Radio — Sharing grassroots histories and radical ideas through comics

nicole marie burton is a comics illustrator and the founder of the Ottawa-based independent publisher Ad Astra Comix. Her most recent project is a collaboration with University of Toronto historian Kassandra Luciuk, called Enemy Alien: A True Story of Life behind Barbed Wire, published by Between the Lines. Scott Neigh interviews burton about radical comics, about Ad Astra, and about Enemy Alien.

The last decade has seen a blossoming of political comics, graphic novels, and graphic histories grounded in struggles for justice and liberation, in the context of overall growth in comics readership. Though these forms of artistic and political intervention have much longer histories, today’s guest sees a number of reasons for their recent upsurge in popularity. In part, burton relates the overall growth in readership to an increasing openness by teachers and librarians to comics, particularly for young people for whom the graphical component might help deal with barriers related to reading and language but more generally as well. She also sees a role for the rise of both “maker culture”, which valourizes a wide range of indepenent creation, and crowdfunding models, which make it easier to publish outside of a politically confining mainstream. In addition, she argues that scholars and scientists, including those with radical politics, are recognizing the increasing importance of reaching people beyond the bounds of the academy with their work, and comics are one of a number of media that they are using to do that.

burton has been actively making art since she was a child, and in high school seemed set to go the route of art school followed by some kind of professional career. As she learned more from older friends about the challenges of making a living in such a career outside of corporate design work, she made a radical change in direction. Instead, she spent four years in Vancouver as a student and a full-time organizer for a communist group, and after leaving that organization spent the rest of her 20s working various service sector jobs.

In 2013, burton started Ad Astra as a pop-up shop to sell political comics at punk shows and book fairs. Over time, it grew. Eventually, it became a collective. And the collective members decided they wanted to try making the transition from grassroots distribution to independent publishing. In particular, they noticed that it was very common to run across comics that were politically solid but artistically mediocre, or that were visually beautiful but were not so great in terms of their politics. They saw a niche and thought they could fill it.

One important decision that they made early on was to fund their work in a non-traditional way. They use crowdfunding, which in this context amounts to having enough people pre-order each book so that they have the resources to actually produce it. Their first four projects as they got established were reprints of one kind or another, and then they moved on to original pieces.

These days, most of burton’s energy goes into her own work as an illusrator, in which she works with scholars, nonprofit organizations, and political groups to produce comics that help to disseminate their ideas.

Enemy Alien got its start when, in the course of her work as a historian, burton’s collaborator Kassandra Luciuk discovered an unpublished memoir by a man named John Boychuk. It turned out to be an exciting find – the most comprehensive testimony ever discovered by someone who was a detainee in Canada’s first national internment operation, which took place during the First World War. Enemy Alien tells Boychuk’s story.

During the war, people deemed to be an “enemy alien” were subject to detention. That largely ended up meaning Ukrainians but also people from a wide range of ethnicities with Austro-Hungarian passports. Boychuk was detained by the police in Toronto then sent to Kapuskasing by train, where in the winter of 1914-15 he and hundreds of other men had to build their own barracks. Over the next several years he faced a life of imprisonment, abusive guards, and forced labour. His story is one of bleakness, boredom, hunger, and fear, but also moments of joy. And it shows resistance – riots and hunger strikes, slowdowns and a union drive.

In telling this story, burton and Luciuk open a personal window into one of the lesser known episodes in the long trajectory of state-driven harm that has been so central to Canadian nation building.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Used with permission of nicole marie burton.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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