Change is coming to the graphic novel industry, thanks in part to an emerging cohort of Indigenous graphic novelists and comic book creators.
Like most commercial art forms, the comics industry is still largely controlled by white and cisgender males, and can leave other creators feeling like tokens.
But that’s starting to change, says illustrator and textile artist Whess Harman, who, along with fellow Indigenous novelist Cole Pauls, has created a space in the sector.
“We’re getting to a point where there are more Indigenous artists working in illustration than we’re always the first two people to be called, which is good,” Harman said.
Harman, a queer and trans artist from the Carrier Wit’at Nation and curator of Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery, was joined by Pauls and TJ Felix, a queer/Two-Spirit Indigenous artist and musician, for a panel discussion last week as part of the Indigenous Community Symposium on Graphic Novels.
The symposium was a partnership between a class of graduates from the University of British Columbia and the Urban Native Youth Association. It was held at the association’s location in East Vancouver.
Amy Parent is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at UBC and a member of the Nisga’a Nation. She created a graduate course in education to help guide educators to access Indigenous graphic novels as a classroom tool to build nuanced understandings of settler colonialism, racism, decolonization, Indigenous self-determination, and Indigenous self-determination.
The highlight of the course this quarter was the symposium, which was aimed at young native people interested in this art form.
In a panel interview with The Tyee before the panel, Felix, Harman, and Pauls recalled the profound impact white control over comics, video games, and animation had on how they saw themselves portrayed in the world.
“I grew up playing video games, and the first time I saw myself in a video game was street fighter, because they have a native fighter,” Pauls, a member of the Tahltan Nation who grew up in Haines Junction, Yukon, told The Tyee. “He’s like this super racist stereotype. But I was like, ‘Oh my God! He’s a native guy! »
“What was portrayed as us in the media was not what I see myself, or my friends or my family,” he added.
The first depiction that Felix, who is from the Splatsin of the Secwepemc Nation, remembers seeing in a video game was nightjara character from mortal combat series of video games.
“We kind of take what we can get. I think that shouldn’t be the norm anymore,” they said.
“I always like nightjarbut.”
Thanks to artists like Pauls, Felix and Harman, today’s Aboriginal youth have more opportunities to see themselves in comics and graphic novels. Especially in independent publications and self-published zines where artists have more control over their stories.
“It’s hard to find anything that truly reflects our experiences. Especially the systematically impoverished people living in a country that is literally trying to murder them day by day,” said Felix, who self-publishes his comics in zines, like their Radically helpless Injun series.
“Just being able to tell our stories is really important.”
Home is where the art is (sometimes)
Although they currently live in Vancouver, all three artists grew up outside the Lower Mainland.
For Harman and Felix, being queer — and, in Harman’s case, trans — means returning home isn’t as safe as they’d like, due to the homophobia and transphobia ingrained in their communities by colonization.
“I always recognize that I carry within me this land from which I come. And I’m still looking at the same sky as my family,” said Felix, who grew up in Malakwa, British Columbia, where they didn’t feel safe because they were drug addicts.
“There is always a constant heartache and yearning to be back on this land. But as Indigenous people, no matter what we choose to do, we always compromise in some way. of another.
Yet the lands they come from and the lands they inhabit today have a big impact on their work.
“Especially with writing comics, in my mind, they’re always kind of in the future where those identities can be more secure and they don’t need to be subjected to such scrutiny,” Harman said, who grew up in Smithers, British Columbia.
“But sometimes [my work] resonates with people back home in a way where you’re like, “Oh, maybe home is closer and sooner than I thought.”
For Pauls, despite being from a BC-based nation and now living in the province, all of their work, including their latest graphic novel Dakwakada Warriorsis based in the Yukon where they grew up.
“People tell me when they think of an artist from the Yukon, they think of me,” Pauls said. But it doesn’t fit the rules and regulations surrounding some organizations — it doesn’t qualify for some Yukon-based grants and projects, he says.
“There’s this weird back and forth of I know I’m a Yukoner, but on paper, technically, I’m not.
Bypass the guards
Even though the diversity of artists is increasing, most art schools, granting agencies, galleries and publishing houses are still run by white settlers. These institutions and organizations can often operate in a way that maintains the status quo, making it harder for Indigenous artists to break through.
“I hope it will be sooner rather than later that people will realize that they don’t need publishers to tell their stories, and they don’t need to be informed by standards put in place by old white dudes,” Felix said.
Pauls, who published Dakwakada Warriors with Conundrum Press, found an audience of native and non-native readers. But the graphic novel, which is written in English and Southern Tutchone, was pushed back to the United States for its Native title.
“They wanted me to have a subtitle so they could just Google that instead of the book title,” he said.
“And I was like, ‘No.’ I make space for indigenous peoples, saying our words and names are good enough.
“We just have to keep going”
All the art that Felix creates is based on the hope that things will be better for the next generation of artists.
“Art should be messy,” they said. “Create.”
“No matter how you tell your story and what voice you choose to speak with, it’s something that has to happen.”
Harman, who admits to being a bit of a perfectionist, advises young artists to avoid this pitfall.
“I have a bad habit of wanting to go back and fix things and redraw them. But Cole’s advice is often just, ‘You just have to keep going.’ Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck in a loop of the same three pages forever.