsburgh City Paper, and on Daily Kos.

In the summer of 2010, Bors traveled to Afghanistan to draw comics and serves as the comics journalism editor for Cartoon Movement where he is currently editing a project on reconstruction efforts in Haiti.

In 2012, Bors was the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for his editorial cartooning. His first graphic novel, War Is Boring, a collaboration with journalist David Axe, was published in 2010. His latest book is a collection of cartoons and essays title Life Begins At Incorporation.

glidden sample

SARAH GLIDDEN’s first full-length book, a graphic-memoir was How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, based on a Birthright trip she took and was published in 2010 by DC Vertigo.

She is currently working on her second book, a work of graphic journalism following reporters into Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Syria. Her short pieces of graphic journalism have been published on Cartoon Movement, Ha’aretz, and the Jewish Quarterly. You can find more of her work at sarahglidden.com.

new orleans

JOSH NEUFELD is a comics journalist known for his graphic narratives of political and social upheaval, told through the voices of witnesses. He is the writer/artist of the best-selling non-fiction graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon). In addition, he is the illustrator of the best-selling graphic non-fiction book The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media (W.W. Norton). He is currently a 2013 Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan. Neufeld is a Xeric Award winner, and his work has been nominated for a number of other awards, including the Eisner and the Harvey. Usually based in Brooklyn, N.Y., he currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and daughter.

portrait_modanRUTU MODAN was born in Tel-Aviv in 1966 and is now one of Israel’s best known cartoonists. She graduated from art school in 1992 and quickly established herself drawing strips for Israeli daily newspapers. In 1994 she was offered to job of editing an Israeli edition of MAD magazine with her classmate, Yirmi Pinkus, featuring reprints of US material supplemented with local originated material. The magazine shut down after 14 issues, but undeterred, Rutu and Yirmi founded Actus Tragicus in 1995, an internationally acclaimed collective and independent publishing house for alternative comic artists, including Batia Kolton, Mira Friedmann and Itzik Rennert. Rutu has worked as an illustrator for magazines and books in Israel and abroad, and has taught comics courses in Israel. She currently lives in Sheffield, England.

Modan’s newest work, The Property, is debuting from Drawn & Quarterly at TCAF this year.

For more information about TCAF 2013 – including a full list of all the kick-ass artists coming to town – head on over to http://www.TorontoComics.com

See you this weekend!

Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History

ediblesecrets_coverTitle: Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History
Authors: Michael Hoerger and Mia Partlow
Illustrations: Nate Powell
Published: 2010 by Microcosm Publishing

As pointed out in its introduction, food is as good a filter as any for relating to government secrecy: both are ever-present realities of life that we swallow without much further thought. This book is a creative one, in that it ties a lot of things together. It’s a history book, a comic, a zine, …and a reproduction of declassified government documents.   All relating to food, either as a code word or as a coincidental element in major geo-political events (Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton was framed for robbing an ice cream truck at age 19; U.S. officials tried to assassinate Fidel Castro by spiking his milkshake with poison).

It’s a quirky take on a lot of different things that I enjoy reading about: history, secrecy, art, and food. I think it may take a special interest in the subject matter for the reader to really get down with this book, in my opinion—but I freakin’ love it. Nate Powell’s illustrations are the icing on the cake here: the first chapter’s title page shows Fred Hampton, dressed as Robin Hood, passing out ice cream to the neighborhood children. He hands a small boy a popsicle in the shape of a Black Power fist. Seriously, it doesn’t get any better than this. Original, political, historical, shocking, artistic: awesome.

fred hampton

 

First Order of Books In!

April 24 – Well, I didn’t foil a terrorist plot to derail a train in Ontario today — nor did I sternly warn North Korea to cease its reckless behavior. The big news in my world is that my very first shipment of political comic books came in the mail today.

new arrivals

Beginning in May, I will be tabling at a variety of cultural and political events to talk and sell political comics in Toronto. Why have I decided to launch as a distro? There are a couple of reasons… I love recommending books to folks, and I like being able to provide a way for me to pass on what I’ve read to others (the distro will include both new and used stuff), I think political comics are like most specialty comics: you can find a few at any given comic shop, but almost never a full and decent selection–I want to do this. And now for my favorite reason: activists, history buffs, and political junkies don’t go to comic shops. Comic book people go to comic shops. I want to bring political comics to folks who don’t think there’s anything for them in the medium.

If you’re in the Toronto area and have an event that you believe could benefit from such fine graphic literature, please drop me a line–thanks!

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story

Dark Rain_DJ_D.inddTitle: Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story
Author: Mat Johnson
Illustration: Simon Gane
Published:  2010 by Vertigo Comics

Dark Rain is a fictional heist story set against the backdrop of an historical moment in both time and space—a flooded New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When Katrina hit, I personally thought it was an event of such a magnitude that it would find its way into more comics. After all, it’s a medium that has a long reputation for wrapping current events and recent history into its story lines. What I find interesting about Dark Rain, though, is that it is more true than most readers realize while they’re reading it.

There are two fundamental elements taking place here. The first is that there is a fictional narrative of Dabny and Emmit, two ex-cons who, despite a recent history of bad luck, now see a golden opportunity to rob a flooded bank. This comes into conflict in two ways. They are physically confronted with the reality that Dark Rain, a private security contractor (read: mercenaries) have been deployed to protect the bank, and their twisted Colonel has a similar heist plot in mind.  They are also socially and morally confronted with the reality that the people around them, their neighbors and fellow community members, desperately need their help.

DRGNK.HC #1.final.qxpThe second over-arching element is a political and social commentary of how Hurricane Katrina was handled: how the event intervened in millions of lives, and subsequently, how opportunists intervened in the disaster for financial gain—a reality that has been under-reported, largely because it was in the aftermath of the disaster, after camera crews and reporters packed up and went back to their regularly-scheduled programs.

Seriously, I have yet to find a review of Dark Rain that points out what, to me, was so obvious it made me buy the book—the fact that the name Dark Rain is an allusion to Black Water, the largest private military contractor in the U.S. at the time. They have since changed their company name to Academi, in the face of horrifying investigations into their practices both in the U.S. and particularly Iraq (as of right now, in 2012, there are more private military contractors in Iraq than there were U.S. soldiers, ever. A reminder that the Iraq War is still going on—it has just been privatized.) For more information about this, I highly recommend picking up Jeremy Scahill’s book Blackwater: the Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

Now I don’t know if Mat Johnson had this in mind, but I find it incredibly difficult to believe otherwise. Blackwater was deployed to New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, to protect “valuable assets” in the city. There is a great video of Scahill talking about witnessing this first-hand while he was covering Katrina as a reporter for Democracy Now!. After hearing that testimony from an award-winning investigative journalist, I also find the storyline of a heist to be ironic—if not, also, subtly alluding to Blackwater’s activities. Scahill points out in the talk that the company was hired by the Department of Homeland Security to deploy to New Orleans, at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $950 per man, per day. If that’s not a heist, I don’t know what is.

Blackwater (Academi) military contractors deployed in New Orleans, 2005
Blackwater (Academi) military contractors deployed in New Orleans, 2005

I’d like to think that was all part of Mat Johnson and Simon Gane’s plan… but I’m still having a hard time tacking that hypothesis down as proven–seriously, no one has written about this?! Still, it gives me pause to think about some of the critical reviews I’ve read of this work. The common criticism of Dark Rain is that the personal story doesn’t mesh with the social/political commentary. Maybe those reviewers, in reality, are complaining of all that space those written words. As the cold hearted Colonel would say….

 

read between the lines

The Silence of Our Friends (2012)

coverTitle: The Silence of Our Friends
Authors: Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Published: 2012 by First Second Books

L.P. Hartley said, as noted in the book, “The past is a foreign country. They do things different there.”

Taking place in Houston, Texas, in 1968, The Silence of Our Friends is a brief memoir of Mark Long’s childhood against the backdrop of his town’s peaked racial tension. The title comes from that famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Long was raised in a white, Liberal, Christian middle-class family—as American as apple pie, it seems. They find themselves in Houston when Mark’s father, Jack, moves the family to take a job as a TV camera man and the TV station’s “race reporter”. Through his job, Jack befriends a local Civil Rights leader, Larry, a teacher who has rallied students at a segregated university in the 3rd Ward—Houston’s impoverished African American community. The school’s administration banned the right of SNCC to organize (The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—a nationwide student group elemental in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement on post-secondary campuses). For more information about this history, I recommend reading a [White-written] news article from the time period, complete with all its presuppositions and bias. This 1967 piece from Harvard Crimson paints a pretty good picture, in addition to providing background on this chapter in Houston’s history.

Despite significant tensions, Jack and Larry’s families attempt to forge a bond in a time and place when it was considered against the rules for African Americans to be in a “white” neighbourhood  even at the invitation of community members, and the Ku Klux Klan openly passed out flyers for their monthly meetings.

soof_artworkThe story is told masterfully against many different backdrops that reflect the memory’s time and place: images of the Vietnam War constantly on TV, rodeos and ‘crabbing’ as weekend past-times. The writing displays an intimate recollection of the events of this time and place—subtleties that pop for modern readers, because so much seems to have changed. A little boy pretending that he’s a soldier in Vietnam; a mother politely arguing with a next-door neighbor about how the war is wrong; a Black man quietly observing that he hasn’t spoken to a white person for any length of time since he was in the Army. One of my favorite scenes is when the children of Jack and Larry’s families are getting to know each other. They spend a good minute just looking at each other. Then they take the time to feel each other’s skin and hair—to investigate difference innocently, without the obstruction of judgement or power dynamics. This is captured most beautifully by Mark’s younger sister, who is blind.

Nate Powell’s artwork equals the story in quality and care. I’ve been a fan on Nate’s work for so long that it’s sometimes impossible for me to appreciate the specific things he does to make a particular work stand out for what it is. The flow of panels here is so well mastered—using song lyrics of contemporary hits (like Sam Cooke’s  “A Change Gonna Come”) to guide us from one scene to another. His artwork is never static—each page is presented with an amazing overall aesthetic. Backgrounds jump from open and white to closed in and dark; the realism of a car driving down a street will be spotted with emotive/expressionistic shapes from the headlights. When I look at his work, I feel like I could be in a dream, where reality unhinging is a slight and beautiful thing. (I also can’t but notice that the subtitle of the work is “The Civil Rights Struggle was Never Black and White”–and Nate, who often works only in B&W, has used a lot of grey tones here.)

There is no other comic book that really compares to this work—it is unique and educational as much as it is personal and moving. However it seems to be opening the doors for more work of a common history—Powell has done artwork for another comic documenting Civil Rights history, March (Book One) written by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin. I look forward to adding this work, alongside The Silence of Our Friends, to my bookshelf.

soof_artwork2

A Piece of Thatcher Comic History!

 

 

Well, I’ve barely begun my search and look at this comic rendition of Margaret Thatcher. The artist is sophisticated, from my point of view: he/she artfully portrays Thatcher in a position of victory with her arms raised, as this narrator, whose ideas are at odds with conservatism, has his own arms lowered in his captive defeat.

Anyone know where this is from?

tribute to margeret thatcher

“A Residential School Graphic Novel” by Jason Eaglespeaker

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.

residential graphic novelTitle: UNeducation Volume 1: A Residential School Graphic Novel
Author/Illustrator: Jason Eaglespeaker (with dozens of community names listed under “contributors”)
Published: 2011 by Jason EagleSpeaker via “The Connection” in Calgary, AB – with support from Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Canada Council of the Arts

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.

1996The 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.

unredeemedIt 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.

history is brutal

“The Death of Elijah Lovejoy” Depicts Final Moments of Abolitionist’s Life

1_cover_flatTitle: The Death of Elijah Lovejoy
Author: Noah Van Sciver
Published: 2011, 2D Cloud Micropublisher
Got My Copy: At TCAF 2012, but you can order a copy through their website: www.2dcloud.com or by contacting the author at http://nvanscriver.wordpress.com

(Noah Van Scriver puts out some regular strips through his blog. I picked up this piece from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last year.)

As I wind down from my trip visiting my Mom and Grandma in Lawrence KS, I felt it poignant to review a comic that takes us back to that notable time of Midwestern history when neighbours, friends and family alike were literally at each other’s throats over the question of slavery.

The Death of Elijah Lovejoy is about the untimely demise of one of the country’s many little-known abolitionists. Elijah Lovejoy was a church leader, writer, editor, publisher, and staunch abolitionist. The man had a life that was defined by two fundamental struggles in American history: the struggle against slavery and racism, and the freedom of the press. A monument of Elijah is dedicated to these fights in Alton Illinois, where the man took his final breaths. Earlier in his years, Elijah had caused great controversy when he protested the killing of escaped slave Francis L. McIntosh, who was chained to a tree and burned alive in Elijah’s town at the time of St. Louis, MS.  His stance on the McIntosh murder, and his persistence in printing anti-slavery literature, would follow him to his grave.

I’m not too worried about sounding the spoiler alert with this review: the title gives away the cold reality that Elijah dies. The comic is a play-out of that final evening, when a mob of angry villagers has Elijah and his colleagues surrounded at the location of his printing press. (This was his 4th printing press—the previous three had been seized and destroyed by mobs.)

panelsVan Sciver uses his simple, black-and-white illustrations to depict Lovejoy and his colleagues as they defense Elijah’s fourth (and final) printing press in Alton. The text, particularly the conversations, are hypothetical, but probably not far from what was said that night. The panels plainly show the unwavering sense of righteousness that was felt on both sides of the slavery issue, in which men would level buildings, hunt each other down, and burn people alive to make a point.

For more information on the comic, check out the links above. For more info on Elijah Lovejoy, the internet reveals that his story is not altogether forgotten. Here are a few links.

Wikipedia Entry on Lovejoy:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elijah_Lovejoy

Lovejoy’s Biography on Spartacus Educational:
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASlovejoy.htm

slavery mob burning
Early depiction of Elijah and his colleagues being surrounded by a pro-slavery mob and burned out of the building that housed his printing press.

Supreme Court Ruling Raises Relevance for Reading Chester Brown’s LOUIS RIEL

panelsSome of you may have heard of the historic Canadian Supreme Court ruling this week – which spelled victory for a struggle as old as Canada itself.

In a ruling closely followed by Canada’s Metis community, the Supreme Court determined this last week that Ottawa has not lived up to their end of the bargain made through the Manitoba Act of 1870. This was the agreement that quelled the uprising of the Red River Metis community, made Manitoba a part of Canada, and in turn said that the federal government would set aside land for the children of Red River.

Section 31 of the Act, the court ruled, was to “give the Métis a head start in the race for land and a place in the new province. This required that the grants be made while a head start was still possible.”

Many Canadian readers know where I’m going with this, let alone fans of graphic novels, because it is still one of the most acclaimed graphic histories and graphic biographies to date. I’m referring, of course, to the man who led the negotiations: a Metis man by the name of Louis Riel.

coverLouis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography
Author & Illustrator: Chester Brown
Published: 2006 by Fantagraphics

simple styleChester Brown released Louis Riel to almost immediate critical acclaim. Here was both a piece of Canadian history brought to life, and a genuine masterpiece of stylized art. When I first picked up the book, I disliked the art style despite respecting its quality and consistency throughout the book. I’ve just never been into minimalist drawings… not until recent re-thinking, anyway. But a friend of mine brought up a good point the other day: Chester Brown literally had all of 3, maybe 4 pictures of the man with which to draw an entire book about him. Sound difficult? I think it was… and I’m not sure if the minimalism was the result of solving that problem, but it does in a way that doesn’t seem like defensive measure.

The work of biography is just as artful as the illustration. Here is a sequential portrait not of a one-dimensional populist leader, but a man with conflicts–material and mental–who became larger than life. The book displays his natural inclinations as a leader with as little judgement as his delusions that he was a messenger of God. The best biographies are arguably those where you are certain of the author’s admiration for their subject–but you’re not quite sure what it is they find the most fascinating.

Despite minimalism, there are also wonderful details, like puffs of air in pictures where there is snow on the ground, and brackets around text when depicting that the language spoken is other than English.

I think I’m a little late in convincing many Canadian readers that this is a book worth owning- what I would recommend
is for readers outside of Canada to pick up this title- Chester Brown is a wonderful artist and writer, and in the process they can learn a little about Canadian history and one of its distinct cultural groups.

web riel