Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Cover to Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

A book that we here at the Joe Shuster Awards have been talking about for months has finally been shipped through Diamond, arriving in comic book stores on Wednesday, February 17th (only 3 months later than book stores).

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Red: A Haida Manga, created by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, is a visual retelling of a story from the oral tradition of the Haida Gwaii. This cautionary tale of anger, pride and revenge, is woven with an eye towards former President George Bush and the policies and actions of the post-9/11 years. This is the story of Red, a leader so blinded by revenge that he leads his community to the brink of war and destruction.

Printed as 108 hand-painted colour pages, this book is the next step in Yahgulanaas’ move beyond traditional Haida design. Yahgulanaas’ growth as an artist these past 20 years has been his continual pushing against the boundaries of traditional Haida art, as he merges gorgeous and, in his words, “fairly complex to the point of appearing to be abstract”, Haida images with many of the features of Japanese manga.

Yahgulanaas, the gallery artist, has stepped into the world of comics and has truly created something original.

Staying true to thousands of years of tradition, Red is richly painted with the traditional 3-colour scheme of black, red and blue-green elements, while embracing the revolution of the 80’s, when the full spectrum of the colour palette was added to modern Haida artwork. Yahgulanaas’ painted pages are filled with rich, swirling colour, helping the eye move through the book.

Colour scheme in Red: A Haida Manga

Even still, Red is a challenging work, filled with non-uniform panel borders that slip and slide as characters interact with the borders, grabbing hold, laying down, leaning against; the pages dripping with little details that gave even this veteran comic reader some pause, occasionally missing the correct order.

An example of a character interacting with the panel border.

The sequential narrative follows in a traditional manner, each page reads left to right (unlike Eastern manga), top to bottom (for the most part), but each two page spread has a larger panel construction, and this structure, a grander, overall image, plays throughout the spread.

multi-page spread. Click to enlarge.

You see, Red was constructed as a single giant mural work, 4.5 metres tall by 2 metres wide. This large single image, consisting of three animals; the central figure is a beaver to this readers eyes (though given the allegorical connection to GWB, perhaps a hawk would have worked), provides the universal image in which the panels and pages interplay. In traditional Haida art, the formline is the delineating force of the painting or engraving, the way a panel border is to comics. Formlines are continuous. Used as an outline or an design element, an abstract composition or internal detail, this comics panel borders/formlines sweep and swell like the tide, a direct connection to Yahgulanaas’ thoughts on Haida art: “restrictions and expression within these restrictions”, compression and expansion that he equates to a waterline between tide and shore.

click to enlarge

The panel borders of each page interact with those around them, forming a larger mosaic. Playing with structure and time, examining what it is to tell a story, these pages not only link with the directly previous and following pages (in most cases) but, due to the original mural layout, pages that also appear prior and later in the story.

There are comics which have played with story structure, examining what it is to be a comic; the recently released and quite masterful Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli being one such work. Highly praised for looking at and breaking down the structure of comics, attempting to tell a tale while poking and prodding at what makes comics unique, Asterios Polyp plays on the ability to move back and forth within the moment as the reader controls their universe; examines the use of colour, and the use of word balloons to construct a story, while using the main character’s figure to pull us out of the rendered 3D world, reminding us that this is all occuring in a 2 planes.

In a similar vein, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas has challenged what comics can be with Red: constructing a giant singular image, then playing within that image. Having the characters interact with panel borders, Yahgulanaas goes one step further: at the end of the book he writes, “I welcome you to destroy this book”, encouraging the reader to rip the pages from the binding and lay the story out as one gigantic image on the floor; the story is not meant to be trapped within the panel by panel, page by page sequential structure of a comic, while working as a comic. Instead the reader interacts and reconstructs the work of art in the mural style originally intended.

Another reason to celebrate Red is we have another work by a First Nations person which contains their undiluted voice. Douglas & McIntyre acquired the rights sight unseen, “(w)e didn’t read anything. There was nothing to read, in fact.” Not a page had been drawn, this was a publisher supporting the work of an artist wholly, “Michael told us he wanted to do a graphic novel based on a traditional Haida oral tale, and because we were already huge fans of his art, we thought we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do something special in terms of a graphic story,” said Douglas & McIntyre’s Chris Labonte.

More than that, Red is a challenge to Canada. Yahgulanaas’ bio says he “spent much of the 1980s and ‘90s dedicated to public service and political activism. For a period, he was an elected chief councillor for the Haida, and he also sat on numerous committees, negotiating jurisdictional disputes between the Haida and various levels of government.” This is a man who has felt ignored, left behind and diminished has he grew up in Canada, looking to Japan for friendship. Japan represented a “place of safety and comfort and welcome for Haidas”, where men could “walk through the streets just like an ordinary human. They could go to the restaurant, could use public restrooms, they could shop and move freely and live freely as regular humans. Of course, that [was] not the situation here in British Columbia, in Canada, where if you’re even allowed in the movie theatre you had to sit in the Indian side.”

“Red becomes a real test of whether there is an interest, I think, in Canada, to explore the mythology of what is the Indian, in a populist form,” he says. Slowly, Canada has begun to embrace the wonderful and diverse culture of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis; the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics showing a lot of reverence to what parts of the rest of the world have long admired. While I don’t believe the Olympics represent the first step, as we have been walking this path for some time, it is obvious that these old wounds and injustices are not completely in the past; the recent Caledonia confrontations over land claims were thick with hate speech and threats of violence.

Yahgulanaas recently gave a talk on social justice and how that relates to his story Flight of the Hummingbird. It is quite inspiring and can give some insight into the evolving relationship that the people of Haida Gwaii, and Yahgulanaas, have lived through.

Red: A Haida Manga is a very important work, a highlight creation of the past decade, that deserves to be examined and experienced. Yahgulanaas has created something fresh, unique and innovative; a unique, creative voice who has found a means of expression through comic storytelling. I highly recommend this book.

We are fortunate to have recently had other undistilled works available to us from First Nations and Metis creators. The last few years have seen a number of creators self-publishing the stories they want to tell, tapping into the traditions, passing along oral histories, or pursuing a social agenda, as Yahgulanaas has with Red and before that Flight of the Hummingbird, and all of these were done in comic form.

Chad Solomon has been self publishing his Rabbit & Bear Paws books for many years now.

I have read criticism of Solomon’s work, specifically that he plays into damaging stereotypes, from a reviewer interested in multicultural and Native American issues (his words); worth mentioning but not worth focusing on.

The fact is that Solomon is telling his stories the way he wants to. Further, Rabbit and Bear Paws received an endorsement from the John Beaucage, Grand Council Chief of the 42 communities of the Anishinabek Nation verifying that Rabbit and Bear Paws is “an informative and entertaining way for North Americans of all ages to learn more about First Nations history, cultures and traditions.”

Stories of Our People: A Metis Graphic Novel Anthology

Stories of Our People: A Metis Graphic Novel Anthology was the first graphic novel produced in Saskatchewan and the first uniquely Metis graphic novel made in Canada. Published and available through the Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) of Native Studies and Applied Research. Metis oral traditional stories were recorded as interviews, then translated into comic stories by Metis artist Carrie Saganace.

Sean Muir and the Healthy Aboriginal Network, a non-profit endeavour to the promote the health, literacy, and wellness of First Nations youth through the use of visual art as a medium to effect change, began creating targeted comics in 2005. The goal was to provide comics which were “culturally appropriate, written and drawn by Aboriginal youth”, as a means to examine and address issues within the community.

Their first comic, Darkness Calls, was created to start the conversation about high suicide rates amongst First Nations teens. Illustrated by First Nation comic book artist Steve Sanderson, Darkness Calls is loosely based on the author’s own experience and a desire to expose the startling statistic that within the youth age group 15-25, the Aboriginal suicide rate is estimated to be 5 to 6 times higher than that of non-Aboriginal youth.

A film version of the comic was developed, and spoken in Gitxsan. This was done for the additional benefit of language retention. Muir says, “The cool thing about the short is that the youth couldn’t speak their language previous to starting the project. They learned the words and phrases necessary to speak the dialogue.”

In the years since, the Healthy Aboriginal Network has continued to create comics with the intention of addressing difficult subject matter which have been issues in their communities gambling awareness, diabetes awareness, staying in school, mental health and gang activity.

Red: A Haida Manga, Flight of the Hummingbird and the Rabbit and Bear Paws volumes are available through comic retailers. The various Healthy Aboriginal comics and Stories of Our People: A Metis Graphic Novel Anthology can be purchased directly from the publisher, though if you’re interested in reading any of these works, please encourage your retailer to seek out the publishers and to stock this material.


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