Thursday, 28 April 2016

Hellberta: Exit Interview with Michael Comeau

Michael Comeau is a Canadian cartoonist and artist living in Toronto. If you've ever been to Toronto's comic shop by excellence The Beguilling, you're familiar with his work as he's done the window art for as long as I can recall. Over the course of the past 8 years, Michael Comeau has worked on a comics called Hellberta, a political exploration of Canada's troubled relationship with the Oil industry, but also with culture and the dreaded "Canadian Identity" (whatever that means). I've had the chance to meet Michael at TCAF in 2014 and 2015 and we've been able to chat about his comics and his work. His latest comic Leather Vest has been nominated for a Doug Wright Award

Michael has agreed to discuss with me about the release of the collected edition his comic Hellberta published by Colour Code Printing. While normally, a collection of comics simply contain the same material, this collection contain additional material and re-orders the content. The first issue published in 2008 has been included as the final element of the collection while the third issue is now placed second. This changes slightly the way the text is read. It is much more focused in its approach as it splits the two main elements (meandering drawings of Canadian landscape and a reflection of what  Wolverine would mean in Canada) and separates them. I've edited things for flow.


Philippe Leblanc: I believe that the original comics had quite a limited run and that the collected edition has been published recently.

Michael Comeau: We had a few hundred or so of printed copies per issue. The collected edition was ready for CAB in November and we launched it here in Toronto in December. So it's been out for a little while and it's starting to make it's way out. I don't know how quickly, but, it's out!

PL: Do you like the end product you came up with? Is that final edition satisfactory?

MC: Yeah, in general I guess, but that's a weird question. I never know how to answer it. It's mixed feelings really. I don't have feelings of self-satisfaction. I'm already wanting to move on to the next thing you know. I'm glad to have gotten it done, I'm glad to get it out, but there's still and always will be something you could have done differently, or better, or faster, or...or anything you know. Whatever. I'm onto the next project. We launched it in Toronto and a few weeks later my band (New Horizzzons) launched a new record and already these songs feel old. I'm also in the midst of new comics, so it's mixed feelings. I'm as happy as I need to be, how's that?

PL: That's all you need to be. Before I go into questions about the comics, I wanted to ask, was there a demand for a collected edition of Hellberta? I guess I discovered it through Koyama Press's website and found it at the Beguiling and I've only ever seen one write-up about it by Tucker Stone. I know I was interested in it, but at large?

MC: A little bit, but I mean demand seems like too strong a word. It was more like "inquiries". But you know comics are weird. There's not a big demand for most of them. There was somewhat of an interest if I could quantify it. It's one of those things where I want to have it out to those who'd want it. My readership I suppose, but I don't want to overstate what that means. It's there for those that would seek it, but I don't want to assume much more. And working with small publishers also means that a big questions is "Can we get rid of the small print run we have in a timely manner"? And for the most part, this seemed feasible.

PLCan you tell us about Hellberta? What was your initial motivation in creating it? What were you trying to accomplish with Hellberta?

MC: I have a background in screenprinting and I used to do a lot of zines. I edited an anthology called Regal Beasts of which there are three issues. I always worked in the language of comics, but never released comics proper, or enough to fill a book. Around 2006, my marriage had broken up and I moved into a punk house filled with anarchist activists that were younger than me. That started a lot of things. I started playing music in my thirties and stuff like that. I lived with Calgarian ex-pats. Talking with them, I discovered that there was a real distinct Calgary activist culture that can be traced around the country. And living with queer & trans folks from this place that was experiencing a major economic boom, but also had a palpable sense of intolerance, was interesting. We ended up travelling to the West Coast to meet friends and I was going to do an art show in Vancouver. So Hunter, Nagata and a dog named Felony did a road-trip across the country and we were going to drive back afterwards. This prompted me to keep a "Cahier de voyage" as we were driving across. We were talking about Alberta and what it was like there. I mean there was a lot of money going around, but it was coming from environmentally-unfriendly business and that radicalized a lot of people where they were either for the oil companies or they opposed it. 

I was involved with Punch Clock, an anarchist print shop and we threw these events and parties informed by this queer activist spirit these people brought. It was interesting to hear folks tell us about all these interesting concepts and ideas like "the Calgary return", for example, a certain generation of activists returning to Calgary to change things. It was fascinating to be in that space and hanging out with these people and hearing about the Albertan hospitality, which is warm and welcoming for a short period, but if you overstay your welcome (however long it is), then that same hospitality makes way for intolerance quickly. There was a lot of different dynamics and traumas unfolding and the sketchbook was a way to parse through all of this stuff. The idea of going across Canada, what that's like and our Canadian identity which is stretching across Canada. At the same time, I was thinking about the Tar Sands and thinking about how you can quantify what it means to Canada, how can you quantify this draw of people from across Canada trying to go there, at Fort Mac, work in the Tar sands and make money there. And while there are statistics and schools of thought that talk about that, I didn't feel qualified. How do you speak about a road trip and those ideas and concepts we discussed the whole way without being didactic or anything? So as an afterthought, I wanted to finish the book with a Wolverine comic. We were talking a lot about land rights and native rights, and people being cut off from it and what it all means. I thought a good way to talk about this was to take a popular archetype from that area, reappropriate Wolverine and say "What would Wolverine do?" 

It allowed me to deal in more broad strokes so I don't need to be so specific. The band "One Hundred Dollars" had a song called Black Gold and in the verses it went "The ring on my finger is made with Black Gold" and that was very inspirational in how to go about being broad and addressing topics at the same time. So instead of doing the 88 page carnet de voyage first and the Wolverine comic afterward, I thought to invert them and put out the Wolverine comic out first and the second issue of Hellberta is the material that technically was done before that. For the collection, I've reordered it. The first issue comes last, the second issue comes first and the third issue is kind of in between. 

Hellberta was really an excuse to learn how to do comics. I grew up reading X-Men so I knew Wolverine. I wasn't really active in my reading of superhero comics, but I found it really annoying that his story was retconned to the point where it wasn't clear that he and his family were originally from Canada. When I grew up, his main origin was "Logan was found wandering the woods in the Rockies, his past is shrouded in mystery". He's a character who's torn between the present and the mystery of his past. But when his name is James Howlett and his family comes from England, it's like, no, no that's not Wolverine. But, much like there's different denomination of Christianity, there is with fandom attachment to cultural elements, especially in comics, I thought I'd reclaim a version, my version of the Wolverine as a way to easily to talk about Canada through a mythological figure.

PL: Reclaiming the Chris Claremont/ Len Wein original archetype to talk about Canada in a way.

MC: I find it interesting how the Wolverine character has evolved over the years. It gets you thinking about Canadian stoicism, and what that really means. I think of someone like Neil Young, when he released Le Noise, he was doing interviews and you saw him and thought "what a crotchety old hoser." It's hilarious, and he's got that heavy Canadian accent; he takes no shit. He's still doing what he wants and he's vicious. I found that interesting. I was also never a big Rush fan, but I remember Neil Peart leaving a big impression in that Rush documentary. He has that very aggressive humility of Canadians. He's very proper and tight lipped and is seen as one of the greatest drummers out there, but won't let anyone tell that to him. The way he is, is a very Canadian thing but is rarely displayed in media. You see it displayed all around you in Canada, that sort of aggressive meekness is really interesting. Perhaps, if he was more gregarious and able to say "well I guess I am the best drummer". His mannerism seems so Canadian to me. I know talking with Americans, when you say aggressive meekness, it sounds contradictory, but I'm so used to undermining the idea of Canadian "nice". We're not nice, politeness is not nice. As we were driving across Canada, we met all sorts of people, in big and small places. It was weird how people would treat us in different places, like those tight-knit proper places in the mountains. Close to the natural beauty there are a lot of white people, but away from that, it's more diverse. When we were in Vancouver, I had an art show in East Hastings and it was such a sketchy area, with people falling asleep standing up and just squalor everywhere. But then you walk a few blocks to West Hastings and Boom! Money! No one sleeping on the streets here. It's a different thing, if you want to be close to the water, that's money. If you want to be close to the mountains, also money, but in between, poverty and misery. As you're experiencing beauty, you also see that divide. In Toronto, of course there's racism, but it's so diverse, you don't really see the more definite Red/White divide that is in Canada. There's a lot of that identity of being nice that people project to the world, but when you dig ever so slightly under the surface, we're not nice. Just with the environment, we weren't fulfilling our Kyoto accords, slowing down progress in environmental causes, but we like to think we're nice and doing the right thing, merely because we're meek. And that's not necessarily so. It's just variations on the imperialism and colonialism.

PL: I find it interesting that this road trip is what pushed you toward making comics and Hellberta in particular. I was able to travel across Canada a lot more than ever before as part of my work. And being in Calgary, or Vancouver, you do see those sharp contrasts of going from the seedier parts of town and into the lush, expensive areas and these happen within a few blocks.

MC: I had an art show there and it was really funny, I was hanging out with friends, and I had the show, and I was going to DF at the afterparty afterwards. There was a mix of meetings with these Vancouver stoners who were freaking out I was going to DJ. They would say things like "what, you're doing what? you can do that?" Well yeah, I can do that, I called ahead, you can plan things. A couple bands played the art opening and then across the street was a practice space/venue for concerts, which I don't think is there anymore, the Regency Room. People came over and it was amazing; great bands played, we were having fun and I was DJ-ing. A friend brought some of his local native friends there and Hunter was getting weird vibes from someone and couldn't tell if it was racism, or just a drunk jerk in general. Eventually they left, and towards the end of the night, I started playing slower stuff to bring the energy level down. At some point, the owner in a panic asked me to turn off the music. So I did and I heard these screams outside. They locked the gates to prevent people from barging in and also locking us in and we saw these flashing lights outside.  I thought it was a raid, so I gathered my stuff nervously. When I caught up with my friends, I asked them what was going on.What began as a punk and art show devolved into a weird fight outside with a weirdo white woman screaming "this ain't your land you savages, this is our land!" It was just a conflict between a bunch of people who couldn't get along. I could hardly imagine this in Toronto, but in BC, that conflict seems so ripe because of the treaties signed for land with the natives were more blatantly violated and so there's this tension and conflict that's palpable there. Days before we got there, there was a protest and a 3-year old girl got pepper sprayed. So some of the people we were with told that woman that what she was saying was wrong and eventually, someone got punched in the face and a race fight broke out. Everyone's fighting outside until someone's head got smashed on the ground. The ambulance showed up and I'm shocked from having such a good time in "cool" Vancouver. The native woman we were with told us "What did you expect? Welcome to Vancouver". And the very next day, I had a very different attitude about Canada. You really see how attitudes collides. I didn't quite know how to express these types of anecdotes, but I allude to it in the book but it's seems vague. And it seems so long ago now. At the time I didn't know how to specifically address that, so I just thought I'd bring Wolverine into it.

The James Howlett Affair
PL: I find it interesting in the way you're talking about it. In part a political awakening, but a sense that things aren't as rosy as Canadians like to pretend that they are. I saw Hellberta as a political text from the beginning that borrowed these elements of pop culture to articulate your points. I find it hard to divorce the political nature of the comic in spite of the pop culture elements. Maybe it's because I'm in Ottawa and I see everything as political. Why did you want to bring Wolverine as a strong cultural element of comics to parse through all of your ideas.

MC: I found that the drawings coming out of the sketchbook being collaged together didn't mesh well enough. That anecdote I just said, I didn't know how to write that out. It didn't sit well with me: "Here's this story about a street fight I missed because I was DJ-ing". It was hard to start talking about a conflict that's been going on for a long time. In a nutshell, you can kind of know about this, I mean you have an idea of what it looks like, but to feel and to see it is different. My shock and upset about the proximity of someone saying "What did you expect?" was hard to articulate. In wanting to learn more how to do proper comics, I felt back on the language I knew, which were those of Wolverine comics. At the time, I didn't want to reference the Frank Miller or Chris Claremont comics, that's their thing. But then you realize that those are the languages everyone else references from Barry Windsor-Smith to whoever else. And then you realize that there is this classic archetype and I can string that along to experiment in narrative. That was a little bit more involved than a sketchbook with some drawings and a little bit of drawing to go with it. It was allowing me to plot a comic strip, or a comic book.

It was also about the ease of form as much as it happened to bridge the gap between what my understanding and power of expression in comics is.

PL: Was there anything you held back when you wrote Hellberta? Anything you wanted to tell and didn't or felt you couldn't include?

MC: Yes and no. There always is, but that doesn't really matter. I don't feel it hampered anything. If I go to The Beguiling and look at comic covers, there's this whole Wolverine and Sabretooth conflict and sort of "Violence as Sex" as a big element for me. If you derive violence for how people interact with each other, their violent feud is their love affair. I thought of what their love affair would look like and I mean, gosh, just get a room already. Them stab-fucking each other is something I left out. I definitely had some drawings of them stabbing each other as eroticism in my sketchbook, which I didn't include.

PL: Did Hellberta help you made sense of the world, or at least more of it than you did before?

MC: Sense of the world is hard to say. I do subscribe to the idea of creating work to understand something. Put the cart before the horse to feel like you can understand something. I think that the answer is yes in the way that it helped me understand the nature of narrative and how everything is a narrative. In the course of a day, we construct narratives for ourselves. We have about 3 hours of blind spots. You're blinking, you're unfocused, stuff like that. But if I ask you how your day was, you'd be able to string together what you thought the events of your day were. For so long, I'd do a poster, or a single image, but it's different to draw for something that's going to be pasted to a wall, as opposed to something that's going to be in a book. There is that universal thing of being able to create a collage of images on a page in the same way you can with words and sentences on the page of a book. They're both narratives. I don't have to be a great writer, I'm not, but I can string together images to create a narrative and that's less of a daunting thing now, but it's still a discipline that I struggle with. It's a different dimension in creating meaning in what you already do. I can do drawings, but if I order them in a narrative way, that creates a different dimension of value for whatever effort of drawing there is.

PL: That's interesting. One of the reasons I read your text as political was obviously the inclusion of Stephen Harper as the main antagonist, the defender of Big Oil businesses and pipelines.

MC: Yeah, every time an election would come, I'd think about it. It's like 1984 punk rocker. I remember Ian McKay saying he never wanted to put Ronald Reagan in the lyrics because it wouldn't be universal anymore. And that was in my mind when I included him, because that's the way people around me saw him, as such a villain and so sinister. It was a little bit hack and it's going against the grain of universality, but it was a funny way to tether that into a real world. And I'd always wondered if I should vote for him to make my book still relevant.

PL: I think you wrote Hellberta before 2011 right?

MC: Well it's a bit all over the map in terms of timeline, but I started it in 2007 and ended in 2014, so around that.

PL: As far as I can remember, Harper wasn't as hated or vilified across the board until the start of his third term in 2011. I certainly saw a shift around me of people who disliked him before, but really hated him afterward.

MC: It's interesting you see the work as so political, because I never saw it as all that. It's weird being around the activist culture I was with and never self-identifying as an activist because there's an attitude with it. I want more artistic freedom than that, but at the same time, that's the kind of what I know, the people I hang out with. It also makes me realize I'm not responsible for the gut reaction I had when I saw Harper. I heard terrible things about him and I didn't care to investigate more. Canadian politics, well all politics really, just seem appalling to me. It's Hollywood for ugly people, just uncharismatic people with naked ambition and that's just not attractive to me. I don't have the discipline to stay involved and that's why I think there's that broad kind of archetypal thinking in Hellberta. I can't give you an articulate argument about Canadian environmental policy or the real impact on Calgary and Alberta. But I can make broader points about the culture around this. It's easier to talk about it in broad terms because to me, Harper always was a villain.

PL: Do you feel that, now that it's a few years later and the Canadian political landscape has changed - we have a new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, the price of oil has crashed, the NDP is the Alberta provincial government - do you feel you could tell the same story today?

MC: I don't know, I don't really care. I don't invest too much hope in politicians. Maybe I should. I think at the time, I was reading about the Christian right in Canadian politics and it was mirroring what was happening in the US. Like if you think of George W. Bush coming from Texas, though I'm not sure he particularly was, culturally, he was representing Texas and this kind of Christian right. It spoke to an idea of spirituality and abusing ideas of spirituality, like promoting the concepts of Heaven and Hell, while at the same time, preaching denial of self to attain Heaven and undermining what it is that supports us here in this world. That irony is always very present in politics regardless of the spectrum. These fake hopes and morals being flaunted about and then desecrating what we have here on earth.

I heard someone talk about my art as a way to feed my soul. I just shrugged. When people talk to me about soul, it sounds like trying to sell real estate in a place that doesn't exist. You hear a lot of this fakeness like "your eternal soul is important" meanwhile those same people are totally trying to exploit your actual body, your work, what you need to survive, but hey, thanks for thinking about my soul. These things are always very present, although the language surrounding them tends to change every now and then. At the time, that was some of what was coming out more and more in Alberta, that Tar Sands are a bust and hyper polluting. There's all kinds of things that go with this. I mean when the United States, our closest neighbor and a kind of immoral drunk uncle, isn't interested in our gross Canadian dirty oil, you go "Oh no, our oil is so dirty you're right!" The players change, but Justin Trudeau isn't going to solve all our problems. Not that I even have the awareness to properly articulate what those problems might be.

PL: Switching gears from politics, let's talk about the character of Wolverine. There is a certain analysis of the character of Wolverine in your work that positions him as a sort of arrogant, tortured soul and a downright bizarre and aggressive individual. I liked the way you portrayed him as someone who would be really frustrating and weird to meet in real life. Why do you think there’s such an appeal for a character like Wolverine?

MC: I don't know. I think he's always had those contradictions. In the first issue I cast him as a sort of Christ figure. He's always crucified in an X and I find that really interesting. He's constantly sacrificing himself and being born again through his healing factor. He is a sort of sacrificial lamb. When I got to the second issue, I was done with the Tar Sands metaphor and I wanted to explore Canadian identity. Both my parents come from New Brunswick, from really small towns. We moved to Ontario, where I grew up. Whenever I go to New Brunswick, it seems like people knew that's where I was from. The idea of Canada and a certain Canadian trajectory is interesting to me. I really liked the Donald Shabib movie Goin' down the Road. It's kind of like a Canadian new wave film from the 70's. SCTV did a sketch of it and, obviously I saw that first, but it's about these hosers going down the road. They're gonna go from Cape Breton to Toronto and get jobs, but it turns out Toronto isn't that different and it's not that easy. It's got this beautiful shot of them walking down on Yonge Street in the mid sixties. I saw Wolverine and Puck as part of those guys. I remember in Alpha Flight, they would always allude to Puck and Wolverine being buddies. Almost like Wolverine as Popeye and Puck as Wimpy. So I put them both in a small town setting and I chose Sackville. That served a double purpose. There was a residency program I wanted to apply to there, you could say I captured the culture of the place, but mostly, it was near where my father grew up. 

I wanted to have them play out a small time maritime stereotype bullshit. A lot of it was thinking about what it would be like for them in a small time place. What would having a world-class assassin in a down low community; he kind of fits in, but he doesn't fit in. What does it mean to have those kinds of skills and power there in a banal way. In superhero comics, there's a lot of ratcheting up of conflict: the world is at stake, all of mutantkind is at stake, the universe is at stake. It's more about these bigger scale conflict, but what would the day to day be like? What would the dumb jokes people tell be? I thought, well what if these guys were like grown up Linus and Charlie Brown sitting at the bar shooting the shit. They're not smart, they're not insightful; limiting their understanding was important. Based on what we know of the world, in that place in the 70's, what would their understanding of the world be? They're just shooting the shit like ordinary people would, but they're extraordinary human beings in a very ordinary space. I wanted to have that conflict. 

The climax of the third issue: he's on fire and goes through berserker rage and there's no escaping the conflict for him. It's internal and he'd always be having this conflict within himself, but how does that man coexists with his environment? I found growing up in rural Ontario, walking late at night can sometimes be more sketchy than it would be to do so in downtown Toronto. Small places can be violent and sketchy in a weird way and that whole idea of going to a bar, drinking, fighting and fucking is a real thing. But what would that be like for Wolverine and how would he do it? How would the locals react? Would they taunt him? I think he's got all this violence and rage and I think that people would get a thrill out of egging him on and seeing the chaos that would ensue. That's a condition of his acceptance. He's not saving the world all the time. I can see that he would externalize his own internal Hell and that would be other people's amusement.

I watch World Star Hip Hop. Initially, it was covering current and new Hip hop and rap releases. It was kind of like an aggregator of news. People would debut a new video and it would be on there. It also became an aggregate of content that was interesting to their viewer. So it wasn't necessarily music or Black America, there's a lot of that, but there's also a lot of twerking, a lot of funny dumb shit, and a lot of fights. There are a lot of fights and the name World Star became a call name. Someone shooting a video of a bar fight with his phone and screaming "World Star", cause that's where it's going. This shit is really disturbing. Real fights are gross. They're messy and the dull thud of a fist hitting a face is horrifying, but it's riveting and you can't stop watching it. A lot of people fuck themselves up in that kind of state, and why not Wolverine? 

PL: So you're addicted to World Star fight compilation?

MC: Totally. I will watch that stuff for hours.

PL: I find it interesting the idea that the character, when you dig deeper into him, is only a guy with a knife in his hands and he heals quickly. He is not a grandiose person in any way. He would fit more into a rural town than anywhere else.

MC: In a way yes. He's astounding because he has these metal bones, he has a healing power, but he also has a heightened senses. He experiences the world differently than us, almost like a dog would. Whatever antisocialism you read in that book, I feel that he just communicates on a different level. He doesn't need conversation, he doesn't care about being intellectually smart when he's nose smart. He can tell when people are lying. I assumed in the book that he can tell when a woman is in heat or not. That whole idea of relating to people on a biochemical kinda way, you can't hide much from him and it's a more base existence, but perhaps also more natural and honest. In using him against the tar sands and thinking about what he would do, it's a different level of morality. If it's destroying his environment, he'd fight against it, a sort of nature-based morality. I was asked a few times "Wolverine wouldn't kill mounties would he?" Yeah, he totally would. He was abused by the Canadian government. I don't think he would care or think twice about it. That natural morality would, I think, allow him to see past what this industry really means, and what it really does. 

Do you remember in old Claremont X-Men comics, he would always go hunting and Ororo would say "Logan, you're gonna kill that innocent deer?" and he'd go "There ain't no skill in killin'. I get close enough to a deer to touch him". I always thought that idea was hilarious, that he would constantly be out in the woods trying to touch deers like it was the thing to do. I've seen that riffed on in different ways, but that stuck with me. If there was an oil spill and that deer got covered in oil, it would really mess his hunt. He'd be pissed!

PL: I find that there is an interesting aspect to his character. His inherent sadness coming from his lost identity. He doesn't know where he's from or who is. Do you feel the same way about the so-called "Canadian identity"? That it's lost, unknown and nonexistent?

MC: My smug answer when anyone asks me what my book is about is always "Well, you know, Canadian identity", because no one really knows what that is. That's always a Canadian anxiety that we don't know ourselves. I guess I feel this way, but it's also reductive. We're in the shadow of the United States and they're so well defined and we're not as much defined by comparison, but it's not that valid. Canadian identity is really fluid. A lot of people can lay claim to it. It's such a weird thing that those arbitrary borders are supposed to define our identity. There's what we think it is and what passively it is, but we don't know what it really is. There's what it means to others who meet us. If I talk to an American, I'll get asked about hockey, but I'm not interested in hockey. I grew up near it, I know people who love hockey, but me not liking it or playing it is just as valid a Canadian trait as someone who does. I'm Canadian not to have an attitude about it. I know how much I never played it, bu other people around me do play it. 

PL: The Canadian Identity is very elastic in many ways. I'm from Quebec City, a central hub of French Canada if you will and my understanding of the Canadian identity was it's bilingualism. But when I moved to Ontario, this view changed since French is not as prevalent as in Quebec City. French Canada is different in Alberta than it is in Quebec. There are about 225,000 French speakers there, and while those Francophones tend to be invisible, they are very much present. This doesn't invalidate the fact that Canada is bilingual; it's just more fluid.

MC: In art school you learn about modernism, post modernism and now we're in the post postmodernism era. It makes you think of culture in a more pluralistic quantum sense. Like there's idea and space around the word, it's not mono-meaning. We can kind of outline these things and stalk around what it means in different ways. That initial trip going across the country from Toronto was interesting in that everyone has an idea of Toronto and what it means to them. Some people hate Toronto and I got a lot of shit just from being from there. But it didn't matter to me. Toronto doesn't seem to care much for other cities in Canada and I think that irritates people. They don't realize Toronto is the pinnacle of the Canadian inferiority complex. No matter how bad some other places may feel about themselves, Toronto feels just as bad about itself. It's a moot point and an amusing contrast when someone from Vancouver says I'm from "Ontarrible". It doesn't matter; we're all in the same boat. 

My background is French Canadian. I have lots of Francophone family. I'm from New Brunswick and, though my parents don't speak French at all, French is the closest other language that I know, though I have that shame of not knowing it. I'm not bilingual, but it's familiar. I like that familiarity, but it can also be frustrating because I don't know it enough. I remember being frustrated in French class. There's an interesting conflict in Montreal because of the language. Do you speak English? Do you speak French? That keeps this place really cloistered because you can't live there properly unless you're bilingual. Everyone wants to live there because it's so hip, but it's only hip because you can't live there. It's an interesting push and pull that I find attractive, but I've learned to negotiate those differences faster by realizing that I'm not going to be apologetic for not speaking French. They can speak English better than I can speak French, but even if they don't, we can still achieve to understand each other. Being apologetic all the time means we can't break that awkwardness to get to a point where two individuals are understanding each other. I think Francophones appreciate that a bit more even though it's a bizarre way to deal with the perceived "conflict of our nation". I've gotten a bit more ruthless at getting there and letting people know I don't speak French, but cutting quickly to trying to reach out and understand the other person and getting on with our stuff. It's interesting how things that I wouldn't claim as my identity in Toronto surface depending on where I end up in Canada. It's interesting that there are broad categories and all of these subtle differences.

It's still an ongoing shame I'm not bilingual. I have small victories when I'm in Montreal when I can understand what someone just said. But then it's gone and I get frustrated. I could get more to a cruising altitude instead of just going up and down if I was in Montreal more. 

PL: If it's any consolation, most of my friends back in Quebec are not bilingual either. Some can't say a word of English to save their lives.  They'll understand very basic stuff like maybe "yes", "no" and possibly "toaster". My wife is from the GTA and when we got married, both our families and friends were together in one room. People still managed to converse. Bilingual people would translate stuff, but the Francophones and Anglophones were able to chat and hack their way through a conversation with each other just fine.

MC: I love that kind of stuff. When I was young, I went to Quebec for a summer to learn French. I was in Lennoxville. At 11 years old, I was the most proficient I ever was in French because of that immersion. You can read people and understand them for sure. I hang out with francophone artists and even though there is a sense of what English and French means, the divide is a nice contrast. I like it. It may breed an idea of conflict, but I'm not so sure, we can all get along. I'd be happy if there were even more prominent languages in this country.

PL: Now that Hellberta is complete and you can turn the page, what will you be working on now?

MC: Well my band New Horizzzons put out a record. We have a 36 page booklet that has a download in it for the record. I'm working on a series of flyers for a hotel and a sci-fi comic for Koyama Press. That last one is a pretty long project and it's my first time making something over 100 pages. I have a couple of other small projects on the go, but I don't know when those'll be ready. I work in a storm of various activity and I end up reining it in. I'll try to have something ready for TCAF, possibly a sketchbook, or impose narrative on top of existing drawings. The Sci-fi stuff should be ready next year hopefully. Annie wanted to do another book so this has been getting traction. I'll try to use various styles in that comic and play with the idea of the media the people are consuming in that universe.


All images from Hellberta and Michael Comeau

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