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.
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?
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.