Graphic novels are fast becoming a popular and accessible tool of activism in the 21st century. Indeed, many overtly political graphic works have been published since 2000—a few outstanding examples are Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly, Montréal, 2003), Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World (Verso, New York, 2005), A Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (The New Press, New York, 2008), A People’s History of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, New York 2008), and The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book (Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2010). In addition, this review will more closely examine Pour en Finir Avec Novembre (Les 400 coups, Montréal, 2011), Red Power: A Graphic Novel (Fifth House Publishers, Markham, 2011), and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book (Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2012). As a founding member of the Graphic History Collective which recently produced the graphic novel May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Between The Lines, Toronto, 2012), I believe that graphic novels can be used to express past and present conditions in ways that inspire our struggles. We need to engage critically with political graphic novels and incorporate them into our conversations about how to change the world.
The graphic medium has a long-standing relationship with radical politics. Roots can be traced to the political cartoons of the late 19th century and the labour and communist cartoons in the early 20th century, to the underground political comix and “zines”’ of the 1970s. We also have more famous “graphic novels” of the modern era such as Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories (Baronet Books, New York, 1978), Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (RAW, New York, 1986 and 1991) and Joe Sacco’s Palestine (Fantagraphics Books, Seattle 1996). The most recent graphic novelists, however, are adopting a close attention to history—and particularly the history of the left—to tell their stories. For example, such works as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon Books, Paris, 2000) and Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (Harry N. Abrams, New York 2008) showcase how graphic novels can be used to explore such seemingly disparate events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. In our attempts to revive and reenergize revolutionary organizing in the 21st century, then, it is important for activists to be aware of and to engage with the many graphic novels being published with leftist content today.
The three recent Canadian graphic novels Pour en Finir Avec Novembre, Red Power: A Graphic Novel, and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book show the breadth and potential of the medium for activism. These works discuss the politics of Québec during and after the 1970 October Crisis, the struggles of indigenous peoples against environmental destruction, and the efforts of modern anti-capitalist resistance movements in North America, respectively. These graphic novels are not only interesting and fun to read, but they are also related to vital ongoing discussions on the left. We can inject new energy and viewpoints into our discussions through closer attention to the growing field of political graphic novels.
Sylvain LeMay and André St-George’s Pour en Finir Avec Novembre tells the story of four young men in the Outaouais region of Québec who decide to join the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) during the October crisis in 1970. The French language novel begins with the four men—John, Marc, Luc, and Mathieu—huddled around a television set celebrating as the FLQ manifesto is being read on CBC. Fed up with the conservative and reactionary student movement in the province, the men decide to take action by forming their own cell, “La Cellule Montferrand.” The novel then traces the men’s activities in the FLQ and later shows how on the eve of the 1996 referendum on sovereignty, they are forced to come to terms with their attempted kidnaping of a government official in November 1970 and its fatal end. Pour en Finir Avec Novembre is simultaneously a psychological thriller and a profound reflection on Québec politics at the end of the twentieth century. It deals with many issues that will resonate with those interested in the politics of Québec today.
Amidst LeMay and St-George’s twisting plot we find a number of interesting discussions about the feelings of oppression in francophone Québec (in 1970 and 1996), the rationales for particular revolutionary actions, and the struggle to maintain political commitment with age. Readers will immediately be familiar with the opening of the comic which speaks to the tensions between Anglophone and Francophone Québec during the late 1960s and 1970s and feelings of “colonial” oppression. Still, there is no critical reflection on the colonial dynamics of Canada and Québec as a settler society and LeMay and St-George do not problematize the language of decolonization being used. In addition, more could have been discussed about the other activities of the FLQ and the social movements that made Québec a hotbed of political radicalism in Canada at the time. Moreover, at times the novel trivializes Marc’s commitment to Marxist-Lennist revolutionary politics while excusing Luc’s aging conservatism. This liberal commentary and warm embrace of electoral politics must be challenged by more critical readers. All the same, the larger themes of Pour en Finir Avec Novembre fit well with current debates concerning the tradition of dissent and student protest in Québec.
Brian Wright-McLeod’s Red Power: A Graphic Novel speaks of the responsibility felt by many indigenous peoples to defend the earth from colonial and capitalist exploiters. The story focuses on a modern corporate mining effort, supported by some in the tribal government, to drive many indigenous peoples of the fictional Star River community off their ancestral lands to make way for capitalist development. Red Power follows the resistance movement to halt the mining effort in Star River led by a number of committed indigenous warriors. Among the warriors is Billy Moon who, as an urban indigenous youth, leaves the city to reconnect with the land and to fight for the people of Star River. During a police raid of the warrior camp Billy and an indigenous woman named Shelly Two Stars form a partnership to escape with incriminating documents of the tribal council. As the novel concludes, the two warriors are being hotly pursued by tribal police as well as external agents.
Red Power: A Graphic Novel is the first installment of a series planned to highlight issues springing from ongoing colonialism and capitalism faced by many indigenous groups in the Americas today. Subsequent editions would do well to comment more specifically on gender politics in warrior movements. Far too often stereotypical long-haired, male warriors like Billy Moon are showcased as the protagonists while indigenous women play important, though ultimately supporting, roles. There is room for Wright-McLeod to shift the focus of new work to include more prominent roles for women like Shelly Two Stars as leaders. In addition, future editions of Red Power could speak to the roles that urban indigenous peoples who do not want to/can’t return to ancestral lands can play in our struggles to bring peace and balance in our relations. Nevertheless, Wright-McLeod’s work raises many anti-colonial and anti-capitalist issues such as climate change, ecosocialism, indigenous rights, and the resistance to mining projects on indigenous lands, including the attempts to stop tar sands development and the Enbridge pipeline.
Gord Hill’s The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book is the follow up to The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, Hill’s immensely popular graphic novel exploring the long tradition of indigenous resistance to colonialism in the Americas. In his new work, Hill surveys the contours of contemporary anti-capitalist resistance around the world, with a particular focus on anti-globalization struggles in North America. He traces the important victories and defeats of anti-capitalist organizing from a perspective that encourages direct action tactics. It recounts the strategic lessons of a variety of contemporary events from the “Battle in Seattle” and the Summit of the Americas protest in Quebec City to the anti-Olympic resistance movement in Vancouver, the G20 protests in Toronto, and the Decolonize/Occupy movement. Hill, perhaps more than any other graphic artist in Canada today, is using the graphic medium as a tool of activism to examine the tactics and strategies we use in our leftist resistance movements.
The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic is essential reading. However, despite his valuable insight into different protest movements, Hill reproduces a crucial error of “anti-capitalist” activists today: he correctly identifies capitalism as the root of the problem, but does not provide enough analysis of how capitalism actually works (i.e., by what means it disenfranchises and exploits people) nor a clear path toward more effective tactics and strategies. Hill’s work also lacks a clearly defined gender and racial analysis and largely ignores the different ways in which capitalism is both experienced and resisted in diverse ways daily by groups such as women and racialized peoples. Instead, Hill narrowly promotes performative acts of resistance that aim to strike symbolic blows to the capitalist system, without situating these in long-term organizing efforts. These criticisms aside, Hill’s work is at the forefront of creating accessible material about leftist tactics and strategies.
Pour en Finir Avec Novembre, Red Power: A Graphic Novel, and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book are just three examples of important political graphic novels that activists should be reading, critiquing, and debating. Our culture becomes more visual every day. As teens and adults alike embrace graphic novels, activists must engage with these works and use them to spark new conversations about how we can work together to change the world.
- Sean Carleton is a PhD student in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is a founding member of the Graphic History Collective and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest.
This article appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Art of Protest).