Canadian Publisher Ad Astra Comix Launches Original Graphic Novel “The Beast” Exploring Alberta’s Oil Sands & Corporate Advertising
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the release of ‘The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet’, its fifth publication and first original title. Produced in partnership with Dr. Patrick McCurdy at the University of Ottawa, ‘The Beast’ explores the way advertising shapes our perceptions of the Alberta oil sands, the climate and the Canadian economy.
From environmentalists to oil sands workers, this book has something for everyone to chew on. Driven by economic uncertainty to work in Alberta, protagonists Callum and Mary struggle with doing good while making a living. While Mary flourishes doing oil sands advertising, Callum is dying of the exposure he’s paid in. Their crossed paths to success push them into conflict with each other and ultimately with themselves. Along the way, the book explores the advertising cliches that define oil sands discourse in Canada, from ‘Fort MacMurray is Mordor’ to ‘Diluted bitumen is good for the planet, actually.”
‘The Beast’ is a 112 page black and white graphic novel with six full colour ads that satirize real images produced by environmental NGOs, energy companies and grassroots oil sands supporters – yes, they’re real! Written by Hugh Goldring and illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, ‘The Beast’ was released in February, 2018 and will launch on Earth Day – April 22nd, 2018.
‘The Beast’ is available through Ad Astra Comix’s online store, on Amazon and through AK Press in the US. Review copies available upon request.
MEDIA CONTACT: Please send correspondence to adastracomix at gmail dot com, addressed to either
Hours before I met Ben Passmore for the first time, I’d been informed that it was the first night of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. My partner and I were on tour in the American South and had not made any definitive plans for the space on the map between Atlanta and Houston. A friend of a friend put us in touch, and we gathered in a small group waiting for the Krewe du Vieux parade to start. The night’s theme: “politically incorrect”.
I could hear wooden chips and beads crunching under my shoes as I struggled to distribute the seven jell-o shots I’d just purchased from a nice old lady pushing a cooler through the crowd along the sidewalk. We stood, drinking, smoking, and watched the floats pass: a pair of queens with enormous falsies, an old white man from the ‘NOLA for Bernie Sanders campaign’ wearing a fake indigenous headdress and throwing candy. It was somewhat surreal, somewhat entirely foreseeable.
Mardis Gras continues like clockwork every year, but a lot of New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina. The largest residential building in the city is abandoned. Entire neighbourhoods are boarded up, next to other neighborhoods peppered with colourful and chic low-income housing built with donations from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In many ways, post-Katrina NOLA became the poster city for explaining concepts like disaster capitalism, neo-liberalism, and gentrification.
It’s hard not to notice elements of this un-done landscape in Passmore’s online comic, D A Y G L O A H O L E, which he worked on for years while living in the city. Characters wander around a mysterious post-civilization wasteland. There are semi-familiar objects everywhere, but ‘civil society’ and all that phrase entails is gone. Washed away. Each new comic extends further into this post-apocalyptic future, and deeper into Passmore’s mind we go.
“Daygloayhole has consistently been too ambitious for my level of talent, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I’m not a huge sci-fi nerd, but what little of it I’ve consumed and enjoyed consistently pairs the recognizable with the fantastically alien.”
Passmore spent several years working on daygloahole, living in New Orleans. Life was a mix of work, going to shows, and fostering a burgeoning indie comics scene through the NOLA zine and comics fair. Of course a city known for its history of parades and grassroots activism will attract its share of artists, hippies, road punks, and anarchists. When I suggested that New Orleans appeared to solve the age-old mystery of where crust punks go to die, he said it was “more to become undead… There’s a lot of lumbering soulessness [here].”
And the anarchists were having a moment. Abandoned buildings were being squatted and used for political organizing or art projects.
The phrase ‘It’s all over’ appears again and again in daygloahole, which was funny because that’s all I could think when I was in New Orleans. And then, it doesn’t seem quite as funny anymore.
“I think that’s something that I enjoyed at first, the culture of collapse in New Orleans, until I really realized the toll Katrina took on people’s minds and lives, and the disparity it underlined.”
That disparity is one drawn clearly around race in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, whether we’re talking about segregation of schools and neighborhoods, police violence, or the state prison system. It was only in the last year that New Orleans removed several Confederate Monuments, which Passmore documented for the comics journalism website, The Nib.
The Confederate Monument fights became a flashpoint in the South for confronting fascist and white supremacist forces, who were being emboldened by Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” (a perfect dog-whistle for the South’s “Lost Cause” sentiment, which sticks around like 100% humidity). From inside a jail cell for confronting the KKK at Stone Mountain, to the streets of New Orleans where a masked Mardis Gras parade took to a Confederate statue with paint and sledgehammers, Ben took names, covered it, drew it, and showed the rest of us what was going on.
“New Orleans created a feeling of urgency about white supremacy as a societal poison that I didn’t feel as much before I moved there.”
“And it for sure burned me out on white people.”
In 2017, Ben Passmore made international news for having his work, a short 16-page comic called “Your Black Friend,” nominated for an Eisner Award. For those of you not in the comics industry: that’s kind of like being nominated for an Academy Award. Needless to say, as an anarchist, but more as a political comic enthusiast, I was pretty stoked about the news.
‘Your Black Friend’ is a comic for that person who wants you to know they’re not a racist. It’s a comic about micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, and lefty-progressive virtue-signalling. It is a short but poetically full-circle sampling of how annoying, depressing, terrifying, and frustrating it is to share space and community with white people (even those nice ones) in a white supremacist world.
Passmore’s first 20 years were in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “My mom was/is an artist and she encouraged me to draw a lot. I think she would’ve liked me to draw trees… I drew a lot of muscle guys in spandex covered in spikes.”
Ben would eventually go on to art school and major in comics with a minor in illustration.
Passmore seems somewhat surprised that younger people are inspired by his work.
“I get messages from other weird black cartoonists and people that get stuff out of my comics. A couple times people have told me that they’ve been “reading my comics for years” and they’re in their early twenties which is such a crazy thing to be a part of someone’s cultural scenery when they’re turning into an adult.”
There’s a lot being processed in Passmore’s comics, from the low-key racism of his friends, to his Mom voting for Trump, to his own relationships with addiction, depression and impulses to self-harm. Ben has made space for it all, while never taking himself too seriously.
A current project of Passmore’s –not yet released– deals with identity, inspired by the pronounced dysphoria he experienced during the last two years’ living in NOLA. I’m looking forward to seeing that, given the nuance he gives to subjects like blackness and queerness. “I’ve never subscribed to the ‘destroy everything/destroy my body’ that characterizes some queer nihilism. Not because I don’t think that strain has validity, it’s just it feels complicated to be black and to desire physical deconstruction.”
Leftist comics – much like “the Left” in general– have a tendency to forget the nuance in their attempt to promote a cause. And that’s a fine strategy, if you’re designing lawn signs for an election.
Passmore’s work shows us that a comic is capable of something infinitely more sophisticated.
His advice to folks who want to make political comics: “Don’t be preachy… if peeps don’t at least recognize your point of view, it’s cause you didn’t make your case well enough.”
No one contests that in October, 1983, Pete shot and killed Constable David Utman. But for the headline to say only that Pete was a ‘police killer’ is to tell an unforgivable lie. It might have read ‘Award-winning AIDS activist Peter Collins’ or ‘Fearless champion of animal rights Peter Collins’. A more honest headline could have said ‘survivor of child abuse Peter Collins’, in recognition of a portion of his trauma.
There is another unforgivable lie in that headline. ‘Peter Collins dies in prison’. They use the neutral word, dies, as though there’s nothing else to say about it. But here’s something that needs to be said: the prison system murdered Pete. When he found blood in his urine he asked to see a doctor. It took them months to fulfill his request. Bladder cancer can be treated if you catch it early. But for Pete it was too late.
To tell Pete’s story the headline might well have added another word at the end. That word is ‘alone’. Though his cancer was known to be incurable he was denied compassionate release. He might have spent the last weeks of his life reunited with his family. With his friends. With freedom.
But whether it’s for love of the police or the profitability of sensationalism, no headline is going to tell that story. For that you’ll have to read his book, ‘Free Inside’, published by Ad Astra Comix. Featuring comics, original art and writing by Pete and those who knew him, ‘Free Inside’ is no fit tribute to a man whose indomitable spirit cannot be captured by mere print.
But at least it tells the truth.
Preview of Art in “Free Inside”
Things you can do to help:
Pre-order copies of “Free Inside” for yourself, your classroom, your church library, or your social justice organization by e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
'Free Inside' Documents the Life of Prisoner and Activist Peter Collins
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce the publication of its latest title, 'Free Inside: The World of Peter Collins'. A mixture of comics, art and writing by Pete Collins and those who knew him, 'Free Inside' is a record of Pete's courage and tenacity.
After a troubled childhood, Pete was imprisoned in 1983, convicted of killing Ottawa Police constable Robert Utman. Left alone with his thoughts in prison, Pete felt a terrible remorse for what he had done that would remain with him for his entire life. He spent the next several decades of his life working to heal himself and help those around him. He died of bladder cancer in 2015 after being denied compassionate release so that he might spend his last moments with his family. Prison confined Pete but could not contain him. He was an advocate for the rights of animals, prisoners and people with HIV / AIDS. In 2008, he was awarded the Canadian Award for Action from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch. He helped prepare fellow prisoners for parole hearings and fought tirelessly for justice.
Although the prison authorities repeatedly obstructed his work as an artist, Pete persisted. His acerbic cartoons about prison life speak to the frustrations therein. His political cartoons skewer the hypocrisy of powerful people. His sketches of birds and other wildlife show his sensitivity and patience.
'Free Inside' is a kind of memorial to Pete - full of his work, his thoughts and the thoughts of those who loved him. It speaks to the failures of the Canadian prison system and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of misery. We are proud to publish this first full length collection of Pete's work and hope that it will encourage people to judge prisoners not in terms of their one mistake, but the whole of their lives and experiences.
The Left was baffled in 2016 to learn that Trump was taking a stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. As the new administration fires up for trade wars, perhaps it’s time to review what we know about the role of the American state in international trade.
I’m on tour at the moment and am moving like molasses, but I’ve finally gathered myself up from drawing my own comic that takes place in Alberta, to talk about my *favourite* comic that takes place in Alberta. Michael Comeau’s ‘Hellberta’ has been described elsewhere on the internet as “one of the most meaningful and interesting” variations of a Wolverine comic, and I must agree. It explores the Canadian home of one of comic fandom’s most celebrated characters, against a background that is at once both more realistic and more surreal than your garden-variety Marvel title.
My conversation with Michael is below. For a better run-down on the plot and cultural significance of ‘Hellberta’, I recommend reading the Barbed Comics review linked above. To pick up a copy for yourself, you can do so here.
N: What was your relationship to comics growing up? To X-men and Wolverine in particular?
M: I collected the “Uncanny X-men” from the Mutant Massacre story arc to when Jim Lee branch off to the merely “X-men” title approximately 1986 to 1991. Wolverine emerged as an intriguing character for me and many others. The Chris Claremont, Frank Miller mini series is the quintessential statement on the character. I bought an old “Inferno” issue of Uncanny X-men in Drumheller Alberta and began drawing Wolverine. I didn’t pay attention to super hero comics for around a decade and was mildly annoyed to find out they filled out Wolverine’s back story to be that his name was no longer Logan but James Howlet and he was originally British. I can usually recognize when a writer can’t grasp the Canadian hoser Logan archetype so it poses the question what would I do with the character. The reclamation of Wolverine opened up notions of Canadian identity like collaging the archetypes of Neil Young and Logan.
I often find myself fantasizing about the ability of the supernatural (and by extension, superheroes) solving the world’s social and political problems, beyond what I would see in your standard comic book. So I’ve found that Hellberta has been really satisfying for me and other activist folks I’ve shown it to. Would you describe Hellberta as a kind of political revenge porn, like Inglorious Bestards is to nazism or Django Unchained to slavery and racism?
I am a straight/cis/white man from Ontario who learned about Albertan activist culture among the oil sands boom while living and traveling with queer and trans people from Calgary. I was unsure how to depict the queer flight from Calgary or the environmental impact of the tar sands so I took a popular myth from the area and supplanted it onto the situation. What would Wolverine do? Superheroes are extensions and exaggerations of our hopes and fears I don’t really see them as rising above anything. I’d rather see them struggle with our same mundane problems in spite them being so exceptional.
I would hate it if someone compared anything I’d done to a Tarantino film, so in your own words – what were you going for with Hellberta? What would you say were your influences or sources of inspiration?
A: Initially it was a cahier de voyage with rough drawings that were somewhat related to our adventures on the road. Then I included the Wolverine vs. the tar sands as a way to learn how to make a comic. It had direct X-men references like how Wolverine would “hunt” deer by creeping up and touching them or the Phoenix as an arbitrary global catastrophe and an Osamu Tezuka style time lapse of total destruction to gradual renewal. The photo comic section was based on the relationships Logan has with young women. He is a good archetype for intergenerational friendships with women. The “Sackville Slapper” section is more about trajectories across provinces. It is inspired by Donald Shebib’s “Going Down The Road” movie and the SCTV spoof of it. Both of my parents are from New Brunswick and i wanted to reference the east coast. The idea was Logan as Popeye and Puck as Wimpy in an east coast Tijuana Bibles style book which is a paradigm shift away from the photo comic.
There’s a lot of Christian iconography in this book that can’t go unnoticed. Harper and his harlots fly around on a cross, but it is Wolverine who is martyred and rises again. How did you decide to incorporate this imagery?
Christianity is a conquering ideology used in colonization. It severs a localized spiritual connection to the land. I often think of what therapists call the “reversal of desire” regarding someone feeling repressed and ostracized by images of Christ and finding comfort in Satan etc. Like a metalhead teenager. In processing my own catholic repression I enjoyed drawing from medieval christian imagery. Wolverine is a classic christ figure. Sacrificing himself to be resurrected through his homo-superiority ie. healing factor. He regularly gets crucified onto X’s in comics. The Right Wing wields notions of God as a weapon and I wanted to counter that with what is essentially the same human impulse to create heroes/gods but from a far more transparent place as pop culture.
One question for the printing nerds: take us through the printing process of this book, because the dual tone is enough to make your brain want to explode. It kind of feels like a throw-back to those cheap 3D graphics with the red & blue ink that you could dig out of the bottom of a cereal box. How did you decide on this technique?
I’ve created and printed many 2 colour screen printed posters. The first issue was printed on Jesjit Gill of Colour Code Printing’s very first risograph machine which only printed one colour at a time so the registration had to be very loose. I was doing the dot tone with a photocopier. Copying over top the lines or turning the breakdown into a negative, copying over a negative dot tone and reversing back to positive and then copy over top the line work. I am fascinated by the timbre of an image and use of tone. It is constantly evolving through out my work.
Do you see yourself making anything in this vein again?
There is an Alpha Flight story in my head that has haunted me for years. I have done my own riff on Son of Satan but now for the most part I am working on original stories with only some sketchbook strips that might be bootleg. Lately when I don’t know what to draw I do without reference Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. No matter how crud the drawing is you still project the characters onto them. So naturally I have thought of dumb, petty dialogue for them to exchange.
Since this comic was created, pipeline projects (and their messes) continue to dot the North American landscape.We’re also entering a “Trump era”, which shares a fair bit of common ground with the Harper Government. Do you think Wolverine is an important hero to have in an age like this?
Heroes are as important as we make them. Each situation is gazed at through the lens of the hero prism. Be it Wolverine, Jesus, Tupac or Joni Mitchell. Logan is post-human, a homo-superior, so he points to the future but is from the far past.
We’re thrilled to announce the publication of our fourth title, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention Centres’. First published in a very short run in 2014, Undocumented grew out of the research of architect and activist Tings Chak. Tings has been active in the Toronto chapter of No One is Illegal, a group dedicated to protecting the rights and freedoms of migrants.
This second, expanded edition of the book comes at a difficult time for migrants. With Trump talking about building a border wall, hiring hundreds of thousands of border guards and even discussing using 100,000 national guards to deport migrants, things are looking grim. The situation in Canada is not much better, as refugees flee over the US border only to be threatened and arrested when they arrived.
That’s why it’s so important to keep informed. Undocumented provides critical context for understanding how migrant detention works to strip people of their humanity and make them invisible to society at large. Forewarned is forearmed as they say and this book helps to explain what is shaping up to be one of the most important struggles of the 21st century.
The struggles we find ourselves in –for justice, equality, and a democracy worthy of the name– are not new. Yet we’re endlessly forming new groups, writing new charters, experimenting with new tactics as though we were the first people ever to struggle against injustice.
Driving across North America in the past year, we were struck by the profound lack of institutional memory in radical communities wherever we went. People doing work that was important, even essential, could often tell us nothing about what their organization had been like 10 years ago, if it had existed at all.
The left leaves few records and most of these are hagiographies–saintly accounts of the lives of larger-than-life heroic figures that read more like myths than histories. It is a rare book that transcends this shallow style and speaks frankly about the painful difficulties encountered by social movements. That kind of book is full of important lessons for us. ”War in the Neighborhood’ is that kind of book.
I wish I’d had a chance to read it before walking into that Occupy camp, 5 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Here’s why.
1: You aren’t the first people to take public space
‘War in the Neighborhood’ is partially about the struggle to protect the public’s right to use Tompkins Square Park. One of those uses, dating to before the struggle, is as the site of a tent city for the homeless. In the course of the struggle to preserve the park as a place to drink and hang out, conflicts with the cops made it an unsafe place to sleep.
Confrontations between cops and activists would raise the emotional temperature of the park, but while the activists could go home, many of the people living in the tent city were home – and had nowhere to go when the cops came to work out their frustrations.
“Reclaiming” urban space is always more complicated than it looks. In North America particularly, that space is always colonized land. In a more immediate sense, the space is often being used by people who don’t want to see it ‘reclaimed’. During the era of the Occupy camps, we dropped into that park without any notion of this. We were bringing media and police attention to a space that homeless people had been living in quietly for years.
I wish we’d all known a little bit more about past struggles like ours, and known ahead of time that we needed to be mindful of the needs of the folks already living in the park. They are capable of doing their own very powerful organizing if they choose, organizing we could have supported if we had treated them with respect.
2: The police are not your friends
Alright, there are plenty of people who know this, and I can hear them into the peanut gallery rolling their eyes at the obvious point and congratulating themselves on how on-point their politics are. Good for you.
The trouble is, not everyone knows this, and vague denunciations of authority from angry punks do not always persuade the larger group. The police are tricky, and they know how to present a friendly face as well as their real one. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see the cops put pressure on squatters by offering them a deal. The squatters, divided by the proposal, eventually accept. Needless to say, they are betrayed by the police.
Some of the people at Occupy knew better than to waste time talking to the cops, but many did not. The police could make little demands about where we put our tents or how we hung our tarps, and sow division without working very hard– these petty demands caused us to turn against each other. They were going to evict us eventually either way but the conflict over whether or not to comply with these petty demands created real conflict between us.
The police are not all billy clubs and tear gas. They will make little helpful gestures to win your trust. At one Occupy march, I remember them sharing bottled water with us. But by then we were wise – “Ew, cop water,” was how one friend put it. Earlier we had not always been so savvy. The police’s polite request to ‘liaise’ (read: pump us for information) or offers to protect our marches (read: control and contain our protests) convinced some people that they were on our side. When they swept into the camp in the middle of the night, tore down our tents and brutalized one of our friends, they made it perfectly clear whose friends they were.
I wish we had all known well enough to be on the same page, and understood the role of the police in suppressing resistance.
3: Outside organizations will try to control your politics
The left is full of self-appointed leaders and self-anointed messiahs. Academics, vanguard parties, one-man black blocs and all kinds of people whose analysis is so pure that they get high on the fumes. These people will show up at your movement and tell you where it’s going, what path it’ll take to get there, and what kind of clothes you should wear for your media appearances. What they won’t do, generally, is the dishes – or anything else useful.
This isn’t so much a problem of ideology as of personality. Some people know how to be humble, pull together as a team and do their share of every kind of work. Some people are so convinced of their special genius that they think they are making the most important possible contributions by telling everyone else what to do and think.
‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows us both kinds of people. Luna, a member of the RCP, becomes one of the most persistent and dedicated squatters. An angry anarchist denounces her participation and the squat as a whole because they are, presumably, guilty by association. Eventually, Luna herself leaves the party over its homophobic views and controlling nature.
When Occupy enjoyed its brief historical moment, plenty of groups wanted to control it. They showed up with their critiques, their literature, sometimes even with printed t-shirts. They would try to change the way Occupy was governed, or how it framed its messaging. Some were a problem, but others weren’t. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter so much what group they were from. What mattered was how willing they were to set their personal politics aside and work for the collective good of the group, instead of trying to co-opt it to serve their own purposes.
It can be a lot to keep track of, especially for folks who are new to activism. But I wish I’d known then what I know now – people show you how much you can trust them based on how respectful and committed their participation is.
4: But you never know who your best comrades will turn out to be…
…but you can find out, easily enough! People vote with their time and energy. Look to see who’s putting in the work and who’s standing around talking shit. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see a variety of people, including communists, ex-cons, teenage anarchists, people with active addictions and the homeless prove to be the best of comrades.
That is not always intuitive. It is easy to be drawn to the most articulate people, or the ones who seem to have the most support in the group. You can be taken in by people’s charms or by the appearance of experience. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how articulate someone is, how experienced they are, or how great their analysis is, if they can’t put their own agenda aside and work as part of a team.
At Occupy I definitely had a preference for people who shared my politics and cultural values most closely. But I learned in time that I valued the friendships of all kinds of people – liberals, social democrats, other anarchists and even 9/11 truthers (thanfully, those guys came around).
Of course, we were working inside an anarchist framework, with a set of anarchist assumptions. Over time, I watched a lot of those folks evolve into the best anarchists I know. But I think this point holds true no matter what the ideology of your group. If people focus on the work, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. You’re headed the same way.
5: Holding space may be the only thing you agree on
This is a much less universal lesson than some of the others, but I think that you can apply it pretty broadly. Groups form around particular issues, and people may not agree on much else. Holding space was at the centre of the Occupy movement’s politics, and applies equally to the struggles for public space and homes depicted in ‘War in the Neighbourhood’.
Rules are a recurring theme for ‘War in the Neighborhood’. Should this squat be drug free? Should we negotiate with the cops? Are we prepared to tolerate sexism? In different ways these questions are all part of the bigger question: “How will we make this space our own?” and “What is this space for?” But while everyone agrees with ‘making this space our own’, they can’t even agree what that looks like.
At my Occupy camp, and I suspect at many others, the problem was worse, if anything. Should we march? Should we build the camp? Should we make signs? Should we make dinner? Again, holding the park was just about the one thing we all agreed was necessary.
This was a real shock to me. I arrived thinking that people would more or less be there for the same reason I was – tired of the growing power of the rich and ready to hold them to account. The reality was not so simple. I wish I had been able to better anticipate that.
6: People whose help you might hope for will sit on the sidelines and criticize
There were some people who were not so ready to accept the riot of ideas and ideology on display at Occupy. I couldn’t believe them. I was putting aside a lot of my own ideas about how the world should work out of some abstracted sense of the common good. Why couldn’t they do the same?
People have agendas. They look at social movements and they ask themselves if these social movements serve those agendas. Then they decide if they are going to participate, criticize, or both. If your revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to serve their purposes, don’t expect to see them frying tofu in the kitchen tent.
“War in the Neighborhood” shows us that people have different reasons for wanting you to fail. Maybe they don’t like some of your members. Perhaps they disagree with your group’s tactics. Maybe they didn’t get their way in your group and so they left.
Sometimes people who should be comrades simply aren’t. It’s easy to take that personally, but you shouldn’t. It happens every time. All you can do is to keep doing your best to be honest, persistent and fair.
7: There are no easy answers
Maybe I should have known this one before Occupy started. I thought I knew it, really. I thought I knew that things were so close to hopeless that it would take a change in world conditions to create an opportunity for change. But then in Occupy I saw that opportunity.
In a way, all social struggles have the potential to make us feel like everything has changed. ‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows impossible victories – people taking over abandoned buildings, neighborhood people fighting back against police violence, homeless people winning the right to maintain a tent city in Tompkins Square Park.
But even when all the rules of normal life seem to be inverted, there are no easy answers. You can fight like hell and do everything right only to watch it all fall apart because of some unhappy accident. We are still learning, all of us struggling to build a better world. I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But if we could get better at telling stories about what went right – and what went disastrously wrong – we might not be quite so completely doomed to repeat our history forever.
As part of our crowdfunder for ‘Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back’, Ad Astra Comix agreed to do a workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the attendees was Jay Aaron Roy, who runs Cape and Cowl, a comics shop in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia. We visited C&C on our way back to Ontario and were so impressed that we decided we wanted to do an interview featuring Jay’s work there. The results are below.
Q: First off, let’s have the basics: How long has Cape and Cowl been open? Where is it located? What’s the neighbourhood like?
A: Cape & Cowl has been open since September 28th, 2014, and we are located at 536 Sackville Drive, in beautiful Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, Canada! The neighborhood here is warm and welcoming. I am from this town (well, Fall River, which is about ten minutes away), so many community members here have known me, or who I am, for a long time.
Q: So when we visited, you told us about the role the shop plays as a community space. Could you tell us a little more about that?
A: When I was searching for a location to open, my goal was to specifically open in this rural area to offer the local youth something new to see and do. I have much youth work in my background, and there is hardly anything around here for youth do, so I knew a drop-in center would fit perfectly. I have big ambitions (which I will get to in question #9!), so having a space where I could host game days, movie nights, youth drop-in times, birthday parties, and the like was always an integral part of my business plan.
Q: So you’ve got signs up making it clear that Cape and Cowl is a safe community space. What does that mean in practice? What moved you to do it?
A: Safe spaces are so important, especially for the lgbtqi community. Youth desperately need spaces where they feel comfortable and respected. Making my shop a “safe space”, and then advertising that out there to the world, lets all local youth know, and really everyone else too, that this space is protected. Protected by me. Locally, people tend to know that I am an activist who is quite outspoken about the things that I believe in. So, in practice, I offer volunteering opportunities for youth to help me run parties and events, and in return they know that whatever their gender identity or sexual orientation, they will be respected here. And, not only that, but I will make sure that everyone else in the shop respects them as well, and act as a moderator when a person needs to be gently corrected. I basically like to take the stress off the youth and help validate their identity and worth. I have a no-nonsense, zero tolerance rule about bullying.
I think it is just a part of who I am, to make a space like this, because I was bullied a lot when I was young, and as I have come out in my adulthood as a transgender man, that bullying hadn’t totally stopped. I don’t know if safe spaces will always be needed, and in some part, I hope we don’t need them forever, but I do know we need them right now.
Q: This is an interesting time for nerd culture, with the ugly underbelly of toxic masculinity being dragged out into the light for all to see. Comic book shops are probably the primary physical gathering spaces for people interested in comics, gaming and this kind of stuff – Cape and Cowl is definitely set up like that. But there’s a tension for store owners who have to be careful not to alienate any part of their clientele, while also being pressed to pick sides in an increasingly polarized battle. How do you negotiate that tension at C&C?
A: That’s a great question, and certainly something I pay very careful attention to. Every single move I make with the shop is super-meticulously thought out. Where I am the 100% sole proprietor, I feel more free to “do what I want” when it comes to political stances. My shop would never have the chance to be any sort of “boys club”, that’s just not how I operate. I get Sailor Moon toys that have “for girls” printed right on the box…I take a black marker and cover that up right away before they go on the shelf. MY Sailor Moon toys are for EVERYONE. I also reflect my feelings for particular creative teams, in my orders. If I don’t like what a writer/comic is saying to my shoppers, I don’t order it, (unless someone orders it by special request). I really like to showcase representation though, so I’ll still order Superman and Iron Man, but I have way healthier stock of Jem and the Holograms, Ms. Marvel and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. In regards to gathering the local nerds, (and I use that term in a loving way), it is all about timing. I have many community events like craft fairs and bbqs, where the larger community comes out to an event, but also gaming days, where my local Magic: The Gathering players can gather and play tournaments in the drop-in, so I can run my business at the same time. I just make it known to the players that I have a business to run, and for the most part they respect that. I’ve only had to tell a few guys to watch their language, haha.
Q: So you used to work at Strange Adventures in Halifax, right? What kind of lessons did you learn there about running a comic shop? Has Callum (the owner of Strange Adventures) been supportive of Cape and Cowl?
A: I did used to work at Strange Adventures, and even a few other comic shops as well before that! I learned so much from my time at Strange Adventures, though, for sure. Calum Johnston runs an amazing business, at all three of his shops. I learned a lot about the comic industry from him and Dave Howlett, the manager of his Halifax location. Cal was an awesome boss, and has been super supportive of Cape & Cowl. I am always lead to quote him when he said many years ago to me, “a rising tide floats all boats”. In other words, more people reading comics is a good thing. Also, I’m way out in the rural area, so I don’t hurt his business too much, I imagine. 😉 I still talk to him all the time about lots of different aspects of the business, he has given me some great advice, and brought me gifts of shelving to the shop.
Q: What’s your favourite part of running a comic shop?
A: What a tough one! First of all, I love being the boss! Haha! I am a pretty creative fellow, so being able to concoct my own sales, events, ideas, etc. has pretty much been a dream come true. I love having the freedom to run my own business the exact way I want to. The most rewarding part of my work is seeing people enjoy the shop, and the space. I also just plain LOVE comics! So, it’s always fun being in the comic industry and seeing what is coming out, the day it comes out!
Q: (You can skip this one if you don’t wanna make trouble with your landlord) You mentioned something about the landlord jacking up the rent massively. I think the price you mentioned was comparable to commercial rents in Toronto, and you live in rural Nova Scotia! What the hell are they thinking?
A: I will answer anything! Haha! I have NO IDEA what they are thinking, other than probably “This lake-of-fire front property is too hot, let’s invest in new A/C and charge it to the small business owners in our rural buildings”?, because they are, collectively, Satan. Seriously though, with companies like the one that jacked up my rent, (through loopholes, two months after I moved in, with an increase of $600 a MONTH!), I’m sure all they care about is the bottom line. They are so disconnected from the communities they own in, and they could care less. The community at large, along with myself, emailed, sent letters, called, did everything we could, and the owners still did not care. They stood their ground on the increase, and as a result I have almost gone out of business four times. In fact, they only sent me back one email saying “I’m not sure why we got these emails…”. I offered them some reading lessons. They didn’t answer back, haha. My building has since been bought by another company, who have their heads in the sand just as deep. We need locally owned, reasonably priced business buildings desperately in rural Nova Scotia. Or at least ones not owned by the four horseman of the apocalypse.
For anyone who wants to get in touch with Jay’s landlord about his outrageous rent, he pays $3345.70 a month for 1610 sq. ft. You can reach them at
BANC Group 1 Craigmore Drive, Suite 201 Halifax, NS B3N 0C6 P (902) 832-8930
Q: What’s the hardest part of running Cape and Cowl?
A: The hardest part of running Cape & Cowl, is doing it all by myself. Although, it makes me quite proud to see all I have done. I certainly couldn’t have done it at all without the incredible amount of help I get from local community members, and volunteers for parties and events, but the daily grind can certainly wear on me from time to time. I am good at practicing self care, though, so I make sure to get the rest I need. When the shop closes up at 6:00, I go home. I don’t let anyone make me feel guilty for not being open past that. If they want to shop comics in the evening, they can do that in the city, or wait a few years until I have a staff to allow me to do so. The only other part that was difficult, was dealing with ALL the companies that call you to set up debit/credit payments with them. Boy, those companies are all headache-inducing, but only were so in my first year of business. I can tell them where to go pretty fast, these days, haha.
Q:Do you have any big plans for the future?
A: I have SO MANY big plans for the future, but I can’t tell anyone about them yet! Isn’t that awful?! haha All I can say is, stay tuned to the website, and you’ll see every big idea as I implement them!
Q: What advice do you have for folks around North America interested in starting their own comic shops?
A: Oh my gosh, I could write an hour’s worth of material here, but what I’ll say is this: do it. If you want to own a comic shop, go do it. Save as much money as you can, do your research about the comic industry, and how to order from your distributors. Go nuts on social media. Listen to everyone’s “advice”, but only use the advice you want. Comic shops work much better if you involve the community, so create events where the geek community can gather and cross promote with other local small businesses. Find small business meet-ups in your area, and get connected! And most importantly, remember that COMICS ARE FOR EVERYONE.
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to announce that our crowdfunder for a classic work of Canadian comics journalism is now live. “EXTRACTION! Comix Reportage” is an anthology of journalistic comics about the damage caused by different sectors the Canadian mining industry around the world and within the nation state’s own borders. Using research, on-the-ground journalism and original comic art, the work features stories about the extraction of uranium, oil, aluminum and gold and their devastating impact on communities and the environment.
The human and ecological cost of this industry is too often buried in the fine print of annual reports. ‘EXTRACTION!’ can help stories from India, Guatemala, Alberta and the Northwest Territories reach Canadians – the people best positioned to challenge these companies.
‘EXTRACTION!’ touches on a number of issues of interest to our readers including colonialism, indigenous rights, ecological devastation and corporate malfeasance. It also features work by a number of contributors who have gone on to do exciting things, including journalist DawnPaley and artist Jeff Lemire.
Ad Astra Comix is an independent Ottawa-based comics publisher. We believe in the power of comics to share the stories of regular people and speak truth to power. We have no investors, stockholders or friends in high places – just an enthusiasm for comics and social justice.
Organizations, individuals and local book retailers are encouraged to participate in the crowdfunder. Funding rewards range from a copy of the book before it’s available in stores, to custom-made comics about the mining issue of your choice, to a lump of coal delivered to the Canadian Government, on your behalf.
‘EXTRACTION!’ has already been published once and has sold the entirety of its print run. By republishing it, we hope to share these stories and help Canadians understand the high cost of cheap commodities. By contributing to the project or simply sharing it with people you think may be interested, you can help us reach that goal.
If you’re interested in contributing to the publication of ‘EXTRACTION!’, or want to know more about the project, you can check out our crowdfunding campaign. For information about Ad Astra Comix, including other titles we carry, workshops we offer and critical coverage of political comics, check out the rest of this website. To get in touch, please e-mail email@example.com. You can also follow us on Twitter @AdAstraComics or like our page on Facebook.