Category Archives: Reviews

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.

 

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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.

To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

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Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

harlem_hellfighters_panels1

There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

Mendoza The Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism

By: Jared Ross, Hon. BA. MA in Cultural and Imperial History

Thank G-D! A Jewish comic that isn’t about the Holocaust. I know this sounds flip, but as a “Jewish intellectual”, in Toronto, I’m always enthused when Jewish history isn’t framed though such a narrow lens. There are so many persecutions to pick from, and while I acknowledge that the Holocaust is important to study, Jewish history shouldn’t be just one sad slow train to Auschwitz.

Enter ‘Mendoza the Jew’, a graphic history of a poor Sephardi Jewish boxer in 18th century London. It represents a different story, and a poorly told one. The style of the comic is quite brisk, with bold colours and lots of action sequences. It is heavily narrated with lots of explanation and the modern author showing up to brief the reader on any vague historical points. Each chapter begins with a Hebrew letter that spells out Daniel. The comic is only one part of the piece, with a section of primary sources as well and an explanation of the writer’s process as well.

MendozaTheJew
Title
: Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism: A Graphic History
Author: Ronald Schechter
Illustrator: Liz Clarke
Published: Oxford University Press (2013)
Pages: 240 pages
Dimensions: 25.1 x 3 x 20.1 cm
Other Specs: Softcover, colour cover and interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Shop

Expelled from England in the 14th century, Jews were allowed back into England by Oliver Cromwell and it became a home for Sephardic Jews who came from Spain via the Netherlands. The Sephardic community was already well established when they were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe (Modern day Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania) in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is in part due to figures like Mendoza that the Sephardic community was so successful. Taking advantage of England’s “tolerant” attitudes towards religious minorities and the effects of the Enlightenment, the Jewish community was allowed a degree of integration that was not possible in most of Western Europe. While still suffering persecution, it was as an old prof of mine used to say, “run-of-the-mill 19th century anti-semitism”, in contrast to the race-based dehumanizing persecutions that mark the 20th century.

"What do you mean, 'your people', chump?"
“What do you mean, ‘your people’?”

Daniel Mendoza’s story illustrates the tension between tolerance and assimilation quite nicely. The son of a Schochet, (a kosher butcher), Daniel Mendoza soon discovers that a quick way to acceptance is boxing, a sport that was embraced by both the working class and the gentry as quintessentially English (like tea and sado-masochism). Mendoza wins several high profile bouts, and parlays his success into running a series of boxing academies for both nobles and the working class.

After losing a rather shady match to his old partner, John Humphries, Mendoza agreed to a rematch, with each writing letters to the newspapers of the time challenging each other’s health, manliness and honesty.

dureaux_fisticuffsMendoza won the rematch and with it a princely sum of 2000 pounds. He then went on to beat Humphries in a third rematch (one that took 72 rounds).

The author speculates this was due to either gambling, alcoholism, bad investments or a combination of all three. Defaulting on his debts and jailed in 1797, Daniel took on a variety of jobs including as a publican and pedlar. He continued to box and stage exhibition matches, but died penniless in 1836.

MendozatheJew_engraving
In the words of the author, the story of Mendoza fits into the school of “history from below” and helps to illustrate why Britain avoided a revolution, unlike France. He points to Britain’s religious tolerance, free press and ability to harness a nascent British identity as a reason for its relative political stability. In this the author is right, but he also neglects to mention that Britain was able to co-opt many of its subject people, ethnic minorities like the Irish and Scottish Highlanders into replicating the same structures of rule and control in an Imperial context, and as such use migration as a pressure valve, something that was not done in France.

So let us evaluate the author’s claim. ‘History from below’ in this context is also very much a history of whiteness. The 18th century marked the rise of scientific racism. The work of Blumenbach, dividing humanity into five races, was published in 1779. The idea that each race had a separate origin (polygenesis) was a tool of imperialist expansion and the justification for slavery as an ideology. Jews as a category were always hard to classify. Were they white? Were they intelligent? How could they be separated from the Aryan/ Nordic White Anglo-Saxon?

Interestingly enough, Mendoza also acted as a second for Tom Molineaux, a freed Virginian slave. The author does not mention this.

The push of this ideology of race was stubbornly resisted. Manliness and ideas of masculinity were a weapon that Jews deployed to prove that they were just as manly as the White man. This subverted the ethnocentric language of white supremacy and allowed some Jewish men to express their identity in ways that were culturally permitted. This strategy had a long shelf-life. In the aftermath of increasing anti-semitism following World War One, Jewish veterans used the language of patriotism and masculinity to protect themselves from discrimination. One particular case was the Jewish flying aces, considered among the most masculine of war heros during World War One. In an excellent article by Todd Samuel Presner, “Muscle Jews and Airplanes: Modernist Mythologies, the Great War, and the Politics of Regeneration” there is a discussion about the efforts of Jewish flyers to publicize their deeds and claim that because of their military service, they should be recognized as German nationalists. Unfortunately this was all for naught, as the Nazi’s expunged their service records, and while allowing for special treatment for some, sent others to camps.

In the 18th century Daniel Mendoza and other Jewish men used the language of nationality and masculinity to combat persecution by putting themselves forward as paragons of strength, athleticism and sportsmanship; values dear to the English nationalist project. After World War one, German Jewish veterans tried the same tactic. In England, it was to some extent successful; in Germany, it was not It remains to be seen whether a minority should ever try to embrace the cultural and gender norms of a society to end their own persecution.

* * * * *

Jared N Ross is a museum and history enthusiast who has worked in museums and education for 10 years. Starting as a lowly summer-student playing a 19th century British soldier, he has continued to work at many Museums and historic sites, including Fort York, Mackenzie House and Black Creek Pioneer Village. He has presented to thousands of students on all aspects of 19th century life, from the power of the original mass media (the printing press), to the first waves of immigration in 19th century Toronto. He completed his Undergraduate Honours in History at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, and a Master’s in British and Imperial History at York University. He hopes one day to lead a Klezmer-Celtic Fusion band.

‘Second Avenue Caper’ Hits Where ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Misses

This is not the review I want to be writing about Joyce Brabner’s ‘Second Avenue Caper’. I’d like to discuss it on its own terms. Reading it, the Dallas Buyers’ Club was the first thing that came to mind and I thought how incredibly obvious that was. How it didn’t really need to be mentioned, particularly when people have done such a good job of critiquing the obvious flaws of that film.

Unfortunately, there is a striking parallel between ‘Second Avenue Caper’ and Dallas Buyers Club that needs to be discussed, because it’s typical of a trend in moving Hollywood dramas about moments of historical importance. It’s not just a question of who gets to be the hero and who gets to be the sidekick. It’s a problem with what gets put into these stories – moving, human drama – and what gets left out.

secondavenuecaper

Title: Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague
Author: Joyce Brabner
Illustrator: Mark Zingarelli
Published: November 2014 by Hill and Wang (a Macmillan subsidiary)
Pages: 160 pages
Dimensions: 19.9 x 1.8 x 21 cm
Other Specs: Hardcover. Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: 24.99 In the Ad Astra Comix Shop

“Second Avenue Caper” is the work of Joyce Brabner, distinguished comics author, dedicated activist and frequent subject of the comic ‘American Splendor‘ by her late husband, Harvey Pekar.  The comic is told as an interview with her friend, Ray. It is illustrated by Mark Zingarelli, an experienced artist who contributed to R. Crumb’s ‘Weirdo’ and to American Splendor. The comic uses the interview as a framing device to narrate the story of Ray’s experience of the early days of the AIDS crisis as well as the larger historical context. It is centred around his work as a member of a group that was responsible for smuggling experimental drugs into the US for AIDS patients. That is the obvious similarity with the ‘Dallas Buyers Club’  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Dallas Buyer’s Club, here is a trailer:)

There is some obviously wack shit about this film that people haven’t been shy about calling out. Namely, it’s all about a straight white dude in a story about a crisis that overwhelmingly affected queer people and people of colour. It makes that white dude the hero of the story and hands him a plate of cookies for overcoming *some* of his bigotry. The film cast a cis man, Jared Leto, to play a trans woman. Leto’s performance was criticized as wooden and unbelievable and the character was criticized as being a stereotype.  All of this is pretty well putrid, but it’s also well trod ground.

SAC_2In the film, and in ‘Second Avenue Caper,’ a political narrative emerges alongside the human story. These narratives are sharply divergent and it’s in this divergence that I think the real value of a story like ‘Second Avenue Caper’ lies.

SAC_1Both are “based on a true story,” but Dallas Buyers’ Club is an outlier. The story of most people in the early days of the AIDS crisis is a story of queer people and people who used needle drugs. ‘Second Avenue Caper’ gives us an ensemble cast: it’s narrated by a gay male nurse, but his circle of friends stretches to include other gay men, lesbians, trans people, and people of colour. One character lacks status in the United States and is in danger of being deported even as he dies of AIDS. Instead, he ends up being driven across America in an RV being used to smuggle pharmaceutical drugs over the border. The narrator’s mother makes an appearance, doing her best to understand her son’s “lifestyle” and in the end criticizing her church for their un-Christian behaviour.SAC_7These characters enjoy more or less development – the narrator gets the most panel time, by necessity. But they speak, eloquently, about their experiences of a system that ignores them, at best. Some talk politics while others simply live them. There are artists and activists, rich gay men and a closeted pizzeria worker from a Mafia family. It’s an incredible story. And that’s great. So is Dallas Buyers Club when you get down to it. But while both have tender moments, heartbreak and human drama, only one acknowledges the political realities of the crisis.

SAC_5‘Second Avenue Caper’ calls Reagan out for refusing to even speak the fucking name of the disease. It features the revolutionary work of the direct action group ACT UP and the success of its confrontational tactics. (In general, ACT UP doesn’t get enough love. Check out this Oral History Project to learn more.) The comic goes out of its way to present an ensemble cast and include the contribution of lesbians in fighting in a struggle unlikely to affect their own bodies– a contribution that too often goes unacknowledged. And the comic is frank about how families abandoned their queer kids and hospitals turned patients away, isolating victims of AIDS when they were at their most vulnerable. It comes up more than once that the government and the public can’t quite be persuaded to give a fuck about what was seen as a gay disease and how that helped to spread the epidemic. Although it is a moving, human work with beautiful moments, it is also deeply personal.

SAC_6By contrast, Dallas Buyers Club is a free market fairy-tale. It is about a literal cowboy, a hard drinking, chain-smoking serial womanizer who wears his ignorance as a badge of honor. He is shown as defying arrogant government agencies who seem determined to block the entry of untested AIDS drugs into the US, mostly out of bureaucratic spite. The protagonist’s gradual, begrudging willingness to treat his oppressed clients like human beings is profoundly fucked. It’s not an improvement for bigots to slowly learn how to respect individual members of oppressed groups. That’s how the overwhelming majority of them already are. They are quite capable of making exceptions and recognizing the humanity of individual members of oppressed groups. There is nothing heroic about his tolerance.

SAC_4So here’s the larger point: Yes, representation matters. But even if a gay man or a trans woman had been the protagonist of Dallas Buyers Club it still would have been a libertarian’s fantasy. It still would have failed to acknowledge the deep, structural discrimination which worsened the AIDS crisis, put public health at risk and isolated tens of thousands of vulnerable people. It would also have failed to show the ways that people not only fought to survive, but fought back against the racist, homophobic reality of Reagan’s America. ‘Second Avenue Caper’ manages to do all those things while being every bit as funny, engaging and relatable as any Hollywood Blockbuster.

SAC_3

“UNDOCUMENTED” Maps the Hidden World of Migrant Detention

Undocumented coverTitle: UNDOCUMENTED: The Architecture of Migrant Detention
Author: Tings Chak
Illustrator: Tings Chak
Published: Self-published as a 3-part zine in August 2014; published by in September 2014
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Store
For more info: www.tingschak.com

Architecture has been described as a synthesis of life’s components in materialized form. Its proponents describe it as the mother art, or the soul of a civilization, and one in which we have historically defined our understandings of home, safety, comfort. It is an art form that can seem invisible and yet cannot possibly go unnoticed. But what happens when buildings are not, as architect Stephen Gardiner describes it, ‘good people making good buildings by good design’? What if the desired architecture is one of discomfort, isolation, and transience?

graph of architecturePrisons, detention centres, and other “holding facilities” are the subject explored artfully in this premiere work by Tings Chak, an artist, activist, and former architecture student. “Undocumented” is a jarring 3-part exploration the intimate relationship we have with the spaces around us. By examining their physical, emotional and psychological toll when occupied, “Undocumented” posits that their architecture is ill-designed and of ill-intent, meaning it mirrors the economic and political  architecture of global neo-liberal policy.

Part One: Landscape

What first strikes the reader in the comic’s first pages is the invisibility of migrant detention in countries like Canada.  From the outside, prisons and holding facilities are often nested inconspicuously in suburbs and bedroom communities. Locals think little of their impact but as a source of jobs in increasingly desperate economic times. Despite their underwhelming appearance, their intent, by design, is diametrically opposed to all the buildings around them.

confined viewThe construction of prisons and other involuntary holding facilities turns architecture on its head, and we experiences a sense of conceptual vertigo. Space and inhabitants alike are compartmentalized. The comic illustrates what inmates describe as a sense of isolation so intense that they feel they are becoming one with the walls in their cell. Aesthetically, this feeling is aided by the compartmental nature of comics as a “sequential” art form.

minimum space

Part Two: Building

“Undocumented” steps beside the realm of a comic with a linear narrative and into a category of ‘statistics illustrated’. The cold delivery of information brings home the point that these detention centres are, in so many ways, an impediment to the human narrative of their captives. Each individual, in their life journey through spaces and other individual lives, is suspended and infringed upon. Here, life is devoid of free will. Schedules are fixed and micro-managed. Interpersonal interaction is withheld and restricted. In order to understand the stories that escape from these hellish conditions, one must acknowledge the adversities they have overcome.

toronto immigration holding centerLooking over the grounds and conditions of a series of holding facilities in Ontario, they seem underwhelming, banal where we might expect that they be ominous. In other words, they are deceptive, and intentionally so.   By design and locale, they seem to embody the 19th century French “oubliette”: a dungeon where people are placed with the intention of being forgotten. Modern prison architecture shows that little has changed: rehabilitation, correction or even punishment are beyond the essential purpose of these facilities.

Confinement, historically: Pictured here from the larger french atlas, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, Bedlam, circled in blue, was a holding facility for those deemed mentally ill or otherwise unfit for 16th century civilization. According to a writing in 1591, "Bedlam was an oubliette in all but name--a place for forgetting, where the insane were locked up with those interred by their own families on some trumped-up charge simply to be rid of them."
Confinement, historically: Pictured here from the larger french atlas, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, Bedlam, circled in blue, was a holding facility for those deemed mentally ill or otherwise unfit for 16th century civilization. Despite it being officially identified as a place of support and assistance, according to a writing in 1591, “Bedlam was an oubliette in all but name–a place for forgetting, where the insane were locked up with those interred by their own families on some trumped-up charge simply to be rid of them.”

Part Three: Resistance

Here, the work takes a decidedly more human tone. We go from the vital statistics of carceral facilities to the descriptions of the lives of migrant detainees: precarious, vulnerable, and fearful. Quotes from men, women and children held in detention reveal a profound isolation – from spouse, sun and seasons – an example of the emotional trauma inflicted by confinement. Shine the light a bit further down this rabbit hole, and we consider the subject of solitary confinement, euphemistically termed “administrative segregation” by Corrections Canada. Here, a detainee could spend up to 23 hours completely alone, in what has been regarded by human rights activists for years as a criminal act that jumps the fenced definition of torture by any decent definition.

missing family memberUltimately, “Undocumented” is a look at architecture not as a thing of author-less objectivity, but as the physical legacy of accomplices to an agenda of discipline and exploitation. It helps us connect the economic policies of neo-liberalism that impoverish and displace populations to the detention centres they are confined in when they try to escape. With a cold, empirical lens, it demonstrates that the blueprints of migrant detention centres are drawn with the intent to isolate, agitate, and demoralize their human occupants.

Frank Lloyd Wright described architecture as a component in the construction of a civilization’s soul.  What, then, can be said of the civilization responsible for these gaps in our urban landscapes that neither light nor hope can penetrate?

“Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres” is launching as a published book this week, and if you’re in Toronto, you are invited! RSVP for the event here, on Facebook.

For those wanting to know more, visit Chak’s website, or the Ad Astra Comix online shop to purchase a copy.

 

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