Canadian Web Comics and Dramatizing Survival: Subverting Alberta Tar Sands, Anne of the Island, Windigos, and more.

by Christine Chettle

However you style it, ‘comic books’, ‘bandes dessinées’ (BDs), ‘graphic novels’ or ‘sequential art’ (I’m going to call it ‘comic art’), this intriguing conjunction of the visual and the text has a strong hold on Canadian culture. From Joe Shuster, who co-created Superman (and thus inspired a set of comic book awards in his name), to Montréal’s bandes dessinées shops, and to Toronto’s and Vancouver’s Comic Arts Festivals, Canada’s got it all. (Canada’s government also has a somewhat fraught relationship with comic art culture, but that’s another blogpost.) However, comic art is no longer simply in books; it’s in hyperspace. Web comics — that is, comics published online, without corporate sponsorship – offer all sorts of possibilities to a graphic artist. As Sean Fenty, Trena Houp and Laurie Taylor discuss here, this format allows artists the freedom to explore topics (political, sexual, economic) that the mainstream comic culture might limit, and also without the limitations of corporate cost structures.
So, where does Canada fit into all this? Well, Canadian web comic artists are seizing this dynamic potential to challenge depictions of Canada that range in scale from the international to the small-town and that interrogate politics, history and literature. I’m highlighting selections — all shown in central slideshow below — from three web comic artists today, and I’ve chosen them because in each way, they re-interpret that classic Canadian trope of survival.

Kate Beaton and Surviving Fort McMurray: (slides 1-6 in slideshow below) Beaton, from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, is a classic web comic success story. She started by posting sketches on a livejournal site and due to an ever-burgeoning readership, her insightfully parodic sketches can now be found all over the place, from the New Yorker to facebook posts, to office doors, and in her own book. I’m starting with Beaton because, one way or another, I found the other two artists through posts on Beaton’s ‘Hark! A Vagrant’ site; the blog posts that accompany her updates often contain links to other comic artists. Some of her readership may come for her satirical sketches on historical and literary characters, but they’ll also take in posts about Beaton’s community: ‘Themes of Cape Breton, home, culture and rural decline will happen in my comics again and again’, as she recently commented on her tumblr. The environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands (of which Fort McMurray is the centre point) is known globally, but Beaton highlights the social impact of Fort McMurray. In one comic, Beaton draws a memory of working the Christmas night shift at Fort McMurray. It certainly demonstrates a Christmas spirit of shared gifts, but the cold weather, the repeated clocks, and the sparse frustration in Beaton’s expression make it clear that this spirit is born from a shared need to survive the bleakness and loneliness of the oil sands. (For the whole comic, see here.) More recently, Beaton posted a comic about the impact of Fort McMurray as a loss to her home community. Musing on the death of a fellow townsman, a young man who died at Fort McMurray, Beaton shows Fort McMurray as exploiting community, not just oil. (For the whole comic, see here.) This work contains more prose and less panels than Beaton’s work often does: her sketches interrupt her mourning narrative, offering a visual disconnection that dramatizes a social disconnection and underlines her town’s personal difficulties in surviving economic migration. Beaton posted the ‘Tribute’ comic on the Tumblr section of her website and it has been reblogged many times, along with comments like ‘I wish all towns would care about each other like this’, ‘my hometown with me everywhere’, and ‘As a small town northern Canadian transplanted to SoCal, this really resonated with me’ that link Cape Breton, through shared mourning, to a global online community.

Faith Erin Hicks and Surviving School: (slides 7-11 in slideshow below) Hicks is a comic artist who has made her name both through the web comic medium and through the graphic novel medium. Her latest work, Friends With Boys, was published serially online before being published in print form (just the preview is now available online; you can buy the book here). It follows the adventures of Maggie, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as she makes the transition from home school to high school. A lot of the narrative takes place in a graveyard, inspired by the many in Halifax (as indicated by a photo on Hicks’s blog), and it’s here that an element of magic realism appears. As Maggie walks back and forth from home through the graveyard, a ghost of an early nineteenth-century woman, the widow of a tragically dead captain, follows her. The graveyard is also where Maggie deals with her shyness and her grief over her mother’s recent separation from her family.

At the beginning of the story, Maggie thinks that the ghost only haunts her, but by the end, she realizes that everyone can see the ghost – after she, her brothers and her new friends have broken into various places to steal and then restore an artefact that they hope will lay the ghost to rest. The ghost survives their efforts and Maggie survives high school, due to bonding adventures with her brothers and her peers; the setting of the graveyard underlines the navigation of community through a shared past. This shared past extends outward from Hicks’s story to evoke a wider literary past, through the adventures of Anne Shirley at university, as detailed in chapter four of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island. Like Maggie, Anne feels lonely, although she is fortunate in having an old friend, Priscilla with her. At registration, Anne notices another girl ‘”who looked as lonely and friendless as I felt”. In an effort to soothe homesickness, Anne and Priscilla go for a walk in one of Halifax’s many graveyards (St. John’s Cemetery), where they encounter the lonely girl from registration. Their friendship with this girl – Philippa – is cemented through their shared imaginings of Halifax’s past (and in spite of Philippa’s voiced admiration of Gilbert Blythe, which Anne does not enjoy):

” You just accept Philippa Gordon, as the Lord made her, with all her faults, and I believe you’ll come to like her [ . . . ] Here’s a grave I didn’t see before — this one in the iron railing — oh, girls, look, see — the stone says it’s the grave of a middy who was killed in the fight between the Shannon and the Chesapeake. Just fancy!” [ . . .] The old graveyard, with its over-arching trees and long aisles of shadows, faded from [Anne’s] sight. Instead, she saw the Kingsport Harbor of nearly a century agone. Out of the mist came slowly a great frigate, brilliant with “the meteor flag of England.” Behind her was another, with a still, heroic form, wrapped in his own starry flag, lying on the quarter deck — the gallant Lawrence. Time’s finger had turned back his pages, and that was the Shannon sailing triumphant up the bay with the Chesapeake as her prize. “Come back, Anne Shirley — come back,” laughed Philippa, pulling her arm. “You’re a hundred years away from us. Come back.”

Later, Anne comments of Philippa and the graveyard: ‘I’m glad we met her, and I’m glad we went to Old St. John’s. I believe I’ve put forth a tiny soul-root into Kingsport soil this afternoon.’ While Anne’s imagination transports her into the past, Hicks’s illustrations literalize the powerful presence of the past in a modern community, depicting the ghost following Maggie and her friends and family. The serialized format of the web comic underlined this power as the developing character of the ghost evoked many comments on the daily update blog as readers debated the ghost’s identity. I’m not suggesting that Hicks deliberately evokes Anne in Maggie’s story but I feel a comparison between the two graveyard narratives emphasizes the importance of a shared sense of historical past in the putting-forth of ‘soul-roots’. However, Hicks’s comic complicates this experience of ‘soul-roots’ by using the ghost character; a ghost often suggests the occurrence of unresolved crimes, provoking unease and fear. The presence of the ghost in the comic questions the nature of a historic past that becomes eternally present: is this benign, in creating a shared experience, or troublesome, in causing division over issues of wrong-doing?

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Kate Craig and Surviving Destruction: (slides 12-16 in slideshow) Craig is an environment artist in the games industry, who is also developing a different line in colour illustration through comics (see her site for more details). ‘Heart of Ice’ is her first online comic and it offers a hard-hitting narrative about ‘monsters and arctic scientists’. After his plane crashes between Iqualuit and Montreal, an arctic scientist must survive hunger and cold in the hope of rescue. His battle for survival is made poignant by his stand-off with a death-figure. This emaciated figure has a dark-stained mouth and digits which are frost-bitten claws, and the figure drags off his companions one by one. Craig’s use of darkening colour demonstrates an ever-increasing sense of despair as the protagonist begins by building a shelter and then fights frostbite and hunger. Her use of colour also emphasizes a difference between the protagonist’s perception of himself in a white parka and his rescuers’ perception of him in a curiously dark-stained parka, which helps the reader to notice that his fingers curve in the same way as the death-figure’s do. Rather than stating the outcome of this heightening tension overtly, Craig allows her readers to reach their own conclusions. However, in a blogpost about the comic, Craig cites an article about Windigo folklore as inspiration: this article details stories of possession by this ‘terrifying mythological creature with a ravenous appetite for human flesh’. It recounts the tale of Swift Runner, a Cree trapper who survived the winter of 1878-79 by killing and eating his entire family, and blamed these crimes on his possession by a Windigo.
Craig’s comic updates this tale to a modern era with references to planes and climate change, and also subverts the location of destructive madness in native culture; instead of a Cree trapper, this is a Westernized academic who experiences psychosis. However, both an allusion to Starbucks and one of his companions who has an ‘open dislike of their Inuit hosts’ suggest that a ravenous appetite for survival might mean the destruction of the environment and of other cultures, rather than merely human flesh.

Craig, like Beaton and Hicks, uses the web comic medium to disseminate conceptions of Canada that interrogate Canadian culture by musing both upon destructive elements in it and upon processes that Canadians use to survive destruction. These artists particularly make use of the potential this medium offers to draw upon an online community: Beaton develops an alternative online space through her blogposts that encompasses a global membership; Hicks propels and sustains an experience of continual debate; and Craig extends the potential of identification. In their hands, the Canadian web comic becomes an essential tool of cultural survival.

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