July 12, 2020

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Indigenous graphic novel stories vivid, valuable

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/8/2018 (708 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This graphic novel anthology distributed by University of Manitoba Press collects works of poetry and fiction by North American Indigenous authors, including many by local Manitoba talent. The works found in Not (Just) (An)Other reflect the rich diversity of storytelling across Indigenous groups, with an emphasis on character-forward narratives and a wide variety of stunning visuals.

As many of the stories found here have been adapted from Indigenous oral traditions, the visual nature of comics and graphic novels becomes a particularly valuable asset. As the narrator in Joy Harjo and Weshoyot Alvitre’s striking poem Deer Dancer muses, "in this language there are no words for how the real world collapses," only "the myth slipped down through dreamtime."

Each story boasts a distinct visual style that perfectly complements the tone of its narrative, often hazy and indeed dreamlike, ranging from abstract (Louise Erdich and Elizabeth LaPensée’s The Strange People) to cartoonish picture-book designs (Stephen Graham Jones and Delicia Williams’ Werewolves on the Moon) to more modern superhero-style art (Richard Van Camp, Scott B. Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk’s Mermaids, which also features beautifully rendered LGBTTQ* content).

The disruptive power of art is also a plot point in many of the stories found here, often forming ties to identity politics, healing, family and political activism. The protagonist in Gordon Henry Jr. and Neal Shannacappo’s The Prisoner of Haiku, for example, is "a silent man of hands, a sculptor, then a political artist, an insidious communicator of visual forms," whose spoken language has been lost at the hands of a government boarding school.

The insidious also appears in this volume in Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and GMB Chomichuk’s vivid story Trickster Reflections. Chomichuk’s macabre black and sepia illustrations give terrible life to Sinclair’s trickster in a story of depression and addiction fuelled by self-doubt. As Sinclair’s character says of the trickster, "the world thinks you are something else and I can’t do anything to stop it," perhaps naming part of the reason for the creature’s unrelenting menace.

Though Trickster Reflections ends on a hopeful note, a similar feeling of powerlessness emerges in Warren Cariou and Nicholas Burns’ Athabasca Story, a contemporary fable that brings attention to tar sands exploitation. The story focuses on Elder Brother, whose expressive, baffled face reflects his inability to comprehend how land could be stolen, sold off and burned while so many of its people still go without heat. Seduced by the idea of finally finding warmth, he too steals from the land and becomes encased in the tar sand.

It is in moments like these where Not (Just) (An) Other also becomes a valuable resource for educators, as the volume’s artists and writers use folklore and cultural elements to craft stories that reflect present realities.

Not just another book for fans of Indigenous stories and comics alike, this collection locates myth not in the past, but in the mundane, drawing on traditional cultures and stories to depict current Indigenous lives in their many complex forms.

Winnipeg’s Nyala Ali writes about race and genderin contemporary narratives.

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