March 11, 2010

Review of SACRED CIRCLES #1-2

A year or two ago, I acquired two Native comics: SACRED CIRCLES #1-2. Here's the story on them:

Legends with a modern twist.(Mishtapew Winners ... Sacred Circles explains Indian myths in comic book form)

By Cheryl Petten
January 1, 2004
Move over Superman. Step aside Spiderman and Batman. There's new trio of heroes ready to take the comic book world by storm, and their names are Jesse, Tyra and Chad.

The three are the unlikely heroes of Sacred Circles, a comic book launched by a new comic book company, Birch Bark Comics.

Both the company and the comic book are the brainchild of Brandon Mitchell, a 23-year-old artist and entrepreneur from Listuguj, a Mi'kmaq community located in southeastern Quebec, along the border between Quebec and New Brunswick.

The idea of creating a comic book came to Mitchell a few years back, in November of 2001.
Sacred Circles

By Mark AllenLong ago, a medicine man sought to harness the power of the spirits of the forest, for his selfish gain. Imprisoned by said spirits, for his affront, his evil is ended....until the arrival of modern man, 300 years later, in the form of a man-and-wife archeological team, with children in tow. As might be expected, a series of actions by said group awaken the long-bound spirit, still intent on evil. Chaos ensues.

That's the long and short of Sacred Circles #1, from Birch Bark Comics. While not the most original of concepts, it is wrought with potential, and, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful works to hit comic racks this year. Brandon Mitchell pens an enjoyable tale, made so by characterization, more than plot. The children (a brother, sister, and brother's buddy) steal the show in this title, their "Our Gang" type antics lending a chuckle, compounded by a feeling of impending disaster; gotta LOVE that feeling.

Even more attractive, however, is the art by penciller Nicholas Bradshaw and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu.

The Sacred Circle website claims the work is "Sure to please fans of comics as well as animation..." They're not wrong. Scoring a very "Disney" look, the style is beautifully appealing, and just plain fun! Great for high-action sequences, which seem, largely, to drive the tale. If I had to complain, I suppose it would be about the near-inability to read the translation script at the bottom of the panels in which characters are speaking their native language.
Comment:  Here's my take on these comics:

The good

Probably the best part of the comics is the sheer normalcy of the Native family. The loving parents are researchers of some sort. The kids' favorite pastime seems to be skateboarding. If artist Bradshaw didn't draw them like modern-day Natives, you might not guess their ethnicity.

The setting--a campsite in a forest--is also normal. When you see modern Natives in comics, often they're angry about something. Or they encounter racism or poverty almost immediately. Or a wise elder says something cryptic or shows them a vision.

Only a few Native comics--e.g., those by the Healthy Aboriginal Network--have achieved this level of normalcy. That's good.

I can't tell if Mitchell is retelling or making up the story's Mi'kmaq lore. The animals spirits who speak Mi'kmaq and disguise themselves as humans feel like part of the culture even if they're not. This contrast between the relentlessly modern kids and the ancient spirits has potential. As in The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter, it's usually entertaining to see kids discover an unseen world of magic.

The bad

I disagree with Allen about penciler Nicholas Bradshaw and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu. The art has a lot of energy and it's occasionally impressive. But overall it's a mess. Characters are at weird angles or cut off by the borders. Sometimes the art is difficult if not impossible to decipher.

The cover below is fairly representative. It's an action-packed scene of...strange shapes in no discernible pattern, all colored in the same mid-range tones. Can you tell what it's depicting? I couldn't until I stared at the full-size original for several seconds.

Beaulieu's coloring is as muted as the shadowy forest. It adds a murky sense of verisimilitude, but it's hard to read. This is one case where bright, unnatural colors would've worked better.

The ugly

I'm guessing Mitchell didn't have any children when he wrote SACRED CIRCLES. His version of the parent-child relationship is terrible. The first time the parents leave the kids alone, Jesse ties Tyra to the underside of a tree branch high off the ground. How did an 8-year-old manage to get a 6-year-old into the tree against her will? Did he sedate her with a date-rape drug? Did he use a forklift, or at least a block and tackle system, to lift her? Or did she volunteer to hang beneath the branch like a koala while the boys looped a rope around her?

The boys terrorize her the way Spider-Man terrorizes criminals: by holding them helplessly suspended over thin air. Yet when the parents return, all they do is free Tyra and comfort her. They don't say anything to Jesse or Chad about endangering her. Nothing like, "If you ever do that again, you little sociopaths, we'll have you committed to a psych ward."

Aiming to win the "Worst Parents of the Year" award, the adults leave the children alone again--at night. Forget the ancient spirits. We have to hope this forest doesn't have bears or child molesters or campers who stupidly start fires. If one of the kids injures himself, he may die before help arrives.

Proving his parents' stupidity, Jesse decides to skateboard down a rocky path in the dark. The others rightly think he may kill or injure himself. Fortunately he comes out unscathed, but still.

What else does Jesse do when his irresponsible parents aren't looking? Bully other kids? Torture little animals? Cut himself? Jump off roofs thinking can fly?

Obviously Mitchell meant these antics to be lighthearted fun. The equivalent of a Looney Tunes cartoon where characters defy the laws of physics without harm. Okay, but that destroys any chance of taking the comics seriously. I wasn't worried about the children in the cartoonish Home Alone and Monster House and I'm not worried here. If the big bad villain is no worse than Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, who cares?

Sorry to be so negative about this, but I see articles about violence against Native women almost every day. It's an epidemic in Indian country and this comic doesn't help any. There's nothing funny about tying up and terrorizing little Native girls.


I gather Birch Bark Comics stopped publishing SACRED CIRCLES after two issues. Too bad. I'd call it an experiment with mixed results, but at least it had potential. With clearer storytelling--both writing and art--it could've been a fine Native comic.

For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

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