Category Archives: Reviews

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:  PETER KUPER TAKES ON JOSEPH CONRAD’S HEART OF DARKNESS

by Seth Tobocman | October 31, 2019

Peter Kuper is a first rate comic book artist and a master stylist who has, over the years, adapted many classic works of literature to graphic format, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and numerous works by Franz Kafka. But adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness may prove to be his most difficult assignment.

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Title
: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Words by: Joseph Conrad and Peter Kuper
Art by: Peter Kuper
Foreword by: Maya Jasanoff
Published by: W. W. Norton & Company (1st edition)
Pages: 160
Additional Specs: Hardcover, 6.5″ x 9.4″, $21.95 USD

 

When I was in grade school there was a big controversy over Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Parents wanted it removed from the curriculum because they felt it would encourage racist attitudes. The author would have certainly turned over in his grave. Twain was an abolitionist and most of the book concerns the attempt of a character called “N***** Jim” to escape slavery. And there’s the rub, of course.cut 2 The n-word is all over that book. And just preventing kids from picking up the habit of using that word is good enough reason to keep them from reading it until they are old enough to understand the historical context. The good intentions of the author aren’t enough to transcend the prejudices of his era. The same could be said about many other books of the past, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery melodrama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And I’m afraid Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness falls easily into this category.

The Heart Of Darkness tells of a journey up an unnamed stretch of African river, but it is obvious, both from details of the story and from details of Conrad’s own, 6 month service in Africa, that this story takes place in ‘The Belgian Congo’. A colony in which local people were being forced to harvest ivory, and later rubber, at gunpoint.

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By the time that Conrad was writing this novel, slavery had been abolished in the United States and Europe. There was a broad European consensus that slavery was wrong. What will seem odd to us, however, is that Europeans, of that time, did not see any connection between slavery and racist ideology. Nor any connection. between slavery and colonialism. While European governments knew exactly what they were doing, they had sold the public a fairy tale, that in conquering Africa and South America, the white man was on a civilizing mission. Bringing the ‘savages’ railroads, modern medicine and Christian morality. In fact, people were told that colonial forces were protecting Africans from ‘the Arab slave trade’. So what is revealed in The Heart Of Darkness must have been quite shocking to that public.

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Conrad clearly intended the book to be an attack on European colonialism. He starts out by comparing the conquest of Africa to the Roman invasion of Briton, a reference which surely hit home with an English audience schooled in ancient history. He portrays the colonial administration as driven by greed, incompetent, cruel and cowardly. The author accurately describes how Africans were being worked to death in chains by their colonial masters. His wild depictions of colonial agents living like kings, displaying the shrunken heads of their enemies and taking black women as concubines are all factually based. In showing the high mortality rate of Europeans due to disease, he is no less truthful. He makes Africa sound like a horrible place that no sane European would want to go to.

Conrad details numerous atrocities committed against the Africans. But it is in his description of those Africans that the author’s prejudices become apparent. To start with, that ‘n-word’ is on every fifth page. But it gets worse. While he is quite frank about the fact that Africans are being enslaved beaten, starved and shot, he can’t seem to produce an African character who is a fully formed human being. To Conrad, Africans are monstrous and weird. ‘Savages’, with all the supernatural qualities that word ‘savage’ held for the Europeans of his generation. When he occasionally shows us an African who is using any type of machinery, he always points out the incompetence of that individual, as though there are certain tasks only white people were born to perform. There is just no way around it! This is a racist book.

So there is a lot of work to do before this story can be read by a contemporary audience. And Peter, always a hard worker, does it. The n-word is no where in this book. Most of the descriptions of Africans beguiled and confused by technology are also left out. And Peter draws the black characters beautifully and carefully. A great student of the history of cartooning, Kuper takes pains to avoid the type of racial caricature frequent in all but the most recent comic books.

African authors have criticized Conrad for comparing their continent to a blank space on the map, dark, mysterious, uncivilized and empty. A wild place waiting to be tamed. They remind us that Africa was home to a complex society before the colonial invasion. There are many places in the book where the settlers are firing at an unseen enemy. Shooting into the mist or into dense jungle. The comic artist tries to remedy this by re-staging these scenes so that we can see what the white characters cannot see. The people running from their bullets.

Kuper, who has travelled in Africa extensively, draws the African landscape beautifully. Combining a knowledge of specific detail with an eye for economy that he has picked up as an illustrator. There are panels of this book that I could stare at for hours.

But with all this good work, and with Conrad’s racist superstructure remodeled, Kuper cannot escape the underlying architecture of the book, its plot.

Marlow, Conrads’ protagonist, is sent upriver, on a mission to bring back Kurtz, a charismatic colonial agent, who has ‘gone native’ and begun to use ‘unorthodox methods’ such as murder, and collecting shrunken heads, to extract ivory from the local population. While the colonial administration appreciates the ivory, they don’t approve of what Kurtz does to get it. Although it is often implied that their real motive for taking out Kurtz may simply be jealousy of his success. Marlow is horrified by Kurtz’ brutality toward the Africans, but he none the less admires the man, and promises not to damage his reputation. When Marlow returns to England, he cannot bear to tell Kurtz’ fiancé what her beloved was engaged in.

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While it’s a good yarn, the message of this narrative is politically problematic. It gives us the impression that the abuses of colonial rule were the result of individual men, driven mad by the difficulties of living in the bush, taking the matters into their own hands. And so European governments, and white society, remain innocent. We know that the opposite is the case. The Belgian government provided colonial agents with printed manuals, explaining how to force Africans to work for them, by taking their wives as hostages.

In his defense, Conrad may not have known this. Or he may have known, but correctly calculated, that his readers would not have believed such a thing.

This contradictory narrative, that describes the horror while exonerating the people most responsible for it, is precisely why The Heart Of Darkness was the perfect template for the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now. Because this was exactly what we wanted to believe about Viet Nam. That the soldiers who massacred villagers at Mi Lai were good boys, driven crazy by war, and not cold blooded killers enacting a policy designed in Washington.

The story creates an impossible conundrum for Kuper. If he were to change the plot line of the book, then it would not be the same book at all. It would be a new novel and not an adaptation. Kuper stays on-mission, and maintains the story. So the book remains problematic, and maybe that is as it should be.

What, then, is the function of The Heart Of Darkness, be it in graphic novel form or not, for a contemporary audience?

It certainly is not a book about Africans, because Conrad seems to know less than nothing about them. It really is not a very good book about colonialism, because Conrad’s revelations are partial, at best. But it tells us a lot about the mindset of Europeans of that time. It shows us that while they were enthusiastic about colonizing the world, many were shocked when they discovered the methods necessary to accomplish that task. And it shows that when confronted with the truth, they often had trouble processing the information. ‘Denial’ then, is more than a river in Egypt, it is also a river in the Congo.

Today, The Heart Of Darkness, is a book about whiteness. I recommend both Conrad’s original text, and Kupers’ adaptation, to those studying this subject.  I’m old enough to remember a world where school teachers assigned students to read books by Joseph Conrad, but told us that reading comics would lead to illiteracy. (They also told us that “The Beatles aren’t music!”) To live, today, in a time in which we must ask ourselves,” Is The Heart Of Darkness good enough to be turned into a graphic novel?” is indeed a delicious irony!

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seth
Seth Tobocman is an artist, educator and activist living in New York City. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of World War 3 Illustrated, the longest-running anthology of political comics available in English. His published works include, among others, the graphic memoir War in the Neighborhood, Disaster and Resistance, and You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive. His next book, “The Face of Struggle: An Allegory Without Words” is due to be released by AK Press in April, 2020. 
profile
Peter Kuper, like Tobocman, is an indie cartoonist, activist, and founding member of WW3 Illustrated. He is perhaps most well-known for illustrating Spy vs. Spy in MAD Magazine. He has, since, produced numerous works, including ‘RUINS’ (Self Made Hero), ‘Diario de Oaxaca’, and ‘Stop Forgetting To Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz’. You can follow his work on Instagram.

Bogged Down: A Review of Environmental Comic ‘Rain’

by Alex Gendler | October 31, 2019

For those who remember their high school reading assignments, the name “Thrushcross” might ring a few bells. But although “Rain” sets its story in the same dreary moors as Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the tragedy it relates is both less dramatic and more consequential than Cathy and Heathcliff’s ill-fated love.

cover

Title: RAIN
Words by: Mary M. Talbot
Art by: Bryan Talbot
Published by: DC Comics (North American edition)
Pages:  168
Specs: Hardcover, 9.75″ x 6.5″, $24.99

 

The comic is the fourth collaboration between Mary M. Talbot, a longtime academic scholar of gender and language, and her husband Bryan Talbot, whose credits include his own The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Grandville series, as well as titles like Judge Dredd, Sandman, and even some classic Magic: the Gathering cards. While their previous work together focused on the biographies of fascinating historical figures, “Rain” follows the relationship of a fictional lesbian couple during the run-up to the very real Boxing Day floods that displaced thousands across northern England and Ireland in December 2015.

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The book follows Cath, a tough and cynical freelance writer from London, through the course of several visits to her partner Mitch, an ecologically-conscious English teacher and gardener living in Yorkshire. Throughout the story they fight, reconcile, share tender moments, and explore their emotional and ideological differences. The real drama, however, occurs not between the characters but around them. Over nature walks, lectures, and conversations we learn that not all is well in the rustic moors. Marshland is being burned to support the seasonal grouse hunts, natural predator populations are mysteriously declining, and the rain looms ever more ominously over the sleepy residences.

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“Rain” skillfully handles its environmental themes, moving between the local, the global, and back again, tying together everything from class and colonialism to pesticides and soil erosion in well-researched and easily digestible explanations. Along the way, the reader is given a crash course in how healthy bogs help prevent flooding, the health dangers of glyphosate, and even a basic primer in protest preparation. One of the most subtle yet crucial points explored is that the most cherished of ‘rural traditions’ such as grouse hunting are often rooted in a framework of class power and environmental exploitation – a welcome corrective to the common tendency on the Left to trace all societal ills back to industrial modernity.

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The informative value of the comic, however, often ends up overshadowing the narrative, with the characters seeming to be addressing the reader more than each other. Environmental explanations are delivered with surprising coherence in the middle of a supposedly heated lovers’ quarrel. Questions that the interlocutor should already know are posed transparently to be answered with monologues. And the protagonists themselves come off more as functional props than fully fleshed out characters. Given that Cath is a queer freelance writer living in London and has been dating Mitch for three years, it somewhat strains credulity to saddle her with the sort of benign ignorance towards green lifestyle politics one would expect to find in a suburban Tory voter. Nor does her inevitable change of heart seem particularly inspired: “That environmental stuff you’re always banging on about – I think you may have a point.” The feeling that you’re reading an educational pamphlet rather than an organic narrative is unfortunately heightened by the art style, which, while replete with the detail and characterization one would expect from a veteran like Talbot, is permeated by a flattened, monochromatic quality somewhat reminiscent of textbooks.

Nevertheless, the fact that the comic’s environmental message outstrips its narrative framework is mitigated by the fact that this story itself is an important and engaging one. Rather than trying to cover the familiar big-picture terrain, “Rain” uses a hyper-local setting far from the forefront of environmental discussion to demonstrate how seemingly disparate activities impact the delicate ecological web that binds us all. The story ends on an optimistic note – if the apparently mismatched couple can find hope and stability in their relationship, perhaps we can do the same for our relationship with the world around us.

fracking protest

 

Alex Gendler is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His educational videos for TED-Ed have been watched tens of millions of times, exploring topics like the Turing TestDystopias, and the historic wars that inspired Game of Thrones. You can follow him on Twitter at @achilleselbow.

From ‘It’s All Over’ to ‘Your Black Friend’: the anarcho-comix of Ben Passmore

dayglo ahole its all over

Hours before I met Ben Passmore for the first time, I’d been informed that it was the first night of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. My partner and I were on tour in the American South and had not made any definitive plans for the space on the map between Atlanta and Houston.  A friend of a friend put us in touch, and we gathered in a small group waiting for the Krewe du Vieux parade to start. The night’s theme: “politically incorrect”.

I could hear wooden chips and beads crunching under my shoes as I struggled to distribute the seven jell-o shots I’d just purchased from a nice old lady pushing a cooler through the crowd along the sidewalk. We stood, drinking, smoking, and watched the floats pass: a pair of queens with enormous falsies, an old white man from the ‘NOLA for Bernie Sanders campaign’ wearing a fake indigenous headdress and throwing candy. It was somewhat surreal, somewhat entirely foreseeable.

Mardis Gras continues like clockwork every year, but a lot of New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina. The largest residential building in the city is abandoned. Entire neighbourhoods are boarded up, next to other neighborhoods peppered with colourful and chic low-income housing built with donations from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In many ways, post-Katrina NOLA became the poster city for explaining concepts like disaster capitalism, neo-liberalism, and gentrification.

dayglo landscape

It’s hard not to notice elements of this un-done landscape in Passmore’s online comic, D A Y G L O A H O L E, which he worked on for years while living in the city. Characters wander around a mysterious post-civilization wasteland. There are semi-familiar objects everywhere, but ‘civil society’ and all that phrase entails is gone. Washed away. Each new comic extends further into this post-apocalyptic future, and deeper into Passmore’s mind we go.bens mind

“Daygloayhole has consistently been too ambitious for my level of talent, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I’m not a huge sci-fi nerd, but what little of it I’ve consumed and enjoyed consistently pairs the recognizable with the fantastically alien.”

Passmore spent several years working on daygloahole, living in New Orleans. Life was a mix of work, going to shows, and fostering a burgeoning indie comics scene through the NOLA zine and comics fair. Of course a city known for its history of parades and grassroots activism will attract its share of artists, hippies, road punks, and anarchists. When I suggested that New Orleans appeared to solve the age-old mystery of where crust punks go to die, he said it was “more to become undead… There’s a lot of lumbering soulessness [here].”

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And the anarchists were having a moment. Abandoned buildings were being squatted and used for political organizing or art projects.

The phrase ‘It’s all over’ appears again and again in daygloahole, which was funny because that’s all I could think when I was in New Orleans. And then, it doesn’t seem quite as funny anymore.

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“I think that’s something that I enjoyed at first, the culture of collapse in New Orleans, until I really realized the toll Katrina took on people’s minds and lives, and the disparity it underlined.”

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“Food Truck” illustration for Antigravity Magazine

That disparity is one drawn clearly around race in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, whether we’re talking about segregation of schools and neighborhoods, police violence, or the state prison system. It was only in the last year that New Orleans removed several Confederate Monuments, which Passmore documented for the comics journalism website, The Nib.

The Confederate Monument fights became a flashpoint in the South for confronting fascist and white supremacist forces, who were being emboldened by Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” (a perfect dog-whistle for the South’s “Lost Cause” sentiment, which sticks around like 100% humidity). From inside a jail cell for confronting the KKK at Stone Mountain, to the streets of New Orleans where a masked Mardis Gras parade took to a Confederate statue with paint and sledgehammers, Ben took names, covered it, drew it, and showed the rest of us what was going on.

ben passmore taken em down
“I’ve been really excited about doing pieces for the NIB,” Ben says. “It’s good to have to explain your ideas with pictures and words if you’re politically wing-nutty. I assume the majority of the NIB readership is liberal and prolly not very into most of my Anarchist politics.”

“New Orleans created a feeling of urgency about white supremacy as a societal poison that I didn’t feel as much before I moved there.”

“And it for sure burned me out on white people.”

your black friend

In 2017, Ben Passmore made international news for having his work, a short 16-page comic called “Your Black Friend,” nominated for an Eisner Award. For those of you not in the comics industry: that’s kind of like being nominated for an Academy Award. Needless to say, as an anarchist, but more as a political comic enthusiast, I was pretty stoked about the news.

‘Your Black Friend’ is a comic for that person who wants you to know they’re not a racist. It’s a comic about micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, and lefty-progressive virtue-signalling. It is a short but poetically full-circle sampling of how annoying, depressing, terrifying, and frustrating it is to share space and community with white people (even those nice ones) in a white supremacist world.

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Passmore’s first 20 years were in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “My mom was/is an artist and she encouraged me to draw a lot. I think she would’ve liked me to draw trees… I drew a lot of muscle guys in spandex covered in spikes.”

Ben would eventually go on to art school and major in comics with a minor in illustration.

Passmore seems somewhat surprised that younger people are inspired by his work.

“I get messages from other weird black cartoonists and people that get stuff out of my comics. A couple times people have told me that they’ve been “reading my comics for years” and they’re in their early twenties which is such a crazy thing to be a part of someone’s cultural scenery when they’re turning into an adult.”

There’s a lot being processed in Passmore’s comics, from the low-key racism of his friends, to his Mom voting for Trump, to his own relationships with addiction, depression and impulses to self-harm. Ben has made space for it all, while never taking himself too seriously.

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A current project of Passmore’s –not yet released– deals with identity, inspired by the pronounced dysphoria he experienced during the last two years’ living in NOLA. I’m looking forward to seeing that, given the nuance he gives to subjects like blackness and queerness. “I’ve never subscribed to the ‘destroy everything/destroy my body’ that characterizes some queer nihilism. Not because I don’t think that strain has validity, it’s just it feels complicated to be black and to desire physical deconstruction.”

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From “Fighting For a Better History” about the call to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans

Leftist comics – much like “the Left” in general– have a tendency to forget the nuance in their attempt to promote a cause. And that’s a fine strategy, if you’re designing lawn signs for an election.

Passmore’s work shows us that a comic is capable of something infinitely more sophisticated.

His advice to folks who want to make political comics: “Don’t be preachy… if peeps don’t at least recognize your point of view, it’s cause you didn’t make your case well enough.”

Your Black Friend‘ is available now from Silver Sprocket. Follow Ben’s adventures on Twitter and Tumblr, and if you want to show Ben some support, throw some pocket change at his patreon page.

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40 Years of Books w/o Bosses: A Comic Book Memoir

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I wondered, as I held ‘Books Without Bosses’ in my hands, who its intended audience might be? It is, in brief, a comic book history of the non-hierarchical publishing collective, Between the Lines (Toronto, Canada). As a member of one of the world’s few non-hierarchical comic book publishing collectives, I think I am as close to a target audience as this book is likely to get. And indeed, it was a rewarding, complicated read for me. But it raised some emotionally difficult questions.

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Title: Books Without Bosses: 40 Years of Reading Between the Lines
Author: Robert Clarke
Illustrator: Kara Sievewright
Published: October, 2017
Pages
: 64
ISBN: 9781771133272
Buy it: via BTL’s website

 

How many people work in radical publishing in North America? Five hundred? A thousand? If we count every zinester and amateur distro, maybe about 5,000 souls in all. That seems like a very thin prospective market for a title. At Ad Astra, we probably couldn’t dare to afford to publish something so extraordinarily niche. But we are a different generation of radical publisher from BTL. Since this is a very niche book it seems only appropriate that I write a very niche review.

When you open Google Scholar, it implores you: ‘Stand on the Shoulders of Giants’. For aspiring radical publishers, ‘Books Without Bosses’ offers a shoulder. Between the Lines was founded in 1977, a joint project between the Development Education Centre of Toronto and Dumont Press Graphix in Kitchener. As the title suggests, BTL was, from the outset, a non-hierarchical publishing collective. In an era of doctrinaire Marxist’ presses, their title was meant to emphasize their independence – rather than cleaving to one party line, they were between them. Over the next four decades it has survived police surveillance, the collapse of the brick and mortar retail trade and even the election of one of its authors to public office. Along the way it has published the likes of bell hooks, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva and Cornel West.

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That above paragraph covers much of what you’ll learn from the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. The history of a publisher, even an anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical publisher, is still the history of a business. That means it is a history of meetings, business decisions and tedious problems in your supply chain. For a baby publisher like Ad Astra, this history would be a priceless guide no matter what format it was printed in. The fact that BTL saw the value of using comics to tell their story is an added bonus.

The value of comics as a medium for political communication is, in part, that political history can sometimes be boring. This is a difficulty faced by ‘Books Without Bosses’. Even the most expertly-constructed comic can only hope to hold the attention of its reader for so many pages with tales of meeting minutes and shipping mishaps. Even for me, a text-only book on this subject would have been too much for my attention span, which was tested by ‘Books Without Bosses’. [Editor’s note: if you’re up for such a challenge, check out ‘”They Called Eachother Comrade” Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers‘ (PM Press, 2011)]

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There’s no avoiding it: business history is dry stuff. The illustrated faces of BTL’s published authors, appearing beside their book cover, start to blur together by the second half of the book. I recognized an activist mentor here, an old university professors there, but it was otherwise beginning to drag a bit. If the narrative had chosen to highlight fewer authors, and use its pages to bring the core theses of some of its titles to life, it might have been a little more engaging. As it is, the comic ends up feeling a bit cluttered. As such, it struggles to take full advantage of the virtues of the comics medium.

Books are allowed to be boring, I think, if they are important. And while ‘Books Without Bosses’ is boring at times, it is an important text for a number of groups. If you have left wing politics, work in publishing, are interested in starting a cooperative or work in the Canadian arts sector, this is a book with relevant things to say to you. All of these strands tied together for me, since I tick all of those boxes.

I mentioned above that Between the Lines is a different kind of publisher from Ad Astra . This is largely a question of vintage. BTL was founded in the heady days of the 1970s, when government arts spending rained down on Canadian publishers like manna from heaven. OK, this is an overstatement. But arts spending at every level of government has been falling since Between the Lines was founded. These days, established cultural institutions like BTL are well positioned to take advantage of what arts funding remains. Newcomers like us are at a disadvantage from the angle of public funding.

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The inside cover of ‘Books Without Bosses’ thanks both the Canadian and Ontario governments for its financial support. There is an acknowledgment of that support in the story of the book itself, too. By contrast, Ad Astra Comix receives no public support for its publishing projects. We fund our print runs entirely through crowdfunding campaigns. Similarly, Between the Lines has its offices in 401 Richmond, an arts and culture hub in downtown Toronto. This prime piece of Toronto real estate enjoys tax relief that allows it to stay open. Ad Astra Comix, by contrast, exists almost entirely in cyberspace. We run the publisher out of our home, with our basement as our warehouse.

I am not trying to make BTL sound like some kind of tax-payer subsidized stroll in the park, contrasted to Ad Astra as a neoliberal wet dream of private sector innovation. Far from it. As it developed, Between the Lines found resources where they could and built something precious and wonderful with those resources.

But as I read ‘Books Without Bosses’ and learned about the history of BTL, I felt two powerful, conflicting feelings. The first was awe and inspiration at all that Between the Lines has accomplished. They have survived and even thrived through several terrible decades for the publishing industry in Canada. They have produced many important books that are of real value to the left. And they have done it as a non-hierarchical collective!

The second feeling was one of deep sadness and frustration. Realistically, I don’t think that Ad Astra is ever going to be eligible for the kind of state support that has helped in part to make BTL viable. We are also wary of building up a dependency on public funding in an age of austerity – these days it seems far riskier to count on grants.

We are millenials. I joined Ad Astra while working as a freelancer. It is almost a religion for us that ‘no one works for free’. While we admire the good will and hard work of Between the Lines volunteers, we don’t want to build a publisher that relies on volunteer labour. Our rule is that joining the publisher means sharing in the profits and labours of the publisher in equal measure. In an age of unpaid internships, zero hour contracts and temp work, we mean it when we say: No one works for free.

Thus the sadness and frustration. I want to do as much good as BTL has done. In setting out to do so, I find a lot of lessons in the pages of ‘Books Without Bosses’. Their commitment to amplifying the voices of marginalized groups sets a good example. Their building partnerships with professors to get their books into schools is a lesson in sustainability. And the sheer grit that it takes to just exist as a publisher for 40 years as the industry goes down in flames around you is an inspiration.

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But as I look toward the future I can’t help but wonder how I am ever going to do as much good as Between the Lines has done. Many of the circumstances and opportunities that enabled them to flourish were tied to the historic moment they existed in. I know that we have part of it figured out already: the internet has made crowdfunding possible, which enables us to take books to print based on pre-orders. This particular puzzle is still missing a lot of pieces, though.

What no one tells you is that giants move through history with the rest of us. Their thunderous strides shake my perch and it can be hard to keep steady. But the view from up here is incredible –as long as I don’t look down.

What Would Wolverine Do? An Interview with Hellberta’s Mike Comeau

I’m on tour at the moment and am moving like molasses, but I’ve finally gathered myself up from drawing my own comic that takes place in Alberta, to talk about my *favourite* comic that takes place in Alberta. Michael Comeau’s ‘Hellberta’ has been described elsewhere on the internet as “one of the most meaningful and interesting” variations of a Wolverine comic, and I must agree. It explores the Canadian home of one of comic fandom’s most celebrated characters, against a background that is at once both more realistic and more surreal than your garden-variety Marvel title.

My conversation with Michael is below. For a better run-down on the plot and cultural significance of ‘Hellberta’, I recommend reading the Barbed Comics review linked above. To pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so here.

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N: What was your relationship to comics growing up? To X-men and Wolverine in particular?

    M: I collected the “Uncanny X-men” from the Mutant Massacre story arc to when Jim Lee branch off to the merely “X-men” title approximately 1986 to 1991.  Wolverine emerged as an intriguing character for me and many others.  The Chris Claremont, Frank Miller mini series is the quintessential statement on the character.  I bought an old  “Inferno” issue of Uncanny X-men in Drumheller Alberta and began drawing Wolverine.  I didn’t pay attention to super hero comics for around a decade and was mildly annoyed to find out they filled out Wolverine’s back story to be that his name was no longer Logan but James Howlet and he was originally British.  I can usually recognize when a writer can’t grasp the Canadian hoser Logan archetype so it poses the question what would I do with the character.  The reclamation of Wolverine opened up notions of Canadian identity like collaging the archetypes of Neil Young and Logan.

I often find myself fantasizing about the ability of the supernatural (and by extension, superheroes) solving the world’s social and political problems, beyond what I would see in your standard comic book. So I’ve found that Hellberta has been really satisfying for me and other activist folks I’ve shown it to. Would you describe Hellberta as a kind of political revenge porn, like Inglorious Bestards is to nazism or Django Unchained to slavery and racism?hellberta-page-shot

    I am a straight/cis/white man from Ontario who learned about Albertan activist culture among the oil sands boom while living and traveling with queer and trans people from Calgary.  I was unsure how to depict the queer flight from Calgary or the environmental impact of the tar sands so I took a popular myth from the area and supplanted it onto the situation.  What would Wolverine do?  Superheroes are extensions and exaggerations of our hopes and fears I don’t really see them as rising above anything.  I’d rather see them struggle with our same mundane problems in spite them being so exceptional.

I would hate it if someone compared anything I’d done to a Tarantino film, so in your own words – what were you going for with Hellberta? What would you say were your influences or sources of inspiration?

  A: Initially it was a cahier de voyage with rough drawings that were somewhat related to our adventures on the road.  Then I included the Wolverine vs. the tar sands as a way to learn how to make a comic. It had direct X-men references like how Wolverine would “hunt” deer by creeping up and touching them or the Phoenix as an arbitrary global catastrophe and an Osamu Tezuka style time lapse of total destruction to gradual renewal.  The photo comic section was based on the relationships Logan has with young women.   He is a good archetype for intergenerational friendships with women.  The “Sackville Slapper” section is more about trajectories across provinces.  It is inspired by Donald Shebib’s “Going Down The Road” movie and the SCTV spoof of it.  Both of my parents are from New Brunswick and i wanted to reference the east coast.  The idea was Logan as Popeye and Puck as Wimpy in an east coast Tijuana Bibles style book which is a paradigm shift away from the photo comic.

There’s a lot of Christian iconography in this book that can’t go unnoticed. Harper and his harlots fly around on a cross, but it is Wolverine who is martyred and rises again. How did you decide to incorporate this imagery?

Christianity is a conquering ideology used in colonization.  It severs a localized spiritual connection to the land.  I often think of what therapists call the “reversal of desire”  regarding someone feeling repressed and ostracized by images of Christ and finding comfort in Satan etc.  Like a metalhead teenager.  In processing my own catholic repression I enjoyed drawing from medieval christian imagery.  Wolverine is a classic christ figure.  Sacrificing himself to be resurrected through his homo-superiority ie. healing factor.  He regularly gets crucified onto X’s in comics.  The Right Wing wields notions of God as a weapon and I wanted to counter that with what is essentially the same human impulse to create heroes/gods but from a far more transparent place as pop culture.

One question for the printing nerds: take us through the printing process of this book, because the dual tone is enough to make your brain want to explode. It kind of feels like a throw-back to those cheap 3D graphics with the red & blue ink that you could dig out of the bottom of a cereal box. How did you decide on this technique?

I’ve created and printed many 2 colour screen printed posters.  The first issue was printed on Jesjit Gill of Colour Code Printing’s very first risograph machine which only printed one colour at a time so the registration had to be very loose.  I was doing the dot tone with a photocopier.   Copying over top the lines or turning the breakdown into a negative, copying over a negative dot tone and reversing back to positive and then copy over top the line work.  I am fascinated by the timbre of an image and use of tone.  It is constantly evolving through out my work.

Do you see yourself making anything in this vein again?

There is an Alpha Flight story in my head that has haunted me for years.  I have done my own riff on Son of Satan but now for the most part I am working on original stories with only some sketchbook strips that might be bootleg.  Lately when I don’t know what to draw I do without reference Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.  No matter how crud the drawing is you still project the characters onto them.  So naturally I have thought of dumb, petty dialogue for them to exchange.   

Since this comic was created, pipeline projects (and their messes) continue to dot the North American landscape.We’re also entering a “Trump era”, which shares a fair bit of common ground with the Harper Government. Do  you think Wolverine is an important hero to have in an age like this?

Heroes are as important as we make them.  Each situation is gazed at through the lens of the hero prism.  Be it Wolverine, Jesus, Tupac or Joni Mitchell.   Logan is post-human, a homo-superior, so he points to the future but is from the far past.

 

Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times

Well, it’s the first week of November. I don’t know about any of you, but I’m always late to the punch for Halloween, preparing a costume, organizing parties and such. If you love Halloween as much as I do, it’s a tragedy that calls for remedy every September. Well, if you’re looking for a spooky piece of history to read about in the lead-up to next year’s All Hallows Eve, consider reading ‘Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times’.

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Title
: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times
Author: Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton
Illustrator: Greg Chapman
Publisher: McFarland, 2012
Pages: 185 pages,
ISBN: 978-0786466559
Dimensions: 7.25” x 11.25”

The ‘Burning Times’. Just this phrase sends a shiver up my spine. It’s difficult to believe that, from the 15th to 18th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Europeans, mostly women, were condemned to death for the more-or-less imperceptible crime of witchcraft (exact numbers are disputed). This graphic history is an accessible look at the era, offering anecdotal evidence for a lot of good starting points for further reading.

The book is divided into many short chapters: 1) Before the Trials, 2) The Trials Begin 3) The First Witch Hunter, 4) The Contagion Spreads, 5) Joan of Arc, 6) The Trial of Arras, 7) The Hammer of Witches, 8) Witchcraft and the Reformation, 9) The Trials in Würzburg, 10) King James and the North Berwick Trials, 11) Matthew Hopkins, 12) Witchfinder General, Salem Witch Trials, and 13) The Frenzy Fades.

Perhaps the breadth of this book is its greatest shortcoming; history is a difficult subject to abridge, and even more challenging to illustrate. But the author and illustrator do their best to give us a basic synopsis of everything, as opposed to an in-depth look at any one time or place.

18 The backdrop of this period was one where political and economic opponents would use the fledgling structures of ‘law and order’ and the ignorance of a population as the stage for their power plays. The book opens with a compelling example, pre-trials: the burning of the Knights Templar in 1314. King Philip the IV of France owed this wealthy organization a great deal of money, but had successfully condemned them to the stake with charges nearly impossible to prove: idolatry, heresy, and sorcery. In Jews, Muslims, pagans, and even uncooperative Christians, men of courts and men with connections found infinite ways to scapegoat these “others” in dark and difficult times.

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In Medieval Europe, the most common “others” were women. Women served a number of roles that were unknown to most men: the midwife, prostitute, and herbalist were all relatively common vocations. Healing was a craft that was passed down from women in families and communities for generations, and served  a community need. As time passed and private land ownership overtook The Commons, a woman who was widowed would inherit her husband’s lands, doing with them what she wished. Even in these very limited realms, women were granted a certain amount of power and reverence in society.

As men took various stations within Church and state, many found ways to usurp the authority of women in these traditional roles through what became known as the Witch Hunts, or Burning Times. Women were blamed for premature deaths, plagues, and failed crops. They played on locals’ greatest fears, which were were impossible to disprove.  In turn, midwives and herbalists would be replaced by male doctors or “barbers”, landholding widows could be removed, their land parceled between Church and state. It became a veritable gold rush of opportunity, in a time when misogyny allowed such distrust and outright contempt for women of a community.

kramerpage1But ignorance can take on a life of its own, in time. As the book explains, the Catholic Church outright denied the existence of witchcraft for some time. This required Witch Hunters to make their accusations and arguments on grounds of heresy, or demon worship. Still, belief in witchcraft spread until the Church and its adherents took a more committed position. This was manifested in the works of Heinrich Kramer, a witch hunter and the author of Malleus Malificarum, or “The Witch’s Hammer”.

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As mentioned, the book has its shortcomings. The illustrations are very busy, and look more like sketches opposed to final proofs. The writing lacks a feeling of wholeness, as if these various chapters of history have all been thrown together without additional analysis, which isn’t altogether wrong, but isn’t particularly to my liking. Rather, what I see is a missed opportunity to connect all of these cases together to answer questions about the changing relationships of religious, political, and economic forces in Medieval Europe. The transition from The Commons to private property; organic or pagan communalism to communities with the Church as the uncompromising epicenter of public life; and the role of women as healers and community leaders to second-class citizens under a rigid patriarchal order. Those looking for this kind of analysis would greatly benefit from works like Caliban and the Witch, and the 1990s documentary, The Burning Times. Both are available online for free.

Ultimately, I place most of the blame for the book’s drawbacks on a curse of bad, uninspired editing. Graphic histories like these require an editor and publisher who are passionate about both the design and content of such a product, and yet I’m given the perception that this book was released  by McFarland little of either. Despite this, “Witch Hunts” remains an intriguing and chilling read.

Beautiful “Ruins”: Seth Tobocman Looks at Peter Kuper’s Groundbreaking New Comic

We at adastracomix.com are pleased to be bringing you another guest review by our friend, Seth Tobocman. Seth is the co-founder and co-editor of World War 3 Illustrated, the longest-running anthology of radical comics in the english-speaking world. He’s also the author of several acclaimed titles of his own, including Disaster and Resistance, War in the Neighborhood, and You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive.

71AREZqr2QL-600x814Peter Kuper’s new graphic novel, ‘Ruins’, is a breakthrough, even though this veteran cartoonist has been publishing books since 1980, producing more titles than I can count.

Having known Peter since first grade, it could be argued that I am not objective enough to write a review of anything he produces. But I have never believed that art has much to do with objectivity. Rather, art is about the insights we gain through subjective experience. So here is what I have learned through knowing Peter Kuper that I think is relevant to a discussion of this book.

Peter Kuper grew up in a very unusual 1970’s suburban household. His mom, Ginger Kuper, was a very artsy lady. She had a desk job at the Cleveland Orchestra and was an amateur potter. The house was full of clay sculpture along with Native American textiles, block prints, plants and nature photographs. One of Peter’s uncles was an illustrator and his work decorated the walls. Another uncle was a Broadway actor. His older sisters were a dancer and a photographer. The family had a subscription to the New Yorker.

Peter’s father was a scientist, but not the kind who is lost in abstract thought. Alan Kuper (known as ‘Buzz’) liked to take walks in the woods. The family went on regular camping trips. Buzz had a subscription to National Geographic and would eventually become president of the local Sierra club. Alan Kuper was also outspoken in opposition to the Vietnam War, took his kids to peace demonstrations, allowed his son to become the first boy I knew to grow his hair long. My sister and I, along with most of our schoolmates, envied the Kuper kids for having “such nice parents”.

Peter picked up his mother’s love of art, but also his father’s love of nature. He had a butterfly collection long before he had a comic book collection and dreamed of being an entomologist before he decided to become an illustrator. From his family he gained a passion for traveling to exotic places that would continue for the rest of his life.

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This background is evident in spades in Peter’s new book RUINS. The inside cover is decorated with a pattern of insects, delicately rendered. The main character is an entomologist. Most of the action takes place in the scenic landscape of Oaxaca Mexico. Many pages are dedicated to the migration and life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

It is the story of two Americans searching for their creativity in Oaxaca who run smack into the historic teachers strike of 2007 and the bloody repression that followed. The lead character is an out-of-work entomological illustrator who travels to Mexico in hope that he will start painting again. His wife wants to finish her novel and conceive a child. They meet a disillusioned photojournalist who is drinking himself to death because of things he saw in El Salvador. I won’t spoil the ending, but those who have followed events in Oaxaca can guess what happens.

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But what really makes this book stand out is not what it shows but HOW it shows it. The full color drawings are lush and complex, with a lot of deep space. Both the natural beauty and the local culture are lovingly detailed. Peter knows just what the eye wants to see and he delivers, page after page.

Some will find fault that the book does not go into the political situation in Mexico that deeply. They might even accuse Kuper of exoticizing indigenous Mexicans. But Peter never pretends to speak for the locals or to be an expert on their issues. Kuper does not try to go beyond the subjective point of view of his tourist protagonists. I think this is a good and honest decision.

The mission of our generation of cartoonists has been to elevate the comic book medium; to take this “children’s toy” and make art with it. That’s a complicated project because art is a little word that covers a vast territory. It is not only Edvard Munch and Diamanda Galas, but Norman Rockwell, Paul Gaugin, Peter Max and the Beatles. There is more than one type of art. ‘Ruins’ is not an austere modernist exploration of the medium tied to important historic events like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. It is not an introspective examination of the drudgery of everyday life, like the work of Harvey Pekar, nor is it hard-hitting on-the-ground comics journalism like Joe Sacco’s.

Peter has tried on all of those hats but in ‘Ruins’, he speaks with a voice that is uniquely his own. ‘Ruins’ tells us that nature is endangered but it is also beautiful, that indigenous people are oppressed but their culture is beautiful, that creativity is hard to achieve but its results are beautiful: that life itself is short but also beautiful. Have I said the word beautiful enough times? THIS BOOK IS FUCKING BEAUTIFUL!

It is an affirmation of life in the face of death. It will warm you up in a cold day. ‘Ruins’ is anything but. Buzz and Ginger would be proud of Peter, and so am I. star
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Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

It probably doesn’t need saying that I love comics. I would not have committed myself to a life of reading, writing, researching and reviewing comics if they were not very dear to me, masochistic tendencies aside. But while I adore them, political comics put me in a jam so thick I consider spreading it on my mid-morning toast. Maybe my partner’s thinking has infected me; when she started Ad Astra Comix close to two years ago as a review site, she said it was in part because the quality of political comics was generally so low.

Continue reading Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

Land, Labour, and Loss: A Story of Struggle & Survival at the Burrard Inlet

By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota

Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.

 

Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them.

So when I read “Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet,” from the Graphic History Project, my first thought was, “This will totally appeal to young people.”
Working on the Water
Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet
Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton
Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation)
To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles)
More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History Collective website.

Art has a way of connecting us to ideas, or, in this case, a time in Indigenous (and Canadian) history recognized or known by few. Writer and illustrator Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) uses relief print panels in captivating black-and-white to draw out a nonfiction narrative of economic survival. The comic was co-written by Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton with the Graphic History Collective.

On her blog, Willard says, “… [T]his work will tell the story of Indigenous [longshoring] on Burrard Inlet and how early labour organizing by Indigenous people [helped] to support the wider land struggle against colonization and capitalism.”

A quick geography lesson from the comic: Burrard Inlet connects the traditional territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s in area perfect for hunting and fishing, and easy-access resource exploitation.

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The narrative itself is straightforward, and easy enough for elementary-aged readers to comprehend: Colonizers came in, territory was acquired, resources were identified, brief working relationships were achieved until guaranteed unfairness ensued, Indigenous people protested, protests were squashed by excessive force and bullying, and a legacy of underemployment began.

For context, it’s important to note the labour environment in modern times. Quick summary: It’s not good.

According to the Canadian Labour Program, workforce disparities for Aboriginal people include an over-representation in low-skilled occupations, and under-representation in managerial and professional occupations, according to the latest statistics. At 18 percent, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginals is three times the rate for non-Aboriginals; comparatively, the employment rate is just 48 percent among Aboriginals. If that weren’t bad enough, the wage gap continues to widen between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal full-time workers; the latest numbers show Aboriginals make 73 percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts’ incomes ($37,356 to $51,505). Dismal.

The government attributes this gap to lower educational attainment for Aboriginal people. Using that logic, the government itself is then responsible. Consider the history of oppression faced by Canada’s indigenous populations, in particular the education system dedicated to first wiping out Aboriginal children in boarding schools and then inadequately teaching (or simply refusing to teach) Aboriginal history, accomplishment, and impact on modern-day Canada in school curricula. In this light, one sees clearly the role and connection the government and its policies played in the contemporary Aboriginal workforce outlook.

But Willard’s comic flows matter-of-factly through basic labour moments from the mid-1800s through the 1920s and early 1930s and stops there, although the last panel notes how longshoremen continue to work the inlet today. The bulk of the narrative discusses how Indigenous workers unionized themselves to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, when the highly skilled Indigenous longshoremen went on strike in 1918 to earn 5 cents an hour more, non-Indigenous workers swept in and took those jobs, which left the tribal people of the inlet in desperate situations.

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I appreciate that the text isn’t pumped full of stylized drama. It’s very, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In an era where much of what non-indigenous people know about us is less fact, and more fantasy, the no-nonsense style of writing rings with authenticity, and is a breath of fresh air from shape shifters or mutants.

Reading as an outsider, the story Willard is telling feels unfinished, and perhaps that’s purposeful. However, the title (‘Fighting for the Land’) leads readers to believe there will be some sort of reclamation (or attempts, anyway) by the longshoremen or tribal communities. Outside of “processing ancient timbers,” there isn’t really anything land-based happening.

Regardless, the lino-cut drawings are the star of this show, and I went back over the panels again and again, because previously missed camouflaged images and symbols kept swimming to the surface with each pass. With Indigenous history – and ours being a history traditionally told through stories, not written words – perhaps this is the point.

A quote from Willard made during an unrelated interview 10 years ago addresses this: “I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”

The comic is part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles (to be published in 2016), which will focus on Canadian labour history. star

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“Three Feathers”: Speaking in complete sentences

Richard Van Camp, a Tłı̨chǫ writer from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, based ‘Three Feathers’ off an incident in his town. There were three young men who robbed a number of residents of the town, including him. When they were caught, they were sent south to serve two years in prison. In ‘Three Feathers’, a Sentencing Circle sends the boys to spend nine months living on the land with some of the community’s elders. The difference in their experience is profound.

Three-Feathers

Title: Three Feathers|
Author: Richard Van Camp
Illustrator: Krystal Mateus
Published: Highwater Press (March 2015)
Pages: 48 pages

The comic opens with the boys returning from their time on the land. This beginning sets the tone for a non-linear narrative structure that challenges the reader to piece the story together while also making sense of what is, to most settlers, an alien approach to justice. This echoes our experience of learning about criminal incidents where we are often too quick to make assumptions based on a few snippets of information. The comic charts the events leading to the sentence, the experience of the boys on the land, and its ultimate effect on them. In doing so, it helps us piece together the story of how the boys came to be at odds with their community.

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‘Three Feathers’ paints a familiar portrait of the challenges faced by indigenous communities: children without parents, families struggling with addiction, and youth alienated from their traditional culture. But Van Camp, unsurprisingly, never stoops to caricature. His characters are emotionally complex, possessed of agency and sympathetically rendered. He provides a good answer to the question ‘Why does it matter that indigenous people write indigenous characters’? His portrayal of a deaf character, one of the boys sent to the land, is also nuanced. He isn’t reduced to his disability or played for laughs but is allowed to suffer from the same anger, frustration and imperfection as his peers.

The comic is not without its faults. It is not as long as it might be, and as a result we are not given much time to learn about the young men or their community. Similarly, though there are some aesthetic styles that benefit from the use of black and white, this is a comic that would have benefited from colour. Still, the sparse use of text accents the art and puts the environment in the foreground, particularly when the young men are out on the land. Given the moral and spiritual importance of their environment this is a good aesthetic choice.

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I don’t want to give away the ending. I will say, however, that I was surprised by it, though it reflected the moral arc of the story as a whole. The tale is one of restorative justice, of the capacity of a community to heal its wounds together instead of discarding people who behave unacceptably. It is understood from the outset that the boys have caused harm partially as a result of the harm they themselves have experienced. Their rehabilitation is not rooted in high-minded moralizing about human nature but in the very personal compassion and willingness to forgive shown by their community.

How radically this differs from our colonial conception of justice! For many Canadians, justice is inseparable from retribution. There is even still a surprising enthusiasm in Canada for capital punishment. The idea that ‘criminals’ could be sent out onto the land to fish and camp with the elderly probably sounds like a vacation to your average settler. Even successful experiments with rehabilitation, like the Kingston prison farm, end up up in the scopes of politicians looking for a soft target.

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Activists on the left sometimes like to imagine that they are above this kind of justice. They champion prison abolition and talk gravely about police corruption. But, in practice, I think most radical communities end up practicing a kind of ostracism, seeking to exclude people who transgress against the values of the community past a certain point. I’m not saying we can’t protect our communities from toxic people, privileged jerks who never shut up, or occurrences of sexual violence. But what I do think is that restorative justice looks a lot more ‘protecting our community’ than the ostracism that contributes heavily to activist turnover. That is not a comfortable truth for people whose social circle is a line drawn in the chalk of moral certainty. But uncomfortable truths are a powerful thing in the right hands. All I could think in reading this comic was ‘if only it worked that way for us’, …whoever ‘us’ is.