Tag Archives: webcomics

Episode 1 of “Talk is Cheap”

Welcome to ‘Talk is Cheap’, our new newspaper-style comic covering the Canadian political scene – such as it is. Following in the tradition of Doonesbury, Bloom County and Weltschmerz, TiC aims to measure the space between rhetoric and reality with a mixture of surrealism, snark and snappy visuals.

Currently running in Trent University’s Arthur Newspaper, with art by Ad Astra Comix founder Nicole Burton and text by lead staff editor Hugh Goldring,

‘Talk is Cheap’ is available for syndication, so send us an e-mail for details if you’re interested!

Episode 1 (Week of Sept 7)

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Next: Episode 2

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DOGS: A webcomic history of the North

Click on panels to enlarge files.

This comic is shareable, but please cite Ad Astra Comix as the source, and provide a link to the Qikiqtani Truth Commission with any re-postings. Interested in buying a glossy, high-resolution poster of ‘Dogs’? E-mail us for details

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1415About this comic:

Handling indigenous subject matter is always a challenge for settlers, and to be clear, we are white settlers. We have done our best to avoid speaking on behalf of the Inuit who are more than capable of making themselves heard when qallunaat take the time to listen. But it is a narrow beam to balance on.

Even before Franz Boas wandered into the Arctic and began scribbling, white people have been misrepresenting the Inuit. They were not trapped in the Stone Age until the 1950s; they had already been adapting European technologies to their purposes for more than a hundred years at that point. Southerners love to depict the Inuit as ‘noble savages’ who were ‘ruined’ by civilization. Needless to say, that is not only incredibly racist, it’s frankly wrong.

There’s a great NFB mockumentary called ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny” we recommend if you are interested in seeing the colonial gaze reversed. There’s also a film where the descendants of Nanook of the North (obviously not his real name) laugh at the many inaccuracies of that early documentary.

We have done our best to faithfully render the period and the people. This is a comic and we are working for free so in some places, we have gotten the details wrong. This comic is not a substitute to listening to the stories of the Inuit themselves, or visiting Nunavut to learn from them in person (assuming they’ll have you, which you shouldn’t take for granted). We both had mixed feelings about telling such a sensitive story – both because we are white, and because it is difficult to depict it in all its painful complexity.

Ultimately, the reasons we did it are close to the reasons for our concern. This story badly needs amplifying. It is part of the larger story of the genocide of indigenous peoples carried out by the Canadian state, but it is not so well known as the violence of the residential schools system. We hope this comic can be a starting point to help settlers find more substantial lines of inquiry and in doing so, reach a broader audience than the Qikiqtani Truth Commission has yet done.

Which brings a final disclaimer: Ad Astra Comix is not affiliated with the QTC and this work has been undertaken without their permission. Peter Irniq was contacted to give his consent for the quote we have used, but has not seen the comic as of its release. This is a labour of love and hope, and we only wish it calls attention to this period in Inuit history so that settlers can understand that people live up there, god damn it, not just inukshuks to appropriate when we need a symbol for some imaginary shared nationhood.

Peace,
Hugh Goldring & Nicole Marie Burton

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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.”

2013-05-20-Nest

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.”

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“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.

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.

concise

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.

whiteprivilegecomic

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.

ifeelnothing

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.

maamd

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. 🙂