Pacific Notion

Mark Medley

National Post

Weekend Post

October 17, 2009

The convergence of B.C.'s Haida with Japan's manga

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas recalls stories he heard as a child of Haida fishermen pursuing northern fur seals across the Pacific Ocean on hunts that would last months at a time and take them as far away as the shores of Japan. They would make port of calls in Hokkaido or Hakodate, and, unlike the persecution they faced in Canada, there the men could "walk through the streets just like an ordinary human. They could go to the restaurant, could use public restrooms, they could shop and move freely and live freely as regular humans. Of course, that [was] not the situation here in British Columbia, in Canada, where if you're even allowed in the movie theatre you had to sit in the Indian side."

Japan, says the 55-year-old artist and activist from his home on Bowen Island in the Salish Sea, was a "place of safety and comfort and welcome for Haidas."

The connection with Japan deepened when Yahgulanaas guided visiting Japanese students on tours of the forests of Haida Gwaii, the Haida homeland. They introduced him to the term "manga," of which he says he knew nothing. After a 20-plus-year career as an activist -- among other things, he was involved in logging protests on Haida Gwaii in the '80s and '90s -- he turned his attention to pushing the boundaries of traditional Haida art, which he calls "fairly complex to the point of appearing to be abstract." These artistic experiments led him to develop a unique form he's dubbed "Haida manga," which blends the precision and rigour of Haida art with the whimsical nature of manga. This cultural mash-up is on display in his latest book, Red.

"Red becomes a real test of whether there is an interest, I think, in Canada, to explore the mythology of what is the Indian, in a populist form," he says.

Adapted from a Haida legend Yahgulanaas heard growing up, Red tells the story of a young man obsessed with revenge against the raiders who kidnapped his younger sister. More memorable than the story, however, is the art. Yahgulanaas blends these two distinct styles together into something wholly original.

"We wanted to publish Michael's graphic novel because we loved what he was doing with his art," says Chris Labonte, assistant publisher at Douglas & McIntyre and the editor of Red -- so much so that they acquired the book before a single panel had been drawn. "We didn't read anything. There was nothing to read, in fact. Michael told us he wanted to do a graphic novel based on a traditional Haida oral tale, and because we were already huge fans of his art, we thought we couldn't pass up the opportunity to do something special in terms of a graphic story. The result is breathtaking indeed."

Flipping through Red, one gets the sense that there's something going on under the surface -- or on the surface, rather --and it's only when you reach the end of Red (spoilers ahead!) and examine the composite image that you grasp the scope and skill of what Yahgulanaas has pulled off: Each individual page of the book is part of one large Haida form-line mural, which Yahgulanaas cut up to form the 108-page book. The artist even encourages people who own two copies of the book to rip the pages out and recreate the mural, originally drawn on eighteen 22 x 30 inch sheets, for themselves.

"It's not destruction for destruction's sake, but destruction as an evolutionary force," he says. "A lot of my work, I think, welcomes the viewer to become engaged in the piece.

"I try to honour the observer by saying, 'I created this visual work but you interpret it, you have a role to play. This is not the authority of the artist.'"

Red by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is published by Douglas & McIntyre ($28.95). Yahgulanaas's work, including the original mural of Red, is on display at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary until Jan. 24, 2010.