Tag Archives: sexism

The Delicate Art of Getting It: Comics as a Tool for Unpacking Privilege

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

How many times has some variation on this theme been thrown in the face of some well-intentioned person?  They’re “just trying to understand”, and how can they do so if you won’t explain? As an upper middle class white dude, I remember asking such innocent-seeming questions myself, failing to appreciate what the Audre Lorde quote above explains: educating your oppressor is draining!  I was lucky enough to have a kind and very patient friend to deliver a staggering series of savage defeats in debates I had imagined I’d won.  It took years for the implications of her arguments to penetrate the murky sludge of privilege and teach me an essential lesson: it can be hard to understand what we do not experience.   The experience of oppressed people and our difficulty in understanding it makes them an other, separate from us  and outside our understanding.

theotterFor those unfamiliar with this academic term, the “other” describes the relationship of those excluded or oppressed by a group or society by virtue of their identity.   You know what they say where clarity’s concerned: “a .jpg is worth a blog post but a meme will do in a pinch.”  So there’s a kind of emotional truth to the expressions of the otters linked above that we wouldn’t get from a graduate course on the subject.   The appeal of a snarling otter over the excruciating tedium of a dozen French philosophers is obvious.  This otter is asks us to go beyond feeling bad about our privilege and understand it is disgusted with our failure to do anything about it – or maybe just disliked that chewed up watermelon.

But otters keep a busy schedule and can’t be everywhere!  Luckily, there are comics.  The internet has helped broadcast the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience than was previously possible. People who would struggle to get a speaking role on a third-string sitcom can have audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and comics are one of the most accessible media to do so. For regular people struggling to understand how their privilege can be harmful to otters, comics beat the heat of the librarian’s stare when your intellectual sweat starts to stain the aging furniture your local bibliotheque.

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Comics can be an excellent way to visually represent concepts that take ages to present in text. That’s 500 years of exploitation in six panels, and if it lacks the nuance of a textbook on the triangular trade, hey, it’s a starting point. An interested person with good intentions can proceed from here to Google, Wikipedia or the nearest library. It is the beginning of a frame of reference. Most importantly, it conveys an emotional truth.

So much of oppression hinges on emotional truth. One can produce endless statistics on mortality rates during Atlantic crossings, the value generated by slaves for the American economy, the value of unpaid housework to the capitalist economy or whatever else suits you. But notwithstanding statistical significance, you know what they say: tell a human story, people can relate. If you want to bore them, use statistics.

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While there might be a startling brutality to statistics on trans suicides, many may find it easier to relate the above comic to their own experience of breaking difficult news to their parents. It is always the case when unpacking your privilege that a dash of empathy goes a long way, and if the personal is political it’s electrical too. So comics are a place to plug in, and that’s always good. They can be especially effective when someone who shares your privilege uses comics as a way to speak directly to your experience, and acknowledges the frustration of being called out while you are trying to educate yourself. If this comes with two scoops of tough love, at least you can see yourself in the face of the person behind the pencil.

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Nothing, of course, is universal. But the beauty of comics are their incredible diversity. Not every comic will illuminate every question. Seeking understanding is catching fish with your bare hands, slippery at the best of times, without mediating that search through art. For those of us hoping to improve our allyship, it is alright to admit that we just don’t get it. Sometimes, we may have no reaction to a given comic at all.

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And that’s ok. In our journey to understand the differences that separate us, and the way our behaviour has the capacity to harm people, we do not need to instantly grasp every concept that’s presented. Some questions have answers you can’t put in comics, or books for that matter. Ultimately these are questions rooted in human experience and therefore best addressed through human interaction. Still, if you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth and potentially hurting someone’s feelings, comics can be a great place to start. You never know whose life you might make a little easier.

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Ad Astra Comix is building an index of comics to help prospective allies educate themselves! In the meantime, check out some of web comics linked here with permission from the artists–or e-mail us if you think there’s a particularly crucial comic to have on the list! If the comic in question comes in print, we may be interested in ordering it, so feel free to contact us about that, too. 🙂

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The Art of a Comic with a Cause: Interview with “BRANDED” Author Rodrigo Caballero

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Comics With a Cause co-founders Rodrigo Caballero and Babette Santos

Ad Astra: You’re in the final stretch of your Indiegogo campaign! How would you describe the experience so far?

Rodrigo: Running my first Indiegogo campaign has definitely been a huge learning curve, especially for someone like myself whose knowledge (not to mention enthusiasm!) for the ins and outs of social networking platforms is not always up to par. Definitely my eyes have been opened to the idea of crowd funding- there is so much potential for doing advocacy and charitable work on the Internet, but so much time and effort to be invested as well. The sheer diversity of initiatives and ideas being funded right now through crowd funding, however, is mind-blowing and it’s exciting times for people with new and innovative ideas. I very much see our indiegogo campaign as the humble first steps taken in a longer path of development.

AA: The concept of a web comic about a subject matter like domestic abuse must have been new for some people.

R: Yes, definitely new, although it seems that’s been a positive thing for most people learning about the project, especially for those already working in the field of violence against women in a supportive capacity. There seems to be a thirst for new approaches to raising awareness of the topic. Violence against women is a very difficult subject to broach because it makes most people uncomfortable and it’s not the sort of thing one hears brought up in day-to-day conversations. For the most part, there’s been an unwritten code of silence that underlies the topic of violence against women in society. I think comics and graphic novels have a lot of potential, because if you can’t confront people directly about it at first, you can at least have them read about it in a format other than news reporting or statistics and if the story is compelling enough, they can and hopefully will talk about it with others. Expressing the subject in the form of a story allows for discussion in a manner that’ s a little less direct but hopefully still engaging. That’s the theory anyway!

AA: And what kind of spectrum of feedback have you gotten?

R: The feedback I’ve received on through our CWAC campaign has been overwhelmingly positive and for the most part people (including individuals working for organizations) have demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. There seems to be a notion that a comic series addressing violence against women has a lot of educative potential as well (i.e. lots of comments about using this in the classroom and with younger audiences). I’m flattered by this sentiment and indeed part of me hopes “BRANDED” does one day make it to classrooms but admittedly there is also a small part of me that is wary of it. And that’s because there may be an assumption underlying this that comics/graphic novels is something for kids. Of course, audiences already familiar with the medium know that this limiting stereotype was broken a long time ago and that many of the most successful graphic novels have handled very serious or political subjects in  very unconventional yet compelling ways and in a manner that is unique to the medium. The other thing is that when we slap the word ‘education’ on something, it can carry a lot of baggage with it, just as the term ‘entertainment’ can. This comes from outmoded ways of thinking that equate learning with textbooks and grading and entertainment with passive consumption. I think there’s a lot of room for unpacking these terms and exploring comics as more of a liminal space.

AA: Let’s go back a bit. Where did the idea of “BRANDED” originate from? Were you inspired by other comic books already out there? What about the subject matter?

R: Like many others, the clincher for me in terms of what comics are capable of accomplishing was reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus and works by Alan Moore and Marjane Satrapi. Regrettably, in terms of raising awareness of violence against women, my familiarity with the phenomenon (also like many others) comes from knowing someone who has experienced sexual assault and having an intimate understanding of the traumatic and dispiriting effects that accompany it.

My idea for writing “BRANDED” in particular came from attending a panel on National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women last December. Part of the event featured an installation where about a hundred black cut-out silhouettes of women were positioned everywhere and each one featured a short real-life account of a woman’s experience with male violence. These were collected by crisis line workers over the period of a single month. There was something about the immediacy of these stories that I found staggering and that spoke to just how obscured the phenomenon of violence against women is– here were all of these horrendous real-life accounts of violence against women, and the majority of them never reach public consciousness. During the subsequent panel discussion, the question was also raised, “What is the role of men in ending violence against women?” That was very much my own personal call to action and for whatever reason, the idea entered my mind– I’m going to make a comic series addressing violence against women–and I just knew from that point onwards this was something that I was going to have to do. From there, the premise and most of the characters basically spilled out of me in one brainstorming session shortly afterwards.

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AA: “BRANDED” includes a figure known as “The Brander”. Comics have expanded so much since the first
days of caped crusaders. What inspires you to continue on with the inclusion of a ‘caped’ hero–someone with a secret identity and extraordinary abilities?

womeninrefrigeratorsR: Well, the first thing is that I don’t really consider “BRANDED” to be a superhero story per se, nor will The Brander have any extraordinary abilities (although the secret identity trope is very much a part of the character). That’s because she or he is very peripheral to the story and only gets minimal page time. Instead, most of the story centers on a group of characters whose lives are impacted in different ways by The Brander’s actions, which are at best controversial and morally not so easy to justify. Readers familiar with the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon (sparked by Gail Simone a number of years ago) will be familiar with the argument that too often in comics, we see female characters maimed, raped, incapacitated or killed off ruthlessly and abruptly, usually in order to provide a motivation for the protagonist/superhero. “BRANDED” eschews such shock-value devices and instead depicts women as survivors (not just victims) of male violence and its consequences. The presence of The Brander–a vigilante who has decided to seek redress for women survivors of male violence because the law has been deemed incapable of providing this-is meant to provoke readers into thinking about what sort of factors would actually drive somebody to adopt such a role. In real life, it’s estimated that only a fraction of sexual assault incidents are reported to the police by survivors and of these statistically only a fraction result in a conviction or imprisonment, so I think this theme of absence of redress or lack of justice is a very real one for many survivors of violence. My idea was to have a vigilante who went around branding the faces of perpetrators of sexual violence in order to expose them and place the burden of shame and stigma on them rather than the survivor, which is what we tend to see too often in real life. The Brander, despite only having a minor role in the story, is meant to embody the response (albeit a dramatic one) to this absence of redress and there’s a certain inevitability to the character’s appearance that I hope comes across when we bear the statistics in mind. When we recall the example of the vigilante group “Anonymous” and their intervention in the recent Rataeh Parsons case, The Brander isn’t too far a stretching of reality.

AA: What advice would you have for others fundraising for projects with a similar interest?

R: It’s important to build a community around your cause or project. For me, even though I decided to go ahead and launch an Indiegogo campaign for “BRANDED,” I’m still very much in the formative stages of building a community or audience for the comic. This can only happen over time but I think when it does, the comic will really start to take on a life of its own. Also, for any men becoming involved with speaking up on violence against women, such as myself, it’s important to inform yourself to the best of your ability and remain ever sensitive to your position relative to the phenomenon of violence against women while not adopting the role of someone speaking on behalf of survivors. Too often in so many spheres the voice of women is marginalized and the last thing we need is for this to happen in raising awareness of violence against women. I can’t pretend to have fully learned how to negotiate this dynamic, but I can certainly
remain cognizant of it.

AA: After your Indiegogo drive is over, what can supporters expect to see from Comics with a Cause in the months ahead? 

R: The if-everything-goes-according-to-plan picture is: We will finish finding the funding to produce about 85 pages of script to be illustrated by Reetta Linjama, our current illustrator, and hopefully hire somebody who can colour all the pages too. Our aim is to start releasing the comic series episodically (perhaps weekly) beginning early September and I would like to take it right up to December 6 which is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. This will depend though on how much funds we can raise for the project. Right now the best way to help out is through our Indiegogo campaign which ends June 22, but we may try and figure out a way to allow people to keep donating after that, ideally on a new website dedicated to the comic series. In the meanwhile, any news and updates can be found on our Facebook Page.

Of course, the other question people always bring up is, when do we see the printed or graphic novel edition? Like most comic artists/writers, I’m all for that! But let’s get the thing made first…

AA: Thanks, Rodrigo! Best of luck as these final days!

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Introduction to a Crash Course

August 31, 2011

It was the 1980’s in Britain, the proverbial midday of the Thatcher-Reagan era, when comic author Alan Moore extended the logic of the right wing’s rhetoric to envision a Britain of the future, under the complete subjugation of a dictatorship. It went beyond the beginnings that had already been seen, of cutting down unions, banning gay marriage, and cutting off immigration. This Britain–racist, misogynistic, unloving, fearful of the very cameras on every street corner that citizens insisted they couldn’t live without—was the stage for one of the greatest stories of the late 20th Century.

It is at the foot of an Orwellian statue by the name of “Lady Justice” that the regime’s nemesis lays a final gift to this ‘betraying lover’ (“You always did have an eye for a man in uniform,” he says.) Before destroying the gilded monument, the man known only as “V” utters of her replacement:

“Her name is anarchy. And she has taught me more… than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none, unlike you, Jezebel. …Goodbye, dear lady. I would be saddened by our parting even now, save that you are no longer the woman that I once loved.”

It wasn’t the first political comic I’d read, but V for Vendetta was my political comic baptism: no medium would ever beat it.

Like George Orwell’s 1984, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, or any of its many pictureless literary siblings, V for Vandetta was a barometer for me to know how sick my society was. (Moore himself would quip years later, that someone must have liked those cameras in the streets: now they’re everywhere).

It is well known that Moore, as a comic book writer, would prefer the medium of comics over books or film. But apparently others thought so, too: it became one of the most popular and meaningful works of modern literature, and it still sold over 20,000 copies just last year, two decades after its original publication (a long time in the comics world–although now it is compiled in one volume). For millions of people, something resonates between the text-and-paper story, already heavy with meaning, and the graphic images that make it—and graphic novels in general—especially moving works of literature and art.

At a comic book store, among many more men-in-tights titles than you will ever care to read, you will find a countable few. If you go down the street to your local bookstore, you can find a smaller but nonetheless interesting collection of graphic novel fiction. On the rise now are also works of historical and biographical comics—libraries and classrooms can’t seem to get enough of them. But nestled here and there, in-between these surely enjoyable pages are the books I am writing about today: the political comics. V for Vandetta was surely an excellent work of fiction, science fiction, and social commentary. But it was also a political comic that spoke to real issues effecting an iron-fisted, Thatcherated Britain. It was a warning. And to this day, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by  “V” has adorned many a protester, and is even the avatar of the worldwide ‘Anonymous’ internet movement associated with Wikileaks and social media-assisted uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

“But wait,” you may be thinking… “Aren’t graphic novels just comics? And aren’t comics just… cartoons? Aren’t they supposed to be the opposite of serious?” How, then, have they been used so successfully to publicize the discussions of some of the most serious topics—from slavery and the Holocaust to modern warfare and political struggles? And let’s not forget that political comics themselves are older than the newspapers that first published them in the 19th Century.

The political comic—or graphic novel—is not a homogenous creature. Encompassing a veritable pantheon of different subject matters, authors come from a variety of backgrounds using many different formats and styles for different reasons. Allow me to give you a quick crash-course of some of the world’s most notable political comics.

In 1950’s America, Korean War vet Harvey Kurtzman was the editor and co-creator of “Two-Fisted Tales,” an anthology of war stories that was surprisingly anti-war for its time; no-where else in McCarthy-era United States would you find a publication so widely distributed, calling bullshit on Hollywood’s romantic notions of no-blood combat scenes and racist characterizations of enemy soldiers. Canadian journalist Mitchell Brown would write that Kurtzman,

“who had been drafted in 1942, knew warfare firsthand, and he was outraged by the gung-ho war comics that made war look like a glorious thing. In his stories, there were no heroes — just soldiers trapped in situations beyond their control. Often, his stories weren’t about soldiers at all, focusing instead on the lives of innocent people scarred by war…”

In 1986, Art Spiegelman created Maus (or “Mouse” in German), a two-part story of his father’s account as a Jew during the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Despite the serious subject matter, Spiegelman helped to illustrate the social polarization and predatory nature of Nazi society by drawing Jews as mice, and Germans as cats. He initially faced a lot of scepticism for his decision to make a “holocaust comic,” especially from fellow Jews; however, his work would end up as a classroom essential. Reporting on the story’s winning of a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times explained that Maus was selected under the category of “Special Award” because “the Pulitzer board members … found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.”

Joe Sacco took a new spin on the political comic as a “comic journalist” in the 1990’s, travelling to war zones and… well, drawing everything. Among his prize-winning works were “Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995”, and “Palestine”. In both, he highlights the apparent lack of world interest in these millions of people suffering the ravages of war and military occupation because of their unfortunate geographical locations. He interviewed hundreds and drew thousands, but genuinely let the subjects speak for themselves, even when they made him look bad (maybe this is why he draws himself like a cartoon, even when everyone else in his illustrations looks realistic.)

Many more have been published since: “Uncle Sam” written by Steve Darnell with art by Alex Ross; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” written and drawn by Kyle Baker; “Louis Riel” by Canada’s own Chester Brown. But my current favourite is “Bayou,” an unfinished three-part (maybe four?) work by Jeremy Love. While fantastic in nature, there is little doubt in categorizing Bayou as political fiction: set in the Depression-era Deep South, a young black girl named Lee must rescue a white girl from the Bayou swamps to prove her father’s innocence. Through this eerie landscape, Lee slips into a parallel world of Southern folklore and political anthropomorphism—an “Alice in Dixieland”, if you will—where the she must outrun and outwit characters of a racist imagination: murderous flocks of Jim Crows and minstrel show monsters, to name a few.


It reminds me (again) of something Alan Moore said in reference to his take on the comic classic Swamp Thing: why only look to the supernatural to find horror? There are truly horrific things happening all around us here and now–racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia–that is much more scary when you consider the greater possibility of it affecting your life than, say, zombies. And, in a well-told story like Love’s or Moore’s, it will send prickles down your spine.

If you’re intrigued, Jeremy will probably be pleased: he’s got another edition of Bayou on the way needing your attention. And I’m pleased as well, because there should be more people going into comic book stores and asking for political work. I was amazed this year at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival—an incredible amount of talent under one roof, thousands and thousands of writers and artists—but so few political causes using the medium, and none exclusively so. When progressive and Left issues are so often marginalized or simply misunderstood, the medium is incredible for spreading awareness without being condescending or preachy. Political comics are a huge untapped resource, but they require research, time, and talent. More than anything, they require talent committed to progressive causes.

In the coming days, I will be listing and reviewing some of my favourite political comics, with a few image panels for you to see the work for yourself. I hope you enjoy what you find, and pass the work on. Feel free to send me your feedback, as well as any suggestions for new or overlooked work: I’m always looking for more.