- Seeing and NothingnessMichael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Haida Manga, and a Critique of the Gutter
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The argument begins with the graphic essay reprinted above: “Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas in The Gutter.”
I love Michael’s work—for its beauty, for all it has taught me about an unexpected and powerful option within sequential art, and for the farthest reach of its implications. As well as considering his work, I have also had the pleasure of many conversations with Michael over the years, the most intense of these coming during his Writer-in-Residency at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “In The Gutter” is an example of Haida Manga, Yahgulanaas’s term for a form that blends traditional Haida visual representations of the kind painted or carved into wooden masks, stand-alone sculptures, and reliefs, with the dynamics of the manga that Yahgulanaas first saw when he was a guide for Japanese tourists visiting Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). Yahgulanaas’s experience of American-style comics was very like my own as a child: an art form disparaged by the culture that produced it in abundance. The way that the Japanese respected, even revered, the form and its makers gave Yahgulanaas a way to see comics as a complicated visual and narrative art form, as well as one rich in history, philosophy, and politics.
Such a view is common now. I teach comics and graphic novels at Mount Royal, and while a few students express surprised delight that comics are on a university curriculum, there are always a few who feel a bit of disdain for them, or tell me of their parents’ or grandparents’ bemusement at a credit course on “garbage.” But such opinions grow fewer every year. The foundational arguments of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud for the artistic legitimacy of comics and the codifying of their language have made their case. Sequential art, comics, the graphic novel, are part of our culture’s literature; studying them is now a form of the sanctioned geekdom known as scholarship; and that scholarship is rooted in the icon-alphabet of the Egyptians, the calligraphic evolution from shape to sound in Chinese picture-writing (Eisner 8-9; McCloud, Understanding 14-15), in medieval woodcuts and on through comics’ “high art” precedents in Hogarth’s series paintings (McCloud, Understanding 16).
The study of comics as a print medium finds its modern history, everyone seems to agree, with Rodolphe Töppfer’s “Picture-Stories,” then on to Outcault’s Yellow Kid and through Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and from there to a North American evolutionary tree that every day continues to ramify with each branch taking on particular national or regional characteristics. Join that work with the study of manga, a combination of earlier temple-drawings and the comic books the Americans brought with them to post-War Japan that inspired Osamu Tezuka (among many others), and there it is: the history, shape, and meaning of an art form. The rest, it seems, is the needlework of scholarship finely observing and debating the implications of reading comics through various literary and psychological theories of production and perception, the different styles and approaches of various schools and communities, connecting the established truths of comics in general to the particular questions that the [End Page 52] content of comics addresses, such as morality, religion, sociology, the psychology of superheroes and villains, or the paranoia of apocalyptic zombie fantasies. Many new layers of meaning and analysis have been added, not without continuing controversy, to the fundamental structures of page and panel at the foundation of comic analysis, but that foundation has remained one of the more stable defining features of comics as a form of art.
The year I taught Yahgulanaas’s Haida Manga graphic novel Red, I focused the class on the question of whether, beyond the fact that Canadians made them, there was something that could be called the Canadian graphic novel—something that Canada as the location of creative activity offers to the art...