The Beast: An Interview

Published in April 2018 by Ad Astra Comix, The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet is a unique combination of scholarly research and creative writing with the comics medium.

From the press kit:

“The Beast was born from a concern that there is a lack of genuine public debate over the tar/oil sands with the social imagination polluted by incessant public relations campaigns. Instead of discussion and reflection, the public is forced to “pick sides”: the environment or the economy; protestors or industry; live with or without oil. Indeed, the binaries of this debate are captured in the six full page mock advertisements each of which explore tropes deployed in the battle over bitumen including national pride.

The Beast was commissioned and developed by Professor Patrick McCurdy in the Department of Communication, University of Ottawa as part of his SSHRC funded Mediatoil (www.mediatoil.ca) research project which explored the evolution of oil/tar sands advertising in Canada. Professor McCurdy worked directly with Ottawa’s Ad Astra Comix — Hugh Goldring (writer) and Nicole Burton (illustrator) — to call into focus the relentless and short term struggle for hearts and minds, the clichés, the binaries, and tropeswhich dominate and cloud public discussion around the tar/oil sands.”

The Beast provides a nuanced narrative with no “good guys” or moral lessons. The creators also create space in the book for indigenous perspectives on the matter, as evidenced by art and an essay by Terrance Houle at the end of the book.

We reached out to Ad Astra Comix for an interview on the creation process and the use of comics to communicate research outcomes.

Q: Patrick details the academic research background of The Beast in the foreword. The Mediatoil research project he conducts, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, provides a database of promotional material on oil/tar sands in Alberta disseminated by various stakeholders. The idea to publish a graphic novel based on this research came from a desire to engage the wider public beyond scholarly circles who are often the sole readers of scholarly work. What makes comics the ideal medium to reach a wider audience?

Hugh Goldring (HG): Comics are a vulgar medium in the best possible sense of the word. They put the reader at ease by virtue of their format. That’s a trust that can be broken if you make the mistake of filling your comic with technocratic jargon, but we’ve avoided that here. Comics can be cut up into shareable images on the internet. They can be read relatively quickly. They are friendly to readers who have literacy issues or speak English as a second language. Most importantly though they are usually fun to read. That’s more than I would say about a lot of academic monographs.

Patrick McCurdy (PM): Peer reviewed scholarship is the bread and butter of academic life. While I continue to produce such scholarship producing a comic allows me to reach an audience who may not otherwise read my work. However, it also forced me to think about the oil/tar sands debate in a different light. I was already studying the various narratives, images and tropes used in the ongoing battle over bitumen but thinking about them in the context of a comic forced me to boil down the key tensions, debates and images which defined the struggle. In commissioning and producing the comic, my objective was to create something which could also be used in the classroom not only to spark conversation and reflection over energy but to introduce students to key literature, themes and ideas within environmental communication and the energy humanities. Thecomic can be used to introduce, reflect upon and link with key readings in these and other fields interested in energy transition, environmental communication, the energy humanities, social movements and so on.

Q: There are a number of scholarly comics and pieces of comics journalism that have engaged the public in conversation about important social issues. Did you consider creating a non-fiction comic based on Patrick’s research? How did the decision to create a fictional narrative/characters come about? What are the benefits of a fictional comic over a non-fiction comic in this context?

PM: Early on it was clear that I wanted this to be a fictional comic. While my research outlined key dates and events (protests, pipeline hearings, government announcements etc.) I was more interested in the visual and discursive conventions and tropes used by stakeholders in the battle over bitumen. A fictional narrative provided more latitude and liberty to explore these themes and was what I had in mind when I approached Ad Astra about the project.

HG: The decision to do a fictional comic was made very early on. I don’t think we discussed doing a non-fiction comic very extensively. Discussions of advertising and how it shapes public discourse is very important but also fairly abstract. If we wanted to hold the attention of an average reader we needed to put it in human terms. Thus a story that is about not only advertising but also privilege, precarious employment and existential angst.

I think this is related to the long format of the graphic novel. Non-fiction comics adaptations of research are good when they’re short and can be shared widely and freely. The kind of person who is willing to sit down and read a 100 page non-fiction comic would probably read the book, too. So the decision to make it a fictional comic is about encouraging people to see how advertising impacts real people in real situations. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if we succeeded, but the intention was certainly to create a comic that connected the reader to the text emotionally as much as intellectually. It’s possible to do this in a non fiction comic but hey, we can’t all be Joe Sacco.

Q: Reading Patrick’s scholarly work, e.g. “From the Natural to the Manmade Environment? The Shifting Advertising Practices of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry (2018), some of the themes of the book have become more clear, or been reinforced for me. Could you talk about the process of collaboration among the team members?

PM: In terms of process, I discussed with Ad Astra the themes and issues from my work that I wanted to see incorporated in the story which ranged from celebrity protest, to ad hominem or attacks, to the muddy and polarized nature of how energy is debated. As much of the debate around the oi/tar sands and, indeed, many of the tropes and conventions rely heavily on visuals the medium of comics seemed quite natural to explore, present and interrogate them. In terms of the story itself, Ad Astra gave a pitch to me and I replied with a plot line my wife suggested to me while on holiday on the Sunshine Coast in BC. These ideas were then baked in to the plot which then continued evolve through conversations with Ad Astra and feedback on script drafts.

HG: So in simplest terms, that book wasn’t out when the script was being brainstormed and discussed (in 2016–17) so I suspect Patrick’s thinking around these issues was still evolving. In terms of our process, I think that we were paying the most attention to including relevant tropes: petronationalism, co-optation of indigenous peoples, greenwashing, apocalyptic doomsaying on the part of environmental NGOs, celebrity spokespeople, etc etc.

In simplest terms the process was that we would submit script drafts to Patrick, who offered feedback on them. When a full script was completed we went through and figured out what tropes we had missed or story notes we wanted to hit. Then those were integrated into the script. Apart from the tropes, I think the thing we were trying to convey was a sense of discursive gridlock. The two main sides of the tar sands debate (pro vs. anti) are at a rhetorical impasse that makes action nearly impossible in the face of crisis-level climate conditions. We hope that comes across in the book along with a sense that it is important to look for a way to resolve the gridlock. Since no one has found a way to resolve it in real life, we couldn’t really put a credible resolution into the narrative.

Q: The satirical ads Nicole produced are quite striking, particularly considering they were inspired by actual pieces of advertisement. The advertising industry’s part in the oil/tar sands debate is a key theme in the book. Could you tell us about the process of creating these satirical images?

PM: I asked Ad Astra to make the series of ads because studying stakeholder oil/tar sands advertisements was a key aspect of my research. My goal was for these mock advertisements to embody the tropes deployed by the stakeholders involved. I relayed the general theme I wanted to the ad to cover and Ad Astra used their magic to make it happen. Also, as the comic was to be published in in black and white, the ads also provide a splash of colour.

HG: I touched on this a bit in the previous answer. Patrick had a list of tropes he wanted depicted in the narrative and in the ads, too. So he gave us a list of tropes and asked us to develop ads. He and I bounced the ad concepts back and forth until he felt satisfied with them, and then we passed them off to Nicole to illustrate. Often it was Nicole’s perspective as an illustrator that really brought them to life by giving them form on the page — the concepts were sometimes quite rough when she got them.

Q: Towards the end of the book (SPOILER ALERT), Callum has an epiphany about the similarity between his role as an activist media produces and Mary’s role as a worker in the advertising industry. As media producers, they both represent/frame narratives that deliberately leave certain perspectives out of the picture. The Beast makes a conscious effort to represent the issue at hand in its complexity by avoiding moral judgment towards the characters. However, the reader has a sense of where the creators stand politically. Could you comment on issues of “representation” in the Beast? What is not “framed”? Has anything been left out? As a medium with peculiar characteristics, did comics work towards “caricaturising” or simplifying the debates around the oil/tar sands and their environmental impact?

HG: The most obvious thing that has been left out of the book is Albertans. Neither protagonist is a local. Part of that is a literary choice: I am an Ontarian and while I have visited Alberta and have family there, there’s a limit to how credibly I can speak to that experience. I do know what it is like to work as a freelancer as well as to take a corporate job that is almost too good to be true (as long as you don’t think to closely about it). Using Nova Scotians for protagonists also helped situate the debate as one that affects the economic and environmental future of the entire country, not just Alberta.

In Alberta, there is a massive political consensus that the oil sands are economically necessary — even the NDP supports it, vociferously. I think that their perspective is represented by Bill Strathroy, the sleazy oil exec, and somewhat also by Mary’s boss, Jenni. But it isn’t one of the main dueling perspectives at play. I don’t know how conscious a decision this was. I think that a lot of us inhabit fairly insular social worlds. It seems unlikely to me that someone who holds an adamantly positive view of the oil sands would be friends with someone like Callum, or vice versa. I’d also be curious where you think we stand on the climate question apart from the obvious fact that we are anti-oil sands.

The last part of your question is interesting for us. We write comics to the length that people commission them, because we invoice on a per-page basis. If ‘The Beast’ had been 250 pages I am sure both Patrick and I have things we would have loved to include. Off the top of my head I think I would have done the research to include more indigenous perspectives, had two or three more fleshed out characters, done more to make the story feel like it took place in Alberta and maybe added a sub-plot that tackled the same question from another direction. ‘The Beast’ is a little less than 100 pages so there’s a ton of things that I would have loved to include. But I think that it covers a lot of ground those pages, and I’m proud of it for what it is.

Q: As with Ad Astra’s other publications, The Beast was launched via crowdfunding. Were any academic grants or funding used towards the creation of the comic? Any recommendations for academics/creators who wish to fund their research-based comics?

PM: I commissioned The Beast with funds from my “Mediatoil” SSHRC Insight Development Grant. The agreement with Ad Astra was to produce a digital version of the comic. The crowd funder helped provide funds to print the dead tree version.

HG: The crowdfunder for ‘The Beast’ paid for printing and distribution costs. The production of the comic was generously supported by Patrick, who used the dissemination component of his SSHRC grant to pay for it (after securing permission from SSHRC). For academics looking to do similar work, my first piece of advice would be, e-mail us! We’ve got experience navigating the different funding channels and will have useful advice to give whether you want to work with us or with someone else.

In practical terms I’d say that it is better to write the comic into your initial grant rather than paying for it out of dissemination funding. Research funding agencies in the humanities and the sciences are looking at innovative dissemination approaches as well as ‘community engagement’. So I think it’s fair to say that a lot of funding agencies will respond positively to applications that include requests for comics funding. We’re happy to provide examples of such projects (our own and other people’s) to support such applications.

Q: The Mediatoil website mentions that the graphic novel will be made available online as a PDF file. Are there any plans to make it available online? This would potentially make more people read the work. What are your thoughts about print comics versus online comics when it comes to engaging the public in conversation on social and environmental issues?

HG: Yes, it’s very awkward to be an environmentalist who runs a print publisher. But in the same way that some might point out to the hypocrisy of Al Gore flying around on a jet to give talks, we are forced to work inside the constraints of the carbon economy even as we rail against it.

We have not yet passed the glorious threshold where everyone prefers e-readers to print texts and looking at the recent resurgence of vinyl records, I wonder if we ever will. For myself I can only say that we moved recently and after carrying six thousand boxes up a flight of stairs my feeling is that the transition to digital cannot happen quickly enough. Though of course digital devices are full of conflict minerals extracted in ways that poison the planet too, n’est pas? But yes, digital is good when it means that the comic can be clipped, sampled, remixed and shared virally. We should be so lucky.

To answer the first part of the question last, we have a partnership in the works that should see the comic available for free online by the fall. Details to follow.

PM: A digital version of The Beast will be available from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota with publication set for September 2018.

The Graphic Social Science Research Network

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The Graphic Social Science Research Network was established in June 2017 to help advance the practice of Graphic Social Science.

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