On Comics: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009) and Alan Moore & JH Williams III, Promethea #32 (2005)

by Shawn Gilmore

In this entry of On Comics, I want to connect two works that seem to be from very different regimes of comics: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’ Red: A Haida Manga (2009), a fable based on indigenous thems and Alan Moore & JH Williams III’s Promethea #32 (2005), the culmination of a myths-made-real series that ran as part of Moore’s America’s Best Comics line. Both have formal elements that extend beyond the traditional boundaries of the page or bound codex, requiring readers to imagine another, larger level of comics organization.

Red: A Haida Manga (2009)

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), cover

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, born on Haida Gwaii (off the coast of British Columbia), is a contemporary artist, working in a variety of painting, sculptural, and carving styles. He is considered the father of “haida manga,” which combines elements of North Pacific indigenous arts (particularly of the Haida people) with formal and stylistic properties of Japanese manga. Over a series of works, Yahgulanaas has explored both narrative and non-narrative means of combining these traditions, including murals and comics (for an overview, see “RE ME MB ER: The Hybrid Art of Michale Nicoll Yahgulanaas” and “Notes on Haida Manga” in the Fall 2008 issue of GEIST [warning: flash]).

In “Notes on Haida Manga,” Yahgulanaas writes

The comics format allows me to recombine simple iconic forms to develop complex meanings—and instant access to readers drifting in time and space. I was drawn to comics as a way of talking about complex things such as relationships between indigenous peoples and settler society.

I found manga attractive because it is not part of the settler tradition of North America (like Archie or Marvel comics, for example) insofar as manga has roots in the North Pacific, as does Haida art.

He goes on to give some examples of his process, which involves abstracting from traditional images and forms:

Yahgulanaas, “Notes on Haida Manga,” GEIST (Fall 2008)

He then goes on:

It is imperative that Haida manga incorporates contemporary social issues, that it speak to other people’s needs rather than merely to “mine.” [… So] these days I am discovering an appetite for exploring the new, finding new relationships—new types of relationships—and that is where the “practice of Haida manga has taken me.

The comics form encourages me to extract meaning and form where I find it, in the indigenous and the settler cultures, and to flip them upside down, reverse them, recombine them, to allow new meaning to emerge in a renewed form.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 5

Red is thus positioned as an explicitly hybrid comic, though the formal play lives not only at the level of the page or panel but beyond both. [I was introduced to Red via a great talk by Kate Kelp-Stebbins at the second annual conference of the Comics Studies Society, “Comics/Politics.”] Red (sometimes written as RED) is summarized on the artist’s site: “RED is the tragic story about a young girl named Jaada and her brother Red. They live together in a village on the west coast of Haida Gwaii. One night, pirates sneak into the village! Red calls out the alarm and everyone flees, but Jaada is captured. Years pass, and Red becomes a chief. He begins to search for his sister...”

The comic consists of 108 pages, with only a few, irregular “panels” per page. Figures are drawn in a shifting style, with a few visual markers signifying each character—such as Red’s hair—allowing readers to follow Red’s quest to rescue his sister. Early on, easy formal properties of the comics page, such as the stability of panel frames and gutters, are troubled by characters who are able to grab these formal dividers (as in page 5, right).

Indeed, some sequences veer into the abstract, with what would be traditional panel borders cutting through bodies, mangling space and time, or even (in this sequence on pages 30-31) becoming part of bodies and creatures.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 30

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 31

Some pages reveal the work’s interest in containment and the limits thereof. For example, on page 38, a multi-floor ship? with regular floors and division, topped with a haida caricatural head divides the space within the narrative, while being set inside a black panel line that arcs from a lower line through the middle of the page, exiting to the upper right. Other lines branch upward, creating small, seeming non-narrative panels. On page 58, Red tries to wake his sister, his body adbstracted into panels formed by arcs in the lower portion of the page, with his sister asleep in an arc in the corner. What’s going on here?

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 38

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 58

Yahgulanaas uses formline art here but in unusual ways. Typically used stylistically to fill areas around figures in North American indigenous art, here, these lines frame figures, and are used playfully for a wide variety of formal and narrative purposes in lieu of and traditional comics framing elements. [For an excellent overview of Yahgulanaas’ use of formlines, see this piece by Marie Mauzé in The Conversation.] For example, these formlines lend to the sense of awakening into panic as Red rouses his sister only to be found out as a “raider!” (pages 59-60).

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 59

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 60

Much later in the narrative, as things wide down, these formlines divide up various scenes from the coastal village, including the return of a longboat, returning ashore, and tribal iconography and masks (on page 96), as well as unloading supplies, and characters interacting on their return (on page 97). They even become part of the landscape itself, where the upper edge of a formline on page 97 becomes the forest floor for black trees that reach to the sky.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 96

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), p 97

In fact, these formlines signal that Red contains another formal level beyond the page. The pages of Red form both a comics narrative and combine to form a master narrative, which can only be fully seen beyond the pages of the book. Presented as an “overleaf,” this other way of looking at Red is prefaced by Yahgulanaas:

Red is more than a collection of bound pages, something more than a story to be read page by page. Red is also a complex of images, a composite—one that will defy your ability to experience story as a simple progression of events. […] I welcome you to destroy this book. I welcome you to rip the pages out of their bindings. Following the layout provided overleaf and using the pages from two copies of the book, you can reconstruct this work of art.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red: A Haida Manga (2009), overleaf

This mural version of Red reveals the previously-hidden flow of formlines and a broader image of three stylized faces which had overlayed the narrative of Red the whole time. Yahgulanaas has exhibited this version as a 15-foot mural, with separate prints of narrative blocks available for sale. The narrative can be read along each of the six tiers all the way across, but now if revealed to have been both constrained and made possible by formlines only seen fully in this larger form. Thus the composition and form of each page was only possible within the haida aesthetics that Yahgulanaas uses to make his hybrid “haida manga.”

Promethea #32 (2005)

One of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics (an imprint of WildStorm, which was an imprint of DC) series, Promethea, ran for 32 issues from 1999 to 2005. The loose “story” follows Sophie Bangs (as in, "wisdom fucks”), a college student who discovers that she is the latest potential vessel for the goddess Promethea, who can come into the real world from the realm of the imaginary under certain circumstances, including belief in the power of the fictional and participation in ritual sex. The series also concerned itself with magical history, Tarot, mysticism, superhero mythology, and the afterlife, and featured often spectacular art and page compositions from JH Williams III, such as this two-page spread from issue #10 (October 2000):

Promethea #10 (America’s Best Comics, October 2000)

Promethea #32 (America’s Best Comics, April 2005), cover

The series came to a close with an experimental final issue, #32 (April 2005), which featured 32 pages of cosmic art, each page only loosely connected to the others, some inverted, etc. The reading experience was preceded by “A Word About This Issue”:

The final issue of Promethea has several notable differences from previous ones. First off, a number of pages are upside down, we know. Secondly, the story is constructed so you can read it from front to back, yes, even the upside down pages, or it can be “unfolded” into a giant double-sided poster and read in a completely different order. Since this is a comic book that has been cut at the printer we had to cheat a little—you can’t actually unfold the book but you can carefully pull it apart and, using the numbers on each page as a guide (it will be four tiers of four pages), tape it all together to form the poster. Additionally, once the poster is completed, you will see two lovely images of Promethea only visible in this form.

The first pages, for example (below), features a nude Promethea with her twin-snaked caduceus super-imposed over splashes of pastels and stars. Speaking directly to the reader, she says “Well, my loves, we’re at the end. At the death, if you like…although like death, there’s plenty more surprises on the other side. But while we’re here and alive, let’s be glad. Let’s celebrate.”

In the upper right, the page is numbered 16, with the markers “Tarot path: the heirophant. Zodiac sign: Taurus. Color: deep indigo. Jewel: topaz. Plant: mallow. Perfume: storax. Animal: bull.”

And lower on the page two additional circles of text (on behalf of the creators?), tagged to Albert Einstein, “Einstein’s Spacetime is a timeless four-dimensional solid, containing every instant simultaneously, forever…including our lives. Death, therefore, is a perspective illusion of the third dimension. Don’t worry.” and James Joyce, “A funeral celebration, or wake, dominates James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in which all human experience is distilled into one timeless day. Cheers!”

Promethea #32 (America’s Best Comics, April 2005)

Promethea #32 (America’s Best Comics, April 2005)

A few pages later, the reader comes to page “1” with a more traditional beginning: “‘Promethea.’ An imaginary fictional character who manifests in reality through the artists and writers that tell her story. Obviously, the name’s a feminine version of Prometheus, which means “forethought”…which means “imagination” So that’s appropriate.” Another text circle in the lower right reads “Promethea is also a title character in The Book of Promethea by Helene Cixous, where she is ‘a heroine of infinity’ summoned from the writer’s imagination. The current authors were unaware of this work when creating their comic-book incarnation.”

With nearly no discernable narrative or formal flow, these pages combine direct address to the reader, meta-commentary from the creators, systems, and codes that have appeared through the series, and surreal imagery to boot.

Collected editions explain the method here, including Moore’s direction: “Okay, this is a very strange artefact we’re putting together here, but if we all stay calm it should work like a dream” (Promethea Book Five). Moore’s script described each page as

an abstract color field background composed of hundreds and hundreds of little dayglo dots. Printed against this in a metallic gold or silver we have one single line-drawing, with dialogue balloons, a couple of decorative panels which contain blocks of text, and a few other optional adornments.

With each page but a segment of one of two 4x4 page posters, one with “a portrait of the original winged-headpiece Promethea, and then a portrait of the new scarlet and gold apocalyptic Promethea,” which would be visible if all the issues pages were detached and assembled in the correct order, with one poster on each side.

Promethea #32 (America’s Best Comics, April 2005), poster

Promethea #32 (America’s Best Comics, April 2005), poster

These posters explode the comic itself, in an interesting formal parallel with Yahgulanaas’ Red. The overall pattern is only hinted at on any particular page but can be seen bleeding beneath any individual page’s image and text. This is very much in keeping with some of the surreal goings on in Promethea, especially those that force the protagonist, Sophie, to question her assumptions about her reality and why the fictional and mystical are held separate. At the end of a series that dwelt on matters of disrupting the typical narrative pattern of life, narrative pattern itself falls away, revealed to have been a false constraint on a larger pattern that can be seen by letting go (and cutting up one’s precious comics).

Pulled from the page

To wrap up, I want to note that the formal and conceptual moves put forward in Red and Promethea #32 are related to, but distinct from, a different formal move—when characters become aware of the comics page in which their stories occur [perhaps a topic for a later On Comics entry]. There are many examples of this latter trope, including a few issues earlier in Promethea when a character is momentarily pulled by a many-faced god from the flow of pages that constituted the ongoing story of Promethea, before being dropped back into a different panel:

Promethea #28 (America’s Best Comics, January 2004)

This sort of thing can occur when a character has the power to enter and exit the comics page, like an Animal Man or Deadpool, or in this example from Grant Morrison & Chris Weston’s The Filth (2002), where a character draws an opponent into the flat page (with a comical “splat!”), only to escape and glide into the next page leaving other characters mystified, with one saying “the killers vanished into…into nowhere":

The Filth #3 (Vertigo, October 2002)

Madman Atomic Comics #3 (Image, July 2007)

Or here, where Madman pops out of the page and has a hard time re-entering in Madman Atomic Comics #3 (July 2007). In the rest of this great issue, each panel is drawn in a classic comic-strip or comic-book style, as Madman attempts to re-integrate into his narrative after being formally and stylistically discombobulated.

What differentiates this form of disruption from that I’m trying to specify in Red and Promethea is that the comics page remains the same for the reader, even if characters become aware of it. In these examples, the characters become aware of their nature as comic-book characters and of the page itself, but that narrative knowledge is part of the story, and the book a reader holds and thus the experience and position of the reader remains unchallenged.

A final variant that is worth mentioning is Warren Ellis’ fictional concept The Bleed, which he introduces as part of this Stormwatch/Authority run as a space between realities and continuities, including between the WildStorm and DC Comics universes. Too complex to really take up here, The Bleed can be traversed with The Carrier (below) as the characters of Ellis’ linked narratives attempt to hold their narrative world together. The Bleed became part of DC continuity as well, when Green Lantern Kyle Rainer fell into it (below), establishing that the sometimes uneasy corporate relationship between WildStorm and DC could be represented by an uneasy fictional relationship.

The Authority v1 #3 (WildStorm, July 1999)

Ion #10 (DC, March 2007)