Words: Hugh Goldring
Pictures: Nicole Marie Burton
Based on the research of Sky Croeser (Dept Internet Studies, Curtin University)
To order this comic as a booklet, visit our online store.
Words: Hugh Goldring
Pictures: Nicole Marie Burton
Based on the research of Sky Croeser (Dept Internet Studies, Curtin University)
To order this comic as a booklet, visit our online store.
Last January, we spent time in Atlanta Georgia with our friend. Specifically, we spent time in Dekalb County, Georgia, with Andrew, the co-founder of On Our Own Authority Books and his daughter, Olivia. This comic is about them.
There is a persistent trope about great ideas: they are scrawled drunkenly on the back of a cocktail napkin. The following morning they reveal themselves as the spark of some divine madness that uplifts the author. But in the case of Robot Hugs, it was a forest of post-it notes, and less of an uplift than a very normal struggle with the darker corners of their mind. Which makes the whole proceeding a little less mythical, and a little more plausible.
“I was alone one summer in a little house, and I was drawing them as a kind of coping mechanism.” RH explains this to me as we sip Red Stripe on a rooftop patio looking east towards Toronto’s iconic CN Tower. The reply is in response to a question about the one-panel animal mash-ups that pop up frequently in the early years of the strip. “When my room-mates got back, the house was practically covered in these post-its. Kind of like when you look into a serial killer’s room and the wall is covered. Only with post-its.” They laugh.
Robot Hugs is a special kind of web comic. Running in a variety of formats since 2011, its genesis lies earlier in the above-mentioned summer. The comic consistently updates twice a week, though the precise days may vary. Topics include struggles with mental health, discussions of queerness and body diversity, interspersed with cats. Lots of cats.
According to its author, traffic spiked around “Interpretation” and “But Men”. Today, the comic is frequently posted around, showing up on Imgur, Metafilter and even Upworthy.
We started off with a conversation around issues of voice – how it is appropriate to discuss struggles that don’t affect you personally, as well as being mindful to articulate yourself in language that is accessible and respectful.
“I wish I could talk more on my site about figuring out what I can add to a conversation, when there’s so many people who say much better than me,” RH explains. “So if I can’t think of a unique way of putting it, or showing it, that’s OK because there’s really smart people with good voices and excellent ways of putting things.”
They can do the talking – I don’t need to add my noise to that. But we were talking earlier about not appropriating voice – so while I have strong views on issues of race, I think they’re better articulated by a person of colour. I think sometimes about issues with adding your voice is maybe you’ll be heard where an oppressed person wouldn’t, but at the same time, I don’t want to add chaff to a conversation.
They explained that their social circle acts as a kind of safety net where they can check in when they are concerned about speaking on behalf of others when they mean to be amplifying the voices of the oppressed. They describe the need to respect their audience as a major subject for reflection.
It’s OK to fuck up. We all do. The important thing is to be accountable.
They mentioned a pending project about the experiences of a trans friend working in the tech sector as an example of amplifying voice. Concerns around voice and representation are also a factor in the diversity of comics characters, RH explains. Race is simple to illustrate, but questions of technical skill make differentiating body types challenging.
When asked about the prevalence of penguins in the comic, RH expresses a kind of characteristically wry, anecdotal ambivalence. “I guess my affinity for penguins is because they’re my father’s favourite animal. But thinking about it, he probably just got so many penguins over the years that he’s likely sick of them by now. Like buying ties, he acted pleased so we kept buying him penguin things whether or not he actually likes them. My family has a history of penguins – they’re cute, and stoic.
It definitely takes a certain stoicism to publish web comics, given the climate of harassment and intimidation that pervades the internet.
“The weekend when Robot Hugs picked up a lot of traffic was very stressful. I was at a kink event geared to women and gender minorities; I was doing workshops and stuff. Then my comic blew up. I couldn’t reach my partner, I was getting ALL THE E-MAILs… So now I have the incredible MZ, who screens my e-mails and does most of my FB. I put up a harassment policy and negative stuff dropped pretty much to zero. I put something up to the effect of ‘If you threaten me, it’ll get forwarded to the police’ so now people just say horrible things on their sites. This was something very concerning to me at the beginning, and while it’s diminished, the echoes remain.”
But there are positive aspects to working in web comics, particularly the evolving community of artists who co-promote and organize events together. With regard to the broader community, RH explains:
“I follow a lot of comic artists: Erika Moen, Ryan North (I had a crush on him forever). People just do this incredible work, and the larger answer is that I look up to a lot of creators, but I haven’t quite broken into knowing them as people. I’d love to, though. For now I am happy to follow their work and learn from that.”
At times, Robot Hugs can be a very personal comic. Asked about the comic catching on, RH replied “More people visit my comic than I could ever know IRL and that’s great – but I am happy just doing what I am doing, and glad to know people appreciate it. I’m doing well. They give me positive feedback, and sometimes they buy my stuff.”
They do have one concern about a personal anecdote that might be taken as indicative of bad politics:
There’s one comic in particular I always worry about people getting to. It says “being a whore was harder than she had thought.” I worry people will think it’s anti-sex work, that I’m anti-sex work, and no, just no. I was dating a woman at the time who had started doing sex work and she literally said that, which I thought was the funniest thing ever.
With fame, such as it is, comes rewards. “What’s been cool about the feedback, especially around challenging things like mental illness, dermatillomania, depression, general world frustration, is the countless e-mails I’ve gotten and, holy crap, somebody else feels like this?! And that’s really, really, really good. I haven’t felt alone; I’ve worked in mental health support and know the feeling of isolation that defines mental illness. I don’t feel ashamed or upset talking about the inside of my head. Given that I have that particular outlook on my own head-space, and that other people are connecting and feeling less isolated because of it, sharing it with their friends, I think that’s great.”
At this point, I discovered that the laptop RH had loaned my broke ass to conduct the interview had reverse scroll on. When I exclaimed in dismay on this point, they replied.
Yeah, it’s part of my depression. Though it makes more sense for it to be part of my queerness – I even scroll backwards.
Returning to the subject of mental health, RH elaborates.
“I got a great e-mail from a man whose son had hard times in his head, and he showed ‘Nest’ to the kid, and the kid connected. So the father wrote to say that, and now I know about making safe spaces for him. Getting that kind of e-mail makes the risks associated with sharing personal content totally worth it. I don’t think sharing any of my personal life has backfired at all.”
Somewhere around here I all but hurled the laptop over the edge of the roof. A wasp had buzzed a little too near me, sending me into a flailing panic. As I struggled to regain my composure, I inquired about the name of the series.
“In high school I had a friend who thought I was totally emotionless, and I asked if he wanted a hug, and he said ‘No! They’re robot hugs. They mean nothing’.” I stifled an objection at this point; by all accounts, RH seemed genuinely warm to me, not robotic in the least.
Instead, I asked about how they conceived of Robot Hugs in terms of the internet zeitgeist. The past few years have seen a proliferation of social justice activism in digital spaces, challenging the traditionally very hostile culture of the internet towards diversity. Did RH see themselves as part of this rising tide of resistance, or as a lone voice shouting in the wilderness?
“Depends on where you’re shouting. Sometimes I get stats on people who post my comics, and sometimes I see them using me as points in arguments, in debates online, which is one of the really flattering things about making something that people feel they can communicate – it’s good to feel like you’re able to help in that struggle.”
“There are large sites mentioned earlier, and it’s always good to fight, and it’s always good to make sure these are voices that get heard. If my comic is part of that, amazing! I think the net has potential to be inclusive, and some places try to accomplish that, and some places fail miserably. As long as someone’s standing up and saying, “Don’t be an asshole”….!
“Kind of related to this – do you know Metafilter? It’s a link aggregator, but it’s heavily moderated. You can only post good stuff. The link has to be worthwhile, conversations are moderated so you can’t jump in and say problematic shit. If you’re being an asshole you’ll just get your comments deleted. That makes me feel like it’s the rare place on the internet you can read the comments. Recently I looked at the earliest Metafilter, and I found a lot more problematic stuff – racist apologizing, fat-shaming, slut shaming. But over 12 years it’s turned into a community that’s prioritized the inclusivity and safety we want to see in other spaces, where you can’t come in and say awful shit; you have to be a human being. There’s models for change that I’d like to see implemented. Looking at those old archives, if I’d gone then, I wouldn’t have stayed – I would have been like ‘fuck this’ and jumped ship. But it’s not like that now. It’s a model of a place where you can have critical discussions but can’t be a jerk about it. It’s one of my favourite sites.”
On the note of inclusion, I was curious about something: a few comics reference a conflict with a ‘Pregnancy Care Centre’. Were those true stories? Would they be up for talking about this?
They replied without hesitation.
“That was bullshit, I’ll tell you, it was fucking bullshit. You can print that. They have ads for that shit in the TTC, these stupid ‘Know your options’ ad. I get so mad, I put post-it notes on these ads.”
“I used to work across the hall from this pregnancy crisis centre. I’d leave research studies on their walls, but they caught on so it didn’t last. But people would come in looking for it, and I’d be like ‘I know where it is but you should know it’s anti-choice and they’ll give you medical misinformation and not give you all your options. Here are a few other places you can go if you need help and want someone to be straight with you.’”
“And I’d give out cards. I told people where it was, but I wanted them to know. The centre didn’t appreciate it – they didn’t know they were anti-choice, they just thought people should ‘know the realities’. Fuck them. In reality, it wasn’t that dramatic – I was polite and smiled a lot, while trying to keep people away from the wrongness that is Pregnancy Crisis Centre.”
I missed my mark with a question about influences, guessing at the Far Side, Parking Lot is Full and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
“If anything influenced me, it was XKCD. Everyone is influenced by it, people realize, ‘Hey, simple art can convey complex ideas. I was very taken away by its early whimsy. I was reading a lot of that during the dark summer of post-it notes, (which is actually what that’s called). I was trying to reach for that non sequitur style niceness. I’m also compared to Invisible Bread and Buttersafe, which is great, because it’s the perfect combination of weird and optimistically sweet. Those were concepts I was influenced by when starting out, starting to draw. Now I’m tackling more challenging things: mental illness, gender issues, general life shit. That’s what you do, right? You see what you like, try to get your own shit going, still refer to them fondly – everyone gets their own voice in the end. …I liked Far Side growing up.”
Influence is not entirely an aesthetic question, of course. As far as inspiration goes, RH had this to say:
I wrote a bunch of academic papers about kink communities, web communities and what they mean. Fascinating and challenging spaces which have a lot of possibility. I’m alternately fascinated and frustrated, enamoured and enraged. Any community that you identify with can have that effect.
I get angry. There’s a lot of frustration in me, and in the people around me. As I’ve continued to do this amazing thing where people follow me and I get to put up my work on this site, I have an opportunity to vocalize that frustration. I’ve had the advantage of doing that more, and getting feedback. I guess it’s that voice-finding stuff we’ve been talking about. As this comic develops into a whole “thing”, I’ve been able to put myself and my opinions out there more, and develop them as I get feedback.
I’m very lucky. I have a great space. People that want to see what I have to say do, and give feedback. People in my own circles that support me give me feedback, tell me when I’m being stupid, which is the most important thing someone can do for you. And I’m excited to see what happens.
Without gushing too much, I don’t mind saying: Me too.
All comics are (c) Robot Hugs and have been used with permission.
It is a simple thing for the analytical mind to pry open the panel of oppression and see the whizzing cogs and grumbling gears of race, class and gender working mechanically to produce social relations. How neatly our familiar intellectual frameworks structure our understanding of human life! There is a reassuring consistency with which these lenses are employed, reducing the world’s complexities to a comfortable, mechanical pattern. Useful as it is, the cold-blooded methodology that sees the operation of capitalism, patriarchy and racism in all things fails to capture the essential ambiguity of our humanity.
It is this ambiguity of the human experience that Kate Beaton has captured in her recent series, Ducks. Threaded beautifully into starkly political themes of environmental destruction, corporate recklessness and workplace safety are more explicitly human experiences: isolation, camaraderie and the moral complexity of survival in one of the world’s deepest wounds. The essential humanity of surviving in such a profoundly dehumanizing environment defines this painfully nuanced piece.
Humanity is a dangerous concept, but an important one. It is too often emphasized by exclusion, used to demonize some people to serve the ends of others. Still, it is too important an idea to abandon. When the easy tautologies of political analysis fail us, it is the idea of our shared humanity that helps to explain what makes people hang together. For students of struggle, insights into this frustratingly elusive element of history are precious.
Like generations of easterners, Kate Beaton left her home town of Mabou, Nova Scotia to make a living in the scabrous sprawl of the tar sands. With few economic prospects at home and the promise of good pay, thousands have followed its siren call into the maw of destruction. ‘Ducks’ recounts Beaton’s experiences working on one of these sites, centred around the deaths of hundreds of ducks in a tailings pond near Fort MacMurray, Alberta.
There are no easy truths framed by these panels. An action by Greenepeace that clogs a tailing pipe endangers the lives of workers on site. A sex worker finds herself frightened and cornered in a work site bathroom. Kate Beaton discovers that working in the tar sands comes with a persistent skin rash. Her equipment is covered in dirt, even indoors. Workers die on the job.
The comic is shot through with death: the ducks, a man falling from a construction crane, others killed in an accident on the highway. In the last case, Beaton hears the dead men were Cape Bretoners and seeks out another islander to see if she knew them. Even halfway across the country, the threat to home is real.
Beaton exposes a vein of callous indifference in her subjects. Men grumble about traffic on the highway on the day of the accident. Workers joke through an announcement on the death of the crane operator. The corporate response to the duck deaths is a scarecrow and some noisemakers. But for every example of inhuman indifference there is a counterpoint of dignity or sorrow.
There is the memory of home, too, in gentle jibes about Newfie Roundsteaks – a teasing nickname for baloney. A man shares photos of his children at home. The lethal crash is framed in terms of the phone call to the families. When Beaton confesses she hates it there, her coworker response captures the essential truth of the situation, and the strip. No one wants to be in the tar sands, watching the planet die. But they don’t have much of a choice.
Kate Beaton is not always a political artist – she is not even always serious. But in framing a part of her own experience, she has given expression to an often difficult truth. We survive in the little acts of kindness, in shared experiences and frustrations that complicate our day. Though we may grow numb or compromised, at the end of it all we are bound together by our common humanity and our ability to find beauty – and absurdity – in even the most trying situations. That is a political lesson than captures an intangible truth outside the reach of cold analysis. How we apply the lesson is up to us.
“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”
How many times has some variation on this theme been thrown in the face of some well-intentioned person? They’re “just trying to understand”, and how can they do so if you won’t explain? As an upper middle class white dude, I remember asking such innocent-seeming questions myself, failing to appreciate what the Audre Lorde quote above explains: educating your oppressor is draining! I was lucky enough to have a kind and very patient friend to deliver a staggering series of savage defeats in debates I had imagined I’d won. It took years for the implications of her arguments to penetrate the murky sludge of privilege and teach me an essential lesson: it can be hard to understand what we do not experience. The experience of oppressed people and our difficulty in understanding it makes them an other, separate from us and outside our understanding.
For those unfamiliar with this academic term, the “other” describes the relationship of those excluded or oppressed by a group or society by virtue of their identity. You know what they say where clarity’s concerned: “a .jpg is worth a blog post but a meme will do in a pinch.” So there’s a kind of emotional truth to the expressions of the otters linked above that we wouldn’t get from a graduate course on the subject. The appeal of a snarling otter over the excruciating tedium of a dozen French philosophers is obvious. This otter is asks us to go beyond feeling bad about our privilege and understand it is disgusted with our failure to do anything about it – or maybe just disliked that chewed up watermelon.
But otters keep a busy schedule and can’t be everywhere! Luckily, there are comics. The internet has helped broadcast the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience than was previously possible. People who would struggle to get a speaking role on a third-string sitcom can have audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and comics are one of the most accessible media to do so. For regular people struggling to understand how their privilege can be harmful to otters, comics beat the heat of the librarian’s stare when your intellectual sweat starts to stain the aging furniture your local bibliotheque.
Comics can be an excellent way to visually represent concepts that take ages to present in text. That’s 500 years of exploitation in six panels, and if it lacks the nuance of a textbook on the triangular trade, hey, it’s a starting point. An interested person with good intentions can proceed from here to Google, Wikipedia or the nearest library. It is the beginning of a frame of reference. Most importantly, it conveys an emotional truth.
So much of oppression hinges on emotional truth. One can produce endless statistics on mortality rates during Atlantic crossings, the value generated by slaves for the American economy, the value of unpaid housework to the capitalist economy or whatever else suits you. But notwithstanding statistical significance, you know what they say: tell a human story, people can relate. If you want to bore them, use statistics.
While there might be a startling brutality to statistics on trans suicides, many may find it easier to relate the above comic to their own experience of breaking difficult news to their parents. It is always the case when unpacking your privilege that a dash of empathy goes a long way, and if the personal is political it’s electrical too. So comics are a place to plug in, and that’s always good. They can be especially effective when someone who shares your privilege uses comics as a way to speak directly to your experience, and acknowledges the frustration of being called out while you are trying to educate yourself. If this comes with two scoops of tough love, at least you can see yourself in the face of the person behind the pencil.
Nothing, of course, is universal. But the beauty of comics are their incredible diversity. Not every comic will illuminate every question. Seeking understanding is catching fish with your bare hands, slippery at the best of times, without mediating that search through art. For those of us hoping to improve our allyship, it is alright to admit that we just don’t get it. Sometimes, we may have no reaction to a given comic at all.
And that’s ok. In our journey to understand the differences that separate us, and the way our behaviour has the capacity to harm people, we do not need to instantly grasp every concept that’s presented. Some questions have answers you can’t put in comics, or books for that matter. Ultimately these are questions rooted in human experience and therefore best addressed through human interaction. Still, if you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth and potentially hurting someone’s feelings, comics can be a great place to start. You never know whose life you might make a little easier.
Ad Astra Comix is building an index of comics to help prospective allies educate themselves! In the meantime, check out some of web comics linked here with permission from the artists–or e-mail us if you think there’s a particularly crucial comic to have on the list! If the comic in question comes in print, we may be interested in ordering it, so feel free to contact us about that, too. 🙂
With over 2,000 likes on Facebook (where it is glibly listed under the category “Wine / Spirits”), many may still be unfamiliar with Great Moments in Leftism, an amateurish strip by a self-confessed bad artist.
With an accompanying blog that only dates back to April, this nascent phenomenon in left-loathing has yet to let the echoes of the internet bring its natural audience out of hiding in the squats, university classrooms and purposeless circle-marches that constitute their natural habitat. But with a willingness to speak truth to power, albeit in a state of relative anonymity, it’s only a matter of time before strips from Great Moments in Leftism make their way onto Facebook pages and the doors of grad students’ shared office space everywhere.
Although the acid tone mocks leftist tropes and organizations with enthusiasm, the author demonstrates such a familiarity with their subject that they must either have a background on the radical left or be a singularly dedicated hater. Just about every left group is sardonically skewered by the author, with many comics fixing a single organization – the IWW, Kasama Project or the International Socialist Organization – in the crosshairs. The best comics, however, identify tendencies on the broader left and cast them in the awkward limelight of absurdity.
For example, the man in the above comic (complete with creepy John Waters moustache) identifies as an organizer. That this role seems to consist mainly of insular participation within existing activist circles, falling short of actually organizing any communities, seems lost on him. The buttons on his chest demonstrate the easy retail nature of the activist identity, advertising to like minds that here is a person who has dropped by the bucket of pins offered at their student union and fished out the best of the bunch. Left implicit is the idea that the ‘organizer’ identity is so insular that it precludes the possibility of actually organizing anyone who doesn’t already attend your reading circle, punk show or vegan potluck.
The theme of the activist as The Other makes another appearance in this comic. A cross section of apparent radicals at their respective Thanksgiving dinners are seen scolding the rest of the table. The politics of the comic as a whole suggest that the author is sympathetic to critiques of colonialism and consumerism such as those offered in the comic. But the implicit critique in the previous comic – that activism is an insular, primarily social activity with no potential for mass struggle – is made all the more evident. Not for nothing does Google turn up 13 million search results for ‘surviving Thanksgiving’, many of which emphasize the importance of avoiding politics. Whether the author thinks activists should hold their tongues or seek more constructive engagement on holidays, the contempt for humourless blathering is everywhere evident.
If the left misses opportunities to engage with a broader community, as the author sometimes seems to suggest, there are evidently reasons why. In this comic, a smug union staffer is seen explaining to a handful of labour protesters agitating for higher wages. Even the status of the protesters as workers or merely fellow activists is left ambiguous, but one thing is not: the character of the event as a stage-managed show for the media. As the union staffer makes a self-congratulatory exit, he reflects happily on his prospects for career advancement. The theme of careerism in the left is a frequent subject of criticism, and while it is often directed at those who put financial advancement ahead of the movement, it is sharpened here to demonstrate that certain types of organizing may do more for the organizers than any intended beneficiary.
Of course, even organizing ‘the left’ to come out in any collective capacity is like herding cats. The point is ably made in this comic, where a group of leftists holding a banner calling for left unity scowl at one another. Barely able to share a banner, how are these men meant to accomplish its stated purpose and unite the left? The fact that they are all men does not seem incidental, as the comic does regularly feature women. Without knowing for sure if the decision is deliberate, it seems unlikely the endless echoes across the radical left that feminism is divisive would have escaped the artist’s notice. But then, the idea that misogyny is the real divisive force on the radical left never quite occurs to figures like the ones in the comic.
“Whither the left?” seems to be the snarky inquiry on the tip of the artist’s pen. The answer that flows forth is left to the individual interpretation of the reader, but a common theme seems to emerge: we are going in smug circles. The idea is perhaps most succinctly captured in this comic. A man in a flannel shirt and flat cap holds a sign denouncing capitalism, with the initials of the International Socialist Organization on it. When the last panel closes on his face, he reflects contentedly that he’s in the class struggle, though by all accounts he appears to simply be at a protest. This is the recurrent theme of many of these strips: whatever our grouping or politics, we have become content with the ritualized politics of symbolic dissent. To many, there would be nothing immediately laughable about the man’s belief he is in the class struggle, and a few comments on the Facebook page complain of not getting the joke. Maybe the best explanation is the commenter who simply said “Still feels damned good.” True as that may be, Great Moments in Leftism seems calculated to disrupt our pleasant reverie and ask the uncomfortable question: What are we doing wrong?
Ad Astra: You’re in the final stretch of your Indiegogo campaign! How would you describe the experience so far?
Rodrigo: Running my first Indiegogo campaign has definitely been a huge learning curve, especially for someone like myself whose knowledge (not to mention enthusiasm!) for the ins and outs of social networking platforms is not always up to par. Definitely my eyes have been opened to the idea of crowd funding- there is so much potential for doing advocacy and charitable work on the Internet, but so much time and effort to be invested as well. The sheer diversity of initiatives and ideas being funded right now through crowd funding, however, is mind-blowing and it’s exciting times for people with new and innovative ideas. I very much see our indiegogo campaign as the humble first steps taken in a longer path of development.
AA: The concept of a web comic about a subject matter like domestic abuse must have been new for some people.
R: Yes, definitely new, although it seems that’s been a positive thing for most people learning about the project, especially for those already working in the field of violence against women in a supportive capacity. There seems to be a thirst for new approaches to raising awareness of the topic. Violence against women is a very difficult subject to broach because it makes most people uncomfortable and it’s not the sort of thing one hears brought up in day-to-day conversations. For the most part, there’s been an unwritten code of silence that underlies the topic of violence against women in society. I think comics and graphic novels have a lot of potential, because if you can’t confront people directly about it at first, you can at least have them read about it in a format other than news reporting or statistics and if the story is compelling enough, they can and hopefully will talk about it with others. Expressing the subject in the form of a story allows for discussion in a manner that’ s a little less direct but hopefully still engaging. That’s the theory anyway!
AA: And what kind of spectrum of feedback have you gotten?
R: The feedback I’ve received on through our CWAC campaign has been overwhelmingly positive and for the most part people (including individuals working for organizations) have demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. There seems to be a notion that a comic series addressing violence against women has a lot of educative potential as well (i.e. lots of comments about using this in the classroom and with younger audiences). I’m flattered by this sentiment and indeed part of me hopes “BRANDED” does one day make it to classrooms but admittedly there is also a small part of me that is wary of it. And that’s because there may be an assumption underlying this that comics/graphic novels is something for kids. Of course, audiences already familiar with the medium know that this limiting stereotype was broken a long time ago and that many of the most successful graphic novels have handled very serious or political subjects in very unconventional yet compelling ways and in a manner that is unique to the medium. The other thing is that when we slap the word ‘education’ on something, it can carry a lot of baggage with it, just as the term ‘entertainment’ can. This comes from outmoded ways of thinking that equate learning with textbooks and grading and entertainment with passive consumption. I think there’s a lot of room for unpacking these terms and exploring comics as more of a liminal space.
AA: Let’s go back a bit. Where did the idea of “BRANDED” originate from? Were you inspired by other comic books already out there? What about the subject matter?
R: Like many others, the clincher for me in terms of what comics are capable of accomplishing was reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus and works by Alan Moore and Marjane Satrapi. Regrettably, in terms of raising awareness of violence against women, my familiarity with the phenomenon (also like many others) comes from knowing someone who has experienced sexual assault and having an intimate understanding of the traumatic and dispiriting effects that accompany it.
My idea for writing “BRANDED” in particular came from attending a panel on National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women last December. Part of the event featured an installation where about a hundred black cut-out silhouettes of women were positioned everywhere and each one featured a short real-life account of a woman’s experience with male violence. These were collected by crisis line workers over the period of a single month. There was something about the immediacy of these stories that I found staggering and that spoke to just how obscured the phenomenon of violence against women is– here were all of these horrendous real-life accounts of violence against women, and the majority of them never reach public consciousness. During the subsequent panel discussion, the question was also raised, “What is the role of men in ending violence against women?” That was very much my own personal call to action and for whatever reason, the idea entered my mind– I’m going to make a comic series addressing violence against women–and I just knew from that point onwards this was something that I was going to have to do. From there, the premise and most of the characters basically spilled out of me in one brainstorming session shortly afterwards.
AA: “BRANDED” includes a figure known as “The Brander”. Comics have expanded so much since the first
days of caped crusaders. What inspires you to continue on with the inclusion of a ‘caped’ hero–someone with a secret identity and extraordinary abilities?
R: Well, the first thing is that I don’t really consider “BRANDED” to be a superhero story per se, nor will The Brander have any extraordinary abilities (although the secret identity trope is very much a part of the character). That’s because she or he is very peripheral to the story and only gets minimal page time. Instead, most of the story centers on a group of characters whose lives are impacted in different ways by The Brander’s actions, which are at best controversial and morally not so easy to justify. Readers familiar with the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon (sparked by Gail Simone a number of years ago) will be familiar with the argument that too often in comics, we see female characters maimed, raped, incapacitated or killed off ruthlessly and abruptly, usually in order to provide a motivation for the protagonist/superhero. “BRANDED” eschews such shock-value devices and instead depicts women as survivors (not just victims) of male violence and its consequences. The presence of The Brander–a vigilante who has decided to seek redress for women survivors of male violence because the law has been deemed incapable of providing this-is meant to provoke readers into thinking about what sort of factors would actually drive somebody to adopt such a role. In real life, it’s estimated that only a fraction of sexual assault incidents are reported to the police by survivors and of these statistically only a fraction result in a conviction or imprisonment, so I think this theme of absence of redress or lack of justice is a very real one for many survivors of violence. My idea was to have a vigilante who went around branding the faces of perpetrators of sexual violence in order to expose them and place the burden of shame and stigma on them rather than the survivor, which is what we tend to see too often in real life. The Brander, despite only having a minor role in the story, is meant to embody the response (albeit a dramatic one) to this absence of redress and there’s a certain inevitability to the character’s appearance that I hope comes across when we bear the statistics in mind. When we recall the example of the vigilante group “Anonymous” and their intervention in the recent Rataeh Parsons case, The Brander isn’t too far a stretching of reality.
AA: What advice would you have for others fundraising for projects with a similar interest?
R: It’s important to build a community around your cause or project. For me, even though I decided to go ahead and launch an Indiegogo campaign for “BRANDED,” I’m still very much in the formative stages of building a community or audience for the comic. This can only happen over time but I think when it does, the comic will really start to take on a life of its own. Also, for any men becoming involved with speaking up on violence against women, such as myself, it’s important to inform yourself to the best of your ability and remain ever sensitive to your position relative to the phenomenon of violence against women while not adopting the role of someone speaking on behalf of survivors. Too often in so many spheres the voice of women is marginalized and the last thing we need is for this to happen in raising awareness of violence against women. I can’t pretend to have fully learned how to negotiate this dynamic, but I can certainly
remain cognizant of it.
AA: After your Indiegogo drive is over, what can supporters expect to see from Comics with a Cause in the months ahead?
R: The if-everything-goes-according-to-plan picture is: We will finish finding the funding to produce about 85 pages of script to be illustrated by Reetta Linjama, our current illustrator, and hopefully hire somebody who can colour all the pages too. Our aim is to start releasing the comic series episodically (perhaps weekly) beginning early September and I would like to take it right up to December 6 which is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. This will depend though on how much funds we can raise for the project. Right now the best way to help out is through our Indiegogo campaign which ends June 22, but we may try and figure out a way to allow people to keep donating after that, ideally on a new website dedicated to the comic series. In the meanwhile, any news and updates can be found on our Facebook Page.
Of course, the other question people always bring up is, when do we see the printed or graphic novel edition? Like most comic artists/writers, I’m all for that! But let’s get the thing made first…
AA: Thanks, Rodrigo! Best of luck as these final days!