What drives visual artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas to tell stories through comics?

CBC Radio

North by Northwest

May 21, 2023

A number of years ago, curators from the Humboldt Forum approached visual artist and storyteller Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, asking him to do some sort of commentary on Johan Adrian Jacobsen, a Norweigian explorer, who travelled along B.C.'s coast in the 1880s.

"It was a bit of a challenge," he said.

"The challenge was to tell someone else's story and to do it accurately as opposed to telling my family story, as is with earlier books. There's a comfort in that because you can claim a certain degree of authority, but when we step out to tell someone else's story, we have to tread carefully."

The work he did, learning about Jacobsen and the time he spent in Yahgulanaas's home community of Masset on Haida Gwaii, inspired his latest graphic novel, JAJ, to be released May 27. JAJ blends colonial history with elements of Yahgulanaas's own family legacy. The story follows several historical figures through first contact, the smallpox epidemic and "the mass resettlement of disenfranchised peoples, both Indigenous and European," publisher Douglas & McIntyre said.

Yahgulanaas spoke with CBC's Margaret Gallagher, host of North by Northwest, ahead of the book's release.

Where does the title JAJ come from?

It's the initials of a Norwegian seaman who came to this part of the world, the West Coast of Canada, the North Pacific in 1881. His initials, JAJ — Johan Adrian Jacobsen — is also a Hindi word. My translation of JAJ is discernment. I think that this speaks to the narrative itself. It's an exploration of how we look and how we measure, how we evaluate, and ultimately how we judge situations.

How did you begin to work in graphic novels?

Early exposure to European comic books as opposed to American comic books, which I think is a whole different approach to stories. The North American comic market has, for a long time, been marked by this sort of good versus evil story, the European comics seemed to be more complex.

In my own community we produce monumental artworks and they're gorgeous, they're very powerful, but they're also somewhat inaccessible. It's not every household that can have a large piece of Haida work.

I thought there was a need to connect the narratives embedded in the monumental artwork and to make them accessible to a greater population. The driving force for making these narratives accessible is to try to diminish the tropes, to take some of the fear and the loathing and the misunderstandings that really mark the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

The tragedy that marks this Canadian-Indigenous relationship needs to be challenged and changed and I thought that if I could create works that were really as accessible and complex as comics can be, that this would be a small contribution towards moving the needle to a better place.

How does the form of a graphic novel lend itself to transporting the reader to different places?

There's an eloquence to colour and design form that slices through elite structures, that slices through economics, it slices through language. All sorts of elements of cultural identity share that universal connection through graphic literature.

If I want to speak to the largest possible audience, then I need to find that vehicle that they understand and graphic literature provides that in spades.

What have you learned about yourself in working on this specific project?

Jacobsen comes from a small fishing village, far away from urban centres and he wants a good job in an institution in Berlin. He wants a steady paycheque. He wants to have a family. His German isn't that good. He's not academically trained. He's a great mariner, so he serves the German cause quite well. He does his best and he never does get the promised job.

I started to realize, you know, I come from a little fishing village. I've gathered seagull eggs like Jacobsen. My family are fishermen. I've moved to Vancouver hoping to make a career as an artist. I started to sympathize with him. On top of this, we discovered a familial connection. We have relatives in the same part of the world as Jacobsen came from.

This is not your first graphic novel. You're also a sculptor. In your work, it feels like there's a theme of cultural hybridity. Is that the case?

I love the notion of hybridity and diversity because that is truly a lot of strength there. The most fertile part of a river and perhaps the most fertile part of an ocean in some ways is where the river meets the ocean.

It's this danger of purity — purity of blood or purity of opinion, purity of political opinion — it leads to violence, it leads to mothers losing their children and I think we could celebrate hybridity and diversity.

Read the original CBC article and listen to the interview.