December 27, 2010

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Red A Haida Manga

Written by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
Illustrated by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
D&M Publishers

An old legend of the Pacific Northwest is retold in brilliant colors by a pioneer of a new style of comics. Red is a young man who loses his sister in a raid. As he ages, Red rises to the head of his tribe. When the tribal leader sees his sister after so many years, he'll do anything to get her back. But will his actions lead to the downfall of everyone involved?

It's a classic story of the futility of revenge, as true here in a tribal society as it is in a modern criminal procedural. Regardless of the cause or players, revenge is often a bitter dish. Red pushes further and further, ignoring warning signs until it is far too late. Like any other tragedy, we as the reader can see it coming long before the characters do, and the pleasure is in finding out how the terrible scene is played before the reader.

That's the big problem here, however, because the way the scene is laid about before the reader doesn't work very well for me at all. I'm appreciative that Yahgulanaas is using the artistic styles of an indigenous culture, but they definitely were not designed to be read page by page, as the author even admits in the afterward (where he encourages the owner of the book to cut it up and make a mural from the remains). It was often hard to tell what was going on because the panel borders were broad black slashes that cut across the page in ways that led to awkward drawings. The figures frequently looked like they were made out of silly putty, flowing to fit what little room they were given. It just didn't work for me at all.

I'm also failing to see how this can be called "manga" because I cannot see any traces of the usual manga styles. It's possible Yahgulanaas is referencing some indie manga that isn't in the states in translation, but that's like saying an author is influenced by comic books (the single issue kind) and really meaning they draw in the style of Daniel Clowes. Manga is a term that has meaning to those who see it, and if you are going to use it for western publishing purposes, you need to know that. I'm willing to be flexible, but I kinda feel like the term "manga" was added to the title because just referring to it as a comic with influences in Haida culture would sell less books. I may be overly cynical here, but I feel like adding manga to the title gives this book a set of expectations on which it cannot possibly deliver.

I admire Yahgulanaas for trying to bring his cultural heritage to the masses in the form of a book. The problem is that this story, as illustrated, just isn't put together for the presentation we get here. I loved the vibrant colors, and if I saw this hanging on a wall where it belongs, I bet I'd spend all afternoon in a gallery reading it to see just how Red's drama plays out. This is a graphic novel, however, and you either need to go for a limited audience by printing it in an odder shape to better accommodate the nature of the drawings or adjust your illustrations to fit the requirements of the space you're breaking each page into.

Red does neither of this, and as a result, I was impressed and disappointed by the visuals all at the same time. I wish Yahgulanaas all the best in getting his artistic ideas out there, but I do not think a book form (or at least a small book like this) is the way to do it. Haida manga might be better served in an oversized hardcover instead. I'd love to see Haida artwork again, but not like this.