There is a story dating back in time and region to the Roman Empire, in which a raven is observed dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the height of the water inside. From this, the raven drinks, and from this tale comes the notable phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
There is a terrible need in North America today for education about the history of colonization. As settlers advanced notions of Euro-centric “progress” for centuries, the catastrophic effects upon the first peoples of the land–from outright war to enduring forms of cultural genocide–were hardly noted, even by those claiming to possess a conscience. Now, like the raven, indigenous people and settlers alike are thirsting for this knowledge, and creative minds are coming up with new, innovative ways to bring generations of stories from the margins to the mainstream.
A strong indicator of the demand has been the public’s reception to the work of David Robertson, a Cree writer, comics creator, and educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In just a few short years, Robertson has developed his storytelling abilities to produce a number of works to great acclaim. This year alone, he has been nominated in three categories of the Manitoba Book Awards, including ‘Aboriginal Writer of the Year’, and ‘Most Promising Manitoba Writer’. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted that his graphic novels “take advantage of an important means of communicating that history to Canada’s youth, especially Aboriginal youth, who have gravitated toward this genre.”
We were honoured to chat with David about his vision, his work, and his plans for the future. All illustrations are courtesy of artist Scott Henderson and Highwater Press.
Ad Astra: Looking over the stack of comics in front of me, first and foremost, I see the work of a storyteller. What brought you to this line of work? And secondly, what brought you to comics to tell many of those stories?
Dave Robertson: I suppose it’s a combination of three things: education, personal history, and writing. I grew up disconnected from the side of my heritage that is Cree. My parents were separated when I was very young, and I was raised by my mom in an upper-middle class neighbourhood. She raised me and my brothers well, but because my dad wasn’t around a lot, I wasn’t exposed to First Nations culture or history. So, I grew up exposed to the kind of ignorance we still see today. A lot of racism, either experienced directly or indirectly. I ended up having a low sense of self-worth. I saw myself how others saw indigenous people.
Then, when my parents reconciled, and my dad moved back in with us (this was over a decade later), I finally began to learn more about who I was as a First Nations person. So, it’s been a long journey, learning about myself in that way, and growing a strong sense of pride through knowledge.
Now, nine years ago, I wanted to do something so that other kids could be exposed to real history and real culture. I felt like, if I could bring something into schools that would engage kids with truth, it would help in some way to fight back against the difficulties we still see in our country. Education is knowledge. My parents are both educators, that’s probably where that came from. Now, I’d written since I was in grade three, so I knew I wanted to write something. And because all I ever read when I was growing up was comic books, I thought it would be an amazing way to get kids engaged and excited with history and culture. That’s how I got into writing graphic novels.
My thought was: if you gave a kid a comic book and gave a kid a text book, which one would they choose to learn from? Always the comic book. The thing is, after they read the comic book, they want to read more about the subject. So they read the text book afterwards.
AA: That’s an excellent point. There is an accessibility with comics that I find is really unrivaled. And unlike film or TV, it can move at the reader’s pace…
DR: They call that “Visual Permanence”. See, at first it was: ‘Comics are cool; let’s do this.’ After that, I realized all the technical ways they are so effective.
For example: reading comics connects with us in an almost primal way. And that’s because we used to communicate through pictures, not words. It’s the most ancient way to story tell.
AA: I feel like your first answer really knocks out several of my introductory questions, and you’re now moving into some of the deeper questions…
DR: I’m efficient. (LOL)
AA: Regarding oral traditions and visual narratives… Dr Sheena Howard makes an interesting note in her new book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” connecting the comic medium to traditional African storytelling. Griots would memorize a lifetime of stories about the community or nation, heroes, gods and tricksters, and for many former slaves in the United States, there was no black-controlled medium of storytelling between these two (a bit mind-boggling to contemplate). I feel as though your comics are bridging the gap for indigenous narratives, in a similar way…
DR: I don’t disagree with that. At the launch of my first graphic novel, ‘The Life of Helen Betty Osborne’, Murray Sinclair said that while we have an oral tradition, we now are finding new ways to pass down our stories to future generations. One of those ways is through the sequential art medium. It’s also through art, dance, music, and other forms of writing. But I think graphic novels and comics are the most effective. And I think that’s due to the format itself, and the visual nature of the medium. And it goes back, again, to how ancient this form of communication is. It’s taking it all the way back to wall paintings, the first way we communicated with each other and passed down stories. The old always becomes new again.
AA: You mentioned presentations in the classroom. What age groups do you work with?
DR: That’s the other thing with comics. For the same book, I’ve been to visit a grade four classroom, a junior high classroom, a high school classroom, and I’ve guest-lectured in university classrooms. They are the universal medium. There are reasons for this, too. Because of their visual nature, they connect with struggling readers or readers at lower skill levels. But because [the good ones] often have complex narrative structures and character development and so on, they connect with sophisticated readers as well. What novel can do that?
AA: There is, understandably, a real sense of loss and despair in a lot of the characters you depict in your work. A few colleagues, indigenous and settler, have noted that the work is a difficult read emotionally, sometimes almost paralysing. What do you see as the goal of bringing these uncomfortable, even triggering histories to comics? Do they present any difficulties in groups, or working with people who have experience similar forms of trauma?
DR: Sure, they are hard to read. I remember passing by two teachers who were shocked by the scenes in Ends/Begins, for example. But they were shocked in a good way, because they recognized the value in bringing history to students in such a real way. But, I should add, in a way that is sensitive and respectful. But these stories need to be told. People need to know the history, and the uncensored history. That is the only way there will be an understanding of the historical impacts on First Nations people in this country. In terms of how to deal with that pain, some of that is in the hands of the educators who are sharing the work. If you are sharing it with kids who are second generation survivors, or survivors themselves, you need to ensure you have supports in place to deal with trauma. If you are showing this to non-indigenous people, you need to prepare to continue the dialogue the book begins, bring in a speaker, bring in supplementary texts, etc. Teachers often say: how can I bring this into the classroom? The content is too difficult. I say to them, consider what your students are inundated with today through media. The violence we see on television. The Walking Dead, for example (which I love, by the way). Yet what you are bringing them in these works is reality, history, and things we all, as Canadians, need to know. There is just too much ignorance out there not to find the best ways possible to educate.
AA: Can comics and cartoons be problematic or trivializing when exploring violent and traumatic histories? How do you feel about settlers attempting to tackle these subjects? Is this part of a larger legacy of settlers dismissing the need for consultation in their “indigenous solidarity” activism?
DR: Well, settlers need to ensure they are doing things right if they are addressing histories of First Nations people. They need to consult with elders, indigenous peoples, and do the research, and research from the right resources. You know, Scott Henderson is white. But he has done the work to ensure that he is depicting things accurately, and we run our work through the proper channels to ensure we are being accurate and respectful. I think comics can trivialize violence, or show gratuitous violence. But they can also explore violence properly when it’s within the context of reality. The violence in my work is purposeful because it has its place within the story and within true history. Nothing is gratuitous. So, again, educators and readers need to choose properly.
Do I like settlers telling our stories? Not really. I think there is a growing movement of reclamation that needs to stay within the hands of the indigenous peoples. We just need to encourage youth to continue to get involved in telling stories. Our stories need to be reclaimed by our people, as long as those stories can be held to the right standards of excellence.
AA: You mentioned you were a comics fan growing up… comics is a strange medium, where indigenous people have been very *present* in comic representations, but almost exclusively created by white settlers for a white audiences, and very much from the white imagination of ‘manifest destiny’ and other white supremacist outlooks. Did you have any native comic role models? Which characters did you like growing up, and why?
DR: Honestly, I didn’t have any First Nations comic role models growing up and I still don’t. Part of the reason is that it’s still a growing medium within the First Nations community. There just aren’t a lot of First Nations comic book writers out there. But, that’s changing too. You know, Richard Van Camp just did one through my publisher. The Healthy Aboriginal Network does some amazing work. There’s Red, too, which you mentioned. So, I feel encouraged by all of this. In terms of characters. I’m not sure, really. There weren’t and aren’t a lot of great indigenous comic characters either. It’s so hard to create characters without perpetuating stereotypes or appropriating culture, I guess. But I think it’s doable. I loved Elfquest growing up, that’s as indigenous as I got when I was young! Other than that, I was typically into Spider-Man and Batman. I’d like to see work done for our culture that has been done so effectively for others, like King or Maus. Riel is a great one, too. I’d put it up there.
AA: Helen Betty Osborne: What compelled you to choose Helen’s story as one to tell?
DR: Well, it was the first one I did. I suppose I saw in her story the opportunity to tackle several issues that were important to me, and that I felt should be important to many. Through her story, you learn about the residential school system, segregation, racism, sexism, indifference, the justice system’s treatment of indigenous people, and missing and murdered indigenous women. So, it was really a story that embodied so much of what I love about graphic novels: it’s this incredible foundation in education that allows teachers to jump off into a variety of important subjects. And, today, her story is more relevant than ever. Sharing her story allows us to talk about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in ways that effect people powerfully. When it’s real, it’s effective. Her story becomes so real through the graphic novel medium. And we suffer with her and learn from her.
AA: I love the way the story is framed around grassroots activism as well. I find myself noting the misfortune of many of your characters, but they’re almost always complimented with characters that represent empowerment and agency–characteristics that are difficult to portray within the victim or survivor identity.
DR: Thanks! I think, too, empowerment so often comes from knowledge.
AA: What’s next for you? a) upcoming projects? b) more broadly, where do you see your work going?
DR: I always have projects on the go. As you know, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story is coming out in May 2015. I think it’s my best graphic novel yet, and I am excited to see what it can do to raise awareness for Betty and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women across Canada. I have another graphic novel coming out in my Tales From Big Spirit series called The Runner: Joseph B. Keeper. That’ll be out in the Fall, hopefully. We have a bunch of names on the docket for future graphic novels but no firm plans yet on who/what they’ll be about. The Tales From Big Spirit series is envisioned as an ongoing series, so we’ll keep it going forever if we can. I’m also working away at my follow-up to The Evolution of Alice (a book with no pictures!!!). I’m about 1/4 of the way through that novel. It’s about a man who plans to commit suicide but how his life changes as he gets to know his father for the first time, and how his father’s experience at residential school affected his life, and his decision to end it.
In terms of where I see my work going… First of all, I want to constantly improve. I want to learn and get better and become the best storyteller I can become. That comes through writing and reading and learning from the best. I want to continue to do graphic novels, but I want to do more with them in the future. Tell stories that concentrate not just on history but on the amazing legends and myths in indigenous culture, and maybe tell some contemporary stories, create a super-hero we can be proud of and look up to. I’d love to do some mainstream work on my own terms, too. I’d love to, for example, take a crack at Spider-Man. He was my comic hero growing up.
That’s in the “out there” realm, but I don’t think any dream is too big. I’d like to continue to write novels, as well. And all of that work, graphic novels and novels, all, will try to educate in some way, shape, or form. That’s important to me.
Aside from that, I’d like to get into doing more work in television. I had a taste of it with my show called The Reckoner, that is currently in limbo but might see the light of day. I worked with some great writers for that show as well, like Jordan Wheeler and Sara Snow. I’d also like to write movies one day, when I have time. So, that’s what I hope for my work going forward. I just want to continue to evolve, continue to get better, and continue to challenge myself.
We do all of that by taking risks. For me, those risks involve stepping outside what I might be known for, and trying new things.
Many thanks to Dave Robertson for making himself available for this interview! Questions and comments to David are welcome below, through the WordPress commenting form.