Thursday, 5 November 2015

Recidivist Vol IV: Part One: On a Plane

You can see the cover if you squint really hard
My first reading of Recidivist vol. IV took place on a plane in September 2015 on my way to Sudbury (a small town in Northern Ontario). I hadn't read it since January and barely remembered the content or what it was about. So I would consider this as fresh a reading as possible. I didn’t listen to the record at that time as the noisy environment of the airport didn’t feel like the proper venue to truly appreciate the sounds. The droning noise of the airplane engines was sufficiently loud to create an eerie sense of disconnection with reality. The plane was about half-full and as best I could recall, mostly friendly, quiet and self-absorbed people all around. 

The world moved around me at blinding speed while I floated motionless in place...
Recidivist vol. IV was a nightmare to read. It is deliberately difficult to read and some passages can only be seen at certain angles with light hitting it just so. The elevation and shifting direction of the plane made it nearly impossible to find a proper spot to read the comic properly. It created a surreal sense of disruption in which the very environment I was hoping to engage with a work of art was actively fighting against such engagement. Every sentence read was forgotten immediately as I worked frantically to catch the next one, trying to piece together a story that includes a certain speed of thoughts and an assured line, feeling inadequate and desperate. What did that person say? What are they trying to do? What does it mean? What did they say? Reading Recidivist is a cognitive experience unlike anything I’ve ever done. 

I remember going to the Carp Fair, going into the Gravitron with my wife and her uncle and being physically challenged by the ride. The centripetal force pushing me against the wall and dragging my daydreaming mind directly to the middle of my body, relentlessly engaging every fiber of my being into this one physical experience. Recidivist felt very similar although it was more of an intellectual experience than a physical experience. My hands were trying to reconnect the pieces, shifting the book up and down to find an optimal way to see the text as my eyes scanned the text, trying to discern the characters and words contained within. My mind was struggling to string the concepts back into a coherent whole, parsing through the noise, the light and the words to make sense of the story. 

The interior of the plane is grey and blue. They're very cold colors. Blue is reminiscent of ice and cold, in particular when paired with white or grey. I wondered why they would use such cold colors for a plane. No wonder so many people dread flying. The experience is unpleasant. There's a stress factor associated with the security (How long will you have to wait? Do you have all your documents? Will you need to remove your shoes?) and for all of it's irksome trouble, the place where you'll be travelling for however many hours is cold and uninviting. It is so far removed from the way we organize our daily lives. We make our living spaces welcoming, but the plane is in many ways detached from this. It is indifferent and inhospitable, almost clinical. 

The second story in Recidivist Vol. IV shares similar colours. The story entitled Revenge is in a metallic grey and blue. While it is a story about blame and about accountability to a certain extent, it is, much like the plane, cold and unrelatable. An unknown narrator is accusing another unknown person of various ill-defined slights. Lifeless tools are scattered about and Sally focuses on them. The lack of a clearer narrative removes some of the impact of the text. We aren't sure what happened and so it is difficult to relate too much. It doesn't have the immediacy of a presence as the other stories in the book. The over-abundance of text, coupled with the unclear nature causing the revenge leaves me with this glacial feeling. It is as cold as the environment I'm sitting in. But eventually, the plane touched down and things got quieter. I put the book away until the next reading. I walked out onto the tarmac to the terminal and hopped into a cab heading towards an equally cold hotel room.

Next: Skyscraper

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Abyss Stares Back #1: Teenage Profanity, Comedic Spirit & Nietzsche

Art is the supreme task and the truly metaphysical activity in this life -
Friedrich Nietzsche

The Abyss Stares Back is an odd comic. It`s immature. It's low brow. It's raw. It's crude. It needs refinement. It's the beginning of something great. I've had the pleasure to find a copy of The Abyss Stares Back, an odd short comic, at a comic book store in London (Ontario). I even accidentally met the artist, albeit quite awkwardly, during that short visit. The comic says it's by Patty O. Fernitür, which I'll have to assume is not a real name. I've done some research, but I've come up empty (the link to a wordpress has been removed or is not available), with only a handful of fake names for this artist, maybe it's Jillian Clair, Jay Clair. Or maybe her name really is Patty O. Fernitür, in which case, I apologize for the previous comment. Awesome name, not weird at all...

The Abyss Stares Back has an unapologetic punk attitude. A sort of "fuck the world", laissez-faire  attitude, relentlessly asking of the world "why are you doing what you're doing" and begging the world to be self-reflective. That is quite appealing to me for some reason. I've browsed through a copy of Punks: The Comic and it had nowhere near the amount of energy that this short comic had. The reader senses immediately that the artist has some angst and that this is their way to express it. A short warning for the crude nature of the material contained in the comic is prominently displayed on the cover, most likely making it even more enticing to the youth through it's defiant anti-authoritarian label. The comic opens with a comic about why women shave their pubes, followed by a fake history of poo, a reflection of couples holding things for each other, and commentary on scarves and beards. The fake history of poo is actually quite hilarious; a sort of absurd and surreal historical account of poo throughout history. It betrays a deeply comedic voice under all of this angst. 

The comic title uses a quote from Nietzsche which is slightly misleading. He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. If you study something for too long, you risk becoming it. When reading this comic, I see an artist who intends to fight against conformity and for whom the resistance method of choice has been derision. I understand that move; I chose to laugh at everything when I was younger. Comedy being the best way to ensure nothing ever gets to you. It's a shield; a shelter. By laughing at something, you rob it of it's power. I'm not entirely sure that this relates to Nietzsche in this context. Perhaps a fear of becoming like the majority and the inevitability of eventually becoming domesticated, like "the rest of them". I've always felt as though some aspects of my life were defined by a desperate need to not be like my parents, to not inherit their worst traits. Perhaps it is a fear shared by this creator. 

I hope that this artist finds her calling, whatever it may be. There's great promise in this short comic. The art appears quite rudimentary, but it's efficient. It's not polished, nor does it seem like it`s meant to be, but it could be, and this is all I wanted to see.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Malachi Ward's Ritual Three: Vile Decay: The Erosion of Democracy

The Canadian government recently signed the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive trade agreement hailed by the current (until October 19th) Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Hailed by the PM and his party as a milestone of Canadian trade, the focus of the press has been mostly on the impact of the TPP on the Canadian Dairy industry and the Auto Manufacturing industry (and with reason as this appears to be the final nail in the Canadian car industry’s coffin). But little has been said about the massive loss of privacy provisions that are included in the TPP. I didn't think anyone would ever include privacy provisions in a trade deal, but here it is. The TPP features many anti-privacy measures and limits the ability of governments to prevent the safekeeping of sensitive information within their own borders. This means that shortly our provincial and federal governments will no longer be able to require sensitive data to be stored locally (i.e. within it's boundaries and therefore, within it's jurisdiction). Adding to this the Mickey Mouse clause of copyright extension to prevent Disney from losing Mickey Mouse for another 20 years and thus also preventing countless works from being made available costing hundreds of millions more to the public, and you have a strange agreement where the winners are not the Canadian public as mentioned, but a handful of multi-billion dollar companies. 

In addition to this, Canada has recently passed a law that is eerily similar to the U.S Patriot Act in the form of Bill C-51, effectively creating a mass surveillance state with little oversight over what the government is doing with our information. I fear many do not understand the surveillance apparatus being installed around them. We all have this idea of George Orwell's 1984 where the repressive conditions laid out by the State can be seen with cameras everywhere. But the system didn’t place cameras around their house, they’ve placed them directly in their pockets through our smartphones, in our living rooms with our laptops. And we didn't stop it from happening. 

Whenever I think of this destruction of privacy, I think of Malachi Ward’s Ritual #3: Vile Decay. Even more so nowadays with the Canadian federal elections just hours away. In Ritual Three: Vile Decay an older woman recalls to her grandchildren the moment she felt the world went wrong. Using a virtual environment, she recalls her memories of protest, and ultimately how pointless it all felt. I feel like this in many ways; one day I’ll explain to my children that, when these moments happened, we were powerless to stop the slide because we failed to comprehend the severity of what was happening in front of us.

Brilliant rioting scene
The colours used by Ward in Ritual is stunning, his pacing is extraordinary. As the woman recalls her involvement with the riots (in a great crowd seen, rarely seen in comics due to the complexity of staging such panels), she also remembers the aftermath. As she and her friends are talking about what just happened, the conversation drifts towards the mundanity of everyday life. They too are unable to comprehend what is transpiring ahead of them. As they walk back towards their house, the group disperses under the sunrise of a new day. A darker day, where the spark of revolution has failed and the surveillance State prevailed. The brightness of the colours contrast immensely with the grim reality laid out by the world on the page. There are countless imageries of constructions and crumbling, both physical, societal and digital. It's exceptional. A remarkable work of speculative fiction. Much like Ritual Two: The Reverie, Ward finds inspiration in our troubling realities, the loss of a loved one, the loss of our privacy, and he crafts a relevant and affecting comic. I bought this in 2014 and I remember it vividly to this day.

I’m writing this, days before the 2015 Canadian election where the three major parties are fairly close in the polls and we’re unable to predict a clear winner. The only party who seems to understand the brutality of those repressive measures and who's willing to tackle them (The NDP) will be coming in third. It seems that the party who leads the charge on C-51 and caved in on internet surveillance through the TPP (the Conservatives) might win again, or that the party who doesn’t care about the implications of any of those two issues (the Liberals) might also win. I don’t think Canada will be a different country on Monday, but it will certainly be a less open and free country. One teetering ever closer to the dark and gloomy world presented in Ritual Three: Vile Decay

Endlessly staring into that abyss

Monday, 12 October 2015

Steph Hill's: A Brief, Accurate Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (Mostly in Canada): A Key to History

I picked up Steph Hill's A Brief, Accurate, Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (mostly in Canada) while in Vancouver last April. I was intrigued by how such a small comic would convey the history of the environmental movement. It is a movement born out of necessity to counter the changes affected by the modern development of our planet. Canada's economy relies on natural resources, so if we look at the example of forestry and the lumber industry, the past centuries have affected massive changes on the way wood is cut and sold. Mechanization of wood cutting and transport has allowed for a greater capacity to harvest wood. Globalization meant that the market was no longer limited to it's geographic boundaries, but could expand beyond it's borders. The response, and opposition to these changes, have also adapted to reflect the larger scope of the issues being faced by the environment and Canadian citizen. S.A. Hill (or Steph Hil) tries as best she can to summarize decades of social changes that brought about the rise of the environmental movements and the specifics of Canada's place in this history. She succeeds in some ways, but falls short of explaining all that one needs to know about the topic, partly due to the nature of the topic and the short length of the comic.

Hill appropriately intersperses her comic with bits of trivia about her subject. It was quite jarring that her opening tidbit was about the US (Cuyagoha River in Ohio) and not Canada. I had to look at the cover a couple of times, to make sure I had the right comic in hand. Notice the parentheses "mostly in Canada", which allows a fluidity of examples to come into play. Hill does use some examples and trivia that isn't specific to Canada, but I think it works to the comic`s advantage. Besides, the reader quickly adapts.

Hill manages to convey a lot of information in a short time. Although her focus is broadly on the environmental movement, how it started and how it took shape from the 1960's up to 2014, she is able to bring into focus both organizations and individuals that were important to the history of the movement. This humane approach is quite interesting and complements the subject nicely. She is able to balance the constraint of history and the personal aspects of the subject really well. She starts be defining the historical context, then focuses narrowly on some specific aspects of it before bringing it back to the larger context. My main complaint may be that some elements are brought up without much detail on why they may be relevant. It was a bit jarring when I didn't recognize the name of an event being described (I had to look up what Silent Spring was for example), but I guess this was inevitable given the shortness of the comic. 

There is a lot of information in this comic, none of that "infotainment" nonsense. Hill wants you to learn. She uses her art to make history interesting and aesthetically pleasing, but never trivializes her subject. You'll come out with a better understanding of both the movement and the issues at stake. 

Although her art might appear simple, her page composition is not. Hill doesn't adhere to a standard page layout, she uses a free flowing approach and this allows the information to be displayed innovatively. I feel the topic may have been too dry otherwise. A rigid panel page would have tied it down too much, encasing it in a rigid structure that would have limited the flow of the comic. Her approach allows the reader to follow the comic organically and absorb the information much faster. 

Hill's drawing is simplistic, but efficient. Her figures and characters are consistent, but I feel that she may have a harder time with facial expressions and differentiating facial features. I could hardly tell if stand-in characters were supposed to be the same from one page to the next. This hardly matters though, the comic isn't a narrative about characters, but about history.

Although I do recommend this comic, I feel it would be an incomplete recommendation without additional reading material. The comic is good, but left me wanting for more. I guess it reached it's objectives in trying to teach me about the environmental movement; now I want to know more. A good companion book might be Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni or Oil & Water by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler. And for those of you who may prefer comics without drawings (also known as books) here are some other suggestions: Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why we Need a Green Revolution, by Thomas Friedman and Moral Grounds: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, a collection edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. The NASA also has some resources, though mostly focusing on climate change HERE. You can read A Brief, Accurate, Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (mostly in Canada) in it's entirety online. 

Update from Barbed Comics

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to talk with Tatyana Gerbasi from Centretown News concerning the unfortunate closure of the Ottawa Silver Snail. I had published an article in early September (Farewell Silver Snail) and she contacted me via the blog. Here's the article that was published afterward: Comic Book Store's Final Chapter.

In other news, I'm happy to report that Comet Comics, the new comic book store by former Silver Snail employee Heather MacDonald, is open! Located in Old Ottawa South, the new shop looks fantastic. Final touches are being given to the shop after a lot of renovations and it looks incredible. Kin is still involved there in some capacity and they were hard at work at installing new custom shelves when I visited. Take a look at their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter; you can also see their website (still in construction at the time of publishing this article). I was quite happy to see they expanded the kids comics section and they still have an impressive alternative section (read non superhero crap) on the wall.

Congrats to the team at Comet Comics!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Book Club Report: So long for now

So long folks!

The Ottawa Comic Book Book Club is adjourned for the moment. We were supported by the Ottawa Silver Snail, who is unfortunately closing. The book club will return in a different format later this year and the book club report may very well come back at that time.

In the meantime, here are the archive:

Astonishing X-Men: Northstar: A discussion with Marjorie Liu
Everywhere Antennas: A discussion with Julie Delporte
Marvel Knight: Spider-Man: by Matt Kindt & Marco Rudy
It Never Happened Again, A discussion with by Sam Alden
Petty Theft: A discussion with Pascal Girard
Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine
Dotter of her Father's Eyes, by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Farewell Silver Snail

Silver Snail: 1988-2015

On Monday August 4th, 2015 I received some bad news, the kind that really takes you aback. The manager of my favorite comic book shop sent out a notice of closure to their distribution list. I am extremely saddened to learn this news. The Ottawa Silver Snail was without a doubt the best comic book shop in town. I moved to Ottawa in 2008 and immediately adopted the Snail as my `go-to` comic book shop. It wasn't too difficult to make this choice; the shop was organized, the staff friendly, and the stock showed that the manager actually genuinely cared about comics as an art form. I have been across Canada for my work this past year and I`ve truly come to admire the way the Silver Snail kept the shop clean and organized. It may seem like a minor detail, but after visiting no less than 22 shops across the nation (and even some in the US), the Silver Snail in Ottawa was one of the best I've been to, rivaled only by The Beguiling in Toronto. No small feat, let me assure you.
The quirkiness of the place also gave it a peculiar charm. I remember being taken aback when I first noticed the wall of "Kin" behind the cash register. A ton of newspaper clippings taped to the wall with various headlines like “Next of kin” or “Sister loses kin in a car accident”. I asked the manager “What is all of this?” He replied simply “Kin, that’s my name” and cracked a smile. He was not above a good pun, which was excellent news for me since I`m a master of puns.
It was during one of my frequent visits that I met one of my best friends, Helen Anderson, the store’s assistant manager .And as she put her creative energies into starting a Comic book Book Club, I started this blog. Through the Silver Snail, I was able to explore and realize my tastes in comics, learn the language of the art form, and begin exploring manga and historical publications. I began to write again in a critical way, which I had stopped entirely after university. This blog has been instrumental in sorting through my passion for comics and making something good come out of it. And none of these things - whether my friendship with Helen, the book club or even my blog - would have been possible without Kin and the Silver Snail. For this, I am truly grateful.
As I arrived at the store on the first day of their closing sale, I saw a crowd of regular"Snailers". I asked someone where he’d go for his comics now that the Silver Snail was closing. He replied without hesitation: "Nowhere. There IS no other comic book shop within a 150 km radius who deserves my business. Comics are over." “How about you, where will you go now?” I asked another regular. He looked up at me with a smirk: “Pirate Bay”. It was clear in their answers that they were not only encouraging the comics industry, they were encouraging the Snail specifically. Without it, there’s just no point in going anywhere else. If this was any other place, I wouldn’t have believed them, but there was a sincerity to their answers that was incredibly clear to see. This was the end of the line for them.
This is not just a comic shop closing down; it’s an institution. I’d heard of the Snail before I even moved to Ottawa in 2008. I went to my regular shop in Quebec City, Librairie Première Issue, and asked them to remove me from their mailing list. “I’m moving to Ottawa”. The owner of the shop said “Then you should go to the Silver Snail. Kin is a great guy, he taught me a lot about this business when I was starting my own shop”. Even some people who haven’t been there in years remembered the shop fondly. My brother-in-law who now lives in Toronto remembered the shop. “I used to spend so much time there as a kid. Kin was always nice, sitting comfortably behind the counter chatting with customers. I remember he had a bandana and an Hawaiian shirt. He never minded me being in there. It was a great place to get into comics”. Word traveled and the shop made an impression on anyone who went in. I even asked two fellow Snailers to weigh in. Paul Inder and Stephanie Hudson, both friends of mine now residing in Calgary, and not only had they already heard the news, but they had already sent a note to Kin to thank him for all that he'd done.
This industry will crush you. Comics is built on exploitation. It exploits it`s creators, who are forced to sign contracts preventing them to any claim to their intellectual property, which can be worth a significant amount of money in this corporate day and age, more than the pennies they’ll receive for their work. It exploits it’s vendors. One simply has to go read Brian Hibbs` archive of “Tilting at windmills” to understand that the comic shops aren’t selling you books and making a profit. Every comic, floppy or trade paperback is purchased in advance by the shop, and often these books are non-returnable, as is the case with some of the biggest companies, like Marvel and DC. Shop-owners are lied-to repeatedly by these companies (example of Hibbs talking about how the secret wars tie-in are ongoing) and are frequently caught with stacks of unsellable comics that were marketed to them as the next big thing. Comics are a niche market and it's hard to succeed in it in the first place. But it's more than just a difficult market. Even without having to navigate the murky and byzantine waters of the direct market distribution system, comics are hard to explain to the uninitiated. There's a perception that comics are making top dollar right now, but it's only true for a select few. Amazon is underselling every comic shop in North America and most bigger chains like Chapters and Barnes. The collected edition of Sandman Overture, by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams, is going to be released through Amazon before comic book shops; that's how valued comic shops are. 
My long-time friend, Ottawa Comic Book Book Club ringleader and Valkyrie Helen Anderson had this to say about the shop’s closure:
I started going to the Silver Snail in 2007 when I moved to Ottawa for university. I had only ever read Archie comics as a kid, but my best friend was an avid comic reader and looking for a shop to go to in our new city. After finding out that there were two stores in town, we decided to hit them both up one fateful Wednesday (which happens to be new comic book day) and the differences between the two were enormous:
As a non-comic reader at the time, I immediately noticed how welcoming everyone was at the Snail as Dave (the assistant manager at the time), took me around and offered some good starter titles based on my various film and television interests and I left the store that day with my first graphic novel, volume 1 of the Fables series (which I was so sad to see end just the other week).
My friend, who was a long-time comic reader, was pleased with how the store was organized and all of the new issues were out on the back rack in alphabetical order. This may seem like a small, obvious thing, but Niagara Falls' only comic book store (at the time) was notorious for leaving all the new stuff in boxes which you had to dig through, not really knowing where anything was.
Needless to say we left the store pretty pleased.
The second store we hit that day was a bit further down the street and I left with a bad taste in my mouth after being hit on by a staff member. Needless to say, being a woman in this comics industry is difficult, both as readers and as staff. I never went back as a customer, and only later as staff of the Snail to pick up mis-delivered orders.
After a couple years of shopping at the Snail, I was offered a job and after graduating university, I was offered full-time employment as the assistant manager. I have worked at the Silver Snail for 6 years and the manager Kin, the staff and many of our regular customers have become family to me. I can't say I have ever worked at another job where my manager has genuinely cared about my well-being and future. Kin has taken pay-cuts to keep the store running and has offered to take pay-cuts so that his staff could earn a better living.
We all kind of knew that we wouldn't last long after the ownership changeover at the head office in Toronto two years ago but we didn't think it would come this fast. It's been a long running joke amongst staff and many of our regular customers that we were the ugly step-cousin to our Toronto location, but we did the best we could to stay afloat. The Silver Snail has been open for 25 years in Ottawa and now it will become the third Silver Snail that has been closed by the current owner.
I spent the last 6 years loving my job, coworkers and customers and it breaks my heart that I won't be able to spend my time there anymore.
We’ll be sad to see the shop go.

Even as the vultures descend on the stock (myself included), I'm surprised to see there are still many gems on the shelves. A testament to how well Kin kept his stock. It is with bitter disappointment that I will let this shop go. The Silver Snail Ottawa will be remembered fondly for years to come. Not only for us loyal snailers, but for those whose lives were impacted by sequential art, and by Kin fanning the flames of the love of the craft.

The shop has already announced that one of their employees is opening up her own shop: Comet Comics. I'd urge every Ottawa comic enthusiast to check it out. I wish them the best of luck. Working within the confines of such a niche market is difficult, but I have no doubt they'll do well. I believe they'll do a terrific job at keeping the same energy and love for the craft as the Snail.

Farewell Silver Snail!

Friday, 28 August 2015

Book Club Report: A Discussion with Marjorie Liu on Astonishing X-men

As of writing this, same-sex-mariage has been legalized in the US

A constantly beating drum in the comic book industry is the call for more diversity. It's an important issue, both socially and financially. Since different creators bring in new ideas and fresh new stories informed by their individual experiences. Since the conception of the "superhero" comic book, North America has grown increasingly multicultural. There are so many exciting discussions on aboriginal rights, LGBTQ issues, and other topics; it's phenomenal to see it unfolding. Diversity means introducing new creators that bring with them a new point of view, new ideas and stories and their own authorial stamp. It's also important for the mainstream publishers to move toward diversity as well from a financial point of view. The customer base is much broader than the stereotypical young adult white male (although that age category is debatable, and a late 30 to early 50 age range is probably more accurate nowadays). Superhero movies are multi-million dollar blockbuster. People are interested in this topic and when they look to buy comics, if they only see an insular world of white creators and characters, chances are they won't come back. Alienating potential customers in a modern world where you can access any form of entertainment easily and you`re being constantly bombarded by new opportunities for leisure is not financially viable. Diversity of characters, creators and point of view is the way of the future, it may be the only way comics not only survive, but strive.

The Ottawa Comic-Book Book Club met this month with Marjorie Liu to discuss the first collection of her run on Astonishing X-Men. Our group have different interests in comics: some tend to appreciate structure, design, plot, characters, art or even color. Our regular comic reading habits rarely coincide. Although most of us were familiar with X-Men, few of us understood the minutia underlying their world. Marjorie gracefully accepted to join us for a discussion on X-Men, diversity, marriage, her career, collaborating with other creators and working for Marvel.

What the Book Club was wondering prior to our discussion
Marjorie Liu started the discussion with explaining how she ended up writing for a comic book in the first place. She had originally studied to become a lawyer and even passed the bar, but after she finished school she didn`t feel that practicing law was the right path for her. She wanted to write and so she turned her mind to that. She wrote her first novel, Tiger Eye, a paranormal romance book (and the first of her Dirk Steele series) in about a month in 2005. She became an author, wrote more books and eventually wrote an X-Men novel for Marvel called X-Men: Dark Mirror. Her comic career began in earnest with NYX: No Way Home, then Dark Wolverine, X-23 and Black Widow until she was approached for Astonishing X-Men

Since Astonishing X-Men was well established by that point, she had to use the characters already on the team for her stories. This included Wolverine, Gambit, Iceman, Northstar, Warbird, Karma and Cecilia Reyes. She took a look at the characters and decided that one of the first plot-lines she would work on would be to move the character of Northstar forward. Northstar came out of the closet in the mid 90's in Alpha Flight #104, and had been in a relationship with his partner, Kyle Jinadu, since 2009. Marvel Comics approached this idea enthusiastically and cautiously as they wanted to ensure it would be done properly. Many editorial suggestions and re-writes later, the story was accepted. Although well publicized, she didn't anticipate a good reception to the comic. The issue was anticipated and Marvel did warn her that she would likely receive "minor death threats". There was no backlash and the issue was received favorably. It was not an action packed issue, but a thoughtful, heartfelt and intimate look at the characters involved and the reactions of those around them. Overall, the story of the wedding was well done and well received.

The group really enjoyed the character moments found in this collection. How the characters interacted with each other was a highlight of the book. When Kyle Jinadu and Northstar are unpacking, Kyle requests Northstar uses his speed power to furnish the apartment quickly. When they come back from the fight, Northstar is flying and carrying Kyle in his arms. This makes Kyle feel inadequate as he was caught in the crossfire of a vicious battle earlier and couldn't contribute to it. Those little moments are aplenty for each character in the book and they were very welcome. It was quite refreshing to see so much effort being put into developing these characters and making them feel fleshed out.

We quickly understood that for Marjorie, comic stands at the intersection between prose and screenplay. The process she normally uses for writing books is quite different than for her comics. She has to think about her characters, who they are, what they're saying, what they're thinking and how to express those elements in words. In comics, those same train of elements aren't necessarily conveyed by words, but by a combination of dialog, narration boxes and visuals. The challenge lies in finding the right way to collaborate with an artist to illustrate what you hope to see. Through good communication and collaboration, artists bring their vision of how they see a scene and the team ends up with something that satisfies them both. The strengths of all creators elevating the work of the other. This is a really good way to work with someone.

The inclusion of New York imagery within the books was also a welcome addition. We knew the X-Men were based in New York (or San Francisco now), the town where the action took place rarely seemed to matter. Marjorie and Mike Perkins create a City that feels real. The X-Men are taking a cab after a fight, they're eating a slice of pizza in Greenwich Village pizzeria, a wedding in Central Park. This is New York and it feels lived in. We understand where they are instead of thinking they're in generic location #23. 

Cabbing home after a fight

This collection however, was downright confusing and jarring for us to read. Since it begins with issue #48 of a well-established series, it assumes you have a good understanding of who is involved and the background information of the characters. Most of us could recognize Wolverine and Gambit, but we all scratched our head when Warbird is introduced. Particularly since she appears to have killed one of her enemies so those of us who didn't know she was an X-Man assumed immediately she was an enemy. It's not so much an issue of poor storytelling, so much as it's an issue concerning the insular nature of the X-Men in general. You need a PhD in X-Men and a Wikipedia page open before being able to understand the stories being told. As for the jarring feelings, well the collection only tells half a story. Obviously the focus is on Northstar, but the central plot concerns a villain using mind control to get at the X-Men. Why I couldn't tell because the story abruptly ends at what I assumed is a halfway mark. The collection does conclude (or appear to conclude) Northstar character`s arc, but leaves you right in the middle of the main story arc. After the wedding, a cliffhanger happens, then it's a short story from an unrelated comic published 4 years earlier. Then it's the story of Northstar coming out of the closet which features this stupid guy:

The least stereotypical Canadian character ever created

How these issues are collected is not a decision by the creative team, but rather their editorial team. Though we may be cynical, it wasn't hard to understand that this was collected as soon as possible to cash in on the publicity of the wedding issue regardless of whether or not it was narratively coherent. From a business perspective, it make sense, you want to make sure you squeeze out sales while the trend is still fresh because you`ll lose out on those sales the longer you wait. Removed from that context, years after the publication, it's just jarring and kind of obscene. As readers, how can you take this seriously? We all understand that the serialized nature of comic books means that "the story is never really over", but how much can you stretch that elastic before it bursts? We as readers felt the story to be important, but can the same be said of the editorial team? Does this encourage readers at large to pursue the other collected editions? I'm not sure. We're a large group of individuals and our tastes vary. I'm not sure that paying a premium fee for half a story that ends with a guy in a penguin suit, a top hat and a monocle telling you "well if you like this, you gotta buy the next book to see how it ends, huh huh!" is the right way to ensure longevity with sales. No one likes to be taken for a fool. This probably explains why sales of comic books (at least floppies) have been steadily declining. There's only so much insults one can take.

Again, this wasn't something Marjorie or her colleagues had any control over so we couldn't really fault her for it. This did bring us to the topic of creator-owned comics and of the extra liberty this brings about. Marjorie is currently working on a creator owned project for Image Comics called Monstress with Sana Takeda. Monstress takes place in a fantasy 1900's Asia, where mythic beasts roam the land and we'll follow a young girl with a psychic connection to one of those beasts as she is hunted by many who wish to exploit that connection. The release date was still up in the air at the time of our meeting but we were assured it would be "soon, very soon". We could tell Marjorie was eager to talk in depth about this project. The amount of freedom that this allowed her was quite exciting. How long will the series be? How many pages will the first issue have? How will it be collected? Will there be guest artists and who could they possibly be? All of these things will be determined by her, Sana and their colleagues.

And this extra liberty is just something you can't have at a corporate comic publisher. The corporation owns the right to the work, the universe and the characters. At the end of the day, nothing you do belongs to you. And this is a subject we've encountered before in discussion with other comic artists and writers we spoke to. They may be invested in the work they've done, and once they leave, they may want to come back to it later, but there is no guarantee they'll ever be involved in it again. It can be quite frustrating and this seems to be what is pushing a lot of established creators toward owning their own material. It won't always be successful, but it will belong to them and that control, that ownership, is worth a lot more than you can imagine.

A lived in city for the X-Men

On the subject of collaboration, Marjorie mentioned that, although it's always a good thing to know your collaborator's strengths, it's also important to understand your own weaknesses. Being humble and recognizing where your weaknesses lies allowed her to collaborate with colleagues much better. For example, Marjorie mentioned that she will often rely on the artist she works with to create fight sequences. This allows the artists to make better choices concerning the page layout and the action that unfolds. The two of them know where the action is going and what needs to happen, but the fluidity of movement and how exactly the same takes place doesn't rely only the writing of Marjorie, but on a collaborative process where the artists and writer contribute to construct the scene. The results in this comic, for example, is seamless. The action flows nicely from one panel to the next without skipping a beat. Knowing what your collaborators are good at is great, knowing where they can help you can sometimes be even better.

Nightmarish dream vision

On the subject of diversity, Marjorie talked to us about her own experience at Marvel. She's always felt welcome and supported by her colleagues. While she recognized that she has worked with a diverse team, mostly at the editorial level, that didn't extend to the level of writer and artists` teams that were around her. The call for diversity has been beating louder and louder across the internet and hopefully publishers are listening (N.B. Although it's hard to tell if they're listening or if they're completely tone-deaf. Only 8 women will be working on the 45 title Marvel relaunch of October 2015). There will never be a time when we'll be able to say we have "enough" diversity. As I mentioned earlier, those new creators bring with them new ideas and stories, it's just hard to ignore the positive outcome both from a story perspective and from a PR perspective. Most members of our book club are women and the idea that comics are a "boys club" is difficult to shake. Marjorie was kind enough to let us know she feels things are moving in the right direction, albeit at much slower pace than anyone wants to admit to.

We were able to have a solid discussion with Marjorie and gain a better understanding of her experience as a writer by the end of our meeting. We learned much about collaborative process, diversity and the process behind the comic book in terms of editorial input. Leaving the meeting, we all had mixed feelings about the book, myself included. Not all of us were sure that we would recommend the book. It was a flawed experience, mostly due to how the book was collected. A cautionary tale perhaps for overeager editors. In any case, we were quite thankful for the time Marjorie took to speak with us. Her eloquence, candor and honesty was quite riveting. We're looking forward to Monstress and her upcoming projects. Some of us have already started reading her novels. Truly the mark of a captivating author.

Looking forward to this

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jon Vaughn's Schwartz on the Schwartz: What We Are Like On The Inside

Inside My Head

What are we made of? Objectively, we know what a human body contains. We even know the chemical composition of our body. But what about our consciousness? What about our souls? What are they made of? What are we made of? I am not sure if any of us have any answers, but Jon Vaughn tries to explore this in Schwartz on the Schwartz.

Vaughn depicts the outline of human forms in various positions, but the only signifier of humanity is this outline. We recognize what humans look like, but we don’t see them from outside, instead we gaze into what the souls contained in their bodies might look like. Lines twist and turn into abstraction in the outline of the bodies we see. Souls are warped and we observe them, unable to ever grasp what we’re meant to see. We dig deeper and deeper into a depiction of human psyche that is completely wild. We see what looks like cerebral tissue, overlapping flesh and weird shapes. As one tries to unravel the meaning of the book, we are haunted by the mystery that surrounds this oddity. It stayed with me long after I put it down.

The comic, although short, is quite dense. As one tries to unwrap the meaning of this, we get to hold this nicely risographed mini-comic on beige paper with blue and black ink. It really is a neat little book. I doubt I’ll ever see any other comic from Jon Vaughn; I’ve had a hard time finding information on him online apart from his artist resume. In any case, I see an artist with a grasp of perspective and potential to turn into a great comic artist.

A subjective view of a soul

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Laura Ķeniņš: She Wants to Tell Me: Uncertainty and Speechlessness

In social interactions, there are constant and overt reminders of the underlying power structure. Someone who holds the power, a boss or a coach, can speak; you do not have that power, therefore you must ask permission and they may (or may not) grant you permission to speak. As if your opinion doesn't matter, your status isn't high enough or perceived to be too low, and you can't speak "above your station". When it comes to personal interaction, a similar but less rigid structure exists. It is a challenge to determine what one can or cannot say, especially when you're in love. There is an uncertainty to attraction and love as you seek to not only form a bond with a person, but a lasting bond with someone that extends beyond friendship and into intimacy. So there is a huge amount of uncertainty to wade through before you can forge an intimate relationship. Communication is key to get to this point.

In Laura Ķeniņš What She Wants to Tell Me, the protagonists are caught in a situation where that uncertainty can never be properly dispersed. The book opens with our protagonists, finding a severed human ear on the ground of the park. Daina, one of our protagonists, stands over it silently until Monta, our second protagonist, arrives and enquires about the situation. Monta wants to go to the police, but Daina advice against it. Despite this initial disagreement, they are clearly shaken by the discovery and decide to go for to go for drinks to talk and forget about this nasty business. They eventually kiss and Monta falls in love with Daina.

Hovever, despite this attraction and their eventual relationship, they can never talk freely to each other. Monta is uncertain of her own feelings and whether or not she can love another woman, but decides to commit to the relationship anyway. This uncertainty pervades their every interaction. She doesn't know how to express her feelings properly, so she keeps quiet. She expresses her doubt, but never to her partner, the one person who should be able to listen. Daina, however, seems to have a problem with expressing herself altogether. Although she seems more confident in her sexuality, she also appears to have secrets. Whatever they may be, be it related to how the ear got on the ground or not, she never says.

The ear doesn't really matter in the end. It is their inability to express themselves that dooms their relationship. Monta wants to tell Daina her feelings. Daina wants to share her secret. Whatever has been left unsaid will remain so.

Laura Ķeniņš art is phenomenal. Everything is done with colored pencils. I had recently read Everywhere Antennas by Julie Delporte, who also uses colored pencils and the contrast between the two artists` styles is quite interesting. Where Delporte used color sparingly, leaving plenty of empty spaces, Keninš fills each pages with vibrant colors. In Keninš book, there is a loose panel structure and each panel is filled with colors. The various colors used throughout are applied with varying levels of opacity to allow her to create lighting and shadow effects everywhere.

Her style also complements the story nicely. The pencils aren't used to add color to a black pencil drawing, but rather they are the basis of the drawing itself. This reduced the clarity of the forms and structures in some instances, but it contributes to the story in that it casts a haze over everything, reducing clarity and adding a small yet efficient layer of uncertainty over everything. Truly well done.

I was not familiar with Keninš' work before and it is a mistake I will correct shortly. Her meaningful examination of communication was stellar and I am looking forward to more thoughtful pieces from her.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Believed Behavior No.2: Never-Ending Self Actualization

How does one improve oneself? As human beings, we always question our own actions and behaviours. We want to be the better version of ourselves. Abraham Maslow described this as "self-actualization"; the desire of humans to become actualized to their full potential, to become all that you can be. In this issue of Believed Behavior, we meet characters who take (or took) active steps to reaching their full potential. Whether it's becoming a poet, realizing that you've made a wrong career choice, becoming an airplane or learning to recognize colours by touching them, these characters are on a quest of self-actualization.

I've talked about Believed Behavior previously and some of what I said still applies. Believed Behavior is a multimedia comics experience. Two issues are out and a third issue is coming out in June 2015. It's a collection of short form comics printed on newsprint as well as an online web platform that allows you to read the comics the way you want. Once you buy Believed Behavior, you get a copy of the physical object and have access to the full issue online. You can grasp at the ephemeral aspect of the comics in two ways that are completely disposable: newsprint and data. 

While the first issue lacked focus in terms of subject matter, the second issue`s focus is much narrower. As I said earlier, we meet characters who are on a quest for self-actualization. This issue features comics from Anya Davidson, Lale Westvind, Lyra Hill, Sophia Foster-Dimino and Michael Deforge. We start with Michael Deforge's story in which a woman has her body surgically altered to become an airplane. She always wanted to fly and blew her trust fund on the surgery. As the story progresses, she finds it's not as fun as she thought it would be: "This is less chill than I imagined". The comic leaves no answer as to her future except these bittersweet moments of loneliness and reconsideration. Then Anya Davidson shows us this weird world of masculine factory workers, where one employee wishes to be a poet. He keeps this close to his heart as he's afraid of what the others will think of it. In the end, it seems that his aspiration to become a poet has no impact on anyone`s lives. Sophia Foster-Dimino's comic is about a young bodyguard hired to escort a monk across the land, during which she quickly realizes that she's not up to the task.

Perhaps the most impressive comic in the package is the one from Lyra Hill in which a blind boy in a neon shop learns to recognize colours with the help of his father. It is quite moving and very well executed, particularly when you consider the really short nature of the comic. Additionally, Lyra Hill also did an artistic performance of the story of Papa Neon, which can be seen on Vimeo. It's quite impressive and ties into the ephemeral themes as well. This performance, much like data, is immaterial. It has happened and will never happen again. We can see it, but we'll never experience it.

The medium of the comics allows you to reflect on the nature of the content. It makes you reflect on the longevity of those moments of self-actualization. Believed Behavior is printed on newsprint. This type of paper is thin, cheap and easily destructible. It's very nature is forgettable and bound to disappear over time, so to are our moments of clarity when we achieve our fullest potential. We evolve, as do our needs and psyche, and we can only achieve our highest potential for so long until we change and need to reach for new goals and a new self-actualization. Can these moments be everlasting? According to both the content and medium of Believed Behavior the question has a clear answer.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Dogs & Ad Astra Comix: An Interview with Nicole Marie Burton

Ad Astra Comix is a publisher, web platform and distributor of political, historical and activist comics located in Toronto. Their primary focus is on education, promotion and production. In particular, their focus on education was something that I found really struck a chord with me. French is my first language and I learned English by reading comic books at age 5. To this day, I highly recommend comic books as a great way to learn a new language.

Nicole Marie Burton of Ad Astra Comix gracefully agreed to talk with me about Ad Astra Comix and their current tilt campaign to get posters of Dogs, a webcomic about the findings of a Qikiqtani Truth Comission, printed and sent to schools across Canada. Dogs is a story based on the findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission, which reported that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police slaughtered hundreds of dogs in Inuit settlements. During our discussion, we talked about the campaign and other topics. I have edited a few things for flow.


Philippe Leblanc: For those readers who may not be familiar with Ad Astra Comix, can you tell us what Ad Astra Comix is about?

Nicole Marie Burton: Ad Astra Comix was founded in 2013. The name comes from the phrase "Ad astra per aspera", which means "To the stars through difficulties". This is the state motto from of Kansas, where I grew up (Lawrence was my hometown in High School). I moved to Canada from the United States in 2003 and we`ve been using this imprint in both countries. We're a Toronto-based company that retails, publishes, produces, creates and promotes social justice comic books or comic books with progressive political themes. Our mandate essentially works in two ways. The first is that we work with comics to amplify the voices of marginalized audiences: the voice of women, people of color, indigenous people, folks from the LGBTQ community and creators from outside of North America and Europe. The second is that we work to promote comics that challenge oppressive framework. What do I mean by this? Racism is an oppressive framework; sexism is an oppressive framework. Even colonialism is an oppressive framework. We want to use and promote comics that challenge those ideas and expand with new ideas. That is essentially our mandate.

Our vision for the future of the business in the next few years is to be producing and retailing a line of comics and also engaging in community events and workshops that work towards personal empowerment, community involvement and social change.

PL: So far have you received a good response with regards to achieving those goals you've set out to accomplish?

NMB: Yes, reception has been amazing. It's always a gamble when you start a business, but it's been amazing so far. It's a challenge when you are essentially branding yourself as trying to redraw the lines in the comics industry within a particular genre. "Political Comics" is not really a thing per se. You can't go to your local comic book store and go to the "political comics" section; it doesn't really exist. When we set out to really build Ad Astra Comix and develop a brand, we've asked ourselves a lot of questions as to where to take it. This isn't like opening up a comic book shop, although it is challenging enough to run a comic store. We were focusing more on the fundamental concepts of what we were trying to promote: What is a political comic? What does this theoretical genre entail? What defines it? Who is the target audience we want to reach? Where do we fit in the comic book industry? We cast a wide net when we started: we were retailing; we were giving workshops, presentations; we were throwing parties; we were doing movie showings; we were tabling at events; we published a comic in 2014; we were consulting with comics creators about their comics; and we were writing articles for our website. Basically, we were all over the place. 

In the last year, we've had a lot of people come to us saying that they'd want to help us develop the business, but we need to know more about what we really want to do. We're doing all of these general things, but what do we want to do in the future, what is our focus? No one can do everything. We decided that the real place that our specialization means the most is in curating and original production. Curation as readers are looking for knowledgeable folks to help with the compilation of resources, reading lists of comics that revolve around certain subjects. For instance, you can go to a comic book shop to ask for the latest Brian K. Vaughan, or the Image Comics section. In our case, people come to us and say: "What comics do you have on the Israelo-Palestine conflict" or "what comics do you have about immigration, or race or gender." We come up with resources around that. 

The other area we felt we could be most useful is in the original production. There are political comics that come out from mainstream publishers or from independent publishers, but those publishers, wherever they fall, don't necessarily have a mandate that is political or social justice oriented. What we're finding is that there's a growing number of comic creators and readers who are looking for content that is created with this kind of directive. Comics that are conscious about questions of diversity, colonial mindset and decolonization. From what we've gathered, comic creators with those ideas of social justice comics are looking forward to having a publisher in the North American market that is focusing on this type of comic with a narrower focus towards social justice production. That is probably the role that we are going to move to fill in the next 12 to 16 months. We have four to five publishing projects underway that we'll launch in the next 6 months. We'll be moving into high gear in launching our first line of comics by the end of 2015.

Nicole Marie Burton & Hugh Goldring

PL: You mentioned you feel it's difficult finding political comics as it isn't really a category. The definition certainly has evolved over time. I visited the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum and Library recently and something that was clear was the fact that cartoons and comics are closely linked with the political going all the way back to the early 1800's. It has changed over time. Moving back towards this conception of a "political comic" is interesting.

NMB: What is considered sacred in society is a moving goal post and comics, or cartoons more accurately, roots are deeply founded in political satire and criticism of the elite. There is a theory that the word cartoon comes from the Italian word "cartone" back in the 15th or 16th century Italy which meant cartons. What became common was for people to create this sort of caricature of their landlord or noble that were made in the back of food cartons; at the time it was this sort of heavy duty paper as it was a cheap way to store edible goods. The great thing about cartoons was that you didn't need to be literate to understand the jokes. If you drew your landlord with exagerated features, his eyes or his nose, or even drawing your boss in a sexually compromised position, was something that could bring together your community for a good laugh. 

What was so magical about cartoons when they started was how powerful they could be without any words. I read this quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte in which he said that what were instrumental to his downfall, even more so than any European army, were cartoons. Marie Antoinette was considered the first victim of tabloid journalism and was notoriously drawn in sexually compromising positions and was constantly ridiculed in political cartoons. At the time, these were untouchable elites in the eyes of commoners; they were considered invincible, but the cartoons brought them back to a human level. This was the power of cartoons. Over time, cartoons became more intertwined with journalism and yellow journalism even more so. Competing newspaper companies had an interest in producing cartoons that depicted their views on whatever topic was in the news at the time. 

I find it to be hilarious that there are still cartoonists out there who behave as though nothing has changed in society and you can get away with anything. When we say we publish political cartoons, people immediately bring up the touchy Muhammad cartoons debate. People ask us "hey, you guys are doing political cartoons, let's talk about the Muhammad cartoons. Where are your images of Muhammad, or your mocking the Iranian mullahs". Our mandate and what we want to accomplish requires us to be filtered and thoughtful in what we curate. We believe in social justice comics, and this is where the future of political comics is heading towards.There is nothing untouchable about the prophet in today's world. Muslims as a whole have been the victim of American military violence constantly for over 30 years, both physically and through media-led attacks. The free speech aspect of comics and the idea that they must prevail above all else is ludicrous. There is nothing revolutionary about drawing the prophet. The real future of "political comics" is to move beyond this towards helping us better understand our world and articulating what we want to change in the structures surrounding us. We don't even know how to dismantle patriarchy or how to dismantle colonialism, let alone all the ways it affects our daily life. Today, any political leader can fall - most will be replaced, but the cycles of systemic oppression continue. They are the new Goliaths of our time - not any individuals. We believe comics are a great way to take them on.

PL: Using cartoons as a beacon towards understanding the other and articulating the way forward. 

NMB: Exactly.

PL: Another of your goals is the aspect of Education. I was wondering how you've approached comics as an education tool so far. As a personal experience, I can tell that I'm a French-Canadian and French is my first language and I've learned English by reading comic books. I remembered as a kid reading comics and eventually understanding the language in them. I've always known intuitively that comics can serve as teaching tools, but I'm curious as to how you approach using comics for other educational elements.

NMB: I think we've only begun scratching the surface of what we can do with education with comics. We've done a few workshops on how comics can convey complex information in a short period of time. We've also done a workshop on how to use comics in the classroom. The main areas we work around are history, language and science. Comics are great for learning a second or third language. We think comics are interesting as you can look at something visual and absorb information. Words are visual symbols, like images, but their meaning can only be interpreted by deciphering, A picture can be absorbed much faster than a paragraph, it's not linear so you can absorb all of it at once. There is no intermediary in your brain recombining this information; it is immediate. I could spend a paragraph writing the description of a house and then drawing that house and a person would absorb the visual faster than the written paragraph describing it. I really resent the argument that comics are dumbed down forms of entertainment. It is a medium that can be used in different ways. There is a growing body of literature in the education world that shows that a lot of people are visual learners as opposed to oral or verbal learners. A lot of people are naturally more inclined to learn with visual association of information and comics are tying into that in terms of harnessing that energy in a creative way.

PL: Portraying an idea visually certainly helps to understand it better. A pie chart or a graph of any kind are tools to help you process information. Putting more complex information in a comic book format allows you to   expand on it and convey information that you might struggle with in a purely written format.

PL: Ad Astra Comix currently have a tilt campaign to print posters of the comics Dogs. This comic was originally published in March 2015 and created by Hugh Goldring and yourself with the goals of amplifying the findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. Can you tell us more about that?

NMB: Hugh is from Ottawa and he has family connections to Arctic history. Both of his parents are historians and one of them spent a major part of their career studying Arctic history with a focus on 20th century history. Hugh had done research in the past about the Qikiqtani Truth Commission (QTC) before the report was even completed. He learned about what is often referred to as the "Inuit Sled dog slaughter" or the "Inuit Dog slaughter". This was a period of time in the Eastern Arctic during the 1950's and 1960's when the RCMP, relatively new to the region at the time, instituted something called "The Dog ordenance". On the surface, this ordenance looked like an effort to ensure law and order in the settlement and instituted in the interest of public safety. However, it called for Inuit dogs, or any dogs, to be shot on sight if they were not tied in the settlement. Additionally, if a dog was not identified, or if the owner was not present or unknown, the dog would be shot. What became of this is something that many inuit communities associate with the push from the Canadian government to confine Inuits, largely migratory communities to settle. Dogs weren't pets, they were a part of the community, part of the families, they were used for transport, they were part of the culture. For a lot of the inuits who experienced the loss of their dogs, this was a very traumatic time period. Hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs were shot by the RCMP during this time. The Inuit were not blind and noticed that the dogs belonging to the RCMP or the Hudson's Bay Company would not get shot regardless of the situation. This became a clear sign that the government was forcing the Inuit to settle and essentially adopt customs, practices and products from the South. It was traumatic and seen as unresolved in their ancestry and community history and the QTC was struck to develop a record, primarily of oral history, from those that it affected. The RCMP, in true RCMP fashion, did an investigation of themselves and found that although slaughter had taken place, they refused to admit it was due to a larger plan to force settlement and never apologized for it. Many Inuit, including Peter Irnik, has said that, if they apologized we can forgive, but there needs to be an apology. The question then becomes will there ever be any accountability and any apology in this context?

The creation of the comic was about directly amplifying the findings of the commission. We did the best we could as settlers, white people, to not speak for the Inuit, they're perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, but it really showed us that this isn't an untold history, but rather that it was just not being listened to. We wanted to amplify this history and distribute in Canada where it is needed the most; in centers of learning, classrooms, libraries, community centers, and into people’s homes if they wish it. We want to get the word out. We're horrified to hear that our police would do such a thing as shooting dogs. It may be more common in the United States, but it's a really heartbreaking and atrocious thing to happen. And the mass scale of this was truly terrible as this happened in such a short period of time and nobody knows about it.

PL: The timing for this comic seems quite timely as the report came out less than two weeks ago (on June 3rd 2015) and there is a willingness to be more invested in these stories.

NMB: I can only hope so. With you being in Ottawa, I can assume it has generated more discussion. I haven't had a lot of in-person discussion about it in Toronto, though my social media feed has been quite active on this report. We want to use the comic as a conversation starter. All of us Canadians have a stake in this history, we are all responsible for this history. I may not be the RCMP, but as a settler, I understand what they represent and have a vote of confidence regarding their structure and for me to be outraged enough that I feel I must express it means that a serious discussion must happen and I hope many Canadians feel the same way.

The Truth and Reconciliation reports shows us that it's time to be investigating, to get informed about indigenous voices and history. It's important for the country to have a conversation about this and really give ourselves the space to consider how profound and far reaching the implications this history has had on everyone in this country. We're talking a lot about a history of cultural genocide, but the Qikiqtani Truth commission shows that there is also, to a lesser extent, a physical genocide. I think we can't ignore this.

PL: It's interesting since it's not a definitive report either. It's meant as a way to move forward towards a better understanding of Inuit culture. This comic, amongst other cultural productions, can be a step in the right direction.

NMB: We hope that is the case. We've had conversations with people in and around the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. We're in conversation with the QTC to put the comic up on their website so people can access it as a resource. It's currently being translated into French so as to reach a broader Canadian audience. Part of this history happened in Northern Quebec.

PL: When you approached this comic, how did you manage distilling the amount of information you had into what is essentially a fairly short comic?

NMB: Hugh is trained in writing, research and history, so he has this uncanny ability at summarizing information. He's good at taking in a lot of information and boiling it down to it's essential parts. A big part of that process goes to him and his talent.

In terms of how we wanted to lay it out, we felt as though what was needed was a general contextual description of the situation at the time, what led to an increased presence of the Canadian State in the North, part of that was the Cold and Northern Sovereignty, but also the prospect of natural resources which is to this day a big part of the industry in the North. We thought it was important to show the perspective of the Inuit both before and after the event took place. Upon distilling the information of the report, we felt it was important to note that the Inuit noticed that their dogs were being murdered, but not the dogs from the Hudson's Bay company. It was important to us to draw out the panels where we see the violence against the animal in a very somber way. Particularly the panel where we see a man's back facing away from the reader, there is no text and it feels quite empty, but the second panel is him dropping to his knees, harness in hand and just a few drops of blood.

We tried to use colors sparingly while trying to capture the color of the Canadian North. It's not all white and snow with cloudy skies. We chose to use a palette of pink and yellow in addition to those colors while keeping it really somber to allow for those instances of red and blood to have a bigger impact in people's mind.

I feel as though there's a literary piece, a political piece and an aesthetic piece to this comic that we tried our best to join as seamlessly as possible. This comic is, in a lot of ways, a test as a production team to take some of our theories on how to make political comics a more vibrant genre and put it to the test. So far, the feedback we've received seems to indicate we're right to an extent, or that we're at least going in the right direction.

PL: The comic itself is quite interesting. Your tilt campaign you have at the moment is to print posters of the comic that would be distributed in Canadian schools. You've also included the disclaimer you wrote and posted after the comics online. Why did you feel it was important to do that?

NMB: We felt that we didn't feel personally comfortable publishing this comic without a disclaimer. We felt that way too often indigenous stories and histories are told by settlers. For us, and particularly for an artistic rendition of a history that was so sensitive and so painful for many, we really felt the need to publish the disclaimer at the same time. We wanted to ensure people knew that we recognized that we're settlers, we produced this comic to amplify what has already been said and that we undertook the project without the full accord of the QTC. We had spoken and consulted to many around the commissions and they agreed it was a good idea, but it wasn't a full cooperative process. We wanted to outline what our process was like to be as transparent as possible and show people what we're all about. Far too often, settlers or non-indigenous people take on these projects without consulting or engaging the communities they're talking about and aren't engaging in open dialog. We wanted to avoid that error. The posters will include the disclaimer, and we’re also encouraging people to visit the Qikiqtani Truth Commission website. It should serve as an introduction and those who want to learn have a wealth of resources they can access.

PL: This ties into the next question I had for you. In your disclaimer, you and Hugh Goldring “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.” You’ve also said: “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.” I’ve seen a similar statement from Martin Laroche, a French-Canadian movie director who recently directed “Les manéges humains” (Fair Sex). It’s a faux documentary about a young African-Canadian woman filming a documentary about the travelling amusement park where she works, but slowly, the documentary becomes her way to deal with her own life and coming to terms with the pain and stigma caused by the genital mutilation she suffered as a child. Laroche mentions the inability of being able to fully grasp the realities of the subject of his film, but also of the importance of understanding the topic, through research and dialog and empathy. 

The story of Dogs is important and, without necessarily wanting to speak for the Inuit community, you also want to raise awareness and speak “about” the issue. In this case, the disclaimer is your way to navigate this murky territory?

NMB: Absolutely. Hugh and I feel that it's going to become more and more an issue as we see these people in positions of privilege start to feel a sense of obligation about the systemic challenges and injustice that face the people around them. Whether its man to woman, white people to people of color, settlers to indigenous people, we're going to see more and more people in positions of privilege want to take on those stories. They see it as their way to resolve their sense of responsibilities towards these issues. It's good in some ways, but it can also be problematic in other ways. I think our disclaimer is good as it reflects our concerns toward the issue, but it's difficult to balance this. You don't want to imply that you're taking the lead on someone else's struggle. You don't want to speak for someone or over someone and this can get tricky for someone who is blinded by their privilege. 

I feel like the answer to respond to this is consultation. I find it hard to imagine a scenario with too much consultation. I think that a major component to dismantle oppressive framework is the establishment of trust. When people of privileges take on projects that concern the welfare of oppressed people without consulting those affected by it, one has to wonder about the motive and the agenda. If it is in the interest of furthering the advancement of that group or people, why not connect with them and consult about what you're trying to do? If it is not in the interest of furthering the advancement of that group, then what is your project all about? Self promotion? It certainly comes across as doing something for cookies when you don't consult. 

PL: Doing something with the intent of receiving praise for it rather than actually being engaged in the project.

NMB: Exactly, like someone defending a woman or saying something feminist in a meeting, or saying something anti-racist in front of people of color and expecting immediate rewards and gratification for your surface level show of solidarity.

I think what a lot of people are looking for in terms of solidarity and dismantling those oppressive frameworks is an understanding that the systems we're up against is much bigger than a comic, or a report, or a movie. These are long term goals and they are going to take years to achieve. It will take us years to unlearn those systems and for trust to be reestablished. I think that's one of the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

PL: Understanding, collaboration and consultation in the hope of moving the conversation forward,   to help heal the pain and become more aware of history and others.

NMB: And it's a long process. It’snot a button you can press, it's not a t-shirt that you can wear. It's not a catchphrase that you can use. This is a part of the lesson that we are trying to instill. We have a quote at the end of the comic that says "History is about more than self-congratulatory vignettes, it can help us be accountable". I like this quote as it's a reminder to the reader that this isn't the end. We’ve told this story and the reader can learn from it and understand that he has his work cut out for him afterward. If you wonder how to be an ally or a supporter of this or that movement, you can start by promoting those marginalized voices in history, and in the present day and in the communities that we live in and in the virtual space we occupy as well. 

PL: What would you hope to be the best outcome you reach with this comic?

NMB: Well, I want to be cautiously optimistic about the future. We've had lots of conversations with people about this comic, both online and in person. One I vividly recall was a discussion with this young guy from Edmonton who mentioned liking the comic and asking if we wanted to produce a comic with people from Northern Alberta about their history. I thought that this would be amazing, but I think preferably, I would like to see this type of work sprout like mushrooms with or without me. At the end of the day, it would be incredible to see this type of effort happen in this medium that I feel so passionate about.
People are looking for more creative ways to look at information, but also looking to be more creative in how to present information and comics is perfect for that. I feel that we're on the verge of a political comic renaissance and being able to contribute and hopefully show examples to steer them in the right direction is the best outcome I could possibly imagine. 

In 2013, publishers weekly announced that the comic and graphic novel section were the most popular section in American libraries with books being taken out with an overwhelming frequency and volume compared to other sections of the libraries. Comics are into schools and community centers; they're being developed for educational programs, for health care plans, for youth and mental health programs. And it's all happening at a time where there are huge discussions around feminism, around indigenous rights, around fundamental changes in direction within our society. It's such a perfect storm and I hope comics will be used more often to inform this. That would be the best outcome. I hope Dogs opens that window just a little bit more.


All images from Ad Astra Comix & Dogs