Red by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Even before beginning to read Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas for the first time, it made me nervous. The inside flap of the book proclaims loudly, “…Tragic and timeless, it is reminiscent of such classic stories as Oedipus Rex and Macbeth.” To compare Red to any classic may be considered blasphemous on two accounts; first, it attempts to elevate the Haida manga graphic narrative form—which at this time has existed for several years at most—to that of a two thousand year old literary history. But second, not only does the comparison not do justice to the grandeur of works by Sophocles and Shakespeare, nor does it do justice to the grandeur of Red on its own terms. On the other hand, perhaps we should just be forgiving and consider this marketingspeak.
Red is fresh, it is vital, and it is new. But what is Haida manga? “Manga,” translated from the Japanese, means “comics.” Long before North American artists were experimenting with the form or were translating manga into English, the Japanese—men, women, and children alike—were reading graphic narratives that were tremendously thematically diverse. From erotic comics to sports stories to ancient Buddhist tales, manga mirrored Japanese societal interests as much as, if not more than, their Western comics equivalents.
What does Red have to do with manga? In an interview with The National Post, Yahgulanaas described his contact with Japanese visitors to Haida Gwaii during the time that he gave tours of the area. This was his first introduction to the term manga. It could be argued that the fluidity of line in Red is stylistically similar to manga, though the artist’s cartoony quality could equally be compared to many Western artists. Regardless of the technical similarities that can be drawn between Red and manga, the concept of “Haida manga” is a powerful one. It suggests a cultural fusion and a new and innovative approach to comics storytelling. To a certain extent Red delivers the goods in this regard.
True to the archetypal hero, and also ironically, the story’s protagonist is not named Red because of the colour of his skin, but because of his red hair, which differentiates him from the other members of his community from birth. During the time that Red is sent out to conduct a spirit quest by the community shaman, raiders set foot in the village and Red’s sister Jaada is kidnapped.
Red grows up and becomes the village chief; he vows to avenge his sister’s seizure and sets out to discover her whereabouts. While travelling, Red meets a man who has been banished to an island by his community, for developing weapons whose power was feared by his people. “Red is transfixed by the carpenter’s story…” and so, the carpenter is commissioned to build a great whale out of wood.
Red’s sister is discovered in the village of Lanaas, and in spite of the village elders disagreeing with his decision, Red sets out to rescue her, with disastrous results. The rising action in the story and its climax are worthy of not describing in detail…suffice to say that the ending of Red is poignant and dramatic.
Most likely as a tribute to the oral tradition that is an inherent trait of all First Peoples’ cultures, there is very little in the way of descriptive narrative included in Red. The majority of the story is told through the use of dialogue, reflecting the oral culture of the Haida, which up until recently was never preserved in a print-based format. As much as I would love to say that Yahgulanaas’ approach is effective, I think that it could have been used to better effect. As a reader, I was forced to grapple with the sometimes extremely subtle cues that had to be drawn from the dynamic combination of text and image to understand the story. It was hard to follow the storyline in a sustained manner without extreme concentration, and this impeded my ability to appreciate the events as they unfolded in the book. As was stated in the Montreal Gazette review (link no longer available), this book pretty much requires a second read in order to begin to get the whole story.
Yahgulanaas, a younger cousin of the highly regarded Haida cultural revivalist and pioneer artist Robert Davidson, has clearly been inspired by Haida motifs, and the gracious and exquisite curves of the painted panels included on each page are a marvel to view. The traditional influences are infused with an almost street-like sensibility, which reminds me of work that is being done by up-and-coming Coast Salish artist en paa uk (aka andrew dexcel) .
What makes the images most powerful, however, is how each page can be interwoven with the next to create a masterful design that is reproduced at the end of the book, and also on the flip side of the book’s jacket (see below). Although the prevailing image made up from each panel border is difficult to see through the business of the artwork found in the background, again, the concept behind Yahgulanaas’ composite design is pure genius.
Yahgulanaas is no stranger to comics, citing Wally Wood and Will Eisner as early influences in his development of the Haida manga form in an interview over on the Joe Shuster Awards website. It is worthy of note that publishers Douglas & McIntyre are taking a risk by publishing such an innovative work. I have had the privilege of using many, many books printed by Douglas & McIntyre for work pertaining to various Aboriginal-related projects, and in each case the editing and the layout of these volumes is nothing short of exemplary.
On the one hand, Red is a traditional tale of male heroism, and by extension, partriarchal mythos. However, the book simultaneously exposes the futility of war and the pursuit of revenge, in that Red’s cause is ultimately misguided. The ending of the story expresses more than simple vengeance for Jaada’s kidnapping,and in so doing it honours the wisdom of the elders.
If I had not grown up in Vancouver, and even more so if I did not have a relatively strong familiarity with Northwest Coast First Nations cultures, I’m not sure how easy it would be for me to follow the trajectory of this ambitious undertaking. But is definitely worth a try.
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas website