Haida Comics Break Myths


Vancouver Sun


October 4, 2004

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas challenges native stereotypes through illustrative story-telling in Tales of Raven.
(Photo: Ian Lindsay)

NATIVE ART | 'Tales of Raven' creator borrows page from Japan's manga style

Be prepared. Tales of Raven will rock your world view.

These are not the powerful, shamanistic images of artists such as Bill Reid or Robert Davidson. But neither are they the all-too-common media images of Indians living lives of poverty and pain on reserves or in inner cities. The stories of the trickster Raven, as told by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, are something different. For one thing, they're not images carved into cedar -- they're drawn on paper. They're what most people would call comics, and they're fun, humorous and sometimes just plain rude.

In one episode, for example, a pompous Raven gets his comeuppance when he's served dried salmon softened in urine. In another, Raven gets to be a hooker and wear fishnet stockings and high heels.

For Yahgulanaas, the reverence with which native art and artists are treated is the flip side of thinking of natives as lazy drunks.

He believes both stereotypes are limiting -- and both deny the essential humanity of native people.

"I look at our community today and I see that people are ignorant generally about the humanity of indigenous people. Frequently, Indian people are seen in simplistic, superficial ways," he says.

"We're either dirty savages, drunken Indians, or artists. It's all phony. It's a Canadian myth. I think these comic books act as a vehicle to open it up more. We haven't yet been described as regular people."

Yahgulanaas takes traditional Haida stories and turns them into manga -- Japanese-style comics. He has dropped the traditional rectangular boxes and voice balloons associated with the North American comics of Marvel and DC. Instead, he has developed a flowing style that uses a bold line stretched almost to the breaking point -- a motif strongly associated with Haida art -- to link the images in the narrative.

He's also reluctant to use the word comics to describe what he does. In part, that's because we tend to associate comics with a form of visual story-telling consumed by children in North America -- then abandoned as those young readers grow older.

In Japan, however, comics and other forms of graphic narrative aren't treated with the same ageist attitude. All ages and genders in Japan read manga, which has become a $6 billion industry and accounts for something like 40 per cent of all published material in the country.

There are thousands of manga titles published each year on everything from samurai, golf and yakuza gangsters to fantasy superheros, sex and social satire. Animated manga, such as the popular Pokemon franchise, is called anime.

Later this month, Japanese manga enthusiasts will have an opportunity to see Yahgulanaas' art. He's part of a team of Canadian designers in graphics, furniture, media and other mediums exhibiting at Tokyo Designer's Week, one of the world's largest and most influential design fairs. Yahgulanaas will have 14 panels from the latest installment of Rockin' Raven -- the one depicting Raven as a hooker -- on display in the Prince Takamado Gallery in the Canadian embassy starting Oct. 9.

Called No Apologies Necessary, the Canadian exhibition, organized by Vancouver's BARK Design Collective, is meant to challenge Japanese assumptions about Canada being a land of moose and maple syrup.

What better way to startle the Land of the Rising Sun than with Yahgulanaas' work -- an indigenous twist on one of their own pop traditions.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas at his drawing desk

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas here at his drawing desk with daughter Mirella.
(Photo: Ian Lindsay)

It would be a mistake however to think that Yahgulanaas has married Haida visual style with Japanese graphic story-telling just to shock the Japanese. He's more interested in dispelling Canadian myths about Indian art and artists.

Like much of the world of manga, Yahgulanaas' narrative universe is a richer one than the simplistic good-versus-evil stories found in mainstream comics. In Tales of Raven, you won't find a superhero with rippling biceps and a million-dollar smile waiting to save the day.

"When people read these stories, I want them to see all aspects of us -- that we have rude stories that are entertaining and that raise questions for everyone," he says.

If it seems that Yahgulanaas is only now developing a reputation as a creator of visual narratives, that's because his overnight success has been 20 years in the making. For the past two decades he spent most of his time working with other Haida people to prevent their land from being logged.

As a youngster, his first contact with the world of art wasn't a pleasant one.

In 1977, two teachers travelled to his hometown of Masset from the Vancouver School of Art (now known as Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design). He showed them a copy of a comic book he'd drawn -- the first version of Tales of Raven.

"They said: 'Come down to Vancouver. We can get you third-year standing.' For a young Indian guy, that sounded pretty good," Yahgulanaas says.

But when he arrived, he ran into what he calls -- with a capital A -- the "Administration." He was told he first had to take a special foundation course before he could be admitted into the school. So even though it appeared to him that he had been misled and was getting the run-around, he relented and took the course.

"I got into a roaring argument with the instructor. He said that in order for a Haida artist to be authentic, you couldn't use a power saw on a totem pole. You couldn't use commercial paint.

"That was so offensive to me. I couldn't spend the rest of the year with an instructor who thought like that. That was my experience with a Western art institution."

Instead, he headed back to Haida Gwaii and apprenticed on a totem pole with the legendary carver and artist Robert Davidson.

At about the same time that Yahgulanaas was feeling rejected by Vancouver's premiere art school, the Haida nation was starting to flex its political muscle with logging companies and the provincial government. When it appeared to the Haida that non-natives were determined to turn every tree on Haida Gwaii into a stump, Yahgulanaas joined with his fellow Haida to save their homeland, working in an administrative capacity.

Over the years, he kept drawing comics, a form he had loved since childhood. His transformation to an artist consciously working in the manga style developed slowly.

In the mid 1980s, he recalls a visit to Masset by a Japanese woodblock artist. Yahgulanaas became fascinated with the detail and style of Japanese woodblocks -- a style that reminded him of Haida visual art and its goal of finding individual artistic expression within very rigid, disciplined rules.

There's also a tradition of Haida visual story-telling, he explains. Yahgulanaas points to what he calls panel pipes -- visual narratives made from argillite, the distinctive, soft black slate so often associated with Haida art. Panel pipes date from as early as 1830 and depict a mixture of traditional Haida elements such as stylized bears and orcas with new and unusual images of sailing ships and other signs of contact with Europeans.

Today, he says, those panel pipes seem to be telling a story -- but one that's indecipherable because the cultural context of what they meant almost two centuries ago has been lost.

He compares the experience of seeing panel pipes with his own experience of looking at Japanese manga for the first time. He couldn't understand a word of the Japanese text -- but he could understand the images and create his own meaning.

He believes telling Haida stories in manga is perfectly in keeping with Haida tradition -- adapting it to the modern world.

"This is not superhero land. It's more of a reflection of who we are as a people unsure of what to do. The stories are morally ambiguous," says Yahgulanaas, who moved to Vancouver 18 months ago.

"They're not 'sacred Indian monumental art' or whatever its viewed as. They're graphic narratives. They're meant to be fun."

Other works by Yahgulanaas include A Tale of Two Shamans and The Last Voyage of the Black Ship. Both are available at local bookstores for about $20. You can also visit Yahgulanaas' web site at mny.ca.


In a recent episode of Tales of Raven, the great Rock'n Raven decides to let Slaqaa -- a.k.a. Butterfly -- travel with him. But Raven is so full of himself he won't speak directly to anyone. So when the travelling companions enter a great hall, Raven tells Slaqaa to speak on his behalf.

"Children of good people!" Slaqaa says, "Put your hands together 2 welcome the Famous and the Charming one-and-only Mistaa Rock'n Raven and I, Slaqaa his faithful servant."

Raven clearly loves the attention. But what draws your eye back to the preening Raven is how Yahgulanaas has combined Haida and Hollywood: Raven's head is mostly done with traditional Haida curving lines but he also has a sly, Rat Pack smile and sports a bow tie and a top hat.

When the feast starts and the dishes are being presented, Slaqaa says his chief can't eat such rich food -- directly contrary to what the ravenous Raven repeatedly says. Finally, the food arrives.

"Sir, your favorite dish!" says one of the human figures, "Dried salmon delicately softened in URINE!"

-- from a Rockin' Raven episode published earlier this year in Redwire Magazine