Weaving Tales in Word and Image

A Review of Hope Nicholson’s (ed) “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection” (AH Comics Inc, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo for Moonshot

Cover Photo for Moonshot

The comic book industry has generally had an exploitative relationship with indigenous peoples. Generally indigenous peoples have been portrayed in comics as villains or sidekicks and their character development limited to cultural stereotypes and one-dimensionality. In superhero comics, generally even the superpowers of indigenous superheroes have been expressions of cultural assumptions – communal relationships with animals and trees and special connections with nature. Indigenous people have often been portrayed as extensions of the landscape. Hope Nicholson’s “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection” tries to open up a space for indigenous stories that come from indigenous peoples. The collection features the work of 30 authors and artists expressing diverse stories that render indigenous voices into image and written word.

Often when asked to contribute to collections that interact with cultural and artistic expressions, indigenous people are encouraged to talk about the past, which problematically structures indigeneity as something of the past rather than a vibrant, current culture. This collection emphasises the vibrancy of indigenous culture, including tales from the past, but also modern adaptations of these tales, new tales of the present, and science fictional tales of the future. These are tales of superheroes, animal spirits, dark figures from the water depths, space travellers, futuristic inhabitants of other worlds, encounters with otherworldly and sometimes extraterrestrial beings, encounters with possession, tales of robbery and recovery, robopocalypses, and environmental travesties.

David Mack plays with the interaction of indigenous identity and Deaf culture in his superhero character Echo, who explores her understanding of herself as a Deaf indigenous woman. David Robertson and Haiwei Hou play with light and colour as they play with the Cree tale of Ochek the Fisher and opening the world to new light. Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor use animal and anthropomorphic animal spirit forms to tell the story of the gathering of bright stones to become the stars and Coyote’s accidental scattering of the stars across the canvas of the sky. Sean and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsely and mention3 tell the story of the Qallupiluk, a figure from Inuit tales who rises out of the cold water. Arigon Starr and David Cutler tell a cross space future version of “The Young Man Who Turned Into a Snake”. Elizabeth LaPensee and Gregory Chomichuk use only visuals to tell the tale of a hunter encountering the Star People. Michael Sheyahshe and George Freeman tell a tale of two brothers with special gifts who seek to solve the disappearance of their mother on an alien world. Tony Romito and Jeremy D. Mohler tell an arctic tale of an inuit hunter who encounters otherworldly beings from under the arctic ice. Ian Ross, Lovern Kindzierski, Adam Gorham, and Peter Dawes explore the impact of anthropology on indigenous cultures and the robbery of indigenous artefacts by anthropologists. Richard Van Camp, Rosa Mantla, and Nicholas Burns explore the interaction between the traditions of The Night the Spirits Return among the Dene and the Celtic-originating tradition of Halloween. Todd Houseman and Ben Shannon tell a tale of the future where pollution has destroyed much of the North American continent and a war between humans and robotic life forms has meant widespread devastation. Jay and Joel Odjick examine a first hunt and the interaction between the human and animal world. Elizabeth LaPensee, Claude St. Aubin, and Andy Stanleigh explore the impact of mining and the attempt to connect to the Memegwesiwag, a people who love copper and can only be seen by the pure of heart. These tales weave together in a fabric of intwined words and images, and also a twining of multiple worlds and worldviews.

The art styles vary in “Moonshot” between mixed media art, ink on paper, pencil crayon on paper, watercolours, fractal-influenced digital art, traditional comic panels and frame-breaking violations of the ‘gutter’ space between panels. They use word bubbles, text-free comics, or large swaths of text, illustrating the potential for expressing the idea of ‘story’ through multiplicity. This is a collection as diverse as the indigenous peoples who contributed to it. No longer relegated to the role of sidekicks or villains, the indigenous characters in these comics are able to tell their own tales, rich in complexity and multi-dimensionality.

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Inverted Worlds

A Review of Jeff Lemire’s Trillium (Vertigo, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

1921 Earth and 3797, two worlds separated and connected by timelines, lives, temples, and trilliums. Jeff Lemire’s graphic style pulls together two narratives, linking two lives together. William, a man traumatized by war and Nika, a scientist in the future are strung together through circumstance and through their connection both of their worlds are inverted. By literally inverting one set of panels under another, portraying one story reversed, Lemire’s graphic style invites readers to see the interconnection between worlds and yet their ability to run in contrast to each other.

Lemire’s “Trillium” is a science fiction comic about cross-cultural and cross-temporal communication and the intersection of lives. Lemire’s protagonists Nika and William oppose the war-driven societies they came from that were willing to infringe on the lives of others to secure their own goals whether it be a cure from a plague that is sweeping across human intergalactic civilisations or a quest for the riches of history without regard for indigenous inhabitants. Both time periods are intimately self-interested and it is only through a willingness to bridge the gap between peoples that new knowledge and experience can be gained. “Trillium” is a tale about questioning what we believe to be true, all of the assumptions and ideas that shape our experience of the world and being willing to learn from our questioning mindset, challenging established patterns of knowledge.

Like the trillium itself, which in this graphic novel serves to facilitate a connection between those who ingest it, Lemire’s work serves to open up the idea that communication is multifaceted, multi-sensory, and requires complex ways of listening.

To read more about Jeff Lemire and his work, visit his website at http://jefflemire.wix.com/jefflemire

Dreamy Horror

A Review of Emily Carroll’s “Through The Woods” (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Toronto).
By Derek Newman-Stille

“Through the Woods” is a modern day Grimm’s collection of horror tales, and it is wonderfully grim. Beautifully illustrated in an iconic fairy tale style, Through the Woods creates a sense of discomfort about the environments that we generally consider safe. From tales of sisters being led out of their home by a deadly stranger, to a wife moving into her husband’s home to discover pieces of his former wife spread throughout the home, to a tale of brother killing brother, to a best friend possessed, to family members filled with horrors, . The invasions in this book are bodily, spiritual, and violations of homes. The type of darkness the tales evoke is one that is close to home.

The graphic medium of these stories provides texture to them, a sense of closeness that makes the threat feel all the more real. Emily Carroll illustrates Through the Woods with a smoky quality that lets her stories bleed from the world of dreams into the mists that dwell at the edges of our vision. Words blur across the page, not generally confined to simple word bubbles or simple narration boxes, which are too confining for her style, but rather smeared across the page in a way that makes them part of pushing the action of the story forward. In some cases, dialogue is veiled in blood, part of a streak across multiple panels, tying the narrative together and breaking the simple borders of panels. There is a haunting, ethereal quality to these images which evokes the idea presented in the tales that horror lurks around us, insubstantial, but still hyper-present.

To discover more about the work of Emily Carroll, visit her website at http://www.emcarroll.com/ .

To find out more about Through the Woods, visit Simon and Schuster Canada’s website at http://books.simonandschuster.ca/Through-the-Woods/Emily-Carroll/9781442465954 .

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/ .

Resurrecting a Goddess

A review of Adrian Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights (reprinted by Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson, CGA Comics, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Resurrecting a goddess is hard work, particularly when she is the demi-goddess first Canadian national superheroine, pre-dating the invention of Wonder Woman… but this is precisely what Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey did this year. Through a kickstarter that I helped to fund, Hope and Rachel were able to bring Nevlana of the Northern Lights back from Canadian comic book history.

Created by Adrian Dingle, Nelvana of the Northern Lights flourished during the WWII years, providing Canada with an indigenous superheroine who could represent ideas from a Canadian perspective. She made her debut appearance in August 1941 in Triumph-Adventure Comics.

Dressed in Blue and Green with a fur-trimmed skirt and green cape (that later became a red cape) with northern lights dancing around her headband, Nelvana was uniquely situated as a figure who represented a particularly Canadian mythology of the time, being a personification of the North (literally the daughter of the Northern Lights and later taking the name Alana North for her secret identity). She claims connections to Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston, who Dingle claimed heard about her as an Inuit goddess (though it was later revealed that Johnston met an Inuit woman named Cecile Nelvana Kamingoak, who he asked to model for him). She spent most of her time battling invaders into the North, often those with aspirations involving destroying the natural environment, whether through invasive species introduction, bombing animals in our lakes, or spilling oil into rivers. Her connections to figures and ideas that have become symbolic of Canadian identity makes her a figure who can embody a Canadianness that a superhero with a flag on their chest could not attain… besides, we aren’t really the sort of country to view flag iconography as the epitome of national identity.

Dingle’s creation, much like the work of the Group of Seven, ascribed a spiritual quality to the Canadian northern landscape, an otherworldliness that makes certain that The North comes with a capitalised “N” to indicate that it is more than a compass direction, but something more like a personification of a power. Producing Nevlana of the Northern Lights in black and white with colour covers, Dingle showed his mastery over the art of ascribing life and liveliness to vast, open, white spaces by drawing landscapes that, although they didn’t use the sort of backgrounds that artists drawing city-based landscapes required, he was able to fill a seemingly blank space with life and use the white space of the snowy northern landscape to imbue it with wonder.

Nelvana was a figure who drew on the vast Canadian ideology of the North as making something different of us, a people forged by a landscape and a colder climate into something distinct from other nations. Dingle drew in the almost spiritual quality of the cold, using it as a testing ground for people’s strengths and abilities and as a Canadian defense against invasion in WWII by expelling people from a landscape that they viewed as hostile. Nelvana herself has a freezing breath that is able to douse flame-people in her later adventures, but she also travels into locations marked by their frozen quality, like that of the Glacians (a race from under the ice that has been frozen since the time of dinosaurs), and the Canadian government who Nelvana protects devised an ice ray to be used against Axis powers. Riding in occasionally on a polar bear, Nelvana stood as a marker for the protection of the Canadian North.

Nelvana, the daughter of the invented Inuit god of the Northern Lights Koliak and a human woman, wielded powers associated with her luminous heritage including power over light and magnetic fields which could, among other things, allow her to melt metal with the power of light and heat, render herself invisible, permit her to fly and travel at light speed, and disrupt radio transmissions. Being a demi-goddess, she also had the ability to transform her brother into various animals with a wave of her cloak, attaching her heritage to other trickster figures who have populated world mythology. In addition to her superhero crime fighting, she also took on the role of Alana North, a secret agent who foiled plots to damage the war effort and occasionally worked alongside RCMP officers to solve crimes and disrupt conspiracies.

As a feminist, I was particularly drawn to the power that Nelvana brought to a comic book industry that was often unabashedly a boys-only-club. She appeared at a time when women were disempowered and often viewed as supporters for the male heroes in their lives rather than heroes themselves, but she was a heroine with incredible power and independence.

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Despite the incredible things that Nelvana represented, there were some issues with her representation that were endemic to the time period and social circumstance in which she was created. The Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics embodied the poor cultural representation of Canadian indigenous peoples, referring to the Inuit as “Eskimos” and portraying them as culturally backward and intellectually inferior. Many of the comics depict Inuit people constantly being tricked by others and constantly in need of rescue by Nelvana, or by members of the Canadian RCMP. Inuit people are often portrayed as obstacles to progress during the war, standing in the way of development (defined in these comics as an industrial act to support war and economic efforts). At times, Inuit people are also portrayed as being involved in race conspiracies against “the white race”. Unfortunately, these characteristics are ones that most Canadian popular media of the time was portraying and ubiquitously appeared in representations of the Inuit people by non-indigenous Canadian media contributors.

The WWII context of the comic also influenced the portrayal of Japanese characters, who were depicted as being sneaky, dangerous, and dishonest. They were referred throughout the comic as “Japs”, the “yellow menace”, or the “yellow peril”. This, like the racist portrayal of Inuit people, was absolutely horrifying for myself as a modern reader to witness, but is also an not surprising given the cultural context in which it was created. After all, at the time when Dingle was writing his comics, the Canadian and American government were creating posters and other media that referred to the Japanese as “the yellow peril” and encouraged people to “slap a Jap” as part of the war effort and both governments were also placing Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans into Japanese Internment Camps that robbed them of all rights as citizens and subjected them to regular systemic abuses. Here, the racism of the Nelvana comics was part of the general war propaganda culture.

Despite the issues with the Nelvana comics, which are part of their historical situation, the re-printing of the Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics represents an act of recovery of lost Canadian voices. Many cultural contributors tend to think of the superhero genre as distinctly American, so it is important to remind ourselves that we have created distinct superheroes. After all, the origin of the superhero figure in the form of Superman was a collaboration between Canadian Joe Shuster and American Jerry Siegel, so the superhero is a collaborated North-South creation.

Nelvana, as a representation of the North may be more emblematic of something distinctly Canadian than a hero draped in a Canadian flag. As a culture, we tend to take more pride in our clean water, beautiful environments, interaction with the landscape, and ability to survive the cold and an environment that isn’t easily suited to human habitation. Despite the temporally-situated problems of the Nelvana comics representing racist stereotypes of the time, she also represents something distinctly multicultural as a figure who was born from Inuit roots and seems to occupy a space of question, referred to variously as white and Inuit and therefore likely representing a form of hyphenated identity.

Nelvana could wear green and blue because she represented something more Canadian than red and white. She was a personification of Northern beauty, and, whether modeled after a figure from Inuit mythology or after an Inuit woman who Franz Johnston encountered, she, as a Canadian national superhero, is mythic, mighty, and magical.

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

Cover of the Nelvana reprint courtesy of http://nelvanacomics.com

To find out more about Nelvana of the Northern Lights and to purchase your own copy of the reprint of this comic, visit http://nelvanacomics.com/

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 .