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Paying The Land

“From the ‘heir to R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman’ a masterful work of comics journalism about indigenous North America, resource extraction, and our debt to the natural world”

Author and illustrator Joe Sacco is known for his insightful graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. He is a well-regarded comix-journalist who immerses himself in different locations around the world to interview and understand his subject. He once again does this with this recent graphic novel, as he journeys to the subarctic Northwest Territories of Canada to stay among the First Nations Dené tribes.

Sacco begins the book by having some elders share how they used to “live in the bush” at least part of the year, which means their families were living off the land and were often nomadic. Men and women shared duties, with no gender division because if you were alone in the wild, you needed all the life skills, not just half, to survive. This lifestyle began to change with permanent settlements which resulted in specific gender roles, technology such as snowmobiles replaced the dog sleds, jobs in the industries that were advancing into the area and the enforced residential schools run by the government. Not only was a way of life disappearing, but their surrounding habitat was changing, as oil, gas and diamond mines were wrecking the environment.

There was so much to cover and Sacco ably shows the research and time he poured into this project. He interviews several chiefs (who have different ways of looking at the economy vs environment issue), activists, trappers, oil workers, priests and elders. Different chapters tackled some of the big topics – a changing way of life, land claims, and residential schools.

The chapters on the residential schools really stood out, as they devastated the families and tribes in both Canada and the US. Children were ripped from their cultures and identities and told that they must conform to European-type standards. And while those schools have been thankfully closed for a while now, their insidious legacy lives on. The transfer of dysfunction has now moved from their abusers who were strangers (at the schools) vs bringing home that dysfunction to their families so now abuse exists within families. Parental disengagement is rampant, as is extreme alcoholism. These unhealthy cycles are now being passed down to other generations, years removed from the residential schools. Another excellent graphic novel that touches on this disengagement from their tribes and families is The Outside Circle.

At 272 pages, this a dense piece of non-fiction that will take multiple sittings to finish. In fact, even after finishing it, you will want to go back and look at certain chapters to gain even more information. I would suggest that this text-heavy graphic novel could be used in the classroom as a supplemental resource to trying to fully understand some First Nations issues. As with any complex issue, there are no easy answers and Sacco questions after many interviews “Is there really such a thing as the best of both worlds?”. He admits that because he not Native American there are some issues that simply can not be understood. While he was given much access to the communities, there are certain people, events or situations he could not be privy to.

The black and white art shows a comix vibe, which is meant for mature audiences. Not only are the pages filled with a lot of text to convey information, but the pictures are also detailed and precise. Whenever he includes himself in a scene, he draws himself in an exaggerated caricature style, yet everyone else is drawn accurately and with respect. The beautiful landscapes are lovingly drawn in, so then the juxtaposition of seeing how some areas have been destroyed is heartbreaking.

This was a deep and reflective look at life for the Dené, and Sacco tried to wrap it up with a nugget of hope as young activists there are trying to work on a myriad of issues. I would suggest you pair this well-researched book with other books written by #ownvoices authors to get a nuanced view of the joys and struggles of people who live in that region. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy of this thought-provoking story.

-Nancy

Secret Path

When I heard of the graphic novel Secret Path drawn by one of my favorite artist’s, Jeff Lemire,  I knew I wanted to read it, not understanding that it was so much more than a book. Secret Path is a ten song concept album written by Gord Downie paired with a graphic novel that tells the story of Chanie Wenjack.

Chanie was  a twelve year-old Anishinaabe boy who died in 1966, trying to escape from  the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Ontario, Canada. Chanie, often called Charlie, was trying to walk approximately 400 miles home by following the Canadian National Railway but perished of hunger and exposure.

Lemire’s interpretation of Chanie’s last journey is wordless, but with lyrics of Downie’s songs alongside the pictures. The residential school and Canadian wilderness are shown starkly with white, grey, black and blue colors representing his loneliness and isolation.  Only when Chanie is thinking of his family are his memories shown in contrasting warm hued colors. This is similar in how Lemire told another story about a First Nation’s family in his recent book, Roughneck.  Lemire also effectively frames Chanie’s sad memories of the school in an off-kilter method that keeps the adults heads out of the panels and draws his trademark black bird as part of the imagery.

While the graphic novel is excellent, it should be read in tandem to listening to the ten songs that were written by Downie before he even contacted Lemire to illustrate the accompanying book. Afterwards watch the video that combines the graphics and music into a haunting montage. Sadly, Downie died in October, but his music and the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund will be a lasting legacy.

While this tragic story highlights one individual, Chanie truly represents the hundreds of thousands of native children that the Canadian government took from their homes and sent to residential schools.  Canada doesn’t stand alone on trying to eradicate native culture, the United States government did the same to native families- ripping family and cultural connections from them and trying to get them to assimilate into what government and religious officials felt was appropriate. Kudos to Downie and Lemire for bringing attention to this shameful part of Canada’s (and America’s) history, for only through a truthful reflection can positive change and reconciliation be established.

-Nancy

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Downie, Gord & Jeff Lemire. Secret Path. 2016.

 

 

Roughneck

Roughneck is a beautifully told standalone tale of a brother and sister’s quest to reconnect with one another and their cultural identity written and illustrated by the talented Jeff Lemire.

The story opens in the fictional small town of Pimitamon in northern Ontario, Canada, which means “crossroads” in Cree. This detail is important as it is symbolic for the theme of the story and recognizes the heritage of the main characters. We meet Derek Ouellette, a hulking former NHL player, who was kicked off his professional team for excessive violence on the ice. While he is a local legend, he is always on the defense for he is often baited by antagonistic men, eager to brag that they fought with the drunken brawler.

Derek has the support of Ray, a former childhood friend now turned police officer, and Al an older man who manages the ice rink in town. He will desperately need their help when his sister Beth comes back into town as she is addicted, pregnant and on the run from an abusive boyfriend. The siblings reconnect after many years apart, as teen-aged Beth had ran away when Derek left to join the NHL. When Beth’s drug addiction issues come to a head, Al lets the siblings use his hunting cabin out in the bush, so Beth can detox. Alone for the first time in years, Derek and Beth reminisce about their childhood with a Cree mother and a drunken white father. Tragedy in their family shaped them into who they are now as adults, but both want to break free of the violence and despair that engulf them, thus the symbolic crossroads from earlier comes into play.

Lemire handles the storyline of Derek and Beth’s Cree heritage with grace and respect. The sibling’s began to appreciate their heritage and take some steps in reconnecting with their mother’s family. The reality of native families becoming disenfranchised from their cultural heritage, is mirrored in the excellent book The Outside Circle, which also deals with First Nation individuals whose circles of community were broken which led to fragmenting generations of people with no connection to their tribe anymore. The ending is open to interpretation, and while I at first looked at it one way, re-reading it I see a more melancholy but poignant way of concluding the story.

The artwork is trademark Lemire, with sketchy and minimalist lines. Most of the story is in black and white with overlays of blue wash, which effectively shows the icy coldness of Canadian winters. There will be an occasional splash of red, showing the blood that Derek beats out of others. When the story has flashbacks to the sibling’s youth, more color is introduced, but with soft water colored hues. He captures the feel of small towns with their varied local inhabitants, and showcases the beauty of rural landscapes.

I enjoy much of Lemire’s work for Marvel, DC & Image, but it is his stories in Essex County and Roughneck that truly show his skill as an outstanding storyteller.

-Nancy

Lemire, Jeff. Roughneck, 2017.

 

The Outside Circle

Powerful. Heartbreaking. Educational.

Pete, a young man of the Cree Nation of Canada, lives with his mother and younger brother, Joey, in the city of Edmonton in Alberta. Pete is involved in the drug trade and angrily rejects his girlfriend when she tells him of her pregnancy. But he is protective of his brother, and later his mother, when he discovers his mother beat up again by her drug addicted boyfriend. The fight between these two men escalates, with Pete shooting the strung out man, and being sentenced to jail for the murder. Social Services sweeps in and takes custody of Joey, with the mother resignedly signing away her rights. Joey struggles in foster care, eventually running away to go back to his old neighborhood, and getting recruited to be part of Pete’s old drug gang.

While incarcerated, Pete continues with gang affiliations and violence, until he receives a beat down that sends him to the prison infirmary. A kindly parole officer has him switch prisons and gives him an opportunity to be part of a program geared towards rehabilitating First Nations men in prison. He and several other men meet at the Healing Centre and are sponsored through the program by Violet, an older First Nations woman who has conquered her own demons. The group starts each meeting with a Purification Smudge, and weeks go by as step by painful step she leads these men through the Warrior Program. The men learn how the colonial system of Canada deliberately broke the bonds of family ties among the Aboriginal tribes, sending children to schools that were designed to reeducate and Christianize them. The government took away thousands of children from their families, breaking the circles of community and fragmenting generations of people with no connection to their tribe anymore. Pete’s eyes are opened to how he can change his ways, and be a good influence to Joey, breaking the cycle of hopelessness that many feel. His story of redemption and making amends is a compelling testament to finding healing and being proud of your heritage.

The author, Patti LaBoucane-Benson, is of Métis heritage and is Director of Research, Training, and Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta. The story she shares, which mirrors many of the same issues that Native Americans have faced in the US, is one that more people should be aware of. The artist, Kelly Mellings, captures the characters (especially the facial expressions) and story arc perfectly. Page by page, I was sucked into the story that had a good narrative flow, with background knowledge added into the pictures for clarification. The illustrations beautifully show the symbolism, ceremonies and traditions of Aboriginal culture. No matter what your cultural identity is, family connectedness and knowing we are all part of our community should be an aspect of our lives.

-Nancy

 

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LaBoucane-Benson, Patti & Kelly Mellings. The Outside Circle. 2015.

 

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