Social Justice Comics Today: An Interview with the Creators of “The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet”




THE BEAST IS a book-length comic about two young people who find work in the Canadian oil industry. Recently released by Ad Astra Comix, an Ontario-based publisher devoted to comics about social justice, The Beast is a collaborative effort. (An expanded digital version will be published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota in September 2018.) It was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant, conceived of by media studies scholar Patrick McCurdy, written by Hugh Goldring, and drawn by Nicole Burton. Burton founded Ad Astra in 2013, and the publishing house is run as a non-hierarchical collective. The Beast captures this collective spirit. It presents a web of relations, narratives, reflections, and illustrations that intersect to create a vision of how enmeshed we are in oil culture. The Beast’s major accomplishment, perhaps, is its presentation of choices to live within oil culture as conscious ones. The creators make a clear case that we should not just shrug our shoulders and accept our energy system without negotiations, reservations, and even refusals.

In the following conversation, I spoke with The Beast’s creators about the comic; its focus on two young professionals in Edmonton, Alberta (the province that contains the vast Athabasca oil sands, the site of Canada’s oil boom); the publishing philosophy of Ad Astra; and how to think about life within and beyond oil culture.

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DANIEL WORDEN: In your introduction, Patrick notes that The Beast is aimed to provoke more nuanced discussions of the tar sands. In the popular media, debates over oil fields or pipelines are often reduced to simple “for” and “against” positions — those who want to extract resources, and those who want to stop that extraction of resources. But, breaking the issue down into these two camps drastically oversimplifies the range of ideas, positions, and possibilities that surround energy today. I’m curious about using a comic to make this nuanced argument, especially since comics historically have been associated with simplicity, both in terms of caricature, and in terms of content. Do comics today seem particularly suited to represent political, social, emotional, and maybe even environmental nuance?

NICOLE BURTON: I would argue that social commentary is baked into the comics medium. Authors or artists can engineer that commentary as they wish, but all of the elements are there for comics to convey information quickly and provoke discussion. I also think that an essential part of the success of political comics is the act of sharing the work, as if to say, “See? Do you not agree?” Drawing stink lines on a cartone caricature of your village’s landlord in the Middle Ages and passing it around the ale house is a part of the same legacy as illustrating Louis XVI riding a giant penis during the French Revolution. Comics were one of the first ways to anonymously poke at the powerful before a mass audience, and I’m proud to be a part of that legacy now.

PATRICK MCCURDY: Not everyone wants to read academic papers, book chapters, or policy pieces. A comic allows me to reach a different audience who may not otherwise engage with this debate, through a fictional narrative that has been purposefully constructed from academic work. Moreover, unlike most academic writing, comics require a graphic and narrative style that is pithy and succinct. In making the comic, we were forced to review and distill the various narratives around the tar sands, pipelines, and energy transition, and develop them into a story line appropriate to the medium. I found this to be a very liberating exercise as it allowed me to take broad themes evident in my academic analysis of the tar sands and work with Ad Astra to communicate those in a different way. Moreover, whether it is protestors covered in “oil” or corporate executives standing in lush boreal forests, the debate over the future of the tar sands is one that is soaked in imagery. As such, the visual nature of comics lent itself perfectly to the tropes tossed back and forth between polarized publics.

HUGH GOLDRING: I am going to have to wear my grumbling comics writer hat here and ask: Was Maus simplistic? Was Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza? Comics are as sophisticated a medium as we choose to make them. What makes them valuable for political education is that they are generally easier to absorb than a book while offering a more literary experience than a documentary. We do find some value in their bad reputation as a vulgar medium, though. Graphic novels are a relatively unintimidating way to engage readers with complex topics like the ones in The Beast. Vulgar is just a nasty word for the more affectionate “popular,” and we hope to make complicated political ideas popular — in the sense of making them accessible, stimulating, and rewarding.

I thought that The Beast made some interesting comments on the art world — especially because comics as a medium has a complicated relationship to museums and galleries. The story opens with an exhibition of environmentalist photography, and at the show, the photographer, Callum, is hit up by two folks from a Marmot Rescue Foundation to do some work “pro bono.” On the other side of things, Callum’s roommate, Mary, works for an advertising firm, where she makes ads for oil companies and government groups. The comic makes it clear that both of them are being exploited, but in different contexts. I wonder if you could tell me what your thinking was about this step — that not only working for an oil ad campaign, but working for an activist group, is pitched as exploitative in our current economy. (The foundation pitches pro bono work to Callum as a chance to build “his portfolio.”)

Nicole Burton, Hugh Goldring, and Patrick McCurdy, “The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet,” p. 19

HG: A few years ago, I attended a workshop on organizing a union in your workplace that involved a roleplaying component. The workshop facilitator chose an environmental NGO as the workplace we were pretending to organize. He played the role of the genial, avuncular employer. “Gee guys, I thought you liked working here. Aren’t we all on the same team? We’re in this together, making a difference! Why do we need a union?”

This experience was in the back of my mind in the years that followed, when I worked as an unpaid intern for a Canadian political party and as a paid street canvasser for a charity outfit. This is a slippery kind of exploitation because it’s wrapped up a in feel-good ideology of saving the world. As The Beast opens, Callum is cramming crudités off the buffet table into his face at an exhibition of his own work. The implication is that he has to eat when food presents itself because work is irregular at best. Callum is constantly being asked to work for free explicitly because his work is important. Just not important enough to pay him, evidently. Mary is being exploited in a more obvious way. Her boss talks about “people doing good work” while validating Mary publicly but (without giving too much away) demonstrating that Mary has no value outside of the firm’s bottom line.

Comics, even serious ones, have historically rarely appeared in galleries. That’s starting to change as the medium matures, but we are a long way from being recognized as high art. And honestly I hope that never happens! When I look at how so much of modern gallery art depends on the viewer to project meaning onto it, I’m struck by its terrible vacuity. If making serious art means being like Damien Hirst, pickling sharks for a lark, I’d rather comics stay a vulgar art forever.

PM: As a Media and Communications professor who has been involved in activism for some time, the ways that photography, video, and advertising were portrayed in The Beast was quite important to me. The Beast fits into my belief that the struggle over energy transition, the struggle over climate change is something that simultaneously takes a physical battle and a battle for our imagination. To this end, The Beast both explicitly and implicitly covers issues related to framing (how the media frames events and how stakeholders frame events to the media); the use of celebrity; and the use of emotion, values, and symbols as means to persuade and manipulate. Indeed, the war over the tar sands can be thought of as an image war, distilled into various tropes.

Readers may perhaps be able to envisage these tropes if they pause and think about what images come to mind when they think about “tar sands” versus when they read the words “oil sands.” The phrasing tar sands has evolved from a colloquial term used to describing the thick, viscous nature of bitumen into a symbolically loaded term used to evoke Mordor-like images of industrial moonscapes. In fact, the Canada Press style guide advises against journalists using the term “tar sands,” because of its pejorative nature, and instead recommends “oil sands.” Yet, oil sands is not a neutral signifier either, but points to the economic potential and thus value of bitumen. In sum, language matters. Framing maters.

In terms of framing, we’ve seen various tropes rolled out on all sides of the debate, with common themes including nationalism, patriotism, and the use of Canadian symbols equating energy extraction with patriotism. This trope is captured in the comic’s full-color “As Canadian as Maple Syrup” advertisement. On a side note, equating patriotism with energy production is an import from the American Petroleum Institute’s “Energy Citizen” campaign. On the environmentalist side, after 1,600 ducks died on a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008, those animals covered in toxic substances became a powerful image. While unquestionably an environmental catastrophe, the image of the dead duck is an iconic tar sands signifier that is routinely deployed. Its cultural status was further cemented by Kate Beaton’s comic “Ducks.”

On a related note, how do comics relate to photography, video, and advertising art in The Beast? Do comics seem to offer some way of side-stepping or avoiding exploitative relations, in an ideal setting? Or is a comic just another form in which debate about petroculture takes place?

NB: As the book’s illustrator, I definitely chewed on the ways in which various media relate in The Beast. It has been my observation that the comic form is unique in making it so clear to the reader that a story line is a subjective interpretation of the world we live in, and not any more “real” than other depictions or experiences. The medium is rooted in subjectivity. I think the subtext of The Beast is that ads are rarely this honest — if not outright lying to us, an ad will engage in everything from simple emotional manipulation to willful deception to push a monochromatic agenda. In my illustrations for the graphic novel, where we see the creation of a variety of media (photography, video, graphic design), one of my hopes was to pull back the wizard’s curtain to show that these images come from somewhere. They are crafted, more or less anonymously, by their creative makers, whose lives, opinions, aspirations, and vulnerabilities leave no imprint on the work they produce.

PM: This is a tough question. First off, in terms of the material conditions in which this work was made, when I approached Ad Astra about developing a comic, the project was always going to be a paid gig. I was lucky enough to have funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which allowed me to pay Ad Astra for the project. That said, the project took more time and more hours than anticipated, coming in at just under two years from when I first approached Ad Astra to when the book launched. From the project’s inception I was also conscious of exploitative relations, and sought to develop a collaborative partnership with Ad Astra. We would meet in person or email to discuss the direction of the story or various plot points, and then Hugh and Nicole would go off and work their magic on the comic. From my perspective we had a productive partnership, which resulted in a work we are all proud of.

In terms of our material relations with oil and our petroculture, we were aware that practically every aspect of The Beast is touched by oil, from our travel for meetings to the movement of goods such as ink and paper to printing and distributing copies. All of these processes rely on hydrocarbons in some fashion. This is not to mention the plethora of petrochemicals that allow for and sustain networked communication, let alone our everyday creature comforts. A current trend in the debate over the oil/tar sands is to use the fact that something is a by-product of oil to dismiss concerns about tar sands, climate change, and our petroculture.

HG: Comics is an industry with its own norms and standards. It is definitely not free from exploitation, and you might say that recent stories about racism and sexual harassment in the superhero comics industry helped to inspire the plot of The Beast. As freelancers who rely on partnerships with scholars, we are in a less definitely exploitative position. But because of our inexperience we seriously underbid on the project and ended up working for about $3USD an hour. So like many other creative people interested in social justice, we ended up exploiting ourselves for the opportunity to do what felt like important work. I think that dovetails nicely with the themes in The Beast, that even when we’re doing “good work” we are doing it under the yoke of capitalism. In The Beast, no one is making Callum work for exposure, but he is willing to exploit his own labor to follow his dreams, in spite of the strain it puts on him and his relationship with Mary. This seems like a good place to thank everyone whose couches, food, and company subsidized the production of The Beast, as well as Patrick for making it possible.

The Beast is very much about how the paratexts surrounding our petroculture get made. We tend not even to notice, in our everyday lives, how many institutions (like museums and universities) are sponsored by or partnered with oil interests, and “public service” ads championing local industries in places like Alberta can fade into the background if we see them repeatedly. In a way, this makes the ads even more successful, because their messaging becomes an unquestioned part of our lived experience. Can you explain what your goals were in making the book about cultural workers — a photographer who works for environmentalist groups, and an advertiser who works for oil companies — rather than, say, about workers in the tar sands or oil company executives?

HG: The crass, industrial answer had better come first: we wrote a comic about people who work in the ad industry because we were hired to produce a graphic novel about the ad industry. But that’s not all there is to it. They do say, “Write what you know,” and while I would be out of my depth writing about rig pigs, as they are not so affectionately known, I know what it’s like to work in advertising. Besides this, I think that making the comic about the ad industry forces the reader to think about the process of producing ads. In Ottawa, where I live, there have been oil industry ads for years. They’re simple photos of pristine boreal forest with a bit of text about how no one cares more about the forest than energy companies. Long before I worked on this project I felt disgusted by the dishonesty that kind of advertising represents. This was a chance to explore how cynically the sausage gets made.

Nicole Burton, Hugh Goldring, and Patrick McCurdy, “The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet,” p. 88

PM: Perhaps my favorite of the six-color ads in The Beast is the “Oil Sands Proud” ad, which shows two women kissing with a rainbow flag superimposed over the top of the image. While this could be read in many ways, the ad references a failed social media campaign in support of the oil sands that implied, “In Canada, lesbians are considered hot! In Saudi Arabia, if you’re a lesbian you die!” While the ad faced much criticism and was eventually withdrawn with an apology, the fact that this was initially seen as acceptable reflects the quality of public discourse about the tar sands and our energy culture more broadly. Stakeholders are pouring effort into emotionally laden communication designed to mobilize their publics to the point where discourse over the bitumen sands and pipelines has been reduced to throwaway clichés and one-liners.

Nicole’s art is really expressive. In many pages, the postures, gestures, and facial expressions of the characters tell us just as much about a situation or an idea as the dialogue does. How did you go about designing the characters, and what kinds of references did you use for the settings — the streets of Edmonton, the tar sands, the “reclaimed” wilderness after extraction? What influences your drawing style?

NB: I was pretty terrified when I started on the book. This was, by far, the longest comic I had made, so I wanted to make sure I kept things simple and worked in a way that would keep the issues and the story in the spotlight. I did in fact spend a fair bit of time on Google Street View looking at neighborhoods in Edmonton and figuring out where our characters lived.

The influence of political comics on my life has been accumulative. Maus was a game-changer for me when I was 12 years old and curious about my Jewish ancestry. When I was a teenage activist in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I discovered a zine comic someone had made about the impact of depleted uranium on Iraq — another eye-opener. I was also hugely into protest art. People like Eric Drooker, Barbara Kruger, Seth Tobocman, the Guerrilla Girls, and Robbie Conal all made their mark on me. When I was 17, I went to an exhibition of political posters from the Spanish Civil War. Little did I know I would go on to make hundreds of posters for the antiwar movement in my 20s. I took intense interest in all forms of political art, but comics probably appealed to me for their relative low cost and effort to produce.

More broadly, Ad Astra is dedicated to publishing comics “with social justice themes.” I wonder: What motivated this idea? What were the influences — in comics, in politics, in theory — that led to the formation of Ad Astra? Does Ad Astra have a particular political perspective or philosophy? And why comics? In popular culture, we tend to associate comics with guilty pleasures. Yet, there is another history of comics, from editorial cartoons and alternative magazines to underground comix and comics journalism, that is all about comics as a tool for analyzing, critiquing, and bringing about change in the world. How does Ad Astra fit into contemporary comics culture, and what are your hopes for a book like The Beast? 

NB: I founded Ad Astra in Toronto in 2013. Before that, it was the name of a website I ran that was devoted to finding and reviewing political comics. This was a time when there were very few online spaces devoted to such things, which seems hard to believe now. I spent about two years actively researching and writing about this genre of comic, until finally I got tired of recommending books that few to no retailers carried in the city, and I launched a retail collection as a pop-up shop. At our peak, we carried about 100 titles. But in 2015, we decided to move into publishing, which has been more personally rewarding and, frankly, more socially necessary. To date, we remain North America’s only publisher exclusively devoted to comics with social justice themes.

Thankfully, though, we’re seeing the industry respond to the idea that “social justice” is no longer marginal, to realize that the vast majority of readers want to see it and celebrate it in one way or another. Not everyone wants to read a comic about topics like gentrification, migrant detention, or gender discrimination. But the number of people who are curious about these topics is rising, and accessible resources are limited.

HG: The idea to found Ad Astra was Nicole’s, and it was our joint decision to focus on publishing and later on original comics production. In terms of our joint motives, we think that the left (if one can even speak of such a thing without being ridiculous) isn’t great at communicating its ideas. There are a lot of dense theoretical monographs or breezy, bloodless election pamphlets out there. As I said above, we think comics are a popular medium. Ad Astra can be described as “pro-social and anti-authoritarian” in its politics. Most of the collective members could be described as anarchists, in the socialist sense of the word. We run the publishing house democratically and without bosses.

In terms of inspirations, I could really weigh you down with them. Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi have really shown the world that comics deserve to be taken seriously. I’m probably one of the only millennials who has read Doonesbury from the early Harvard scribbles all the way through to last Sunday’s strip — most of it four times over. But I’m also influenced by Howard Cruse, author of Stuck Rubber Baby and the seminal queer comic Wendel, as well as Seth Tobocman, one of the founding editors of World War 3 Illustrated (and one of Ad Astra’s authors, too). We see ourselves working in the latter tradition of comics with strong politics woven into stories about human relationships. If comics become another vector for sterile tracts in impenetrable jargon, then they’ve lost all the urgency that ought to animate them.

PM: The idea to make a comic was suggested to me by comics scholar Benjamin Woo over breakfast while attending a conference. I was in Calgary to present an academic paper on how oil sands campaigning had changed over time, and while talking about potential outlets for academic publications, I expressed a desire to engage the public further. I was already working on a research project called mediatoil (www.mediatoil.ca), which was studying how various stakeholders were framing oil/tar sands issues in their promotional material. Project outputs included a public database of oil/tar sands campaign material, which won SSHRC’s 2016 Human Dimensions Open Data Challenge, along with a collection of academic publications, including a study of how energy advertising has changed and a piece on celebrity activism and the oil/tar sands. However, I wanted to engage the public beyond academic publications, and Benjamin floated the idea of doing the comic and suggested I reach out to Ad Astra. The idea developed from there.

I must also give credit to the rise in energy humanities scholarship, which provides a constant source of inspiration. The Beast’s introduction provides a curated reading list for readers who wish to delve further into this area. For me, perhaps one of the most inspiring works to come out of the energy humanities is the Petrocultures Research Group’s publication After Oil: Explorations and Experiments in the Future of Energy, Culture and Society (http://afteroil.ca/). It is a pithy manifesto calling upon scholars, artists, writers, and activists to critically examine and challenge the deep and multiple links between consumer culture and oil.

The Beast doesn’t give any easy answers to the problems it raises. And in fact, the comic ends with an interesting pairing of artist Terrance Houle’s Oily Buffalo image and the fake oil ads that Mary has produced for her advertising firm. So on the one hand, we have Houle’s account of “post-apocalypse,” of how indigenous culture’s dependence on the buffalo was radically changed when that resource and cohabitant was exhausted — a way, perhaps, of prefiguring the inevitable exhaustion of oil. And on the other hand, we have ads that posit the ongoing “circle of life” that oil provides us — the seemingly inexhaustible chain of consumer goods and employment afforded by the fossil fuel industry. What do you think readers should take away from this juxtaposition, of oil as one more resource verging on collapse, and oil as the very basis for happiness and everyday life?

HG: There is a dissonance there, isn’t there? The carbon economy is a curious cultural phenomenon. The scientific consensus on climate change is overwhelming. Popular opinion favors action to halt it. But not only are North American countries failing to divest from these highly toxic industries, they are expanding the infrastructure that supports them. As I write this, the Canadian prime minister is looking for ways to force through a pipeline to take Albertan oil to the British Columbia coast. Coal is still coming out of Appalachia, in spite of the incredibly high human and ecological cost.

I hope The Beast makes people think about that dissonance. Why are we talking so much about climate change and yet doing so little? Why are we kidding ourselves that turning off the lights or recycling makes any kind of meaningful difference to the fate of our precious planet? And I think the answer is that the conversation about climate change is thousands of miles away from its practical consequences. I mean this as a metaphor: we talk about climate change like we have options when we actually need to be shutting down the tar sands altogether and transitioning to renewables. But I also mean it literally: the worst effects of climate change will be felt in the developing world as rivers dry up, farmland goes barren, and deserts expand. We are spending the future of our entire species for the profits of the wealthy few.

The Beast doesn’t end with a fiery call for socialist revolution because that didn’t feel realistic. But the temperament of North American society is certainly changing, and we’ll see what the future may hold. If The Beast gives readers a new way to think about the energy industry, great! If they recognize themselves in the characters? Even better.

PM: The Beast seeks to call into focus the relentless and short-term struggle for hearts and minds, the clichés, the binaries, and the tropes that dominate and cloud public discussion around the tar sands. It was born from a concern that there is a lack of genuine public debate over the tar sands. Our social imagination is polluted by incessant public relations campaigns. Instead of discussion and reflection, the public is forced to pick sides: the environment or the economy; protestors or industry; life with or without oil. The binaries of this debate are captured in the six mock advertisements in the book. Each of those explores tropes deployed in the battle over bitumen, including national pride.

A popular meme that has done the rounds online shows a flotilla of activists in kayaks — kayaktivists — protesting the Shell Polar Pioneer Oil rig in Seattle, Washington. While intended as an environmentalist event framed as “The Paddle in Seattle,” the image was inverted and meme-ified into a pro-oil message which read, “Irony is watching Seattle enviros protest oil … in kayaks made from petroleum.” The meme is biting, funny, and succinct. It makes its way into The Beast in a scene where Mary and Callum are slinging images back and forth at each other. In this scene, we wanted to draw attention to the state of our political discourse: protests are purposefully designed and executed as media events, and memes and quick-witted ad hominem snipes on social media pass for political insight. Using fossil fuels and their by-products is an inevitable feature of contemporary life. While we can make, should make, and are making efforts to find alternatives, the fact that we use these products in our daily lives should not be accepted as a legitimate critique of the desire for systemic change.

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The paper version of The Beast is available from Ad Astra while an expanded digital version of The Beast will be published by the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota in September 2018.

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Nicole Marie Burton is an American Canadian illustrator, youth educator, and the founder of Ad Astra Comix. She works to create comic art and children’s books on a variety of subjects, from colonialism and labour history to environmental science. The Beast is her first full-length graphic novel.
 
Hugh Goldring is an itinerant writer and anarchist humanist from Ontario, Canada. He is currently working on a book about multi-tendency socialist organizations in the age of Trump.
 
Patrick McCurdy is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa. His research explores the material and mediated struggle over the environment with a particular interest in the holding power of fossil fuels over the social imagination. His next project will focus on bringing to light the banned 1977 CBC docudrama “Tar Sands.”

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Daniel Worden is associate professor in the School of Individualized Study and the Department of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently completing a book titled Neoliberal Nonfictions: The Documentary Aesthetic of Our Age.


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