What is a Glacier by Sophie Yanow, Almanac 2017, by Iona Fox & Undocumented, The Architecture of Migrant Detention* by Tings Chak.
I read these three comics in the days leading up to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement. The second most polluting country in the world said it wasn’t interested in stopping the walk towards the doom of our planet, even as nearly every other country on the planet understood the importance of taking action. It felt surreal and disheartening. I’ve thought a lot about this world these past few weeks, the kind of world my son is inheriting. Reading these three comics gave me some hope that people understand the magnitude of the issues affecting us. Climate change in particular, but also other more complex issues such as migration detention, the burden of individuals toward reducing waste, food security and sustainability, border crossing and others. It was a reminder that knowledge helps to educate to explain complex issues in a relatable way.
We start with Sophie Yanow‘s What is a Glacier tells the story of Sophie as she visits Iceland. She wrestles with a lot of competing feelings; excitement for the new things she’ll discover there, guilt over the fossil fuels burned to get her there, concerns for the future well-being of the planet, sadness over past relationships, and circling back to the title of the comic, shame at not knowing what a glacier is. All of these coalesce in a sort of edited travelogue where Yanow express through her personal travel experience her concerns for the future. Sophie Yanow’s work is always interesting. Her contribution to The Nib this past year has been one of the consistent highlights of my online comics reading experience. I was excited to hear she had a new comic coming out through Retrofit Comics. She manages to juggle successfully with those more personal elements and the more global experience as a person. It never feels out of place or over the top. She simply explores the impact her presence and actions on the world around her and what that looks like. It makes for a heavily introspective and personal narrative that really connects with the reader.
For a different take on Sophie Yanow’s What is a Glacier, check out my colleague John’s review of it and other Retrofit titles on this very site!
Drastically contrasting with the previous comics is Tings Chak‘s Undocumented, The Architecture of Migrant Detention has a very different approach to storytelling. It focuses much more on architectural details, facts and official documents, interview and investigation to tell it’s story. It looks at the way Canada has handled migrant detention over the last few decades, and look at some of the very serious issues surrounding it. The challenge then lies in how to convey this information in a graphic novel format and how to keep it engaging. If we are looking at penitentiaries in Canada, what do those look like? How can we show it? There’s many ways to approach this, but Chak uses an almost clinical approach by showing the story of migrant incarceration in Canada by way of architectural blueprints. AutoCAD as a narrative tool if you will. It’s compelling in how unconventional it is. The reader gains an understanding of the structural reality of life for migrants in detention and is able to convey a lot of information quickly. The height, length and width of a cell, why it came to be this way and its effect on those in it. It’s a fantastic superimposition that works surprisingly well. Chak also uses the abundance of architectural detail in an early passage to bring the reader through the multiple layers of security screenings and gates new convicts are submitted to. She’s able to create something disconcerting and disorienting. It challenges the reader to work through these layers and properly understand the complexity and disorienting nature of the architecture. It forces the reader to visualize how dehumanizing it is and how it affects the detainees to see the amount of barriers between them and freedom.
The connection between these three books is the splendid Almanac 2017 by Iona Fox, a collection of her late 2016 and early 2017 comics. Fox works seasonally on a farm during Spring, Summer and the Fall and at a cabin during the winter months. These comics touches on farming, there’s a strip on the types of clouds that exists, or on her experience as a mountain cabin caretaker.There’s a fantastic series of four comics in which Iona talks with an undocumented Vermont migrant farm worker. It relates to the Undocumented, but her approach here is to let the worker (named Ernando here though it’s not his real name) lead the discussion. It’s much more personal than Tings Chak’s approach which is more structured, more architectural. Fox’s style is also quite charming. It’s light and as she explained when I interviewed her in May, she keeps her lines black and clear with simple colour since Almanac is normally published in a Vermont newspaper. The style and focus on real-life events make for a very relatable comic.
These books reminded me that there’s still something beyond the seemingly endless stream of bad news surrounding us. That there are people who are able to use comics to educate and for a quick moment, things seemed more hopeful.
*N.B: Undocumented is an Indiegogo project I backed from Ottawa-based publisher Ad Astra Comix
What is a Glacier
Ad Astra Comix
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.