Red: A Haida Manga and the Possibilities of Graphic Novels

The morning after I returned to Kichx̱áan, Lingít Aaní, I just had to go see my hometownʼs brand new library. The new public library was still being constructed when I left last August, and it had its grand opening in January. Once inside, I was struck by the lovely wood interior, beautiful (and functional) furniture, and plentiful space for children, teens, and adults to hang out, read, and enjoy some gorgeous views. On the way out, I was struck by a graphic novel I saw displayed on top of a shelf—a Haida manga. I'd heard of the genre before and felt curious, so I checked out my first book from Ketchikan's new library—Red: A Haida Manga, by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Yahgulanaas appears to be both the originator and the main practitioner of the Haida manga genre—called manga because it largely takes inspiration from Japanese graphic storytelling, rather than Euroamerican comics.

Red is a very quick read, based on what I presume is a traditional Haida story from Haida Gwaii, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands. The story focuses on a man named Red who loses his sister and then seeks vengeance on those who took her. The dust jacket compares the saga of Red to Macbeth, and while I can see their similarities as tragedies, the real problem is just that Yahgulanaas' art just can't quite carry his narrative through. Red has the opportunity to be much more profound than it is, I think, but falters because of its limitations as a graphic novel.

This is just one example of the
choppy storytelling that can
make things confusing.
Let me explain: Graphic novels excel when their illustrations make more powerful or engaging statements than would a page of writing. Such was the case with Vietnamerica, by G. B. Tran—the first real graphic novel I read—and of course Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman, perhaps the most famous graphic novel in the United States. The illustrations in Red: A Haida Manga are beautiful, but I continually found myself thinking that the story itself would read more beautifully as text, as in the many anthologies of Northwest Coast legends that I've read before. Indeed, I was confused several times while reading Red, just because of the paucity of words and lack of guiding narration. Brevity may be an essential component of any successful graphic novel, but it is possible an author can undersell or "undertell" their story, and I think that's what happened here.

Nevertheless, Yahgulanaas is doing something, in my opinion, that is far more important than the telling of a single story: Even if Red isn't the most compelling read, its author is opening compelling new ways for indigenous stories to be developed and shared. This blog expands on that subject, and its author had the chance to meet Yahgulanaas and hear some incredible stories. I really love the way that the last pages of the book reveal how each page of the story can be fitted into a single formline design; as I was reading, I had no idea that would be possible. The drawing of the individual characters isn't in traditional formline style by any means, but the curving lines that separate each panel flow into each other if the pages are cut out and put together like a puzzle. Formline connecting the whole—it's one of Northwest Coast art's most important elements, and Yahgulanaas uses it wonderfully to create a genre that is both globally-influenced and authentically Haida.
The composite image is mysterious and exciting, like
a Northwest Coast crest mixed with urban graffiti. 
I'd encourage anyone to read Red and other Haida manga, especially in Ketchikan, where the book is back to being displayed on top of one of the library's graphic novel shelves. I strongly hope that the genre will only continue to grow, and I would love to see Tlingit manga soon, perhaps even Tlingit manga written in Lingít. Lingít Aaní has a long way to go in the revival of its language, but creative innovations like indigenous manga could be an amazing tool in that project. As in all art and storytelling, the possibilities are endless.