Tag Archives: Tar Sands

What Would Wolverine Do? An Interview with Hellberta’s Mike Comeau

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.

hellberta banner

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?hellberta-page-shot

    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.

 

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Duck, Duck, Profundity: Kate Beaton’s Time in the Tar Sands

It is a simple thing for the analytical mind to pry open the panel of oppression and see the whizzing cogs and grumbling gears of race, class and gender working mechanically to produce social relations.  How neatly our familiar intellectual frameworks structure our understanding of human life!  There is a reassuring consistency with which these lenses are employed, reducing the world’s complexities to a comfortable, mechanical pattern. Useful as it is, the cold-blooded methodology that sees the operation of capitalism, patriarchy and racism in all things fails to capture the essential ambiguity of our humanity.

ducks
Cause they’re dead! DEAAAAAD!

It is this ambiguity of the human experience that Kate Beaton has captured in her recent series, Ducks.  Threaded beautifully into starkly political themes of environmental destruction, corporate recklessness and workplace safety are more explicitly human experiences: isolation, camaraderie and the moral complexity of survival in one of the world’s deepest wounds.  The essential humanity of surviving in such a profoundly dehumanizing environment defines this painfully nuanced piece.

hateithere1
The Red Shoe Pub, it ain’t.

Humanity is a dangerous concept, but an important one.  It is too often emphasized by exclusion, used to demonize some people to serve the ends of others.  Still, it is too important an idea to abandon. When the easy tautologies of political analysis fail us, it is the idea of our shared humanity that helps to explain what makes people hang together.  For students of struggle, insights into this frustratingly elusive element of history are precious.

Like generations of easterners, Kate Beaton left her home town of Mabou, Nova Scotia to make a living in the scabrous sprawl of the tar sands.  With few economic prospects at home and the promise of good pay, thousands have followed its siren call into the maw of destruction.  ‘Ducks’ recounts Beaton’s experiences working on one of these sites, centred around the deaths of hundreds of ducks in a tailings pond near Fort MacMurray, Alberta.

shitintheair
I think Stan Rogers covered this in “The Idiot”

There are no easy truths framed by these panels.  An action by Greenepeace that clogs a tailing pipe endangers the lives of workers on site.  A sex worker finds herself frightened and cornered in a work site bathroom.  Kate Beaton discovers that working in the tar sands comes with a persistent skin rash.  Her equipment is covered in dirt, even indoors.  Workers die on the job.

crane
There’s nothing funny to say about this.

The comic is shot through with death: the ducks, a man falling from a construction crane, others killed in an accident on the highway.  In the last case, Beaton hears the dead men were Cape Bretoners and seeks out another islander to see if she knew them.  Even halfway across the country, the threat to home is real.

Beaton exposes a vein of callous indifference in her subjects.  Men grumble about traffic on the highway on the day of the accident.  Workers joke through an announcement on the death of the crane operator.  The corporate response to the duck deaths is a scarecrow and some noisemakers.  But for every example of inhuman indifference there is a counterpoint of dignity or sorrow.

newfs
Delicious

There is the memory of home, too, in gentle jibes about Newfie Roundsteaks – a teasing nickname for baloney.  A man shares photos of his children at home.  The lethal crash is framed in terms of the phone call to the families.  When Beaton confesses she hates it there, her coworker response captures the essential truth of the situation, and the strip.  No one wants to be in the tar sands, watching the planet die.  But they don’t have much of a choice.

hateithere2
In response to “hating it here”

Kate Beaton is not always a political artist – she is not even always serious.  But in framing a part of her own experience, she has given expression to an often difficult truth.  We survive in the little acts of kindness, in shared experiences and frustrations that complicate our day.  Though we may grow numb or compromised, at the end of it all we are bound together by our common humanity and our ability to find beauty – and absurdity – in even the most trying situations.  That is a political lesson than captures an intangible truth outside the reach of cold analysis.  How we apply the lesson is up to us.

It isn't an article about KB without this little bastard stuck in somewhere.
It isn’t an article about KB without this little bastard stuck in somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NMG