*** TW – This comic contains references to sexual violence, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and in general is about the US Marine Corp***
Why is Ad Astra Comix reviewing a webcomic about the marines? It’s a fair question. I’m not going to tell you that ‘Terminal Lance’ has good politics – indeed, I think the author and artist, Lance Corporal Maximilian Uriarte (USMC) would be bothered if he thought we agreed on much. ‘Terminal Lance’ is unapologetic in its defense of American militarism, relies often on jokes at the expense of oppressed groups and has a fan base composed largely of active-duty and since-retired soldiers (with nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook, those of us on the Left can but feebly struggle and flail to comprehend TL’s popularity).
On the strength of its politics, I can only really recommend Sun Tzu, who advises that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stuart McMillen’s webcomic adapts (and updates) Postman’s famous book-length essay, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argues that Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World was ultimately more accurate than the one proposed by George Orwell in 1984. (Via).
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.
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?
R: 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!