Category Archives: Politics in Canada

My thoughts on various threads of Canadian politics, when I wish to comment on them.

Episode 3 of “Talk is Cheap”

Welcome to ‘Talk is Cheap’, our new newspaper-style comic covering the Canadian political scene – such as it is. Following in the tradition of Doonesbury, Bloom County and Weltschmerz, TiC aims to measure the space between rhetoric and reality with a mixture of surrealism, snark and snappy visuals.

Currently running in Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper, with art by Ad Astra Comix founder Nicole Burton and text by lead staff editor Hugh Goldring,

‘Talk is Cheap’ is available for syndication, so send us an e-mail for details if you’re interested!

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Next: Episode 4

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Episode 1 of “Talk is Cheap”

Welcome to ‘Talk is Cheap’, our new newspaper-style comic covering the Canadian political scene – such as it is. Following in the tradition of Doonesbury, Bloom County and Weltschmerz, TiC aims to measure the space between rhetoric and reality with a mixture of surrealism, snark and snappy visuals.

Currently running in Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper, with art by Ad Astra Comix founder Nicole Burton and text by lead staff editor Hugh Goldring,

‘Talk is Cheap’ is available for syndication, so send us an e-mail for details if you’re interested!

Episode 1 (Week of Sept 7)

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Next: Episode 2

Arctic Dreams and Nightmares: Into the Art of Alootook Ipellie

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

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

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

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

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

“I, Crucified” by Alootook Ipellie

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

“When God Sings the Blues” by Alootook Ipellie

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

“The Dogteam Family” by Alootook Ipellie

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

“After Brigitte Bardot” by Alootook Ipellie

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

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

“The Woman Who Married a Goose”

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

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

Exhibit of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel at Art Gallery of Ontario

Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog - http://artmatters.ca
Photo courtesy of the AGO Art Matters blog – http://artmatters.ca

By Sam Noir
December 18, 2013
Toronto

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Preview The Pages of 100 Year Rip-Off: One of Canada’s Very First Graphic Histories

Available here for the first time is a collection of pages from Ad Astra Comix’s upcoming re-release of the 100 Year Rip-Off. Originally printed in 1971 for the B.C. Centennial, Ad Astra, in cooperation with the artist Bob Altwein, are making the work available for a new generation. Enjoy!

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Sneak Peek at Additional Content for 100 Year Rip-Off

After confirming the project with the work’s artist, Bob Altwein, I am now set to begin reprinting 100 Year Rip-Off within the next two weeks!

An exciting add-on to this momentous occasion (my first experience with “printing”/”publishing”) is some supplementary information that I’m providing within this graphic history of British Columbia.

Click to enlargeRFP page 3 MAP_v2

 

Posted here is  an “Historic” Map of B.C. that I’ve drawn. It includes the territories of First Nations in the province; relief camps during the 1930’s, which were hotbeds of squalor and social unrest;  and finally, the locations of B.C.’s 15 WWII-era internment camps, where thousands of Canadian citizens and residents of Japanese descent were held against their will. It was the largest mass exodus in Canada’s history.

Needless to say, I was a bit surprised that even this basic information (the numbers and locations of these camps around B.C.) necessitated several hours at the Toronto Reference Library. You think everything is on the internet… until you want to investigate history in detail.

While the map is located on page 3 of this 30-page comic book, I have also added a glossary of names and terms to the back, for those outside of B.C. who may not immediately understand that B.C. Hydro is our public electricity company, or that the I.W.W. stands for Industrial Workers of the World.

I look forward to your feedback! If this is up your alley, then stay tuned – #100Year Rip-Off will be available for purchase as a 30-page comic book in July 2013!

Uncovering and Re-mastering “100 Year Rip Off: The Real History of British Columbia”

edited_cover_smallerSome time ago now, I was more deeply submerged in socialist literature than comic books. Luckily, when I received an old, shoddy copy of this tabloid-sized piece, I kept it.

Originally released in 1971 for the Centennial commemoration of B.C. joining Canada, a group called Young Socialist released this tabloid-sized comic history as a reading supplement. Despite a few out-of-date depictions (a short section on Chinese migration building the B.C. railways is crudely stereotyped), the work is stylistic and well-researched, in addition to lending insight into labour tensions (particularly the BC Fed vs. rank and file workers) in the province at that time.

I am now at the point where, as much as I want to review every new political comic release that is coming out, I too want to dig for those historic gems that were far more ahead of the times than they ever could have imagined. Who would have thought that in the last decade alone, the category of “educational comics” ranging from history and economics to science and the arts would be in a scramble for an exploding market? “Graphic histories” have popped up like weeds on every subject and personality; they are now the bread and butter of a middle school classroom.

My copy of 100 Year Rip Off is in good condition, but is the copy of a copy that wasn’t. I haven’t been able to find another copy online, and can only assume that other remaining copies in the country are most likely in personal collections. I have scanned it onto my computer and plan to spend the next few weeks re-mastering the images, to have it available as a downloadable .PDF file. It’s a wonderful piece of Canadian radical history, and I look forward to seeing it the way it was when it first came out.

“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.

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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.

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Interview from the makers of MAYDAY: A Graphic History

“The work we do defines how we live, and how we fit into society.” That’s the first sentence in MAYDAY:  A Graphic History, recently re-published by Between The Lines Press for the group known as the Graphic History Collective. To me, the depth in that simple statement speaks volumes. It’s on the first page of the book, but it’s probably my favourite panel.

MAYDAY is an entry-level look at labour history, and as such is more P.S.A than prose. I’m pleased to be able to share this interview with Sean and Robin of The GHC about this project. In it I feel they’ve offered some important insight on how politics and history can be simplified without being dumbed down… the trials of indie comic book publishing, and the ongoing importance of a political holiday that began with blood more than a century ago.

NMG) I like the way that Graphic History highlights the importance that Mayday has had for working people through the ages, and its transformation from a seasonal/cultural holiday to a socio-political holiday. From your research, when were the earliest expressions of Mayday in relation to labour contracts?

“May Day as a day of celebration for honouring the seasonal transition from Winter to Spring has roots in pre-capitalist traditions. May Pole dancing is perhaps the most familiar expression, but celebrations of this seasonal change also appear in many Indigenous cultures around this date, although “May” was not used to as a term to define time. However, as capitalism began to emerge as a mode of production, the first of May also became the day for renewing contracts in some areas. This possibly could be identified as the real emergence of a relationship between May Day and labour contracts, but the more recognized starting point for May Day as a day of worker resistance, renewal, and protest is generally talked about later, in relation to the fight for the 8-hour working day and the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Out of that grew the 1889 declaration for May 1st to be recognized as an international day for workers (Blogger’s note: This was made by the Second International, a pre-union federation of workers from some 20 countries). Since then, celebrations continue, in different forms and in different contexts, but consciously linked to identities as workers.” 

NMG) How long did this take, from beginning to end?

“The project happened in stages, sometimes with long lapses in time going by without too much progress. It was a side project for all of us, and we worked on it when we could. Research began in 2006, but things really started to come together in 2008-09. We self-published for May 1, 2009, did another print-run in 2010, and then worked with Between the Lines Press for the most recent release in 2012.”

NMG) How are you drawn to history, and what makes the graphic experience of history interesting to you? (This is sort of that essential “Why history? Why comics? Why politics?” type question.)

(Sean) “I have always followed and enjoyed comics; however, when I first read Maus: A Survivor’s Tale in the early 2000s I realized that the genre was capable of so much more. I started following the graphic novel phenomenon more closely and found that there were many politically minded projects out there (Persepolis and A People’s History of American Empire were two very influential ones.) For me, political graphic novels are appealing because they are visually appealing and yet are very accessible and quick to read. Not everyone can sit down on a rainy afternoon and finish Marx’s Capital, but they can get through May Day: A Graphic History of Protest and a few other novels and get that itch to do something personally about the injustice in the world.” 

(Robin) “The history I usually find most inspiring wasn’t part of what I learned when I was younger. Once I began to study history seriously–and moved to a larger area where there were bookstores and bigger libraries–I had the opportunity to more critically engage with ideas. I realized a lot of what I had thought true was actually limited in scope and that the stories were always much more complex.

“This myth-busting component of history really appeals to me, and carries over into my interest in politics. The two are very much linked, and the past is frequently referenced to make political points in the present. History is used as a means to define or shape identity, which in turn influences decision-making processes in many ways.

“All of the Collective members engage in our own separate projects that explore history, politics, and education, and enjoy experimenting with new ways to translate big ideas into smaller chunks of information. Reading detailed, in-depth studies and essays do serve a purpose. Songs, posters, poetry, plays, films, and of course, comics, also serve a purpose and can be used to share information and spark interest in a topic. Comics are also great because of the flexibility and wide range of options that are available for the visual side. I love comics that layer narratives through the text and visuals, particularly when there are story details hidden in the images. These hidden gems compel me to read and re-read comics, historically-focused or otherwise.”

NMG) The larger audience outside of comix culture has been pretty slow in realizing that comics aren’t “just for kids”. Most comics written and published today are for the 20 – 35yr old crowd. Who is MAYDAY’s intended audience? Were you picturing a particular readership when you were writing/drawing?

“Over the past few years an increasing number of scholars, librarians, educators, and youth have started to make the case that comics can be used as teaching tools, and this idea is something that speaks to all of us. We wrote and illustrated the comic influenced and inspired by the growing numbers of really great comics out there. In our own project, we are hoping to appeal to a number of different communities. The comic will likely appeal more to those who know little about the history of this day; it is more of a general overview than a deeply detailed analysis.”

NMG) How did you create this comic as a collective? What was the division of labour? Did one person research while another wrote – or did everyone research? How did the writers contribute to the graphics? etc….

“Creating the graphic history unfolded in many stages and the boundaries of labour were fairly blurry. Robin, Mark, and another researcher, Jeremey Milloy, originally spearheaded the research and drafting. Robin continued on with the drafting of scripts and coordination and then Sean came on to help with writing and editing. From there the three of us, with Sam and Trevor’s suggestions and guidance, wrote and finalized the “script.” At different times, we each took on some of the other work–tracking down graphic designers, making choices about printing and costs, coordinating our launch party, for example–depending on our paid work load and familiarity with the task at hand. We’ve all learned a bit more about that “behind the scenes” work and it has been useful elsewhere in our lives.”

NMG) I’ve recently seen postings by the Collective to collaborate with readers and followers on other historical events. Can you say a little about the ideas and aspirations of any future projects right now?

“We are currently embarking on a new project with Professor Paul Buhle, who has an impressive level of involvement in documenting political graphic histories. Our intention is to create a new “Graphic History Project” which would bring together all those people interested in radical graphic histories and help promote them and the medium at the same time. We are still calling for submissions to the project and the deadline is 21 November 2012.”

“Full details as well as an example of what we are looking for is up on our website.”

For more information about MAYDAY: A Graphic History, the GH Collective, or their call-out, please visit their blog:

graphichistorycollective.wordpress.com/

(And one final Blogger’s Note: There is, in fact, a comic book version of Marx’s Capital that I’ve yet to read–but if you’re interested, you can find more information about it here. I hope there are speed lines used to depict workers’ alienation towards capitalist production, in true Manga fashion…)