Narratives from the oral tradition are the oldest and most integral pieces of culture and history. Writing them down grants them (in our perception) an authority, allowing them to be drawn upon for updates through adaptation. Red by First Nations artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is a graphic novel that combines indigenous Haida art and story with Japanese-styled illustrations to create a new genre: Haida Manga. The visuals present a unique fusion of aesthetics with ink and watercolor, painting beautiful art and expressing a tragic native story accessibly for all ages.
Two orphan siblings, Red and Jaada, live together in a peaceful village on the Pacific Northwest Coast. One day raiders come to attack the village but flee when the boy kills a man and yells out an alarm. Everyone is saved but for Jaada, who had been carried off in the pirate’s flight. Red loses his closest family, half his world. As years pass he grows into a leader consumed with hatred for his loss. Red militarizes his people with weaponry and a whale-shaped submarine hoping to take revenge. Surrounding peoples begin to fear him, and when Red is told the location of his sister and her captors, his wrath is unleashed.
Complexities in the illustrations play off the simplicity of the storyline, but it still may lead to confusion. It feels like some content is lost in the translation of an insider’s context to an outsider audience. Though it is never too disjointed to understand, it is clearly made for the Haida Nation. The manga’s format deviates from expected linearity, and the panels are divided by curving ink strokes of varying thickness. This design uses the form line to fit the pages together like a puzzle, connecting the original 5 meter piece of art shown at the back of the book. Yahgulanaas encourages his readers to cut his book apart and put them together, to have his readers interact with the story, to control its presentation like a storyteller of the oral tradition. This is not only a book, a mural, but a gift of Haida culture. His lecture from the Robson Reading Series on illustrative storytelling provides more insights to his process and can be viewed here.
Red is available from Amazon.