Tag Archives: Toronto comics

Of Family and Terror: A Review of Nina Bunjevac’s “Fatherland”

When we are told, “Everything changed on September 11th,” it is easy for the cynic to note that the only true change has been the object of our cultural hysteria. By 2001 our old enemy, communism, was 10 years into the dustbin of history. There had been some effort to make the global justice movement into a new foe, but beating unarmed protestors made “us” look like the bad guys. …Then al-Qaeda more or less literally fell from the sky to rescue us from the anomie of life without an enemy. The pedestal, left by all those toppled statues of Lenin, now hosted dictators of so-called rogue states, each to be torn down in their turn. All the while, the idea that we had done something to create these enemies, much as we had failed to consider where previous enemies came from, went unexamined. But enemies do not simply rise from the shadows…


: Fatherland
Author: Nina Bunjevac
Illustrator: Nina Bunjevac
Published: Jonathan Cape (Sept, 2014)
Dimensions: 8.7″ x 11.1″
Purchase: Hardcover in our online store

This is a review of Fatherland and how it negotiates the tension between terrorism, a cultural obsession and mental health, a cultural aversion. It is also an exploration of the resemblance we can find between the story in Fatherland and more current events. Here, the terrorists do not look like the ones we know today, but in a way, they have a similar story. They did not climb out of a smoldering cleft in the earth, clutching a detonator in one hand and a home-made bomb in the other. They are the products of their circumstances, circumstances we have more control over than we usually care to admit.

Peter Bunjevac Sr. was a terrorist. The comic is only half-finished when it is revealed that he has died. Nina Bunjevac goes to pains to describe her father’s upbringing and to illustrate the sociopathic tendencies he manifested at a young age. She describes the brutal beatings her grandfather gave her grandmother in front of her father. She explores the kindness his aunt showed him, the sole kind figure in a troubled life, who was herself an outcast when she got pregnant out of wedlock. She shows how her father was jailed for supporting a popular communist critical of party excess, and how he fled the country and came to Canada as a refugee. In short, she spares no detail in demonstrating all the little cruelties of life that might have helped to make him what he was: a terrorist.

Peter Bunjevac on left.
Peter Bunjevac on left.

There is something very old fashioned about the art style that leads us through nearly a century of Bunjevac family history. Combined with the black and white palette, the traditional use of panels and the drawings of family photos, one gets the feeling of leafing through a family album. But normally such keepsakes hide the truths we do not want to see; the drunk father, the scolding grandmother, and other dark secrets of the family. In Fatherland, we are presented with all of this. The scene changes very neatly from Nina and her sister bickering in the present day to her grandfather striking her grandmother as though it were all one story.

fatherland_edit1Which, of course, it is. In contemporary media we usually confront either the banal or the horrific, but rarely both at once. It is a mixture of the everyday and the extraordinary that works very well for historical dramas and was used to great effect in Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It gives the reader a sense that the narrator is very reliable, and that they are enjoying a special relationship with the author. Indeed, Bunjevac occasionally interjects with her own feelings and deepens this sense of intimacy. ‘Here is my family’s story,’ she says. ‘Parts of it are boring. Parts of it are awful. Parts of it are cute, funny, even tender. Above all it is human.’

Which returns us to the present day. Humanity is the thing that society denies to terrorists when it makes them out to be senseless fanatics. We take them out of context, defining them entirely by the actions we wish to condemn, stripping them not only of humanity but their history. They do not need a reason to be evil in this narrative; they simply are evil. The truth is not so simple.

Terrorists are always hurt people and they are often sick as well. The two recent “terror” attacks in Canada speak to this point. Both Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Rouleau were identified by people close to them as mentally ill. Their lives had fallen apart – Rouleau’s business had failed and he had lost his partner and child. Zehaf-Bibeau was staying in a homeless shelter. He had a history of run-ins with the law. Rouleau was being monitored by government agencies. They did not drop out of the sky. This is also the reminder we get from Peter Bunjevac, Nina’s father. Although he was a terrorist he was not an inexplicable monster who no one could have anticipated. He was very plainly a man to whom the world had been unkind.

Of Zehaf-Bibeau, “’His behaviour was not normal,’ said David Ali, vice-president of Masjid Al-Salaam mosque in Burnaby. He said: “We try to be open to everyone. But people on drugs don’t behave normally.” This is not an unusual attitude with regard to people who are unwell. We ourselves are busy or anxious or shy. We do not want to concern ourselves with people who struggle to stay sane. We are especially wary of those who look like they are losing that struggle. But it is the harm and neglect our society causes that creates alienated, desperate, miserable people. We cannot pretend to be surprised when these people resort to desperate acts or when they become desensitized to suffering. They have suffered too long themselves.


Nina Bunjevac reminds us of this. She tells a very intimate story that many would not want to share. She shows the humanity of people who do cruel things and she shows the weaknesses of people struggling to do right. Her mother grapples with leaving her father in spite of his involvement with a terrorist group. People long to speak up about problems in Yugoslavia but fear state reprisal.

Only the panels are black and white in Fatherland; the narrative is all shades of gray. We would do well to remember that life is very much like that.


Mental Health, Gender Identity, and Cats: An Interview with the Author of Robot Hugs

There is a persistent trope about great ideas: they are scrawled drunkenly on the back of a cocktail napkin.  The following morning they reveal themselves as the spark of some divine madness that uplifts the author.  But in the case of Robot Hugs, it was a forest of post-it notes, and less of an uplift than a very normal struggle with the darker corners of their mind.  Which makes the whole proceeding a little less mythical, and a little more plausible.

“I was alone one summer in a little house, and I was drawing them as a kind of coping mechanism.” RH explains this to me as we sip Red Stripe on a rooftop patio looking east towards Toronto’s iconic CN Tower.  The reply is in response to a question about the one-panel animal mash-ups that pop up frequently in the early years of the strip. “When my room-mates got back, the house was practically covered in these post-its.  Kind of like when you look into a serial killer’s room and the wall is covered.  Only with post-its.”  They laugh.

Robot Hugs is a special kind of web comic.  Running in a variety of formats since 2011, its genesis lies earlier in the above-mentioned summer.  The comic consistently updates twice a week, though the precise days may vary.  Topics include struggles with mental health, discussions of queerness and body diversity, interspersed with cats. Lots of cats.

cats bannerAccording to its author, traffic spiked around “Interpretation” and “But Men”. Today, the comic is frequently posted around, showing up on Imgur, Metafilter and even Upworthy.

2013-10-10-But Men    We started off with a conversation around issues of voice – how it is appropriate to discuss struggles that don’t affect you personally, as well as being mindful to articulate yourself in language that is accessible and respectful.

“I wish I could talk more on my site about figuring out what I can add to a conversation, when there’s so many people who say much better than me,” RH explains. “So if I can’t think of a unique way of putting it, or showing it, that’s OK because there’s really smart people with good voices and excellent ways of putting things.”

    They can do the talking – I don’t need to add my noise to that.  But we were talking earlier about not appropriating voice – so while I have strong views on issues of race, I think they’re better articulated by a person of colour. I think sometimes about issues with adding your voice is maybe you’ll be heard where an oppressed person wouldn’t, but at the same time, I don’t want to add chaff to a conversation.

They explained that their social circle acts as a kind of safety net where they can check in when they are concerned about speaking on behalf of others when they mean to be amplifying the voices of the oppressed.  They describe the need to respect their audience as a major subject for reflection.

    It’s OK to fuck up.  We all do.  The important thing is to be accountable.

They mentioned a pending project about the experiences of a trans friend working in the tech sector as an example of amplifying voice.  Concerns around voice and representation are also a factor in the diversity of comics characters, RH explains.  Race is simple to illustrate, but questions of technical skill make differentiating body types challenging.

When asked about the prevalence of penguins in the comic, RH expresses a kind of characteristically wry, anecdotal ambivalence.  “I guess my affinity for penguins is because they’re my father’s favourite animal.  But thinking about it, he probably just got so many penguins over the years that he’s likely sick of them by now. Like buying ties, he acted pleased so we kept buying him penguin things whether or not he actually likes them.  My family has a history of penguins – they’re cute, and stoic.

It definitely takes a certain stoicism to publish web comics, given the climate of harassment and intimidation that pervades the internet.

    “The weekend when Robot Hugs picked up a lot of traffic was very stressful. I was at a kink event geared to women and gender minorities; I was doing workshops and stuff. Then my comic blew up. I couldn’t reach my partner, I was getting ALL THE E-MAILs… So now I have the incredible MZ, who screens my e-mails and does most of my FB. I put up a harassment policy and negative stuff dropped pretty much to zero.  I put something up to the effect of ‘If you threaten me, it’ll get forwarded to the police’ so now people just say horrible things on their sites.  This was something very concerning to me at the beginning, and while it’s diminished, the echoes remain.”

But there are positive aspects to working in web comics, particularly the evolving community of artists who co-promote and organize events together.  With regard to the broader community, RH explains:

“I follow a lot of comic artists: Erika Moen, Ryan North (I had a crush on him forever). People just do this incredible work, and the larger answer is that I look up to a lot of creators, but I haven’t quite broken into knowing them as people. I’d love to, though. For now I am happy to follow their work and learn from that.”

At times, Robot Hugs can be a very personal comic.  Asked about the comic catching on, RH replied “More people visit my comic than I could ever know IRL and that’s great – but I am happy just doing what I am doing, and glad to know people appreciate it.  I’m doing well. They give me positive feedback, and sometimes they buy my stuff.”

They do have one concern about a personal anecdote that might be taken as indicative of bad politics:

    There’s one comic in particular I always worry about people getting to. It says “being a whore was harder than she had thought.” I worry people will think it’s anti-sex work, that I’m anti-sex work, and no, just no. I was dating a woman at the time who had started doing sex work and she literally said that, which I thought was the funniest thing ever.

With fame, such as it is, comes rewards. “What’s been cool about the feedback, especially around challenging things like mental illness, dermatillomania, depression, general world frustration, is the countless e-mails I’ve gotten and, holy crap, somebody else feels like this?! And that’s really, really, really good. I haven’t felt alone; I’ve worked in mental health support and know the feeling of isolation that defines mental illness. I don’t feel ashamed or upset talking about the inside of my head. Given that I have that particular outlook on my own head-space, and that other people are connecting and feeling less isolated because of it, sharing it with their friends, I think that’s great.”

At this point, I discovered that the laptop RH had loaned my broke ass to conduct the interview had reverse scroll on.  When I exclaimed in dismay on this point, they replied.

    Yeah, it’s part of my depression. Though it makes more sense for it to be part of my queerness – I even scroll backwards.

Returning to the subject of mental health, RH elaborates.

  “I got a great e-mail from a man whose son had hard times in his head, and he showed ‘Nest’ to the kid, and the kid connected. So the father wrote to say that, and now I know about making safe spaces for him. Getting that kind of e-mail makes the risks associated with sharing personal content totally worth it. I don’t think sharing any of my personal life has backfired at all.”


Somewhere around here I all but hurled the laptop over the edge of the roof.  A wasp had buzzed a little too near me, sending me into a flailing panic.  As I struggled to regain my composure, I inquired about the name of the series.

“In high school I had a friend who thought I was totally emotionless, and I asked if he wanted a hug, and he said ‘No! They’re robot hugs. They mean nothing’.”  I stifled an objection at this point; by all accounts, RH seemed genuinely warm to me, not robotic in the least.

Instead, I asked about how they conceived of Robot Hugs in terms of the internet zeitgeist.  The past few years have seen a proliferation of social justice activism in digital spaces, challenging the traditionally very hostile culture of the internet towards diversity.  Did RH see themselves as part of this rising tide of resistance, or as a lone voice shouting in the wilderness?

    “Depends on where you’re shouting. Sometimes I get stats on people who post my comics, and sometimes I see them using me as points in arguments, in debates online, which is one of the really flattering things about making something that people feel they can communicate – it’s good to feel like you’re able to help in that struggle.”


“There are large sites mentioned earlier, and it’s always good to fight, and it’s always good to make sure these are voices that get heard. If my comic is part of that, amazing! I think the net has potential to be inclusive, and some places try to accomplish that, and some places fail miserably. As long as someone’s standing up and saying, “Don’t be an asshole”….!

“Kind of related to this – do you know Metafilter? It’s a link aggregator, but it’s heavily moderated. You can only post good stuff. The link has to be worthwhile, conversations are moderated so you can’t jump in and say problematic shit. If you’re being an asshole you’ll just get your comments deleted. That makes me feel like it’s the rare place on the internet you can read the comments. Recently I looked at the earliest Metafilter, and I found a lot more problematic stuff – racist apologizing, fat-shaming, slut shaming. But over 12 years it’s turned into a community that’s prioritized the inclusivity and safety we want to see in other spaces, where you can’t come in and say awful shit; you have to be a human being. There’s models for change that I’d like to see implemented. Looking at those old archives, if I’d gone then, I wouldn’t have stayed – I would have been like ‘fuck this’ and jumped ship. But it’s not like that now. It’s a model of a place where you can have critical discussions but can’t be a jerk about it. It’s one of my favourite sites.”

On the note of inclusion, I was curious about something: a few comics reference a conflict with a ‘Pregnancy Care Centre’. Were those true stories? Would they be up for talking about this?

They replied without hesitation.

“That was bullshit, I’ll tell you, it was fucking bullshit. You can print that. They have ads for that shit in the TTC, these stupid ‘Know your options’ ad.  I get so mad, I put post-it notes on these ads.”

“I used to work across the hall from this pregnancy crisis centre. I’d leave research studies on their walls, but they caught on so it didn’t last. But people would come in looking for it, and I’d be like ‘I know where it is but you should know it’s anti-choice and they’ll give you medical misinformation and not give you all your options.  Here are a few other places you can go if you need help and want someone to be straight with you.’”

“And I’d give out cards. I told people where it was, but I wanted them to know. The centre didn’t appreciate it – they didn’t know they were anti-choice, they just thought people should ‘know the realities’. Fuck them. In reality, it wasn’t that dramatic – I was polite and smiled a lot, while trying to keep people away from the wrongness that is Pregnancy Crisis Centre.”

I missed my mark with a question about influences, guessing at the Far Side, Parking Lot is Full and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

“If anything influenced me, it was XKCD. Everyone is influenced by it, people realize, ‘Hey, simple art can convey complex ideas. I was very taken away by its early whimsy. I was reading a lot of that during the dark summer of post-it notes, (which is actually what that’s called). I was trying to reach for that non sequitur style niceness. I’m also compared to Invisible Bread and Buttersafe, which is great, because it’s the perfect combination of weird and optimistically sweet. Those were concepts I was influenced by when starting out, starting to draw. Now I’m tackling more challenging things: mental illness, gender issues, general life shit. That’s what you do, right? You see what you like, try to get your own shit going, still refer to them fondly – everyone gets their own voice in the end. …I liked Far Side growing up.”

Influence is not entirely an aesthetic question, of course.  As far as inspiration goes, RH had this to say:

    I wrote a bunch of academic papers about kink communities, web communities and what they mean. Fascinating and challenging spaces which have a lot of possibility. I’m alternately fascinated and frustrated, enamoured and enraged. Any community that you identify with can have that effect.

Beyond that?

I get angry. There’s a lot of frustration in me, and in the people around me. As I’ve continued to do this amazing thing where people follow me and I get to put up my work on this site, I have an opportunity to vocalize that frustration. I’ve had the advantage of doing that more, and getting feedback. I guess it’s that voice-finding stuff we’ve been talking about. As this comic develops into a whole “thing”, I’ve been able to put myself and my opinions out there more, and develop them as I get feedback.

I’m very lucky. I have a great space. People that want to see what I have to say do, and give feedback. People in my own circles that support me give me feedback, tell me when I’m being stupid, which is the most important thing someone can do for you. And I’m excited to see what happens.

Without gushing too much, I don’t mind saying: Me too.

sadness pythonAll comics are (c) Robot Hugs and have been used with permission.

Remembering Debra Jane Shelly

DebraIt is with much sadness that the Toronto comic book community learned last weekend of the sudden and tragic passing of one of its brightest supporters.

Debra Jane Shelly was a comics fan, supporter, and self-described (and celebrated) nerd. She was known for her years of behind-the-scenes support at Comic Cons and other events celebrating comics and pop culture. With her partner Kevin, Debra opened the doors of The Comic Book Lounge and Gallery on College St at Clinton in early 2012. The Lounge was unique in serving both as a comic shop and a gathering space, hosting Life Drawing classes, book launches, award ceremonies and socials.

In 2013, she co-founded the Lounge’s Ladies Night, which met bi-monthly and became a gathering point for women comic book fans in a community still largely dominated by and catering to a male audience. It was a first for the Toronto comics community, and came at a time when the critical question of diversity in comics (readers as much as creators and characters) was gaining serious momentum internationally.

Yet Debra was known for her positivity, and did less to criticize the comic community’s shortcomings than to nurture the people, spaces, and ideas that were inspiring.

“To so many people she was the first person we told of our successes and failures & she always knew the best way to respond -how to congratulate and console us. That kind of contribution doesn’t fit on a resume but it was felt throughout the community.”

–Alice Quinn, Ladies’ Night co-founder

Ladies Night

This remembrance has been assembled in conversation with others who knew Debra. The Comic Book Lounge and Gallery has notified its followers that they will be posting memorial service information as it becomes available.

Matt Bors Event Press Release

AA leaflet image

Political Cartoonist Matt Bors in Toronto to Talk Up New Book,  Afghanistan Trip,
Comics Journalism & Activism

Event Spokesperson: Nicole M. Guiniling (Ad Astra Comix)
Phone(647) 863-4994

Between May 9 – 11, political cartoonist Matt Bors will be in Toronto showcasing his new book, Life Begins At Incorporation: Cartoons and Essays. In addition to exhibiting his work at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) May 10 – 11 at the Toronto Reference Library, Bors will be presenting his work on Friday evening, May 10 at 7:30PM at the Toronto Comic Book Lounge.

Matt Bors is a nationally-syndicated political cartoonist, editor, and writer based in Portland, Oregon. In 2007 at the age of 23, he was the youngest nationally-syndicated cartoonist in the United States. Since then his work has graced the pages of WIRED Magazine, The Los Angeles TimesVillage Voice, and The Nation.

Life Begins at Incorporation is Matt Bors’ second book. It received 170% funding on the website Kickstarter in 2012, and was released to funding backers and pre-orders in April 2013. It features cartoons and essays on a variety of topics, from gun control, women’s rights, and the environment to the Global War on Terror (a segment of Bors’ talk is devoted to his trip as a comics journalist to Afghanistan in 2010).

In 2012, Bors was both a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Editorial Cartooning and the first alternative-weekly cartoonist to win the Herblock Prize for Excellence in Cartooning. At a time when political cartooning is widely considered to be a ‘dying art’ by the journalism industry, Bors’ cartoons have received significant mainstream political traction. In 2012, one of his works was presented by U.S. Congressman John Larson during a house floor debate on the Affordable Care Act, while another piece about Osama Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamden, was smuggled to him while he served as a detainee of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

Bors is available to interview in-person during his stay in Toronto May 9-11, or by phone at the interviewer’s convenience.

Interested parties can find examples of his work and more information on his website, www.MattBors.com. A .PDF copy of Life Begins At Incorporation is available for review upon request.

“The Political Comics of Matt Bors,” is organized by the website Ad Astra Comix, which reviews, researches, promotes and distributes political and historical comic art.

What People Have Said of Bors’ Work
(Quotes From the Back Cover of Life Begins):

Life Begins at Incorporation is equal parts maddening and hilarious. Matt Bors reminds us that in an unjust world, laughter is an absolute necessity. The only disappointment in this book is that despite my wishes to the contrary, ‘The Avenging Uterus’ is not in fact real.” – Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com & author of The Purity Myth

Bors embodies the highest virtues of political cartoonists: fearless, provocative satire and cutting, acerbic insights. He’s also unfailingly funny.” – Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian

Able to eviscerate a target with a single panel. You never want to end up on the wrong side of his pen 
and ink!” – Markos Moulitsas, Publisher, Daily Kos

Bors has the right stuff and then some.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great

A bunch of cunty liberal garbage.” – Person on the Internet