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

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