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With Haida Manga, a Study in Compassion

A new graphic novel by artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas explores BC’s founding years with generosity and soul.

Dorothy Woodend 31 May 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas has a way with a story. His work leaps off the page, smacks you in the face, and then explodes linear narratives like an atomic bomb.

JAJ: A Haida Manga is the newest graphic novel from the acclaimed, Vancouver-based contemporary artist. The book takes on a large subject, nothing less than first contact between Indigenous people and white Europeans. In the excerpt featured below, Yahgulanaas sets the scene, embedding it in familiar landscapes of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

There’s a lot to take in; perhaps an immensity might be a better description. In addition to heaps of B.C. history, there are smaller stories of the individuals who participated in significant events that shaped the province. One of these was Johan Adrian Jacobsen, a Norwegian sailor and the eponymous character of the book’s title.

Two comic panels depict a sailor on a stormy sea who is lost and, when found, ‘still afraid.’
Johan Adrian Jacobsen is JAJ, a Norweigan sailor and the eponymous character of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s new book. Excerpt republished with permission from Douglas & McIntyre.

Born in a tiny fishing village, little educated, but stuffed with outsized hopes and dreams, Jacobson set his sights on becoming an ethnologist. After being hired by Berlin’s Royal Museum of Ethnology to collect Indigenous objects and artwork, Jacobsen travelled the globe from Japan to Siberia. But it was his time spent in British Columbia that would prove critical. Between 1881 and 1882, Jacobson visited the Haida village of Masset to collect artifacts, including a traditional Haida totem pole. But despite his ambition, Jacobson failed to get a sought-after museum position, in part because he lacked credentials and education and was arguably the wrong kind of person to be welcomed into the august halls of major institutions.

As Yahgulanaas said in a recent interview, the word JAJ also recalls a Hindi term that means “discernment.”

This is a critical aspect, as much of the work revisits and reinvestigates familiar stories. In diving into history, the narrative employs a freewheeling style that is almost topsy-turvy in its inventiveness and acrobatic flourishes. Canadian notables like B.C.’s first governor James Douglas, B.C.’s first lieutenant-governor Robert Burnaby and prospector/noted colonizer Francis Poole, among others, pop up. The author cites the work of Tom Swanky, whose research into the history of smallpox in B.C. proposes that the disease was actively used as a weapon against Indigenous people.

Two comic panels anchored with thick black lines depict Europeans arriving by boat on Indigenous territory.
In diving into history, JAJ employs a freewheeling style that is almost topsy-turvy in its inventiveness and acrobatic flourishes.
 Excerpt republished with permission from Douglas & McIntyre.

Haida manga’ is the term ascribed to Yahgulanaas’s work. Manga refers to the Japanese artform of graphic novels and comics. Unlike the ways in which mainstream North American comics are popularized for their superheroes and silliness, manga contains just about every narrative form imaginable, from horror to erotica. JAJ incorporates a similar fecundity of approach, running the gamut from tragedy to comedy and back again. Big chunks of provincial history, Indigenous experience and familial connections are all filtered through the near-psychedelic interpretation of Yahgulanaas’s visual style.

A first reading, the signposts of words pull one through. But by a second and third reading it’s easy to go off track and drown in the visual language that the artist has created. It too is telling a story, one that is far wilder, funnier and fascinating that words can encompass. There is aspect of creative licence happening, but it’s in the service of creating an immersive experience that almost supersedes words. As an artform, comics are immediate, accessible and able to converge disparate elements and ideas into a greater, more expansive canvas.

It takes some time to investigate every nook and cranny on a given page. An abundance of things exists in the margins — a heron, a whale’s flukes, harpoons, the component parts of a ship. The riotous eruption of colour, line and form deke easily around the intellect and plunge deeply into the reader’s core. The effect, while occasionally discombobulating, is glorious.

Horror and humour often combine in strange fashion, whether it’s a drawing of Joseph Pemberton, described as “police commissioner, magistrate and soon-to-be public health official,” making a surprised moue of distaste at the bodies of smallpox victims or the fact that some of the only people to stand up against government authorities during the outbreak were Jewish merchants, who were themselves under attack in Europe. The complexity of every element of the book — history, family, politics and more fantastical stuff — is handled with care and attention. Despite its freewheeling approach, the work never loses sight of the human experience at the very core of the story.

Two colourful comic panels depict the Indigenous burial of a European explorer named Masset.
Throughout the work, JAJ never loses sight of the human experience at the very core of the story. Excerpt republished with permission from Douglas & McIntyre.

As Yahgulanaas explains in the book’s acknowledgments, the idea for the graphic novel originated from a mural commission made by Berlin’s Humboldt Forum. JAJ is a form of a mural and vice versa. At the end of the book, the artist reveals how each of the pages make up a greater whole. Individual pages can be cut loose and assembled to form an eight-metre square image that recalls a traditional Indigenous robe. This ending is a bravura finish, akin to a gymnast doing a quadruple backflip and sticking the landing with complete assurance. One is tempted to stand up and applaud.

The artist’s intent in fashioning a monumental style artwork is in part an attempt to look again at history with a careful and compassionate view, as well as unpack the fragile emotions that often drive larger events. From the genocide perpetuated against Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada to the smaller heartbreaks, JAJ maintains an empathetic focus on the events of history. Even the villains of the piece, although not absolved of their crimes, are depicted more often as opportunists, bumblers, cartoon evildoers with buggy eyes and goofy expressions.

Poor old Johan Adrian Jacobsen, desperate to make a name for himself and secure a place in history, is a case in point. Curiously enough, Yahgulanaas gifts him with this legacy through the medium of art, in the most generous and gracious of fashions imaginable.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Books

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