Comics to Create a Better World
In conversation with comics creator Nicole Marie Burton
“My personal politics are absolutely always going to influence how I write what I write. But at the end of the day, what I believe doesn’t matter. What matters is what you leave the book with.” — Greg Rucka, comic book writer.
This school of thought Rucka follows while creating his comics is invariably similar to that of Nicole Marie Burton’s, our featured artist of the month. Nicole, who is an activist turned comic book illustrator, believes that comics, because they are relatively inexpensive to produce, are a great medium to amplify marginalized voices.
In conversation with ArtsPositive, she told us how she began illustrating comics, the comic she produced as an ode to her childhood hero and how she wants her work to prove those who believe comics to be un-serious, wrong.
We first came across Nicole’s work through her collaboration with CCIRA, a resource alliance that works for the rights of indigenous societies and the growth of sustainable environment. Together, they produced Shrinking Giant, a comic that tells the story of the ever-shrinking (both in size and number) Rockfish that are found off the coast of Canada.
Nicole told us that it was she who approached CCIRA, first. “I wanted to produce a piece of comics journalism about them and the great work they’d been doing. The journalism pitch ended up falling through, but CCIRA was intrigued!”
After many conversations about their work and building a portfolio of sketches, they decided to focus on the rockfish research story. Nicole told us that although they’ve only created one so far, there still are some exciting plans ahead.
“Learning about the work of CCIRA has felt like such a step in the right direction. It inspires me to remember that the message of the media I produce should never be negative. As much as possible, the message needs to be about good people doing good work, or else I’m not doing my job.”
On how she fell into the world of art, publishing and comic books, Nicole said that she, just like all other comic creators was a total giveaway as a child. She drew dragons, illustrated stories and even created her first comic when she was in first grade — “a total Garfield rip-off about my cat, Max”. She printed and distributed her first ‘serious’ comic in grade 9–10, called ‘SICK TIMES’ with the purpose of trying to stay sane through her teenage years in rural Illinois.
Her decision to be a comic creator came later in life, soon after she had fallen out of 7 years of activism and had become obsessed with political comics while also wanting to continue doing work that benefited important causes. She then began writing and reviewing comics around 2012, until she gathered enough courage to produce her own work again.
In 2013, she got an offer from the Graphic History Collective to make a comic about a historic event of her choice concerning Canadian labour history.
“I chose to focus on the Corbin Miners Strike of 1935, which had an interesting sub-thread of women’s work within the strike” she told us that it also helped her face her fears and start drawing again.
Since then she has worked on many different projects.
In 2015 she published a short comic called “Eugenie SHARK!” for the website The Mary Sue.
“The comic was an ode to my childhood hero, the shark scientist Eugenie Clark”. Clark was a pioneer in shark research and conservation efforts, had a career that lasted 5 decades and was a woman of colour in the sciences long before anyone was talking about it.
Recently, she finished illustrating her first graphic novel, The Beast: Making a Living on a Dying Planet, written by Hugh Goldring and produced by Dr. Patrick McCurdy, through her publishing collective, Ad Astra Comix.
The novel explores the way advertising shapes perceptions of oil sands, the climate and the Canadian economy through the story of two young people that work in the Canadian oil industry. An expanded digital edition of the Beast is available to download for free through the Digital Press, University of North Dakota.
Talking about her creative process, Nicole explained that after all official obligations and consultations are done, she starts working on the storyboards and once it is approved, she starts working on the final drawings which she admits, “feels like a very very very long time…drawing days are long and filled with podcasts!”
She says she has been paying extra attention to accuracy lately, “I want to produce illustrations that are realistic. Maybe this is coming from a bit of defensiveness for having heard so many people refer to comics as “un-serious”, I want my work to prove them wrong.”
She is currently working with Kass Luciuk on a graphic novel, ‘Enemy Alien’ about the history of Canada’s WWI ethnic internment camps.
The comic is based on the memoir of a man named Jon Boychuk, who survived three years of internment and additional years of forced labour.
She is also working with medical historian Erika Dyck and writer Hugh Goldringon on the history of LSD medical research in Canada. It has some interesting intersections around addictions, the Canadian healthcare system, and 60s counterculture.
Being a content creator, Nicole wants to make sure she produces media that helps to make the world a better place. “A lot of the time, that means talking about pretty depressing subjects — because the goal is to spread awareness, raise the alarm that things need to change!”
Writer, Isha Bhattacharya for ArtsPositive