If you’re going to build a world with words, look at Jeremy Love’s comic book series Bayou for inspiration—you can’t go wrong. What began as a web comic is now printed in two beautiful volumes that you need to read. Southern swamps have never looked so beautiful.
I have to warn you though, Bayou is not what I would call easy reading. It will make you think in ways that might not be familiar in your standard, comic-reading experience.
For one thing, Bayou is building on African-American folklore, such as the stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Tar Baby, among others. Their stories come together in a beautiful and horrifying mix of history and fantasy. The world beyond the swamp is a kind of pre-Abolition wonderland, where the characters of slave folklore live under the Bossman’s thumb and try to get by one way or another.
It does help to have at least a touch of knowledge about these African-American folk tales when reading Bayou, just as it helps to be acquainted with Greek or Norse mythology when reading other comics.
It also helps to have some knowledge of the Blues. Bayou embraces what I have seen other comics merely touch on: song lyrics included in the comic’s panels. You see, our cast of character includes several rambling musicians and singers. The enchantingly beautiful and somewhat deceitful songstress Tar Baby is the mother of the comic’s protagonist, Lee Wagstaff. Brer Rabbit and Bayou come out of their swamp-side world to sing the blues in a Southern speakeasy, and it all goes to hell when the local levee breaks and a flood takes them all. But come hell or high water, these characters get to speak and sing in their own voices. The past and present overlap in Love’s storytelling, and songs ease the transition between them. Similar to how Disney movies use songs in a montage to mark the passage of time—only Bayou never turns away from real-world darkness.
Nearly every character in Bayou speaks in a dialect. This includes the Southern accent, and specifically period-consistent African-American slang. It’s easy to pick up as you go along, and what isn’t totally clear becomes clear with usage (such as when one woman calls another a “heiffer” in a barroom spat). It also includes multiple uses of the N-word, with asterisks for the following letters. It’s a jarring reminder of the history of hate and oppression. You can never forget that slavery is in the characters’ recent past—but why should you? Little Lee may be free, but we first meet her as she swims in the swamp to retrieve the body of a boy her own age. Young Billy Glass lies dead in the bayou because local white men lynched him.
This ain’t Carroll’s kind of wonderland.
Bayou is full of love and hate, cowardice and bravery, sinners and saints. Even the characters that are anthropomorphic animals are beautifully and tragically human. You’ll see the best and the worst of the characters in this comic, but all of them are truly people—even if many of them don’t recognize it.
One of the very first webcomics I read, Plume is the story of Vesper Grey, a young woman living in the early 1800s “West.” Her life, according to her, is “boring,” consisting of an endless parade of activities “suitable for young ladies.” This suddenly changes when her adventurer father is murdered in front of her.
She then embarks on a mission of revenge, aided by an immortal being named Corrick, who is bound to protect the wearer of an enchanted locket. The locket was gifted to Vesper by her father shortly before his death.
The story is strongly reminiscent of the film True Grit but with fantastical additions. The characters themselves are completely original, which is where the comic truly shines. Vesper takes to revenge with a worryingly gleeful exuberance. In her own words, “killing is therapeutic,” and she has a naïve badassery that is extremely endearing. The evolving relationships among the cast are well-plotted, and, as of yet, have utterly avoided one-dimensionality.
This is not the tale of Rumplestiltskin as you remember it. Incredibly well-written, the story is a complete retelling of the classic. The tropes of the “handsome prince,” “demure princess,” and “dastardly villain” are upended and replaced with infinitely more relatable and realistic characters. Dotted with twists that thumb their noses at your expectations, the story continually reminds you that it is the captain now, and will remain so.
As the protagonist Chris grows up, she becomes a willful and petulant girl who seems oblivious to the world around her. A world of war, greedy kings, and conscription exists around her, but she instead chooses to make friends with a mysterious man who meets her at the edge of the woods. A man, it must be said, who refuses to tell her his name…
Recently, I was made aware that the roster of comics with both speculative and LGBT content is expanding far past the “story with a token diverse character.” The punctuality of my schoolwork may have taken a hit shortly afterwards.
No End is one such cause of my GPA’s demise. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it follows an ensemble cast through the ruins of civilization. They attempt to survive and solve the mysteries of their world, all while facing threats from the now unapologetically corrupt military and (of course) zombies.
Zombies are like bow ties. They are cool, okay?
Each character is utterly unique and none conform to the clichés of apocalyptic zombie fighting. The story feels fresh, though shades of it have been seen before. Some parts resemble The Walking Dead—but with characters I actually care about.
I may devolve into fangirl-ranting with this one, so please bear with me. Sfeer Theory builds a world with perhaps one of the best magic systems I’ve seen since the book series Mistborn. I cannot attempt to explain it, as I will embarrass both myself and the authors, but suffice it to say you have a round thingy and you do stuff and then things happen and aaaaaaargh.
The comic mainly follows Luca Valentino, an assistant at Uitspan University, where Sfeer Theory is taught. He is an ingenious cyclist (one who practices Sfeer Theory), but has been denied entry to the university due to his status as an immigrant. He instead practices in secret, hoping to one day present his innovations to the university.
A backdrop of looming war between the countries of Warassa and Valence, and the intrigues surrounding them, provides compelling contrast to the relative peace of the university. It quickly becomes clear that Luca will somehow be caught up in the coming conflict.
The truly fantastic story is framed within gorgeous, full-colour art. Scenery and characters both are drawn with an eye for detail and attention to the complexities of motion. No one ever looks stiff or unnatural. This allows for comedy, emotion, and character development to be clearly expressed in a look or movement. Quite honestly, this is one of the best comics in recent memory.
By this I mean that, excluding Archie and the odd issue of Squirrel Girl, mainstream comics haven’t been true to their name for years now. Whether you like it or not, gone are the days of the classic ten-cent The Beano and The Dandy your granny used to read down at the corner shop. This is no one’s fault, really, at least no one specific. The heart of this change is within our changing world.
Today in North America, the political world is vibrant and teeming. Not only are we in a time of great political change both in Canada and the United States, but we are also surrounded by numerous and increasingly frequent events and crises that many are all too eager to spin to fit their political viewpoints. From immigration to ISIS to LGBTQ+ rights and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be anything safe from the perusal of daytime news or the mockery of late-night talk shows.
So where do comics fit into all of this?
Author Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña present their answer to this question in the form of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Marvel’s current Captain America title. Here they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as well as building racial tensions, poverty and the shrinking middle class, and, most notably, the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border along with various reactions to it.
This isn’t the first time comics have been used as a platform to address political and societal issues; V for Vendetta and Watchmen did it in the eighties, as did Hellblazer in the late eighties and early nineties, and X-Men has been representing minorities for many years, to name a few. However, Spencer and Acuña’s new effort seems to signal a violent shift towards an even more culturally relevant title.
Captain America: Sam Wilson chooses to rest in the middle of this cultural spotlight, and is not afraid to tackle touchy subjects within its pages. The protagonist and namesake, Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, takes an active stance, frequently confronting the polarization of views towards cultural issues.
“Red and Blue, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, North and South—Feels like we’re constantly at each other’s throats,” he says in the first issue, in which this popular superhero makes himself incredibly unpopular literally overnight by “going partisan” and sharing his personal views on political issues. In the world of the comic, this action leads to the public questioning what role superheroes play in politics; in our world, this spurs our discussion of the political role of comic books.
Fox & Friends’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck believes she has the answer to this discussion.
“Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say,” she declared at the end of a segment focused on Spencer and Acuña’s new book, in which she and her two co-anchors Clayton Morris and Tucker Carlson expressed their extreme displeasure at the message that it attempts to present. The main focus of their disgruntlement was the main antagonists of the first and second issues, the Sons of the Serpent, who are portrayed in the books as American ultra-conservative extremists attempting to repel illegal Mexican immigrants through vigilantism. Though these villains have been a mainstay of Captain America comics since the sixties, acting as a Marvel Universe proxy for the KKK, the crew at Fox & Friends saw them as a display that “now the threat comes from ordinary Americans—probably some of you watching at home!”
It is unsurprising then, in the face of this real world controversy, that Spencer depicts a similar reaction to Sam’s actions in the world of the comic, as he is quickly dubbed “Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America,” by a fictional news organization.
Furthermore, the comic adds another layer of depth to the question by highlighting the previous Captain America’s very reserved stance in the realm of politics, a thought that is echoed once again by Fox & Friends when they comment on how much they liked the older Captain America stories in which he did heroic things like punch Hitler in the face. Is good ol’ Nazi bashing fun not good enough for today’s modern readers?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
Punching Nazis, while an enjoyable pastime, was not necessarily “good enough” in the forties when the original Captain America was published, just as it is not necessarily “good enough” now. It is not a matter of whether it was good or bad content, but rather one of cultural relevancy. In a time of war and ten-cent The Beanos and The Dandys, people needed a fun dose of Hitler smacking. Today, when comics and other forms of graphic fiction have the capacity to be instruments of social questioning and change, rather than simple amusements, there is almost a responsibility to make use of the opportunity.
This does not necessarily mean that every comic book creator has to write about politically charged and controversial topics, likely to get them more hate mail than Eisner Awards. It does mean that creators should realize that these opportunities exist, and that using the same old bag of tricks on modern audiences may work about as well as promoting newsprint to a world of social media.
Ultimately, one’s own perception of what graphic fiction should be is vital to deciding what it can be, but in terms of having an influence on politics, it clearly has the ability to at least encourage readers to question their world and culture.
The funny books aren’t funny anymore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you’ve been to a comic arts festival in Toronto you can bet you’ve seen Dakota McFadzean there, selling his books and sketches. This Canadian cartoonist is well-versed in the strange and the imaginative. He also has a talent for making people relate to comics about things like ghost rabbits and cave-dwelling monsters. His comics range from depictions of mesmerizingly weird scenarios to witty commentary on familiar ideas. In this interview I asked Dakota to give The Spectatorial’s audience an idea of what his work is like and how he approaches cartooning.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Many people find you through “The Dailies”, the daily comic strip you’ve been putting out for 5 years now. You also have longer narratives, like the ones collected in your book Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in On. How do you decide whether an idea gets turned into a ‘Daily’ or a longer piece?
I’ve tried to view “The Dailies” as an exercise from the beginning. Part of the reason I started doing daily comics was because I was working full time and I was unhappy with my cartooning output. Back then, whenever I did have time to draw comics, I was way too precious about it. “The Dailies” were an attempt to force myself to put something onto paper every day, with no regard for perfection, no room for preciousness.
“The Dailies” have become a way for me to digest ideas and stumble on to new ones. If an idea keeps showing up in “The Dailies” over and over again, or I accidentally come up with something that I wouldn’t mind spending endless hours with, then I’ll try to explore it in a longer form.
I’ve never thought of myself as one of those cartoonists who has a bunch of graphic novel ideas sitting in their back pocket, although I think drawing a daily strip has helped me to better recognize ideas with potential.
Where would you say a lot of those ideas come from in the first place? Is there some treasure trove of creativity you have stashed away?
Maybe everything and nothing. Drawing a daily strip has made me realize that ideas are pretty much endless, but how they come to be is still a mysterious alchemy to me. Sometimes the lines flow out as easy as breathing, and other days I stare at a blank page for an hour while complaining that I have no ideas, and that I’ve peaked, and it’s all over so why do I even have to do this anymore?
I certainly don’t have a treasure trove, but cartooning is the kind of thing that usually leaves one alone with nothing but thoughts and memories. If I find that I’m thinking about something over and over, like the way bus drivers wave to one another or the way a three-legged dog walks, it will find its way into a comic.
A lot of your work deals with unusual representations of faces and masks. Is there a reason you frequently come back to this motif?
I like drawing faces. I like drawing grotesque things too. … Part of it likely comes from this idea that Scott McCloud articulates in Understanding Comics—that as humans, we see faces in everything. We’re hardwired to see ourselves. We can see a face in an electrical outlet, in wood grain, the moon, three dashes on a page. It’s a fundamental part of being human, and it’s a big part of why cartooning even works.
Beyond that, I’ve always loved (and feared) masks. I remember buying a werewolf mask at a garage sale as a kid, and putting it on at night and running around my grandmother’s back yard like an animal. It was play, but I was also spooking myself a little. When a face is slightly off, or unclear, or obscured, it can be deeply, irrationally unsettling, and I find that fascinating. I enjoy making things that are somehow disconcerting, and one way to do that is to make something that is simultaneously familiar and yet unfamiliar.
You’re part of a collective of cartoonists who continually produce an anthology of comics, called Irene. What is the selection process for those cartoons and comics?
Irene is a funny project that I think me and my co-editors, Andy Warner and d.w., are only gradually beginning to understand. We initially discussed the idea of starting an anthology near the end of our MFA program at The Center for Cartoon Studies. We hoped to find a way to maintain our creative momentum after graduation.
Our process for each issue is to approach artists we admire, and see if they’d be interested in doing a few pages. Beyond that, they get free reign. We’re there for editorial assistance if they want it, but few ask for it or need it. … We get a lot of enjoyment out of trying to arrange each book in a way that feels like a complete whole despite being made of disparate parts.
To make a ‘Daily’ you have to use any and every idea—so, a lot of it is pretty weird and surreal. What would you say to someone exploring that side for the first time?
It’s funny—weirdness and surrealism have been part of cartooning since forever, but audience tastes shift and change so much over time. Part of the maturation and acceptance of the comics medium has meant that more cartoonists are able to tell stories rooted in reality.
One of the most common comments I get on my online comics is “What.” (Or “wat.” Or some variation thereof.) Further, one of my most shared strips simply depicts a floating human skull eating out of a bird feeder. I don’t understand why that strip resonated with the masses, but they just can’t seem to get over how weird it is. Of course, if you imagine a world where floating skulls exist, the fact that they might eat is a pretty likely thing to happen.
For those trying to explore the strange side of things, I think it’s partially a matter of refining and recognizing those impulses through repetition like anything else. Exposure to art that does what you wish you could do helps too.
Anyway, I guess if you find your work gravitating towards the unusual, embrace it but don’t expect people to always love it.
What’s your opinion of speculative fiction?
I love speculative fiction, or as I called it as a kid: “anything that’s not just boring grown-ups talking.” The great thing about fiction is that anything can happen, even if it couldn’t happen in real life. The right cartoonist can show us something we’ve never seen before. It’s full of incredible possibilities.
This past TCAF (Toronto Comics Art Festival) I was wandering the webcomic floor when I stumbled upon a treasure trove: a beautifully drawn, full-colour comic that retells a very old story—or rather, retells a series of stories. 1001 is a comic book re-imagining of the 1001 Arabian Nights. For those who do not know, the 1001 Arabian Nights are stories from ancient-to-medieval Arabia, Persia, Egypt, and other countries in Asia and North Africa. The collected tales are framed by another story; the character Scherazade tells each story to her murderous husband, the king of her land.
Like the collection of stories and folk tales that it comes from, 1001 emphasizes story-telling within the overarching story. In the first issue we hear the narration of the protagonist Scherezade, called “Shazi” by her beloved little sister. Within the story of her life, we see her over-active imagination taking over her thoughts when she is meant to be hard at work as a scribe (a feeling that any student can relate to). Interesting—and recognizable—characters inhabit her day-dreams: European princesses wearing steeple hats, the hydra, the three Musketeers, dragons, winged horses, and more. My favourite is the walking, irate-looking carrot.
When her penchant for thinking-up stories on the job gets her in trouble, Shazi swears to put an end to her day-dreaming for good. But if you know the premise of the 1001 Arabian Nights, you know that Shazi’s story-telling gift is going to someday save both her sister’s life and her own.
There is an interesting contrast between the prose style that narrates the over-arching storyline and the dialogue. The narrating prose is slightly elevated, as one might expect to find in a very old story. The dialogue between Shazi and her younger sister, Dunya, however, feel very contemporary and this illustrates their close connection.
The two sisters clearly rely on one another and share an interest in learning. While Shazi is a skilled (if inattentive) scribe, Dunya is an unrecognized amateur alchemist. Working in the school of alchemy gives Dunya the chance to try out experiments, learn on the sly, and have her own adventures. Dunya is immediately as interesting a character as Shazi, and it remains to be seen what role Dunya will play in 1001. The two sisters are both believable and endearing. Their spat in the second issue becomes heartbreaking in light of the foreshadowing that follows it; we are told that this sibling fight is the last time Shazi sees her sister.
While the first issue introduces us to the cast of characters and their circumstances, the second holds a grim mystery: why are young girls disappearing from the city streets, only to be found dead on the palace grounds? Volume 2 ends on a heavy cliff-hanger, with Shazi in immediate danger. What’s more, we have been given hints about the conspiracy that lies hidden behind the walls of the palace.
Ending just as the action picks up seems almost cruel and I desperately want to know what happens next. Is Dunya or Shazi the next girl to “disappear” in the night? Who are the assailants breaking into the girls’ home? And how will the many other stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights be introduced into the comic?
Though I’m aching to read more of the series, the third issue is not yet out. But as all lovers of good story-telling know, waiting to learn what comes next is half the fun. 1001 is an excellent comic that shows a lot of promise and I recommend that anyone who loves fairy, folk, and adventure tales read the first two issues.