Why does one read a book? One reason is to inform oneself.
Review by José Gonzalez
You understand science. Or more accurately, you could understand science. Although there’s no denying it can be difficult, I’ve too many times heard people exclaim that while they love science, they simply can’t wrap their heads around it. Instead, a love of science expresses itself as a fetish, with obscure facts, like how often a fly poops, being touted around as worthwhile knowledge.
When it comes to the biggest environmental issue of all time for the human species, climate change, you see alarming headlines that mix alarming (and sometimes misleading) facts without actually informing you on how it’s happening, and how your behaviour influences it. This is the gap Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoniv attempts to fill.
Title: Climate Changed:A Personal Journey through the Science
Author: Philippe Squarzoni
Illustrator: Philippe Squarzoni
Published: 2014 (Abrams Comic Arts)
Dimensions: 16.5 x 3.2 x 23.5 cm
Get Your Copy: In the Online Shop
Squarzoni’s book is as thick as a textbook, though far less dense and plodding. Its pages mix images of the author’s personal life with interviews and charts that make up much of the evidence for climate change. Though not as slick as a high budget movie, it walks the problem forward from the beginning, and then thoroughly examines the issue in a level-headed way.
Squarzoni found himself in a position many others share, a believer in climate change who only knew it was something to worry about. His journey through the research walks each reader through not only the changes we might be seeing, but how they’re happening. The way his life is juxtaposed with the research brings the science home, making it a journey that doesn’t just make you reflect on scary factoids, but genuinely try to understand them in the context of your own life.
It may be that being presented in a comic makes the subject far less intimidating, yet still gives you the chance to dwell on each page. Instead of a movie or TV documentary, you can linger on each page, rereading points that flow so easily off the tongue of an expert, better acquainting yourself with a trickier point. You can also take time to understand a graph or see the small changes in an image of landscape. You likely won’t finish it in one sitting, but it doesn’t take too much effort to keep it out of your shameful pile of unfinished books.
As excellent as it is, the book does have a few flaws. Some of the research, particularly the section on nuclear power, was a bit thin. For instance, a statement on nuclear waste taking decades to decompose with no solution to that in sight, when it’s been reduced to years, is misleading. Although small errors like that one inadvertently demonstrate one of the other great joys in science: being sceptical. If there’s one more thing a reader might take away from this book, it’s how to look at science not as something to be passively received, but something to actively engage with and attempt to understand personally.
By looking at the issue from so many angles, a reader can begin to grasp just what climate change means both scientifically, and in their own life. It makes science something that isn’t a fun curiosity, but rather a pursuit that belongs to all of us. One of the great limitations of science is how too easily people assume it’s a pursuit for the intellectual elites. Though scientists sometimes fail in communicating their ideas, it’s time people started making greater efforts in understanding it. It’s a knowledge base that belongs to everyone, and books like Climate Changed help bring it to us, if you make the effort in picking it up first.
Oil and Water is a work of comics journalism exploring the impact of the 2011 BP oil spill on the coastal communities and ecosystems of Louisiana, through the eyes of a delegation of activists from Oregon.
Most of us probably know some about the disaster that led to the largest oil spill in human history. The deaths of 11 BP workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the following 87 days of petroleum gushing unabated into the Gulf was, to a group of progressives from Oregan, the calling they needed to visit Louisiana and bear witness–to the spill, yes, but perhaps moreso the larger and deeply troubling questions it posed: What are the real effects of ecological disasters? Are these disasters avoidable? Ultimately, in a world that is quickly running out of fossil fuels, is the disaster even the root problem?
Even those of us who have looked at the greater implications may find it hard to fully understand the impact of the BP oil spill without a visit to the Gulf coast. This was, at least in part, the viewpoint of the Oregon delegation, which included writer Steve Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler.
Profiles are drawn of the different personalities, from their flight into Louisiana until their last day, which certainly gives Oil and Water a ‘documentary’ feel. Scenes are intermissioned by small, 4-paragraph pages detailing some of the many troubling aspects of the spill, including BP’s record of cutting corners to save costs, or the devastation of the Gulf’s sea turtle populations.
The artwork is black and white, with sketches filled in with a patchy, dark watercolour stain, certainly intended to mimic the appearance of oil. For Shannon Wheeler, an artist who is arguably known more around the world for his series Too Much Coffee Man, it struck me a bit by surprise. The art overall has a sense of haste, giving me the impression that they were rendered not from photographs but from on-the-scene sketching–something that may or may not be true.
I am impressed with the changing of perspectives throughout the book. Duin seems to have really captured the thoughts and expressions of a number of trip participants and Louisiana locals, who voice their fair share of cynicism towards activists and outsiders parachuting into their neighborhood–seemingly a deja vu of the Katrina aftermath. In these sequences, we see members of the delegation change their way of seeing the world–and change their minds as to how they will act.
“Oil and Water” is a masterful collage of stories that, none to its detriment, only begins to scratch the surface of this tragedy. It would be a useful map of topics for someone looking for a starting point to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
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…
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.
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?
‘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…