Animal Outbreak

A review of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods (Vertigo, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods courtesy of http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/

Cover photo of Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods courtesy of http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/

Set in a post-outbreak society where most of the society has died of the plague and the remaining bits of humanity know that they have a countdown on their remaining life, Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods is a tale of loneliness and the desire to find one’s place in the world. In this post-outbreak society, the only people who are uninfected are human-animal hybrids, who appeared at around the same time that people started dying of the infection.

Having been raised in isolation, Gus, a human-deer hybrid, is soon left without the father who was his only connection to the world. Growing up surrounded by religious ideas and only his father to provide an interpretation of the world, Gus believed that he lived in the End of Days, his small, idyllic forest cabin surrounded by hellfire. When Gus’ father dies of the plague that is spreading across the world, he is left to interpret the world on his own, particularly when people invade his small woodland space and bring to him all of the hatred and fear that a plague-filled world has for those who are different, particularly those who are immune to the disease.

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Woods is a tale of coming-of-age in the apocalypse, a story of youth cut off from any semblance of normalcy and forced to discover this new world with only scant memories of the past world, snippets of conversations, religious ideologies, and fear as a guide.

Jeff Lemire’s artistic style, blending the dreamscape with the harsh sketched lines of a post-apocalyptic reality evokes the complexity of this world, filled of both destruction and the potential for change and growth.

You can explore Jeff Lemire’s blog site at http://jefflemire.blogspot.ca/ .

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Coming of Age in the End of Days

A review of Brent Hayward’s Head Full of Mountains (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Head Full of Mountains courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover Photo of Head Full of Mountains courtesy of ChiZine Publications

The end is a concept that brings hyper attention onto ideas of the body, memory, and the notion of permanence versus change, and Brent Hayward’s Head Full of Mountains constructs a society who, in trying to fend off the end, to preserve humanity, ends up creating a post-human world. Through the figure of Crospinal, raised on distorted memories of the ‘old world’ and confused perceptions of the new, the reader is cast into a realm of confusion and change, uncertain about the various ‘truths’ being given through Crospinal’s encounters with various human and mechanical groups, each staking their own claim on interpreting the world around them.

Crospinal experiences the world in a mix of dreams, experiences, and haptics (computerised learning programmes) which blend together in a distorted reality that allows him to live in ambiguity, perpetually a stranger in a strange land. Despite being born into this new world, Crospinal’s isolation with his father means that the world outside of his father’s realm is one of inconstancy, and a series of challenges to his beliefs about the world around him.

Environment, body, and belief system are all in flux in Head Full of Mountains as the ship that the last remnants of humanity are travelling through space on constantly changes configuration, recycling old parts while building new ones. Crospinal’s body alters from a disabled body in a space suit that recycles his nutrients, to a gradually stripped body exposed to all of the biological contaminants and biological wonders around him, and constantly rebuilt by machines to match an able-bodied expected norm. Crospinal and others are constantly haunted by a past that they can’t recall, erased from the minds of the passengers who came from old Earth and not taught to the new human beings who are born on the ship from embryos.

A father and son text, Head Full of Mountains manifests the uncertainty and confusion following the death of a parent and the re-shaping of one’s understanding of the world as one realises that their parent’s viewpoint is singular and does not encompass the range of potential ‘truths’ about interpreting the world. This is a coming-of-age text wrapped in the end of days, a coming of the end.

To discover more about Brent Hayward, visit his website at http://www.brenthayward.com/

To find out more about Head Full of Mountains and other ChiZine Publications books, visit their website at http://chizinepub.com/books/head-full-of-mountains

Fluid

A review of Jay Odjick and Patrick Tenascon’s Kagagi: The Raven (Arcana, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo of Kagagi: The Raven courtesy of Jay Odjick's website http://jayodjick.deviantart.com/art/Kagagi-cover-with-logo-68276887

Cover Photo of Kagagi: The Raven courtesy of Jay Odjick’s website http://jayodjick.deviantart.com/art/Kagagi-cover-with-logo-68276887

Portrayals of aboriginal people in comics are often tokenistic, two dimensional, and stereotypical. Aboriginal women in comics are sexualized, with costumes that are reduced to a few bands of leather and tassels. Aboriginal men are made into stoic figures. Aboriginal groups are often invented for comic book worlds, creating communities that have never existed and using a mish- mash of iconography from a variety of native peoples.

This is why it is so refreshing to see Jay Odjick and Patrick Tenascon’s Kagagi: The Raven, a comic that puts an Anishnabee man in the role of the hero rather than the sidekick or token diversity team member.

Kagagi: The Raven is a powerful story about transformation with a mixture of coming of age story, resistance to the superhero destiny, and overcoming systemic bullying… and perhaps that is why his superhero bears the Trickster qualities of Raven with a little touch of Nanabush.

Much like characters of historical Anishnabee tales, Odjick’s story is not easily resolved. There is no simple victory, no easy conquest of might over villainy, but rather a learning experience in which Matthew (who becomes Kagagi) confronts an enemy (a Windigo) as well as confronting his own limits and learns from the experience, gains further wisdom and self-knowledge.

With its blend of a dark, nighttime aesthetic with billowing clouds and slashes of blood along with Kagagi’s own dark, fluid, almost inky costume, Odjick and Tenascon’s art styles emphasize the dreamy, subconsciously dark quality of this narrative with pools of shadow and startling glimpses of the beautifully grotesque.

This is a fluid, transformative tale that opens up possibilities for a world of superheroism and future stories.

To discover more about Jay Odjick’s work and see his art, visit http://jayodjick.deviantart.com/ .

To find out more about Kagagi: The Raven, you can visit http://kagagi.squarespace.com/

All The World is a Stage

A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.

In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.

The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.

Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending).  Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.

Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.

When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.

The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.

Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.

Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.

To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .

Graphic Noir

A review of Drew Hayden Taylor, Alison Kooistra, and Michael Wyatt’s The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (Annick Press, 2013, Toronto)
By Derek Newman-Stille

I have been finding comics unsatisfying in recent years because too many of them have been cutting down on dialogue. I tend to like a lot of dialogue and narrative movement in a graphic novel, so I was excited to see that the graphic adaptation of Drew Hayden Taylor’s novel The Night Wanderer blended text and image effectively, creating a complete story.

Alison Kooistra’s adaptation of Hayden Taylor’s novel pulls out the effective characteristics of the novel and presents a complete story. This is a story about two entwined lives – one beginning and one reaching its completion. It has been 300 years since the man calling himself Pierre L’Errant has returned home to Otter Lake. The world has changed drastically. 300 years ago, L’Errant was an Anishinaabe youth who sought adventure and left his home with the pale faced visitors to his land.  When he arrives in Otter Lake, he meets with Tiffany, a young woman who is bored of res life at the Otter Lake reserve and seeking adventure. As a vampire, L’Errant has 300 years of knowledge to share with Tiffany, wisdom from the past. Two periods of time intersect as L’Errant explores his own history and connection to the landscape he left while teaching Tiffany to appreciate the place she calls home and not to move too quickly away from her land or lose touch with the history of her place.

Tiffany has to cope with the multiple pulls on her identity, the pull on her identity from school, friends, and boyfriends. Only a vampire can bring her the history of her place to realise what has changed and what remains the same and to share with her his curiosity about the land he called home. His passion to return, to re-visit the place of his youth and humanity permeates the novel, inviting the reader into the longing for home that people in diaspora have. Being a vampire means that L’Errant is pulled in multiple directions from multiple longings – the desire to find home and to complete his life in a place where his identity was shaped… and, of course, the longing for blood, something attached to his life in Europe when he was transformed into a vampire. His return has caused him to fast, to hold back his urge for blood and focus on finding his place in his significantly changed home.

Michael Wyatt’s art work blends effectively with the message of the story. The grey scale he uses for the novel lends an air of the gothic to these pages, and makes the red of blood stand out more… and the red of the vampire’s eyes. These sharp strikes of red become more potent for the viewer. An abundance of colour would have lost the shock and power of the vampire’s reaction to blood and his fundamental difference and otherness. In the splashes of red, the viewer is invited into the attention that the blood evokes from the vampire, making it ever-present and visually alluring.

Since most of the novel takes place at night, the use of grey shades evokes the feel of night to the graphic novel, pushing the viewer into the indistinctness of dusk and the uncertainty that comes with a story full of change and surprise.

Change is a significant part of Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt effectively uses his artwork to invite viewers to see the multiple juxtapositions of the current era (Tiffany’s time) and the past (L’Errant’s place of origin). He uses fog across panels to invite the reader to see the presence of change, and overlays panels from modernity over the past and vice versa to show that time is layered and that the past always dwells beneath the surface of the present. This layering is effective when L’Errant is uncovering items from his time period and sharing them with Tiffany: arrowheads, rocks that were once sacred and have been the seat for multiple people’s bottoms over time as they contemplated their place in the universe. Hayden Taylor’s story and Wyatt’s artwork highlight the changeability of the landscape and remind the reader that the stones we touch and the environments we inhabit have history.

The vampire in this narrative serves as a reminder of the fact that although landscapes and situations may change, there are always things that stay the same, hauntings from the past that we need to pay attention to – reminding us that people have been experiencing the same struggles and challenges before and will again in the future.

To find out more about The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel, visit Annick Press’ website at http://www.annickpress.com/Night-Wanderer-A-Graphic-Novel-The

To read more about the work of Drew Hayden Taylor, visit his website at http://www.drewhaydentaylor.com/

To discover more about the artwork of Michael Wyatt, visit his page on the Annick Press website at http://www.annickpress.com/author/Mike-Wyatt .

Behind the Wallpaper of the World

A review of Michelle Barker’s The Beggar King (Thistledown Press, 2013)

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author

cover photo of The Beggar King courtesy of the author


By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Beggar King, Michelle Barker explores the potential of the fantasy medium for creating a deep coming-of-age story. Jordan is a boy on the cusp of adulthood and in his society youths his age normally receive a talent, a gift that will help them to determine their career – either they are good at firing arrows, have an aptitude for prophesy, or some other gift that will allow them to chose a career path. But, Jordon’s gift hasn’t appeared yet. He has an ability to leap from building to building, and a skill at stealing from the marketplace, but what he really wants is a clear talent and an uncomplicated path to the future. But things keep getting more complicated for him.

Jordan encounters the dark figure from his culture’s mythology, the Beggar King, a being who uses undermagic, a forbidden type of magic that has been locked away because it could only be used for evil purposes and tended to turn on those who used it. Shortly after he first sees this dark figure, his community is invaded by the Brinnians, people who not only don’t respect his people’s traditions, but actively engage in activities that would be considered sacrilegious – hanging dead bodies from their sacred tree, killing sacred deer, and burning their sacred book.

When these invaders threaten to kill his mother, Jordan is told by friends and the Beggar King that he should consider opening the door to the undermagic that has been locked away in order to use its power to free his people.  Jordan is caught between a feeling that it is his cultural and religious duty to rid his community of invaders who engage in sacrilege and his knowledge that if he opens the door to the undermagic, he may be engaging in a sacrilege greater than any that these invaders could bring. Jordan discovers that he is one of the few who has the power to open the door to the undermagic – he has been given the gift to retreat outside of the world and disappear, he is the only one who can cross the Bridge of No Return that only the Beggar King can cross, and he has already opened the door to the undermagic a tiny crack…. he is uniquely positioned to either be the saviour of his people or bring about their downfall, and both friends and the Beggar King are playing on his desire to be exceptional, to prove himself, and to have a place in society by encouraging him to make a name for himself by opening the door to the undermagic. He discovers that some doors open for us, and some doors open within us.

This is a book about the in-between, that place that teens occupy as they search for identity as adults while rejecting their childhood identity. The in-between nature of this book stretches out into the position of Jordan as a person who is between the living and the dead when he crosses behind “the wallpaper of the world” to disappear as well as being the person who can open the doorway to the undermagic. He walks in those in-between places, hopping from rooftop to rooftop as he travels, and when he gains the power to become invisible, in the world between the places of our world and the underworld. But, the Holy City of Cir is itself a place betwixt and between – it is an island that can only be reached by bridges, and each bridge can only be crossed at certain times, with certain thoughts and behaviours – each bridge requires the individual to be in a certain mindset before it allows him or her to cross, whether that mindset is mischievous, meditative, or another frame of mind. When it becomes invaded, the Holy City of Cir becomes further liminal, being a place both of the Cirrans and the competing cultural influence of the invading Brinnians. It has become a city in the midst of a clash between traditional religion and the new capitalist imperialism brought by the Brinnians. Jordan is also in a morally liminal place, pulled in different moral directions and stuck with uncertainty about magic and undermagic because of the presence of these moral and cultural Others.

The Beggar King reinforces this ambiguity, being both a figure that is in inside and outside of the world, appearing on its fringes, but unable to appear to everyone (only to those suited to open the gateway to the undermagic). Even the term Beggar King is liminal, positioning him between poverty and wealth. Before attaining the power of undermagic, the Beggar King was a sin eater, a scapegoat for his culture who had to eat food that was filled with the sins of the households he begged from.

Using these liminal characteristics, Barker suffuses her world with the inherent contradictions that come with youth and the transition to adulthood – the uneasiness and questions that come with transformation and change. Although early in the narrative, prophets see Jordan as a ‘little boy wearing too-big shoes’, his encounters with other aspects of the fringes, other betwixt and between spaces, helps him to grow into those shoes and face an uneasy destiny rather than the one of ease and fame which he would have chosen. He discovers that one never knows the full picture and that when one acts unilaterally, even when he thinks it is the best thing for his community, he brings greater trouble to them. Only by accepting his role as a member of a greater community and recognising the diversity of skills and strengths within the people around him can he gain a complete understanding of the situation that faces him and take actions that are in support of others rather than in service to his own desire to be famous. By observing the emperor who has conquered his territory as well as his own choices, he comes to understand that arrogance is one of the greatest forms of ignorance.

To discover more about Michelle Barker’s work, visit her website at http://michellebarker.ca/ . To pick up a copy of The Beggar King, visit  Thistledown Press at http://www.thistledownpress.com/index.cfm .

Clear Cut Future

A review of Susan J. MacGregor’s Evergreen (in Urban Greenman. Edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine. Edge, 2013).

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover Art Courtesy of Edge Publications

By Derek Newman-Stille

The quest for self-discovery can be painful and difficult and often people who seek to discover themselves encounter questions that they don’t want answered, murky areas that they fear to look too deeply into. When Cat’s grandmother does a card reading for her, she shies away from the tough parts of the future that are revealed. She doesn’t want to reveal that she is conflicted about her future, and she is unwilling to peer too deeply into what her future can hold – should she go to law school or get a government job until she figures herself out? She is still sorting through her values and fears the transformative potential of making a decision too soon….

But, decisions sometimes occur when we least expect them to, when events coalesce around us and push us into an avenue we least considered. As Cat’s grandmother predicts, she is pushed by circumstance into a meeting with a man who will change her life and cause her to question her relationship to the world around her. She is asked to explore her roots… literally, and is transformed into a tree by her new companion, able to question her relationship to the world around her and explore her values. He seeks to transform her into a tree in order to paint her suffering, to explore the human intersection with the environment and evoke human compassion for our natural world… but the lack of compassion that already exists means that workers try to clearcut the forest that Cat has been entreed in.

In order to save herself, she must question the logic that she has applied to her life, her relationship to the natural world, the ideas she has taken for granted, and eventually determine her future’s course (if she survives to have a future).

Sometimes we need to transform literally to transform our way of thought, and Cat discovers that she needs to become something else to discover what she wants to become.

To read more about Susan J. MacGregor, visit her website at http://suzenyms.blogspot.ca/ .