Wiley, Weird, and Wizardly

Wiley, Weird, and Wizardly

A review of Katie Shanahan and Steven Shanahan’s Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday (www.sillykingdom.com, 2011)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I just got back from the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) and one of the first things that caught my attention was a short comic by Katie and Sreven Shanahan called Silly Kingdom.

As adorable as it is hilarious, Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday is a tale of the magical in the mundane. It is a story of magical mishaps and jealousy by a 211 year old wizard who is jealous of a jester who performs magic tricks as part of his act. Katie and Steven Shanahan’s playfulness suffuses every page of this short comic involving an overly optimistic princess and a prince who enters far too easily into existential crises. This is a cute, fast paced, and exciting comic that brings humour and the fantastic together.

Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday was originally a radio play that was adapted into graphic form, providing a fascinating view on the process of converting a tale from one format to another. One would think this would create a text-heavy comic, but the Shanahans have been able to adapt the story effectively to graphic novel pacing. The story is as much told by the hyper-expressive facial features and exuberance of movement by the characters as it is by the dialogue.

To discover more about Silly Kingdom: Alengrimrickshaw’s 211th Birthday and about the ongoing work of Katie and Steven Shanahan, go to http://sillykingdom.tumblr.com/about

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Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 46: A Discussion of Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I explore Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel SuperMutant Magic Academy, a novel that plays with the theme of “You are different, so you should go away to a special school for people like you and everything will work out”. I discuss Tamaki’s clever play on Hogwarts (Harry Potter) and Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (X-Men), and her play with the notion of youth in a special school that embraces difference. I interrogate Tamaki’s portrayal of youth and the ability of youth to disrupt expectations.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Misty Barriers of Time

A Review of Jon Stables’ Brok Windsor. Edited by Hope Nicholson (Bedside Press, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

What sort of vehicle would a Canadian superhero adventurer from the mid 1940s travel in? That’s right, of course it is a canoe. Comic book superhero Brok Windsor was a creation of Jon Stables, writing under the pseudonym Jon St. Ables. The Brok Windsor comics, like most golden age Canadian comics, were produced during the years around world war II when Canadian rationing laws meant that American comics were no longer being shipped to Canada. Stables and his contemporaries were able to create their own Canadian superheroes and rewrite the Canadian landscape as a place of adventure. The Brok Windsor comics ran from 1944-1946 and was produced by Maple Leaf Publications. Hope Nicholson has now resurrected this historical comic and published it as a collection through Bedside Press. 
But where is a Canadian adventurer like Brok Windsor to find adventure in this Canadian landscape?… well, don’t forget that Canada is huge, and, of course, most of the country is largely unexplored, so when Windsor is fishing in his canoe and sees strange mists on a large lake named “The Lake of the Woods”, of course he needs to investigate. Through the misty barrier, Windsor finds himself in a new realm of islands, and, as we know, islands are always places of mystery and adventure. 

Jon Stables’ Brok Windsor comics were about the immensity of the Canadian landscape and its ability to be both familiar and strange, a place that can be opened to adventure and whose magical quality is only a thin wall of mists away. Windsor’s body itself is shaped by his landscape and when he crosses through the mists he becomes immense in size, his body emulating the bodies of the giants who occupy these islands of adventure, and, even when his body is returned to its normal size, the intrinsic difference is still written on his body, providing him with the immensity of strength that his giant body possessed… just in the form of a smaller, more Canadian shape. 

The oddity and magical quality of this different landscape hidden within Canada’s hugeness is expressed throughout the comics. Even seemingly familiar aspects of the landscape are alive with oddity. When Brok first encounters trees in this landscape, rather than providing a sense of familiarity, they add to the oddity of the landscape. Rather than stationary figures of the landscape, these trees are active and potentially consumptive, reaching out with branched fingers to consume flesh. Through this device Stables illustrates the oddity of the landscape and the notion that the expectations of Canadian geography are about to be disrupted. Brok Windsor encounters new civilizations, alien lifeforms who are able to detach their heads from their bodies, possessing spirits, gigantic bird-bats, horned lions, insectile people who are horrified by water, magnetically powered flying cars, and an indigenous civilization that has become giant and have developed space-age technology. 

Windsor’s companion in this strange world is one of the giant indigenous men that he has encountered, Torgon, who serves as a translator for the adventurer as well as a co-explorer in a realm of new possibilities. 

Stables’ art evokes the mystical quality of the Canadian landscape, the power of sky, lake, and treescape that were frequently evoked by Canadians trying to find a sense of identity in the war years and served as a shorthand for belonging. The power of Stables’ art is such that it is able to evoke both these familiar shorthands for Canadian geographical ideas of belonging and also estrange these icons of belonging by creating a strange landscape within the expectedly familiar place.

To discover more about Hope Nicholson’s reprint of the Brok Windsor comics, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelnicholson/brok-windsor-lost-wwii-comic-book-returns/video_share .

On The Familial Lives of Lizard Superheroes

A review of Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human Lizard #3 (2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Pitiful Human Lizard # 3, author And illustrator Jason Loo finally gives us a glimpse at some of the supporting characters in the comic. We get our first real look at the life of the top tier Toronto superhero Mother Wonder, and a chance to see her civilian life as a mother with small children. Although not the title character, Mother Wonder serves a key role in Loo’s superhero world. She is the superhero who The Pitiful Human Lizard looks up to and considers himself far below her power ‘weight class’.  Loo allows us a view into the life of a character who would be considered second tier and his reactions to meeting a first tier superhero – blending envy with fandom and a desire to assist.

The role of family has been an important one in Loo’s comic, allowing us to see the home life of his character and familial responsibility. This family role transcends his civilian life in the comic when The Pitiful Human Lizard needs to continue to cope with his father’s celebrity as an early Toronto superhero, The Lizard Man, and the fact that people keep making connections between father and son, which could reveal The Pitiful Human Lizard’s civilian identity. The threat posed by the potential for his family to reveal his identity further blurs the space of family and superhero identity, placing him in a precarious space of uncertainty between two identities that most superheroes tend to keep separate.

The blending and mixing of superhero and civilian/family identity is further illustrated through The Pitiful Human Lizard’s interactions with Mother Wonder. Her name itself speaks to the close connection between familial and superhero identities, and The Pitiful Human Lizard’s constant view of her as the superhero he aspires to impress situates her as a sort of maternal figure to him, coaxing him to further develop. When The Pitiful Human Lizard is able to recognize Mother Wonder in her civilian identity while she is out with her family, the line between superhero and family is further blurred, allowing him a glimpse at her familial identity.

Where The Pitiful Human Lizard is inspired by Mother Wonder as a figure to look up to, he inspires the development of a new superhero in a very different way. He evokes the irritation of Lady Accident, who seeks to become a superhero because she is frustrated at the attention-seeking behaviour that she believes underlies most superhero identities. She is able to justify her own voyage into heroism as a reaction to this attention-seeking behaviour rather than a reflection of it, and, rather than continuing to protect the public from the shadows, she sets out into the streets with her own garb (something not too flashy so she can blend in, but different enough so that she can stand out). Lady Accident reveals her own contrasting desires to both be noticed and also continue to be critical of superheroism’s intrinsic attention-seeking.

This issue is one of revelations – characters discovering secret identities as The Pitiful Human Lizard discovers the secret identity of Mother Wonder and also recognizes Lady Accident as his sometime girlfriend Barb, but beyond the plot revelation of secret identities, this issue also reveals the blurring of identity that can occur when a character’s civilian and super identities mix and interchange. 

You can discover more about The Pitiful Human Lizard and get your own copy at PitifulHumanLizard.stoenvy.com 

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 .

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 .