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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters Author: Max Brooks Illustrator: Caanan White Published: Broadway Books (2014) Pages: 272 pages OtherSpecs: 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.
The 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.
We 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.
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. ★
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.
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.
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.
Mendoza 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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
Both 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.These 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.
‘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.
By 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.
So 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.
Title: 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?
Prisons, 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.
The 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.
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.
Looking 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.
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.
Ultimately, “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.
Today marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. For those looking to comics for a quick and easy fix to explain how WWI started, there is indeed a comic for that. But for those looking to take advantage of the medium’s great ability to disseminate a deeper understanding of the conflict’s human impact, there are some exceptional titles available this year. These include anthologies like Above the Dreamless Dead and To End All Wars, as well as re-releases of classics like Charley’s War and It Was a War of the Trenches, to name a few.
Today we’re taking a look at Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), an anthology of comics written and drawn to WWI poetry and song. Contributions are made by Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Sarah Glidden, Hunt Emerson, Eddie Campbell, and many more.
The space between a human being, their pen, and a piece of paper is a place not for patriotism any more than any other compulsory thought. In a time when you could have been arrested for resisting a war that saw thousands die for every mile of ground gained, poetry gave precious creative room for soldiers and non-combatants alike to process the trauma and stress of a life at war. Counting the years both during and after the conflict (1914-1918), World War I poetry, has grown to become a huge body of literary work. It is within this section of 20th century literature that dozens of comics creators have put together a creative and aesthetically varied collection for Above the Dreamless Dead.
Soldier songs, like those illustrated by British cartoonist Hunt Emerson, satirize and make light of the harsh everyday of the soldier–whereas Eddie Campbell’s piece, illustrating an episode of Patrick MacGill’s “The Great Push”, plunges head-first into the darkest corners of the human soul. Still others transcend the ultimately subjective spectrum of human emotion, and attempt to seek solace in the naturalist truth that regardless of man’s follies, the earth will continue to be as it always has.
Within the larger category of WWI poetry is the subcategory of trench poetry. Noteworthy space is given to the most well-known of these poets, namely Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Bearing witness to some of the most hellish of situations imaginable, trench poetry takes the reader to another world of blood, mud, and pain, at one both impending and uncertain. The stress induced by the battlefield lent itself well to art, where soldiers could perhaps hold on to their sanity by airing their demons.
In Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Immortals“, adapted here by Peter Kuper, we get a real taste of the fear and paranoia of the gunner who is tasked to shoot at an enemy that seems immune to death. The feeling of this unending hoard of soldiers leads Rosenberg to feel that he is fighting not a massive army, but the same undying soldiers over and over again.
The aesthetic diversity of the art presented in Above the Dreamless Dead is a reminder that WWI poetry is in fact a huge genre–and one that the book doesn’t even illustrated to its fullest, in my opinion. Above the Dreamless Dead focuses mostly on the poets proper of the era, and in doing so missed an opportunity to take a critical look at the growing argument for sexual and racial diversity of World War I poetry.
Focusing on young white men in documenting the First World War is obviously the norm, whether you’re interested in comics, poetry, or history in general. But historian Dr. Santanu Das (King’s College, London) states that our understanding of the war’s poetry is changing as we come to recognize the diversity of the work written at the time and on the subject. “Today, no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling, or Margeret Postgate Cole.” Note that neither Thomas Hardy nor Rudyard Kipling were enlisted, let alone combatants, yet they both appear in this anthology. Margaret Postgate Cole, a wonderful poet, was not, although it is arguable that she was more personally affected by the war as a socialist and activist (her brother was jailed for refusing military orders, after his application for CO status was rejected).
Das continues, “We also must move beyond Europe, because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe. We cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multiracial framework by investigating, recovering, and translating First World War poetry that’s being written often in non-European languages.” Suffice to say that there is no poetry here from a non-white or non-English-speaking perspective, in addition to there being no women poets.
This criticism could surely be echoed for most graphic interpretations of World War I, but it is a point worth noting from the perspective of our mandate (see Harlem Hellfighters below, for the ONE exception to this rule that we could find!). As 2014 invites us to meditate on the “War to End All Wars” we encourage our readers to keep a lookout for examples, comics or otherwise, of marginalized perspectives/histories of the World War I.
We hope that you pick up and enjoy your own copy of Above the Dreamless Dead, or any of the other WWI titles following!
World War I in Comics: A Reading List
Title: Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics Poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas
Creators: Eddie Campbell, Sarah Glidden, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Luke Pearson, Hunt Emerson, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Isabel Greenberg, George Pratt, Hannah Berry, Phil Winslade, Stephen R. Bissette, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, Lilli Carré, Pat Mills, David Hitchcock, Liesbeth de Stercke, Danica Novgorodoff, James Lloyd, Carol Tyler, and Anders Nilson Edited by: Chris Duffy Published: 2014 by First Second Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.9 x 1.7 cm, 144 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Title: The Great War Creator: Joe Sacco Published: 2013 by WW Norton Dimensions: 21.8 x 29 x 3 cm, 54 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Launched on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme has come to epitomize the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted. In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going over the top and getting cut down in no-man s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.”
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters Author: Max Books Illustrator: Caanan White Published: 2014 by Broadway Books Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.5 x 1.6 cm, 272 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, including from their own government.
Title: To End All Wars : The Graphic Anthology of The Great War Creators: Brick, Jonathan Clode, Michael Crouch, Steven Martin, Sean Michael Wilson, John Stuart Clark, Ian Douglas, Petri Hänninen, Bex Burgess, Stuart Richards, Lotte Grünseid, Chris Colley, Lex Wilson, Susan Wallace, Dan Hill, Faye Turner, Joe Gordon, Russell Wall and James Guy, Colm Regan, Andrew Luke, Sean Fahey, Pippa Hennessey, Steve Earles, Gary and Warren Pleece, and Selina Lock. Edited by: John Stuart Clark and Jonathan Clode Published: 2014 by Soaring Penguin Press Dimensions: 26 x 17 x 2.5 cm, 320 pages Purchase: from their blog!
An omnibus of 27 short graphic narratives based on actual events, characters, circumstances, incidents, myths or consequences of the Great War WWI. £2 for every copy of this publication sold will be donated to Medecin Sans Frontieres. Featuring the four theatres of war (land, sea, air and the home front), spanning four continents and drawn from both sides of the conflict, the stories range from 4 to 16 pages, each by a different author and/or illustrator from the world of independent comics.
Title: Charley’s War Author: Pat Mills Illustrator: Joe Colquhoun Published: August, 2014 by Titan Books Dimensions: 26.8 x 20 x 2.4 cm, 320 pages Purchase: Through a few places on Seven Penny Nightmare
Arguably the most well-known WWI comic of all time. From renowned UK comics writer Pat Mills and legendary artist Joe Colquhoun comes a truly classic piece of British comics history, by turns thrilling, humorous and horrifying. From its initial publishing in the 1970s and 80s, it was widely considered to be anti-war.
Title: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August – September 1914 Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
One winter morning, Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he made an incredible discovery: the real diary of a soldier from the First World War. Barroux rescued the diary from a rubbish heap and illustrated the soldier’s words. We don’t know who the soldier is or what became of him. We just have his words, and in his own words and Barroux’s extraordinary pictures
Title: Tardi’s WWI: It Was The War Of The Trenches/Goddamn This War! Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
Jacques Tardi is responsible for two acknowledged graphic novel masterpieces about World War I: It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War! To honor the 100th anniversary in 2014 of WWI, Fantagraphics has now released a two-volume boxed set collecting these two perennial classics. The first book, It Was the War of the Trenches, focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, bringing that existence alive as no one has before or since with some of his most stunning artwork. His second WWI masterwork, Goddamn This War!, is told with a sustained sense of outrage, pitch-black gallows humor, and impeccably scrupulous historical exactitude, in masterful full color.
Title: Trenches Creator: Scott Mills Published: 2002 by Top Shelf Productions Dimensions: 21.1 x 17.5 x 1 cm, 176 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store When Lloyd and David Allenby arrive in the trenches of the Western Front, they have no idea of the misery and violence that awaits them. Can an aloof Major be the father figure and guiding force in their desperate battle for survival? Or will the estranged brothers be swallowed up before they can come to terms with each other, trapped in the clutches of the Great War? Trenches is about the beautiful stories that come out of dark times.
Title: The Ghosts of Passchendaele Creator: Ivan Petrus For more info: Check out his website!
Launched in 2014, this is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. Painted in bold, dark, muddy colours, his art powerfully invokes the iconic post-war Passchendaele landscape. Petrus said: “My first graphic novel was about Nieuport, my second about Furnes and Pervyse, so the battle of Ypres in 1917 at Passchendaele was the next logical step. It was an iconic battle for the British and Anzacs troops. Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable. Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit – in deep mud.”
Here at Ad Astra, our focus is on comics. Hey, it’s in the name. But we are into political comics because we think they’re a great way to connect people with issues they might not otherwise have the time or the energy to learn about. We often have joking conversations around the office about what a social justice video game might look like. If we had the talent and resources to create one, we definitely would!
Without any formal training as a game designer, Chelsea Vowel has leveraged a simple set of game-making tools to create a promising effort at social justice video games!
It is simplistic, lacking in skill progression, ridden with bugs and built using software that produces Super Nintendo era graphics. As a video game, the “Idle No More: Blockade” leaves much to be desired. But that’s not really the point, is it? “Idle No More” takes you on a journey to learn about indigenous culture, challenge racist European myths and fight to defend traditional land rights! Your aim as the player is to prevent the construction of the Enkoch Pipeline over your sun dance field by rallying land defenders to confront the company on site. In a medium where overt social justice objectives are rarer than uncooked sirloin, this is a welcome prelude to possibility.
Framing the battles as confrontations with racist settlers was an inspired stroke. The player is confronted by white people complaining about “free houses”, “drunk Indians” and “blocking economic development.” The last boss is an RCMP officer who asserts the death of indigenous nationhood and insists the treaties extinguished their titles. All the enemies are represented as monsters from traditional Cree stories, helping to connect cultural memory to contemporary struggle. But the able player responds with statistics, history lessons and a good measure of sass. If you don’t have to fight the hipster girl asking about wearing a headdress to a Coachella festival, you kind of wish you could.
This is the value of “Idle No More” as a game. By making you an indigenous protagonist struggling to defend your land rights, the game encourages players to identify with the struggles of indigenous people. The first time I died in “combat” while educating an ignorant settler, I paused and reflected on how exhausting such confrontations must be. Seeking allies and finding ignorance, appropriation and patronizing cluelessness, I grew increasing frustrated. I was particularly annoyed by a “book of aboriginal law”, left with the elders by Enkoch representatives. You can take the book, but [SPOILER ALERT] using it on enemies only heals them! Which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
One of the most striking features of “Idle No More” is its emotional range. “I laughed, I cried” is the old cliché. In twenty minutes, the game had me doing both. I was all crystal tears, I don’t mind saying, at the prospect of a pipeline going through the sun dance field. And damned if I didn’t crack up when the character looked at a book shelf and exclaimed “Tom Flanagan? Yuck.” There is a whole vocabulary of non-verbal expressions associated with the oppressed: the raised eyebrow, the ‘side-eye’, the rolling eyes or the apathetic shrug. In between moments that are genuinely funny and those that are painfully sad, there is at once a piercing earnestness and a wry humour.
“Idle No More” is not much of a video game, but it’s a hell of a story. It seeks to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of indigenous communities, their contributions to humanity and their determination in the face of an ongoing campaign of genocide. In a game peppered with indigenous language, culture and politics, the player grows to identify with a people whose very humanity has been eroded by the narrative of our civilization. In other words, it might just help people shed some prejudice. So why not make video games that teach radical and oppressed history and culture more interesting than Big Macs and MTV? We look forward to seeing this budding art form grow.
You can download the Idle No More video game and play it for yourself HERE.
Go into any mainstream comic shop or bookseller chain, and the graphic novel series you are most likely to find starring a cast of native characters is “Scalped”. The 10 volume series (collecting all 60 issues of the comic book) is published by Vertigo Comics, a mature readers imprint of DC (one of the ‘Big Two’ comic publishers). Its high profile can also be attributed to writer Jason Aaron, who currently scribes popular superhero titles for Marvel Comics such as “Wolverine”, “The X-Men”, “Thor”, “Captain America”, and “The Avengers”. Continue reading Indigenous Comix: Taking a Critical Look at Vertigo’s Adult Series “Scalped”→
Title: Oil and Water Writtenby: Steve Duin Illustratedby: Shannon Wheeler Introductionby: Bill McKibben Publishedby: Fantagraphics (2011)
Oil and Water is a work of comics journalism exploring the impact of the 2011 BP oil spill on the coastal communities and ecosystems of Louisiana, through the eyes of a delegation of activists from Oregon.
Most of us probably know some about the disaster that led to the largest oil spill in human history. The deaths of 11 BP workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the following 87 days of petroleum gushing unabated into the Gulf was, to a group of progressives from Oregan, the calling they needed to visit Louisiana and bear witness–to the spill, yes, but perhaps moreso the larger and deeply troubling questions it posed: What are the real effects of ecological disasters? Are these disasters avoidable? Ultimately, in a world that is quickly running out of fossil fuels, is the disaster even the root problem?
Even those of us who have looked at the greater implications may find it hard to fully understand the impact of the BP oil spill without a visit to the Gulf coast. This was, at least in part, the viewpoint of the Oregon delegation, which included writer Steve Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler.
Profiles are drawn of the different personalities, from their flight into Louisiana until their last day, which certainly gives Oil and Water a ‘documentary’ feel. Scenes are intermissioned by small, 4-paragraph pages detailing some of the many troubling aspects of the spill, including BP’s record of cutting corners to save costs, or the devastation of the Gulf’s sea turtle populations.
The artwork is black and white, with sketches filled in with a patchy, dark watercolour stain, certainly intended to mimic the appearance of oil. For Shannon Wheeler, an artist who is arguably known more around the world for his series Too Much Coffee Man, it struck me a bit by surprise. The art overall has a sense of haste, giving me the impression that they were rendered not from photographs but from on-the-scene sketching–something that may or may not be true.
I am impressed with the changing of perspectives throughout the book. Duin seems to have really captured the thoughts and expressions of a number of trip participants and Louisiana locals, who voice their fair share of cynicism towards activists and outsiders parachuting into their neighborhood–seemingly a deja vu of the Katrina aftermath. In these sequences, we see members of the delegation change their way of seeing the world–and change their minds as to how they will act.
“Oil and Water” is a masterful collage of stories that, none to its detriment, only begins to scratch the surface of this tragedy. It would be a useful map of topics for someone looking for a starting point to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art is quintessential reading for those who appreciate comic books as a legitimate art form. It explores, with great authority, the method underlying the form of combining words and pictures in sequential art storytelling.
So what does all that mean to folks who don’t fall under the Art Nerd category?
Well, the ideas covered in this book can tackle some of the following subjects:
– Why comics, cartoons, and “sequential” art has been used for thousands of years
– Why the medium is accessible as a popular art form, as well as being capable of great sophistication
– Why film isn’t just “like comics, but better” – a favorite point raised by many comics afficionados including Alan Moore
Scott McCloud, who is creator of the both the book’s works and graphics, actually illustrates his theory and methodology as you’re reading about it–which is great for visual learners, and definitely drives home the points he is trying to make. What is more, the research is intensely thorough. Check out the chart on page 52-53 where he maps out the geography of the comic art universe, in which comics are located based on their varying gravity towards Reality, Meaning, and the Picture Plane.
Drawn images, McCloud points out, are all symbols, including the visual depictions of our languages. Yet written language is received, and is the process of training and education… whereas a drawing of a woman or a boat is perceived–that is, instantaneously understood as a representation of that thing. Comic arts, among other things, is a practice of reconciliation between these two distance cousins–an attempt to harmonize them in a way that only uses one sense–sight–to take it in, and yet professes all of our senses, and all perceived dimensions–including time.
So what does the typical comic reader get from reading Understanding Comics?
Aside from getting your mind blown about the abilities of the medium, Understanding Comics will truly help you to further appreciate decent comic art. It will help you to recognizing quality; it will help you to differentiate style, including cultural influences that you may not have previously noticed (Japanese comics, for example, are notably different in method than American or European comics, and this can be linked quite conclusively to a difference in values, philosophies, and methods of thinking.)
You may wish to pick it up as a map of what kinds of styles are out there, in terms of culture, style, time period. Or you may find it empowering to more deeply understand the comics you already know and love. Whatever the case may be, the book is a must-read for comics aficionados… and, arguably, those looking to understand why comics are once again on the rise.
For those who read and like Understanding Comics – you will probably want to check out McCloud’s next installment – Reinventing Comics, which takes the theory and method to the next level, and explores some of the new realms comics are tackling.
Scott McCloud also has a wonderful Ted Talk that combines the fundamentals of both of these books. Click on the image below to check it out in a new window.