Hugh Goldring (Writer), Nicole Marie Burton (Artist), Dr. Patrick McCurdy (Production Assistance)
Ad Astra Comix
Oil culture runs deep within Western society and along with that culture runs certain “millennial” anxieties about climate change, the job market, and the institution of capitalism as a viable economic system. The Beast, a graphic novel created by Nicole Marie Burton, Hugh Goldring, and Dr. Patrick McCurdy from the University of Ottawa’s Communications department, attempts to reconcile these anxieties as well as create intellectual discourse on what it means to be an environmental activist in a capitalist society. The Beast is a well-executed graphic novel; it does exactly what the creative team at Ad Astra Comix wants it to.
The narrative focuses on the platonic relationship between Mary and Callum. While Callum works as a freelance photographer with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Mary is a graphic artist working in advertising. Because Callum refuses to compromise his belief system in order to work in an industry that works against his ideals, Mary and Callum often don’t end up seeing eye to eye. This is because Callum’s outlook on life and politics remains incredibly black and white whereas Mary seems to look at the grey spaces that exist within morality. Because of their different ways of thinking, their occupations are perceived as irreconcilable with one another, especially since the two are heavily involved with environmental activism and staying informed about various political policies in Canada.
Eventually, the characters (both living in Edmonton, Alberta) end up visiting Fort McMurray, Alberta, prior to the 2016 fire that devastated the urban center. This wildfire is aptly nicknamed “The Beast” in the text, but what’s truly beastly is that this event actually occurred in 2016.
While a fire that raged in Slave Lake in the early 2010s was previously considered the worst wildfire in Alberta and resulted in the complete evacuation of the town, on May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray. By May 3, the forest fire swept through the community and forced the largest evacuation in Alberta history. Jana G. Pruden writes about the Fort McMurray fire in her article, “A Week in Hell: How Fort McMurray Burned”, for The Globe and Mail and describes the fire and the devastation of Fort McMurray in the following words:
In a span of minutes, the sky over Fort McMurray turned black, the wind shifted and blew harder, and the fire that had been raging through the forest jumped the river into the city. By the week’s end, 80,000 residents had been evacuated, many fleeing for their lives. More than 1,600 structures were confirmed to be lost, whole neighbourhoods gone in the city that was once the heart of Canada’s oil sands [ . . . ] It was an unprecedented disaster, with damage estimated to be in the billions. By Friday, the fire had grown to more than 101,000 hectares [the fire is reported to have spread through about 590,000 hectares and continued to smoulder/burn until early July], significantly larger than the city of Calgary.
By the time the emergency responders were able to control the wildfire, the fire was reported to have spread through approximately 590,000 hectares (1.5 million acres or so) and continued to smoulder and burn until early July. The National Post also reported in November 2016 that the fire was still smouldering underground and authorities were concerned that the wildfire could flare up during the spring.
What’s important to note here is that both Mary and Callum visit Fort McMurray prior to the fire, as previously stated. Both Mary and Callum visited oil companies in order to prove to the general public that working for big oil isn’t as bad as it seems to be. Mary glosses over the sins that the big oil creates for people, like drug addiction, as well as the lies that everyone involved with the industry have to live with, like the argument that climate change is in and of itself a lie, or that crude oil pipelines, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, won’t contribute to the contamination of water supplies for various communities. Ultimately, the destruction of Fort McMurray becomes a catalyst for Callum, and the question that he wrestles with is if he should begin to compromise his ideals in order to become an employed millennial or if he should retain his ideals and refuse to sacrifice them in order to survive within a capitalistic society.
A strong part of this comic that makes it readable despite its heavy subject matter and its interaction with contemporary anxieties is the panel positioning and Burton’s effective use of the gutter space. For those unfamiliar with this term, the gutter space is a term coined by Scott McCloud in his text Understanding Comics. McCloud and the comics industry use this term to refer to the space that exists between panels, the space where we as readers becomes responsible for the action of the character or the characters. Time and space becomes suspended and action ceases to exist.
The example that McCloud presents is a sequence of panels of a man being followed by an axe murderer, but the murder of the victim isn’t ever shown. All we see is the murderer shouting “Now you die!!” as their victim screams “No! No!” followed by a panel of a cityscape and the words “EEYAA!!” painted across the panel. Gutters act as an invisible messenger but they’re still an empty space. Comic artists require gutters in order to convey meaning, but it’s us that draw conclusions from this empty space.
While the gutter space that Burton uses is more or less static (i.e., traditional panel positioning that we see in most comics), but there are instances where she deviates and uses something a little bit more unconventional. The first instance of this occurs during Callum’s coverage of an environmental protest. As he photographs the protest, Burton inserts some panels that become circular, reminiscent of what it would be to look at the protest through a camera lens. These panels suspend the moments of the protest in time and Burton does this explicitly for readers to become more immersed with the text and to empathize with Callum. It’s in these moments that we are able to see the comic world that Callum exists in through his eyes . . . or lens.
The team behind The Beast ultimately creates a graphic novel that is intellectually stimulating with its discussion of environmental concerns, but that also challenges the conventions of the comic book medium in an innovative manner. All of these elements end up coming together to create something rare and wonderful. The Beast is great for environmental discourse, but it’s also a worthwhile read that focuses on intense interpersonal relationships fraught with tension and what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.