Haida Manga is evocative and deeply human

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October 3, 2014

Red: A Haida Manga

Story and art by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Douglas & Mcintyre

108 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Senica Maltese

Hand-painted by artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga is the stunning retelling of a tragic Haida legend, in which an orphan boy named Red grows up vengeful after raiders capture his sister from their coastal village. The evocative artwork, reminiscent not only of tribal Haida art, but also of Japanese watercolours, gives Red’s harrowing and fantastical story a deeply human quality. Yahgulanaas illuminates the story’s complicated commentary on the cycle of greed, fear, destruction and rebirth.

As a graphic novel novice, I didn’t know what to expect from this mysterious “Haida manga” form. At first, I found the jumps in setting unnecessarily jarring; however, on a second reading, they proved an artful way to enact how violence, nurtured by a rising sense of capitalism among the coastal villages, ruptures Red’s spiritual awakening and leads him down a path of self-destruction. The surrealist distortion of the illustrations, particularly during the raid scene, makes Red’s terror and trauma palatable on a bodily level, thereby proving the graphic novel form is an excellent complement to traditional oral narrative.

Without a doubt, Red is the kind of story that is enriched by multiple readings. I understood and appreciated this story in Yahgulanaas’s graphic novel form much more when I read it a second time. The story’s commentary on the relationship between greed, fear, destruction and rebirth remains complicated and resists a simple reduction, even given multiple readings. However, it becomes ever more purposeful in its execution.

On my first reading, the narrative’s point of gravity felt muddled. I wasn’t sure what point the story, or the author, was trying to make. I had a vague sense of anti-capitalist sentiment, but I couldn’t reconcile it with the rest of the story. My second reading, although it did not give me a hard answer to the “point” of the story, felt successful in its complexity rather than ill-conceived.

Even the artwork grew on me with re-reading. I could immediately see the skill and expertise in Yahgulanaas’s paintings, but they just weren’t to my personal taste. Looking at these paintings now, I appreciate them wholeheartedly and wish that the paperback format had made use of the fact that this entire story forms a single piece of art when the pages are placed side by side. I think it would be extremely successful as an accordion book that could be unfolded into the original poster sized piece of art (but that would cost a small fortune, I suspect).

If you want to expand your reading into literary graphic literature, but don’t know what to pluck from the shelves of superhero comics at your bookstore, pick up Red. It’s a rough gem with a shining centre if you take the time to look for it.

Senica Maltese is a writing and English literature undergrad at the University of Victoria. 

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