Political Comics – A Rain Day Reading List

I’ve had a couple of people recently ask me for a list good political comics to delve into as the days get shorter.

Here in Toronto, we were fortunate enough to have warm weather all the way til the end of October – but that seems to be over and done with as we approach Halloween. It’s cold and soggy out- perfect comic book weather (inside…and with soup, of course.)

I’ve found that folks certainly find the genre of political comics interesting, but I will be the first to admit that it can be intimidating at entry level. Comic book stores are difficult places to start, with their tens of thousands of titles that range from action  heroes to historical biographies. Intriguing and artfully-crafted stories hide amid piles of highly-produced junk with polished covers, like so many needles in a hay barn. Unfortunately some of the best artists in the world are then hired to hide these shit-for-plots further with the endless depictions of semi-pornographic female bodies (Alan Moore, on the related subject of writing decent pornography, commented that there is a delicate brain-to-penis blood ratio that makes physical and mental stimulation often mutually exclusive… a side note).

It’s safe to say that I think of the world of comic books in a very similar way as the worlds of music–or art in general. There’s a lot of crap. Hence, a short list below of some of my favourite comics and graphic novels. And while I don’t exclusively read political comics in my spare time, I’ve decided to keep this list within that framework (since that is the scope of this little corner of the World Wide Web).

For a little more detail on a shorter list of comics, I recommend folks check out my Crash Course post on political comics.

Two-Fisted Tales – Early war comic book series that truly endeavoured to tell the whole truth about war – the bravery and courage alongside the fear and ignorance, the death and destruction, the impact of war on soldier and civilian alike.

V for Vandetta – An epic story of a futuristic dystopian England, this story is now not only a classic of the medium but for 20th Century literature in general. Alan Moore (mentioned above) keenly has you observe and then slowly dismantle every major institution of oppression: the state, the mainstream media, the religious establishment, the military, patriarchal marriage, and so on. I read this story when I was 13 over the course of 2 days, and it changed my life. A must-read.

Palestine – Joe Sacco is an incredible comic artist and writer, but he is also a pioneer in realm of comics journalism. Palestine and other books like Safe Area Gorazde, about the Bosnian War, told news stories that the mainstream news wouldn’t touch, from a perspective that they never even thought possible. It’s now because of those books that millions of people were able to know the reality for these victims of military aggression. Total game-changers. His most recent works include Journalism and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt – co-created with award-winning journalist Chris Hedges.

MAUS – A Survivor’s Tale – Perhaps the most significant comic book in terms of its impact on an anti-comic book literary establishment, Art Spiegelman really confused people when this book came out in the 1980s. Not only was is a comic book about the Holocaust, but its main characters were depicted as mice… what to make of it? A lot has already been written about Maus and its impact on comic books and literature. To quote Wikipedia (which is itself quoting numerous academic sources):

It became one of the “Big Three” book-form comics from around 1986–1987, along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, that are said to have brought the term “graphic novel” and the idea of comics for adults into mainstream consciousness. It was credited with changing the public’s perception of what comics could be, at a time when, in the English-speaking world, they were considered to be for children, and strongly associated with superheroes. (Full entry can be read here.)

I don’t think I have much more to add after that.

The Confessions of Nat Turner – This is surely one of my favorite graphic novels of all time; I can’t believe I haven’t taken the time to review it here yet. Kyle Baker did an incredible thing with this comic, and remained true to the primary source of Nat Turner, the leader of a 19th Century slave revolt, in his last interview before he was executed. As a passionate history buff, nothing speaks with more respect to the people of our past than having them speak for themselves. Editorialized, history slowly but surely erodes the reality that once was.

If you’re looking for other great political comic books, check out the Political Comics menu option on this page – where I’ve reviewed some others in the past few months.

Thanks for reading – and read on!

NMG

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Interview from the makers of MAYDAY: A Graphic History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graphichistorycollective.wordpress.com/

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

On Kickstarter: Prison Grievances by Teri Leclercq

As a comic book author who knows full-well how hard it is to find funding for a project (let alone make that seemingly impossible step from unpublished to published author), I’ve decided to begin publicizing political comic projects that I’m finding online–projects that have not yet reached store shelves, and that can benefit from your support.

This is not only to encourage the medium develop itself as an incredible vehicle for education and storytelling. It’s also to promote the people out there who have chosen comic books to raise awareness. I’ll be bringing you information and links on these projects as I find them on websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. (In fact, a recent Guardian UK article noted that Kickstarter has arguably become the 4th largest publisher of graphic novels, according to its crowd-funding data. Surely, within the numbers of those success stories are some amazing pieces of political comic storytelling that mainstream publishers didn’t want to “risk” putting out.)

~(Preview 1)~

“Prison Grievances” is a graphic novel of guidance for U.S. prison inmates in their efforts to file complaints and protect their rights. Written by educator, Terri LeclercBy

Title: Prison Grievances
Project Platform: Kickstarter
Author: Terri Leclercq, (author and educator) 

This project is not to create a book for a regular readership. Prison Grievances is written specifically for inmates of the U.S. prison system, fundamentally focused on education and empowerment. The book, reviewed by people at all levels of the prison system from judges to former inmates, details the step-by-step process for filing complaints with the court system, requesting a special piece of equipment due to a disability–whatever the case may be.

While this book may come across as little more than a practical tool for someone in a different situation than you, it serves a great purpose. The fact of the matter is that 1 in 12 Americans have been in the prison system, and over 2 million people currently sit in jail cells–that’s more prisoners than the People’s Republic of China (which, by the way, still has more people than the U.S.) Anyone who still thinks that the prison industrial complex isn’t a problem should do some more reading on the matter – maybe start with Shane Bauer’s recent heart-wrenching article in Mother Jones: “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”

Leclercq has taken the right approach in tackling this titanic challenge that we face as a society (whether we admit it or not–prisoners becomes ex-prisoners, who are then our co-workers, neighbours, and fellow citizens), and is attempting to hand these men and women a valuable tool. If this project speaks to you, please check out the pitch page and make a donation.

Americana Weekend: Looking Back on Banned Books & an Addiction to War

It’s a big weekend in the Motherland.

Today is October 6, the last day of Banned Books Week (as observed in the U.S.), and tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan.

Opening appeal of a report on the content of comic books in the early 1950s, by Paul Coates – first aired 57 years ago this week. Many of the comics he refers to were in fact used as evidence in the 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency–which were televised, and very high-profile. Many of these comics were thereafter banned, and the “Comics Code Authority” was born. For more info: http://www.cbldf.org

To commemorate both occasions, I’ll be looking through some interesting reads – a few quick reviews, a few more graphic samples for you to peruse and consider looking into further. (A side note- The list of political comic books that I’m finding just gets longer and longer… as time goes on, I find that this blog isn’t really the place for long-winded analysis–more, it’s a platform for sharing and promoting political titles. If I ever attract a little more attention to the blog, I may delve further into the regions of research and critique.)

Consider this clip as a bit of an introduction to the role comics have had within the question of banned books.

Comics have been criticized, censored, and outright banned from time to time over the course of their existence… particularly in the U.S. in the McCarthy-Era 1950’s. Nothing can really compete with the dishing of defamation they received as an entire medium for many years. The arguments are as numerous as they are close-minded: comic books cause criminal behavior; comic books encourage drug use; comic books discourage “proper” reading by including pictures to interpret a story in addition to words.

Dateline: OCT 7, 2012 — YEP, WE’RE STILL ADDICTED TO WAR

Consider not only the reality that tomorrow marks the anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” (a campaign, which, within the first months of carpet-bombing, was said to have wiped tens of thousands of souls out of existence). It also marks the anniversary of the country’s longest (ever!) war/prolonged military engagement. Longer than WWII. Longer than the Civil War. We are raised considering these conflicts and the catastrophic damage inflicted by them as definitive pieces of our country and its character–so what has been learned from the Global War on Terror?

As an American, I say: We are, as we have never been, truly addicted to war. I’m taking some time to peruse my war comics to show you some of the ways that comic artists and writers have approached this in the past few years…

I’ve held onto this photo-copied zine comic (below) for about 10 years now… it amazes me that it hasn’t begun to disintegrate, although there is some serious creasing and ink erosion. I’m sorry to say that some of the text is now completely unreadable (maybe it always was, and I just didn’t notice?)… Although I know very little about this comic (I can’t find a record of it online), I want to give credit where credit is due: All artwork is (c) D. Ferrera, Amber Mclean & Dan Mchale.

Anyway, I’m a HUGE fan of the illustration style here. There is an obvious realism, some straight-up brutal imagery (the section on depleted uranium and its effect of the Iraqi birth rates is devastating, but certainly not the fault of the artist). Although out-dated, there is a lot of useful information here, good enough to give anyone a crash course on the consequences of the U.S.-led, U.N.-OK’d sanctions against Iraq, which devastated the country even before the 2003 invasion of Baghdad.

I think, despite some really low-rate copy job, that this is (or was, at some time), a pretty amazing indie anti-war comic. Hope to track down its creators some time soon, at the very least to ask for a better copy to post here.

An essential is Joel Andreas’ anti-war comic, Addicted to War–cover image at the beginning of this thread–which first came out, like the above publication, as a result of U.S. aggression against Iraq in the 1990’s. Andreas, who already had experience making political graphic novels, decided it was time to take on America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for military conflict. He approached this book with the idea that it could be used as an educational tool – in High School and college class rooms, study groups, religious centers, etc. And eventually, it was. After going out of print in the late 1990’s, it was re-printed, given some decent publicity (now available through AK Press, it’s been widely distributed through various grassroots channels) and has since sold over 200,000 copies.

In 77 pages, from ‘Manifest Destiny’ to ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, Andreas covers a lot of ground and strings it together to show the historically documented economic and social interest of war for American men and women of power. There is more educational value in this book than in the four different U.S. History textbooks I was issued as a secondary student – combined.

The book was updated to include information about the Iraq War (the copy I’m holding is a 2003-er), but it’s already so out of date. There was barely time for him to include information about Iraq and Afghanistan… of course this just means we should press him for a revised 20th Anniversary edition.

“WAR” – An anthology to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

My final addition to this edition of Political Comics Review is a bit of both topics – a 2004 anthology printed to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and its theme was “WAR”.

Much more artistically/aesthetically driven than political driven, this volume gives credit to the artists and their work to be able to raise some social commentary without it being outwardly political – and hey, it’s fundamentally political anyway, because it’s funding a good cause that’s solely dedicated to Free Speech and First Amendment protection.

The book is mostly fiction, all short stories, all having something to do with war. I’ve got a few favorites, like a short at the beginning where three guys are holed up in a gunned-down building (they appear to be under siege)… and there’s this great build-up to see the enemy… suddenly, thousands of leaflets fall from the sky, and you see these poorly translated messages, illustrated with PSA-style icons, of alien invaders asking them to lay down their arms and to cooperate “to make a unity planet with happiness people!”

Funny, sad, goofy, serious. The contributions are all diverse and all a good read, approaching the subject of ‘War’ from a multitude of angles. It is a reminder of how varied the scope of “political comics” can truly be.

For more information on the subject of banned comics, please please please check out the CBLDF’s website – some incredible documentation on a subject of which I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Sneak peak on Indigenous Comic artist Jason Eaglespeaker

Hey Folks,

I’m in the midst of bringing you an interview with the creators of MAYDAY: A Graphic History (The Graphic History Collective), but in the meantime, I want to share a website that I just stumbled upon this morning.

Image
Residential School Graphic Novel – by Jason Eaglespeaker

This project literally made me do a double-take… Wow. Great cover concept. I came across the project writer Jason Eaglespeaker (Calgary, AB) in an article about grant writing in Broken Pencil. If you look on his website, The Connection, you’ll find a ton of amazing projects available (including an illustrated Bannock recipe- what more could you ask for?).

Not only does this initiative take on a fundamental political/cultural/social issue in Canada (I would even call it “THE” fundamental issue in Canada) of Canada being occupied Indigenous territory- but the approach is immersion–that is, made for people who aren’t familiar with these concepts. As a writer and reader who thinks a fundamental hang-up of the politically conscious is preaching to the choir, I know, at face value, that this is a book that I’m really going to appreciate and learn from.

Anyways, I’m obligated by reality and my 50 hour/week day job to only take one review project at a time, so an actual review (you know, where I’ve read the book first) will have to wait. …But this guy’s work has really got my attention.

Check out more of Eaglespeaker at:

http://eaglespeaker.bigcartel.com/

A Blog by Any Other Name…

There are many translations for Ad Astra Per Aspera. If modern day Spanish were any indicator of the Latin phrase’s meaning, it would appear to be, “To the Stars (or Star-ward), with Hope”. I’ve also heard “Through Hardship to the Stars”.

But in Kansas, where this saying is the State proverb and where I first heard and felt an affinity with the phrase, the popular translation is actually “To the Stars, Despite Difficulties”. It relates to the regions pre-statehood struggles, including the difficult lives of its first European settlers, as well as the battles waged within its borders regarding the question of slavery.

At the time, the question of whether slavery would expand to the West was hotly contested: feudal pro-slavery land owners in the South had political and economic interests at odds with the evolving capitalist North. To create new states that were either “slave states” or “free states” would alter the dead lock that existed in the legislative assemblies.

And so it happened that the state became populated by whites, not just by the landless poor looking for a plot, but by banner-waving advocates who specifically emigrated to bolster the vote, in one way or another, for Kansas to be pro- or anti-slavery. This led to actual battles in the pre-Civil War years: raids, shoot-outs, assassinations, and uprisings like John Brown’s attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry. This is why some historians would argue that the Civil War actually began in Kansas, and not with Fort Sumter (SC).

In the end, Kansas became a Free State, which is a term that still has much use today (I used to have a checking account at Free State Credit Union, and drink at the Free State Brewery in Lawrence.) Triumph through adversity. To the stars, despite difficulties.

kansas-flag-detail-thumb

But Kansas wasn’t the first to use this motto (it is in Latin…). Throughout history it has been commonly attached to military battalions, and most recently, air force units.

Hell, I’ve come to learn that it’s even used by Starfleet, the space federation of Star Trek.

To me, it’s always meant striving for excellence. When I was in high school, a friend punctuated the idea for me by saying, “When you choose to fight for what’s right your life’s going to be difficult.” Somehow, accepting that at an early age meant a lot to me.

Political Comics Review ~ Willow Dawson’s "Hyena in Petticoats"

I first picked up H.I.P. at the 2011 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, but I didn’t buy it. However wrongful it is to judge a book by its cover, I quickly surmised that “Hyena in Petticoats” was A) a comic for kids and therefore not for adults, and B) an ‘historical’ as opposed to ‘political’ comic, and within that, just another entry in the Canadian corner of the fad that is historical graphic novels… All  pop, no substance… ‘meh’ was my initial response….

Title: Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung
Author + Illustrator: Willow Dawson
Published by: Puffin Canada, 2011
Got my copy through: Online Order

…And here I am over a year later, having read the comic and feeling a little humbled, thinking back on that initial assessment. But before any more of that, an introduction:

“It is the writer’s place to bring romance to people, to turn the commonplace into the adventurous and the amusing, to bring out the pathos in a situation … Words are our tools and must be kept bright … I refuse to be carried through the sewers of life just for the ride … I write if I have something to say that will amuse, entertain, instruct, inform, comfort, or guide the reader”.
– Nellie McClung, Canadian Suffragette

Nellie McClung was one of Canada’s foremost women’s rights suffragettes in the 1910’s and 20’s. As a Christian woman who witnessed how naughty Christian men became after getting tanked on whiskey, she first felt mobilized by the campaign for prohibition–which, across the English-speaking world, was the issue that really begat the 20th Century women’s suffrage movement.

The essential logic was that if the ladies shared the vote and elected offices with men, then the benchwarmer issues condemned to women’s church groups could begin to get some much-needed air for discussion—surely, there was the issue of temperance, but also the working conditions of women and children (especially inner-city immigrants), as well as a woman’s right to protection and refuge against abuse and assault (formerly totally OK if that dude was your husband or father.)

hyenainpetticoats

She doesn’t have the iconography dedicated to her like some other women of the time—Emma Goldman comes to mind—but Nellie McClung was a pretty profound woman. She led marches, organized political campaigns in several provinces, and fought with former Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin on a few occasions.
The book title, “Hyena in Petticoats” can be attributed to Premier Roblin’s declaration of McClung’s doggedness. It was his insistence that “nice women don’t want the vote.” (How nice of him to speak for them since they don’t want to!)

hyena in petticoats_frame

She also helped to write, produce, and act in a play called “Women’s Parliament”, which not only showed what women could bring to the table in politics, but took the behavior of male politicians at the time and turned it on its head. According to the comic, it looked like offensive satire at its finest. I would LOVE to see someone re-create this play.

The simple, smooth paint-brush strokes of the pages were what initially gave me the impression that H.I.P. was just for a younger audience. In the past I’ve found comic books with this kind of art to be difficult to dive into, feel submerged by (Chester Brown’s Louis Riel is another [sad]  example for me, despite its incredible narrative). I guess I just have an aversion to minimalism. Comics, to me, is all about conjuring—reaching into the very essence of the creator’s idea, and trying to mimic that headspace on the page. But I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I slipped into the world of Nell. There is a charm in the day-to-day interactions that Dawson chose to include in the storytelling, and the little drawings that decorate the page numbers, that puts one at ease—the same charm that draws us to, say, entries in a young artists’ journal. It was enough to help me reassess my bias… minimalism is, after all, a style that superficially implies effortlessness, and yet there is a perfectionism that is needed for that to be realized.

I also appreciate the political context that Willow Dawson adds to this inherently historical comic. This is, again, where I thought I would have beef with H.I.P.—mainstream histories that are simplified (as a kids’ book, a comic book, an article in a high school history book) generally neglect a movement or individual’s shortcomings, for the betterment of an ‘idealistic’ story. Dawson doesn’t do that. In fact, she goes out of her way to point out a few truths that, to some, may seem like unnecessary details, but to someone like me, give me a better-rounded picture of Nellie McClung: her fight was that of a white, middle-class Christian women’s movement. The gains of this movement did not extend to Asian-Canadians or Native women, who would not get the vote for another staggering four decades.

I am grateful for Willow Dawson including this information, which is provided in a way that is informative and intriguing to me, but would also be totally up the alley of my 8-year-old niece (who will surely inherit this copy, come Winter Solstice.) In fact, I feel more comfortable giving her a book that points out a prejudice that was/is more deeply-seeded in the Canadian power structure than sexism: the question of Indigenous rights.

This obviously isn’t a review that everyone would write about Hyena in Petticoats. But coming from the perspective of a political comic book collector, these are the points that matter to me. And maybe this is a kid’s comic…but not only a kid’s comic, and it is secondary to the fact that it is a great little book.

Who is Ana Mandietta? by Christine Redfern and Caro Caron

Title: Who is Ana Mandietta?
Author: Christine Redfern
Illustrator: Caro Caron
Got my copy: from creators @ TCAF  (2012)
Published: 2011 by Feminist Press (originally published in French in Montreal – now also available in English and Spanish)

It seems like the life of Ana Mandietta was social commentary from start to finish.

Although born in Cuba, she was brought to the United States as a child, one of thousands under the CIA campaign Operation Peter Pan in the early 1960’s. Over the next decade, like Ana, the world around her was coming of age: U.S. political movements, Latin American revolutions, as well as the cultural worlds of music and art. She began a rise of notoriety in the U.S. as a new kind of modern artist (a feminist), where she embraced and confronted tumultuous times, applauding the opening of minds while pointing out the hypocrisy of where they stayed closed. This was especially the case around the question of women–our rights as well as our popular representation.

In the 1980’s, just as Ana’s work was gaining exciting new attention, she died under mysterious circumstances–having apparently jumped out of her apartment window while arguing with her husband.

This book is not only the story of Ana’s life, but a histroy of the dismissal of women in the art world, as well as the scene’s suspicious apologism for domestic violence at the hands of male artists.

Even as a 27-year-old enthusiast for a lot of art, music, and political movements that arose in the 1960’s and 70’s, a lot of what is in this book is new to me. Even though I’d read William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller, I didn’t know that they both had serious histories of violence against women (Burroughs killed his wife by accidentally shooting her in the face, Miller stabbed his wife in the back; she survived, and tried to cover it up.) I first read it months ago, right after I picked it up at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I finished it over the course of an evening (it’s relatively short, at 84 pages), but found it too overwhelming in the first read to really get out a notebook and jot down my ideas. It’s amazing, intense, angering, saddening…

Christine Redfern and Caro Caron are both hard at work here, emersing you into another world–the world of American art and politics of the era. I really appreciate a lot of the imagery here, seeing as I wasn’t around to witness any of these iconic events first-hand. Pages are densely packed with information that isn’t always explained, (faces, sayings, music lyrics, historical venues) and I like being given the space to explore, wonder, and look things up (I will add, to their credit, that Christine and Caro did do a lot of work for the reader: the inside cover of the book is a portrait gallery of “who’s who’s” of the contemporary scene, as well as a glossary in the back).

The style of the art itself, although not Ana’s style necessarily, is nonetheless a nod to her ethos and carries a lot of feminist undertones–there is a lot of symbolism mixed with a lot of reality, if that makes any sense. For example, her body is shown being figuratively impaled by tree roots in one scene, to describe a deep emotional connection with nature–but the illustration of her dead body after she, according to her husband, jumped out of her apartment window, is so sadly realistic. Her face is crushed, her underwear is wrinkled, her body is contorted.

Unlike many comic book artists, who strive to make a woman to look perfectly beautiful even after a violent death, Who is Ana Mandietta?  is a continuation of one of the legacies of feminist art: to diametrically portray more of how women [really] feel inside, hand-in-hand with with how things [really] are on the outside… a magical realism of sorts.

This is one of my favorite political comics yet, and one that I highly recommend, but readers should be warned: you need an open mind in order to appreciate the full power of Ana’s artwork, as well as this monumental book.

“EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage”: A Gallery of Radical Canadian Comics Journalism

Title: EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage
Authors & Illustrators: Listed below
Additional Artwork: Jeff Lemire, Alain Reno, Carlos Santos
Got this copy: from The Beguiling, Toronto (You can download a free copy here, too)
Published: 2007 – One of 500 copies in a limited printing by Cumulus Press (2007)

My initial purpose for creating this blog was to write about political comics. What makes the project challenging (and fun) is the following, among other things:

A) Political comics don’t present themselves as a huge swath of the graphic novel market–you have to hunt for them!
B) Despite my great love for the category, making a good political comic book is very hard.

Here we have a a 4-piece showcase of comic book journalism intent on unearthing the dirty side of mineral extraction around the world. All focus on Canadian companies–with two of the four stories focusing on sites in Canada. The book was put together relatively quickly (in about a year–wow, they got to work!), and the credits listed show you what a collaborative effort it was.

The chapters highlight four key players in the world of non-renewable resources: Gold, Uranium, Bauxite, and Tar Sands Oil. The stories are loosely confederated, serving a common purpose but wholely autonomous in style and approach. Hence, an independent mini-review of each… These are my thoughts…

1) GOLD: Taking the Heart of the Land
(Story by Dawn Paley | Illustrations by Joe Ollmann)

We follow the author, Dawn Paley of Vancouver, B.C., down to Guatamala where she interviews locals about the impact of GoldCorp’s  open-pit mine on people of the region. Dawn feels that if she can get enough information about how the local [mainly Indigenous] population is being coerced and get it back to the Canadian public and shareholders, perhaps she can begin to break down the company’s unjust practices. (Or, at the very least, expose the blatant greed that drives them? It’s difficult for me to prioritize her motives without asking her. Since she is an activist journalist, I’m assuming a bit of both.)

The artwork is straightforward, using a more casual, bubbly style than a lot of serious comics out there. Not a lot of symbolism or figurative illustration happening here. On first glance as a reader, it feels so first-person that it makes me think that maybe this was, along with the story, the work of Dawn over the course of her trip. The style of the quotations is inconsistent, also like a first-person narrative. Some dialogue seems to have been made up on the spot, where other pieces are probably verbatim from a voice recorder (like the history of GoldCorp in the area and other highly detailed information).

Although I don’t like personally this, I think it was probably intentional, right? It highlights some information over other ‘less important’ information. For example, at the end of the story, she is attending a GoldCorp shareholder meeting, and the chairman’s quote is written almost as if he were a robot, repeating over and over what has been good for the company’s profit margins. Surely, as Dawn conveys, this was his intent, but that’s exactly why I want to know precisely what he said. After all, he is the missing puzzle piece to me–as a reader who is against the kind of greed that drives a company like GoldCorp, he’s the one I don’t understand–he’s the one I want to see cross-examined on the page.

Looking at it from this angle, I think that the best parts of Taking the Heart of the Land are unfortunately brief sequences. The last 3 pages really heat up as Dawn and a Guatamalan anti-mine activist enter a GoldCorp AGM in Vancouver to voice their findings. When Dawn gets the AGM speaker to admit that they will not be respecting the democratic process of the Guatamalan Consultas, I can feel the tension in the room just from reading these two panels. I would’ve loved to have seen the entire last page stretched out over 2 or 3 times as much space.

I think the lack of attention to this scene, in fact, reflects a bit of the cynicism of the author: I hear in its curt presentation the opinion of the writer: “Who would expect anything more from a GoldCorp executive?” To be sure, again, she’s probably right… but when you’re in the business of raising awareness and changing opinions, these are the elements that I think should be given the most attention.


2) Uranium: Highway of the Atom
(Story by Sophie Toupin | Illustrations by Ruth Tait)

Journalist Sophie Toupin investigates Uranium extraction in and around the town of Mont-Laurier, Quebec. Together with the artist, Ruth Tait, they explore Uranium’s impact on local communities, the illusion of nuclear energy as “Green” or sustainable energy, the pro-mining culture of Quebec, and the subsequent up-hill battles that critics in the province have in front of them.

Personally, I never knew of Canada’s “secret uranium history”, as it is opened in the chapter. Selling uranium to the U.S. for Project Manhattan in a secret deal with the United States… now that I know, I guess it’s not too surprising. From the history of Indigenous interaction with uranium in North Bay (where the high concentrations in the soil would have toxic effects on native men who went there for their vision quests) to the sketchiness of uraniun surveying teams who are, today, the modern-day equivilants of dirt-poor pioneers with Gold Rush fever, the story has some of the building blocks of a blockbuster Hollywood thriller. With a well-rounded cast of interview sources, Sophie Toupin tells a good story by allowing the sources to tell it in their own words, then arranges all of the details in a coherent order (albeit still a bit of an information overload).

I get more out of the visuals in this one, too. The illustrator is drawing more than what she herself was able to witness (and that was a lot, apparently: of all the writer/artist combos, Ruth Tait was the only one who was able to accompany her co-hort… Not sure, but maybe this gave her some extra imagination when drawing everything up). But to be sure, awesome illustrations. Even though one or two of the graphics are a little amateurish with their Photoshop airbrush techniques, the spirit of what is depicted sets the tone of this story: artistic yet serious, factual yet emotional.

3) Bauxite: The world’s unluckiest people
(Story by Tamara Herman | Illustrations by Stanley Wany)

Tamara Herman goes to Kashipur, India to interview villagers who have stood up against the mining of bauxite on their sacred hill of Baphlimali, where their ancestors fought for and won the land from foreign colonials years ago. Bauxite is mined in the production of aluminum, and the owner of this venture was largely Canadian company Alcan, whose products most of us carry in our kitchen drawers next to seran wrap and freezer bags.

I appreciate the different style of art and writing in this chapter. The drawings look like they were partially traced over photographs, then modified and given textured shading with lots of cross hatches. I think it gives appropriate emphasis to folds of cloth as well as skin texture, giving each person interviewed a look of protraiture.

Despite some nice imagery, ‘Bauxite’ seems a little cut-and-paste, as if the quotes were superimposed on the images with little communication between the two. Everything is very text-heavy, and it gets hard to follow after a bit (I think a map and a little more general history at the beginning would have been really useful). As with all of these stories: with all the information, there is more pressure on both the artist and the writer to orchestrate a synchronized, well-crafted delivery. The details of politics are not easy things to present artistically.

I am also reminded of a bit of a flaw in all of the comics here: With the inclusion of most of the writers visually in the comic panels, I would have liked to know a little more about them. How did they get involved in these issues? What are their backgrounds? If they are included as visuals, they should have a story to tell in the larger story, right?

4) OIL: From the bottom of the pit
(Coverage by Peter Cizek | Illustrations by Phil Angers | Script by Marc Tessier and Phil Angers)

‘Oil’ takes you on a tour, by way of some mind-blowing mathematical gymnastics, of just how much energy must be consumed in order to extract what is hiding down in the Tar Sands.

Peter Cizek reports on the size and scope of the Tar Sands project in Northern Alberta. The story begins with a man on a soap box (the writer or an anonymous voice of opposition?) talking about the history of the Tar Sands, how extraction and processing is being funded, and ultimately how the net worth of the project is in the negative. It wraps up with the speaker amassing a large crowd who are outraged at the information,  the speaker walking away.

The real winner of this story is Phil Angers’ artwork. Some of the pages here are really detailed and impressive (Not all–the characatures of ducks and bears at the end kind of escapes me). It’s hard to depict a project as big as the Tar Sands, but I think you get a better picture with this comic than you would with only text, and that’s a major goal with political comics: through the medium, you bring out a something of a new dimension to the issue.

All of these stories are relavent to Canadian politics. ‘Uranium’ and ‘Oil’ get extra points for establishing a strong historical context at the beginning of the comic–the reader feels less like they’re just being dropped in on a subject that they know nothing about. (In their own ways, both also include the history of the pre-Columbian Indigenous relationship to the resource: their material use or, in the instance of uranium, its toxic effects.)

The book as a whole outlines the social and economic costs of these “extraction” adventures, and ultimately their lack of sustainability. I admit that this review has come a little late in the game to be timely print-wise… (EXTRACTION!  hit store shelves in 2007, and their publisher, Cumulus Press closed their doors shortly after).

But this book is the real deal: a self-proclaimed political comic in approach and cause–and certainly still relavent… all of the companies they highlight are still in business, making record profits. Likewise, many of the authors and illustrators involved here are still in their respective games of art and activism, doing impressive and important work. (Toronto’s own Jeff Lemire, who did beautiful illustrations for the chapter title pages, is doing quite well for himself with the critically-acclaimed Sweet Tooth.)

EXTRACTION! takes us back to an old debate in the question of comics as a category of literature: How factual–how real–can a story told through the comic narrative be? Surely this is nowhere more relavent than in the category of ‘Comix Reportage’.

I love how David Widgington, EXTRACTION! editor frames it in the Introduction:

“The craft of comix journalism does not stem from the combination of text and image, content and structure. It is the added meaning derived from the interaction between the symbolic and the realistic, the literal and the figurative that gives it strength.”

Ultimately, I think this project suffered a bit from an overabundance of content that the form had trouble holding up. Additionally, when the symbolic or figurative could have leant a helping hand, the writers and/or artists often didn’t take it as often as they should have. As I said in the beginning, balancing cause with quality of content is so difficult in political comics.

Political comics in general are faced with many of the same challenges this book took on. How do you put in the time and money to a project like this when you know it only appeals to a small audience? (The limited printing of 500 copies attests to this concern). Does the inclusion of the images assist or hinder the delivery of information? Do symbolic images muddle the “realness” of the story down to art or poetry, or can it elevate the truth and make it easier to understand?

What EXTRACTION! probably needed was a bit more time, money, and experience. And really, what cause can’t relate to that…

NMG

Any Empire, by Nate Powell

Title: Any Empire
Author: Nate Powell
Publisher:  Top Shelf Productions (2011)
Bought this copy: from Nate @ The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF)
More Info: Top Shelf’s synopsis, ordering info, and more reviews

What It’s About:  The story follows the life, in several parts, of rural American Lee Powell against the influential backdrop of militarism in America. Jumping around to different points of the boy’s life in a complex (and somewhat transparently autobiographical) way, Powell is confronted at different times in his life with the purpose and meaning of violence in society—from childhood social groups to the maintenance of modern nation states.

Lee begins to hang out with a group of neighborhood boys who have a “gang”. In order to get in the club, Lee is told, he has to do some bad things. He and the other boys are challenged with the acceptance of their peers or the pull of their conscience. For some, their decision leads to love and happiness—for others, anger and despair. But the road is longer for some than others.  Sorry, I just realized how much of a spoiler this review could be.

Thoughts:   This book comes across as a touching small-town story that observes as much as it tells of the impact militarism on American society. On a technical level, ‘Any Empire’ is a testament to author and illustrator Nate Powell’s capacity for narration. He frequently allows a series of panels to pass in the middle of the story without a single text bubble. I love this—it makes me think that the story, instead of being told by someone, is telling itself. Suitably, the subject matter Nate often chooses is fitting for this layout, whether it’s in the socially awkward interactions of his work Swallow Me Whole, or racism and its effect on children, like in The Silence of Our Friends (this story, illustrated by Powell, was co-written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos).  Silent images truthfully convey that these social idiosyncrasies rarely interact with words when we are in those situations, which makes the comic narration all the more touchingly real.
What’s more to appreciate, the dialogue–when it comes around, that is–is so believable, lending one to be sure that at least part of this comic came from real conversations in Powell’s personal history.

The boy, ‘Lee’ Powell is such a typical American boy. Raised by a veteran, he reads G.I. Joe comic books, plays with toy soldiers with a deadly seriousness, and dreams of fantastic combat.  Even his “anti-social behavior” seems normal to me as someone who also grew up in the Midwestern U.S.—despite the comic showing his parents worrying over the matter.

Contrast this with the depiction of Purdy—who, on the outside, appears to be no different than Lee. But then the layers begin to unfold. Purdy has a rough family upbringing; raised on fast food and poor parenting, picked on by an asshole brother, his pull towards the fantasy of militarism is stronger and more distorted than Lee’s. He truly believes that being a soldier will bring to him honor and dignity where he has only felt shame and embarrassment his whole life. This ultimately affects his most crucial decisions. The two boys go down very different paths as young men, only to meet up at the crossroads.

CRITIQUES (Spoiler Alert):

Some things in this story aren’t clear to me. I often give a book or movie the benefit of the doubt on this point, and just chalk it up to me not being observant enough. But now that I’m doing reviews, I guess I should be honest when I read something and just don’t get it.
Most importantly, I didn’t understand how this comic ended.  How did Purdy decide to go AWOL so easily, after so little contemplation? He had so much wrapped up in being a soldier, and arguably, no reasonable cause was offered/depicted in the story to make him think otherwise. Do the twins go AWOL as well? In one scene, they are shown diving off a cliff with Purdy, absent without leave. In another, later on, they have guns pointed at Purdy, Lee, and Sara. This conflict doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion.
Is the story really set up to be 99.9% realistic—only to have 3 people (who didn’t used to get along) team up and flip a tank with their bare hands at the very end?
Lastly, what’s in the damn Turtle Killers box? It drove me crazy. Seriously, it doesn’t matter?

Favorite Spreads:

There is so much social commentary in each of these pages… from Sara as a young girl doing her best to save the turtles just as the boys carelessly destroy them; Sara’s mom coming home from work and, exhausted, trying to offer her daughter the best advice she can. Nate took on a lot of different ideas to put this comic together, but that’s how we should be looking at the issue–with multiple adjoining parts.
An excellent scene is when Purdy meets up with his younger self and tells him that he’s an AWOL soldier. I only wish that this conversation was elaborated upon a bit further—meeting up with a younger version of yourself is something that so many of us recognize as a powerfully meaningful vision. What would be the most important thing you could say? Would the younger you listen? I wish this had lasted a little longer.
My most favorite layout, however,  is relatively early on when Lee and his sketchy new friends go to an army surplus store to buy old defective grenades. As Lee is handed his very own almost-ish-explosive, he takes note of his surroundings: above his head hang a variety of flags. There is the standard U.S. stars and stripes, but also the Confederate Stars and Bars; and also a Swastika of the Third Reich. It brings the name of the title home—all violence, weapons, and war… are vehicles, vessels, and empty shells. There is nothing inherently patriotic (or revolutionary) about a weapon. Their content and purpose is the property of the intent—any intent, any empire—that they serve.

the panel is political.