British historian Christopher Hill once wrote,
History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does.
We not only use our own experiences and knowledge to interpret anew that history but also use new modes of storytelling to communicate that history.
In the last thirty years there has been an explosion of graphic novels. These were not comics like Spiderman or The Green Lantern but book length stories, often with more sophisticated content. Graphic novels had in one form or another been around for a hundred years but when Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 the format became more socially acceptable. That book, and others like Will Eisner’s ‘A Contract with God’ and Alan Moore’s ‘The Watchmen’ were aimed at a generation that was ready to move on from the simplistic artwork and juvenile storylines of so many mainstream comics. ‘Sandman’ by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean and other artists, took the form to a whole new level. Others like Joe Sacco used it brilliantly as a new form of journalism, reporting on stories from Palestine and Bosnia and even collaborating with well-known journalist Chris Hedges on ‘Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt’.
The graphic novels I want to deal with in this column are three that deal with Canadian history.
‘Escape to Gold Mountain’ by David H. T. Wong is about the experience of a Chinese immigrant who came to ‘Gold Mountain’ aka North America, like so many immigrants to build a better, safer, and more prosperous life. In a review of the book in BC Studies, Lilyn Wan states “Wong joins a growing list of talented artists, including Chester Brown (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography) and Willow Dawson (Hyenas in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung), who have published their interpretations of Canadian history in panels of illustration and minimalist text. Alyson King has recently pointed out that graphic texts convey history differently from written texts because they forefront “the physicality of actions, subjects and events.” As such, graphic texts can be a more efficient way to convey to readers the highly complex premise that historical knowledge is embedded in materiality. This is particularly useful in telling histories of racism and oppression, where experience is tantamount to finding the balance between acknowledging oppression and attributing agency to the subjects of that oppression.”
David Wong does a masterful job of telling a complex and at times epic story of the period from the 1850’s to the 1950’s through the Wong family’s experiences. Their perseverance in the face of head taxes, low wages and dangerous working conditions, racist violence, and lack of legal rights is remarkable and the story of these immigrants needs to be more widely shared.
An artist from the Comox Valley and daughter of Serena Patterson, Laura Ellyn has created the graphic novel ‘Ginger Goodwin- A Worker’s Friend’. Ellyn tells the story that many in the Valley know of but as Paul Buhle states it “is brilliant in every way: a close reading of working class history and a unique comic art style with stunning use of colour.”
An aspect of ‘Ginger Goodwin’, like many other graphic novels dealing with historical events and working class folks, is the use of oral histories. Ellyn explains how she deals with possible contradictions between official records and oral histories.
I have tended to prioritize oral histories. There is an emotional truth to them, which reflects the values and the beliefs of the tellers and I felt it was meaningful to respect that. That doesn’t mean that I’ve thrown historical accuracy out the window; rather, that I tried to strike a balance between telling the story as I understood it growing up in Cumberland, and telling it now, having researched it and learned new information.
Last but not least is ‘Drawn to Change- Graphic Histories of Working- Class Struggles’. This is an anthology by a brilliant group of writers and artists called the Graphic History Collective. There are nine stories ranging from the Knights of Labour to SORWUC portrayed in a variety of styles. While all of the stories are worthy, there are two that really grabbed me.
One is ‘Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet’ which Tania Willard of the Secwepemc Nation illustrated and co-wrote. It is the story of the Coast Salish men who worked the Vancouver waterfront from the 1860’s in sawmills and later on the docks. They even had their own local of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), and later on in the International Longshoremen’s Association, where they were called the ‘Bows and Arrows’. The lino-cut style, reminiscent of old Wobbly pamphlets, tells in beautiful and energetic one page layouts their struggles, not only with the shippers and dock owners, but with the Federal Government in getting their rightful claims to the land recognized.
‘Coal Mountain: The 1935 Corbin Miners’ Strike’ I think has the most imaginative artwork. Nicole Marie Burton’s uses black ink drawings that seem to lift off the page to tell the story of a band of brave men and women who mined for coal in an isolated valley of the Crowsnest. Their employer is as exploitive as every robber baron and when the miners are pushed too far and fight back, the State is brought in to suppress their little rebellion in a particularly brutal display of power.
In their introduction the GHC lays out their vision. “By blending lessons from Canada’s working-class history with the popular medium of comics, this collection offers short, easily readable, and inspiring histories. Working people have always included art – songs, banners, poems and performances – in their social movements and comics are increasingly becoming part of this tradition. Comics can make complex ideas interesting and accessible, and they can be read anywhere, from the classroom to the bus, and by people with varying levels of literacy. As well, comics offer readers the opportunity to piece together the incomplete information of each panel/sequence to make meaning, and thus comics can be an active and empowering form of education. As a result of the medium’s renewed popularity in the last twenty years, comic producers have more opportunities to publish radical comics and graphic histories with politically progressive content.”
The Pacific Northwest Labour History Association presented the 2017 ‘History in the Making’ award to Robyn Folvik and Sean Carleton on behalf of the Collective and it was well deserved.
You can buy any of the three books mentioned above at the Cumberland Museum or at Laughing Oyster books in Courtenay. GHC also has a website at www.graphichistorycollective.com