When something is so unfamiliar to me that it feels like a brick wall, I start looking for crumbly places in the mortar. And so, with my knowledge of Haida art and Japanese manga measuring about two on a scale of 10 (and only because I knew both existed), my first move when I got Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s Red: A Haida Manga, was to check whether there was anything in it I recognized.
With its bright colours and graceful flowing lines, it was beautiful to look at, but its asymmetrical panels that didn’t necessarily read left to right made it seem chopped up and hard to follow. Characters changed size, shape and even colour from panel to panel, and some were so odd that I wondered if they were human, animal or alien creatures altogether. Time and place bounced around unpredictably, and the storyline – for someone unfamiliar with Haida tales – left me filling in blanks and guessing.
It was the critters that first helped me through the Red wall. As someone with a weakness for birds, I began enjoying Yahgulanaas’s very-human expressions on their faces, such as the shocked one on page 9, during young Red’s quest. On page 65, the birds flee just as Red’s brother-in-law is becoming aware of the “whale” following them, and on page 94, they dramatically and forebodingly announce the arrival of visitors to deal with Red’s offence. For me, nature was another entry point to the book. A background swirl of bouncing ocean, big skies, and moss-dripping cedar giants was familiar territory, beautifully rendered.
But humour — in the book, in Yahgulanaas’s class presentation, and in Nicola Levell’s The Seriousness of Play excerpt — was the best way into the story of all. Yahgulanaas’s tale of his very strong forebear who held a leaky canoe together while urging her companions to stop lamenting and get paddling was the story of a man who loves to laugh. I realized I was likely not mistaken that the little green character who greets the visitors to the village of Laanaas was meant to be a figure of fun (pages 51-54), sticking his tongue out and throwing rocks, and finally being hauled off to bed by an angry-looking mom. Levell’s excerpt included Yahgulanaas’s The Head Waiter, with its bored-looking customer apparently ready to trip an obsequious waiter; and Packing Old Raven’s Pole, a deconstruction of Bill Reid’s commemorative totem pole that has penis-like objects slyly scattered here, there and everywhere.
Once I tuned into the critters, the nature, and the humour of Red, the brick wall crumbled. Even though I still don’t get all its nuances, it turns into a recognizable tale of fear, revenge and tragedy. As for the art form, while Haida images and Japanese comic book influences are there, I would argue that there is so much else there too that the book should be viewed as one giant, gorgeous mash-up. How else do you categorize a tale that includes a submarine/whale being depth-charged; a flying canoe; and a greeting straight out of a Western comic book (“So, wot do you two fellars want ta drink?” p. 53)?
There’s method in Yahgulanaas’s fun, as the very title of Levell’s work points out. The portrayal of villages with their totem poles, their salmon-drying racks, their unique customs and characters, forces us to recognize that a complete culture exists there. The depiction of nature and wildlife reveals a different way of looking at the environment – not as something to be subjected to human whims, but as a force of its own to be lived with and in. Yahgulanaas, with his long history of environmentalism and political activism, may have left politics to focus on his art, but he’s using every tool in his artist’s palette to continue that work in another way.
— Carol Volkart