May 20, 2009

Residential-school comic-book videos

The Healthy Aboriginal Network (HAN) has posted the first draft of another comic book--this time on the residential-school scandal. Again:HAN is using YouTube to test the story outline and concept with online focus groups and to collect their feedback. The feedback will be used to develop the final draft of the comic which will be published in full colour for distribution.

Rob's reply

Another nice set of videos. I liked the art, especially the abstract trees, buildings, corridors, windows, and so forth. This looks like it might be a Jay Odjick production. Maybe add writing and art credits to the videos?

The cartoon style works for the characters too. The only thing I didn't like was the boy's cheek drawn at a right angle ending in a point. It's so unreal that it took my mind off the story.

I'm curious which age group is the intended audience for this comic. To me it reads like a pre-teen comic. If that's your goal...great, I think you've achieved it. You can ignore most of the comments that follow.

If you're aiming for a teen audience, I think you're underestimating them. Or maybe I'm overestimating them, but let's go with the first assumption. The story seems a bit too simple and straightforward to engage today's jaded teens.

My impression is that it will engage younger children but perhaps not older children. Which is okay if that's your goal. But my approach is always to aim high. Write the comic for older kids so they'll read it and so younger kids will aspire to read it. I was always intrigued by comics I couldn't quite understand, and I appreciated them all the more when I finally did understand them.

Anyway, it may be too late to make any kind of major changes. But this critique will tell you what I'm thinking, at least. If these thoughts don't influence this comic, they may influence the next one.

Although I'm advocating changes, I'm not necessarily suggesting you make the comic longer. I understand you have funding limitations. I'm suggesting you make it denser, with more going on in each panel. This also has the advantage of making it more interesting to older readers.

Specific comments

As always, I want more concrete cultural details. Giving the kids Native names is a good start. How about naming the year, province, city, or boarding school in which the story takes place? Give the priest and nuns names too.

As far as I can tell, you have three kids with proper names and no other specific details. This story could take place anywhere in Canada over a 25- or 50-year period. To me that's not good.

The opening scenes of playing in the forest seem too long to me. You could save some space there. And I thought Canadian lakes were supposed to be icy cold. Are these kids immune to the cold? And why are they jumping in with their clothes on?

The kids seem too generic to me. Plucky boy and girl and...what else? Can you name one or two traits that make each kid a unique individual rather than a plucky archetype? Because I can't, and that's a problem.

I'd consider having the kids refusing to go to the school and the priest having to drag them to the car. That's kind of a cliché--see Rabbit-Proof Fence for an example of this--but the way it is now, it lacks drama. Has the father heard how bad the boarding schools are, or is he ignorant about this? I can't tell from his attitude, and that's something we should know.

I'd consider having a scene where the kids' long hair is cut off. As it is, the story avoids a prominent source of trauma. This might be another cliché, but again, the introduction to the school is somewhat lacking in drama.

I'd suggest adding a whole layer of complexity to the school scenes. Instead of two boys and one girl, show four boys and two girls. One boy could be a bully/martinet type who wants to stay in school and get ahead. Another could be Peter the confidante--but give him an additional trait such as being a practical joker. Another could be a weak or sickly boy. As for the other girl, she could be a gossip/tattletale.

I'd suggest adding a similar layer of complexity to the adults. Right now the priest and nun are too blatantly villainous. Have a good priest as well as a bad priest or a good nun as well as a bad nun. I think a good nun who sincerely thinks she's helping the kids by smothering them with God's love would be more chilling (and interesting) than your Gestapo-style characters.

Kids think the darndest things

The kids seem like they're 8 or 9 years old. I guess they act in age-appropriate ways. But I kind of wish they were a few years older. Then they could have more complex thoughts that would engage readers like me more. Perhaps thoughts like these:I don't understand. They say Jesus loves me, but his woman keeps hitting me with a stick. What would she do if he didn't love me.

I must pray to the Creator xxx [proper name]. You are strong, o great one. Please come and battle the Christian god for me.

Our culture gave up slaves long ago because the Christians told us to. How odd that these Christians still keep slaves--us.
In other words, I'd like to see much more of a clash of cultures. The nun tells the boy to pray to God for forgiveness. How would a typical Native boy react to that? A response such as "I've failed you, father" is totally generic. I want something specifically Native and not generic.

The classroom scenes are another opportunity for a culture clash. Show the kids learning English, which would be a good thing. Since the residential schools did educate people, they weren't wholly bad. But while the kids are learning something useful, have them learn something useless, like--I dunno--the names of the countries in Africa. And the boy thinksWhat kind of school is this? I could be learning how to hunt and put food on the table. Or how to find herbs that cure illness. Instead the teacher is chirping like some crazy bird. I don't understand a thing she's saying.Again, think culture clash.

The great escape

The big escape is yet another opportunity for drama. Have the sickly boy die overnight. Have the tattletale snitch that the kids are about to escape. If the priest has molested the girl, make that more explicit (but not too explicit). Perhaps he's alluded to wanting her, which gives the kids another reason to speed up the escape.

Incidentally, is the bed the boy pushes on wheels? It looks too heavy for a kid to slam it into somebody.

Have the rotten nun be the one to grab the boy in the window. She deserves a kick in the face. (Sample dialog: "How dare you kick a woman of God?!" "If a ugly old bear grabbed you, wouldn't you kick it too?")

Have the jokester kid sacrifice himself so the boy and girl can escape. That's more dramatic than the way it is now (Peter's sick so he has to stay in bed). This story needs a sense of loss to make the boarding-school tragedy more real.

As it is, the whole Peter thing is too obvious. The first time he coughs you think, "Oh, okay...Peter obviously won't escape because he's sick." My version is less predictable. The sick kid dies--readers didn't know the boarding-school saga was so grim. And the healthy kid gets caught--readers were sure the jovial Peter would escape too. Surprise!

Again, see Rabbit-Proof Fence for an example. Two kids escape, but their friend is captured. Peter's whole life will be dramatically different than theirs. Yes, it's tragic, but that makes their escape all the sweeter. He doesn't have a chance, but they do.

For more on how horrific the residential schools were, see Irish Children Abused Too. For more on the Healthy Aboriginal Network's comics, see Gang-Prevention Comic-Book Videos and Comics Good for You.

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