Previous Active History posts (see here, here, and here) have examined the use of comics in telling – and interpreting – stories about the past. In this post, Ryan O’Connor (RO) interviews Steph Hill (SH), the writer-artist behind A Brief, Accurate Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (Mostly in Canada).
RO: This is a really interesting project. What is it that drew you to creating a graphic history of the environmental movement?
SH: I had the idea when I started canvassing for an activist group here in Vancouver. We were going door to door around the BC election, and I was surprised at how often the people I was walking with knew pieces of environmental history, but not the general story. I thought it would be neat if you could give someone a short summary of what environmental activists had started off doing, where they had succeeded and where they had failed. Actually, that was my second thought. My first thought was an in-depth series of case studies of environmental campaigns that succeeded and failed, but that’s more of a book than a booklet.
RO: What are the advantages of telling this sort of story in this medium?
SH: Since my goal (assuming people actually read the thing) was to give both a brief and accurate primer to environmental history, the comic format made it possible to take in a topic more or less at a glance. One page per decade or issue. If I’d really been thinking I would have put taglines on each page, too. “The eighties: Eco goes corporate!” And, at the risk of sounding flippant, I find it easier to make jokes in comics than in writing.
RO: As author and illustrator of this project, what sort of research did you have to undertake? Did anything surprise you during your research?
SH: The funny thing is that at first I thought I could just do it from memory. I studied politics and environmental studies in university, and I was trying to keep it general, so I figured I’d just write it. I think I made it through three panels before I had to go hit the books. I stumbled into some of my research (a New Yorker article, “When the Earth Moved”, by Nicholas Lemann gave me a little direction), and the rest I hunted down, especially what happened between the founding of Greenpeace and the oil pipeline debates today. It helped that I’m from BC. I knew that the logging protests happened somewhere in the middle, and I knew that activism today is a serious, organized business that mostly doesn’t muck around with the language of radicalism. The NiCHE podcast [ed: on the history of the environmental movement] was invaluable. I was actually surprised not to run into more books and articles tackling the broad outline of environmental activism, but maybe that’s a good thing. How much generalization can the world really take?
I was surprised at the quick turn-around between the counterculture sixties and seventies and the down to business eighties and nineties. Environmentalists are pragmatic folks, it would seem. I’m also little surprised that the environmental debate became so partisan. It seems like something with a lot of room for agreement.
RO: What’s your background with comics? Are you a longtime reader? How long have you created your own?
SH: Oh boy. Me and comics. I did not read comics from an early age at all, though I was a big fan of the various animated superhero shows that were around. It seems like I properly discovered them for the first time in high school when I ran into Erika Moen’s autobiographical webcomic Dar!. I was blown away at how much personality and story could come through in a few panels, and at the range of topics that can be tackled with drawings. From there I fell pretty deep into comics of every kind. I started making my own over two years ago now. I was at loose ends in Victoria, BC, and a comic book making course started up at Camosun College. My very cool family mentioned how I would never forgive myself if I didn’t take the course. They were probably right. Thank goodness we’ll never know!
RO: What artists and writers influence your work?
SH: Well, aside from Erika Moen (who I once met on a ferry where I utterly failed to communicate my love and admiration), Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant) and Lucy Knisley (Stop Paying Attention, Relish) are probably the biggest influences on my drawing and the kind of work I do. All three make non-fiction comics, but of very different kinds (sexy autobio; history and Canada; food, life), and all three are pretty funny. I’ve learned a lot from Gareth Gaudin of Legends Comics and Books, and his comic projects, The Magic Teeth Dailies and Monster Sisters. Plus, I love his wavy lines and all the white space in his drawings.
Oh, and Jeff Lemire, who makes it okay to draw with squiggly lines that don’t always meet up.
RO: Are there any historical comics or graphic novels that you recommend others read?
SH: Well, I’ll just assume any readers of Active History are already big fans of Kate Beaton and her hilarious comics [ed: we are, see here]. Those things made me at least three times more curious about Canadian history than I was before. If you don’t know, Kate Beaton makes comics that involve, among other things, Gabrial Dumont and Louis Riel debating strategy, and Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole having an intense Crimean War nursing rivalry.
To answer this question, I just wandered over to my bookcase and pulled a selection. This is not an exhaustive list! I’ve also taken a loose interpretation of historical, because I think one of the biggest things about keeping history alive and important is presenting as more than a play-by-play of things that happened a long time ago.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
I just did not know anything about the Boxer Rebellion before I heard of this comic. Yang does a beautiful job of telling individual stories that also happen to coincide with historical events.
Red by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
This is more of a legend, but also hinges on the upheaval and confusion as Europeans and aboriginal people clashed on the West Coast. I love how the story is Shakespearean in scale and tragedy.
The Spectral Engine by Ray Fawkes
Warning! This thing is full of ghost stories. I did not know that when I bought it and I scared the hell out of myself. Thirteen historically documented ghost stories told with beautiful, beautiful art.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming
This world travelling story details the life of Ann Marie Fleming’s grandfather, a magician and acrobat from China who travelled the world with an incredibly successful vaudeville act. I was so fascinated by his happy marriage to a woman from Austria, and the incredible globe-trotting life he and his family led.
Two Generals by Scott Chandler
A story of two young men from Canada fighting in World War II. The illustrations are really lovely.
RO: What are the benefits, as you see them, of publishing direct to the internet?
SH: Access to readers, as much as anything. The way you write and draw for an audience is a lot different than what you write and draw for yourself. There are a lot of chances to try different things and learn what works for you, rather than trying to work your way through an editor (not that that’s a bad idea).
There’s also a degree to which the internet allows you to talk to people about what you’re doing and engage in dialogue with people you don’t necessarily already know. After my comic went up on the NiCHE blog, I was contacted by someone who has been very active in environmental activism in the sixties and seventies and we’ve had a number of long discussions.
To learn more about Steph Hill and her work, you can check out her website, www.sahill.ca.
Ryan O’Connor is author of The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (UBC Press), which will be released on November 15, 2014. You can learn more about his work at www.ryanoconnor.ca.