Indigenous Languages and Comic Books: A Walkthrough of My Honours Thesis

I’ve had a lot of fun telling people about my honours thesis this year.

Most of the time, when you ask a student about their thesis, you get a description of a research project or a study or, most likely, a big long paper they’re writing. That’s the standard for a Directed Reading/Honours Thesis; it’s what everyone expects. So when I pull out a little brown sketchbook and hand it over and they open it to see thirty pages of a comic and I say “this is my thesis”, people are understandably surprised. And delighted.

This project has a three-year long history. It began when I drew a few haphazard comic pages illustrating a traditional Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) creation story in Maya Chacaby‘s class; it followed me through fourth year with my Individual Studies course, where I chose a small number of aatisokaanan (traditional stories) and worked in-depth with them. It came to fruition at the beginning of this, my fifth and final year, as a fully-realized full-year Honours Thesis course: I’ve picked one story from the sample I handled last year, and I’ve been working to unpack and understand that story for a full year. (NB: I still haven’t figured it all out. That’s the kind of stories these are.)

Most honours theses are graded by the merit of one single gigantic paper. In a similar fashion, pretty much the entirety of my mark is going to be decided upon the merit of a thirty-page illustrated version of the story, presented in both Anishinaabemowin and in English. The art is, obviously, my own–but so are a significant portion of the words, which will need translating back and forth between the two languages in order to reach an adequate level of correspondence.

If this sounds daunting, it’s because it is. I’ve never drawn thirty pages of anything–the longest continuous work I ever drafted was a comic of fifteen pages, nearly a decade ago. And I’m nowhere near fluent in Anishinaabemowin yet. There have been days, weeks, and actually entire months where I’ve been seized with the terror and dread of such an imposing task. But thanks to the many helpful beings who’ve crossed my path, I can say I’m nearly at the end of the road!

A lot of people have asked me how a project like this works, so I’m going to walk you through what I’ve done so far and what’s yet to come. Buckle up!

Step 1: Reading The Story

WJoriginal

The first step took the longest. I must have read the story of Ozhaawaaskokaskitaasepason (Blue Garter) fifteen or twenty times. In between those readings, I wrote down my impressions of the plot, characters, symbolism, and so on. I also took time meditating on the story, trying to imagine how it could be represented in visual format.

Step 2: Writing The Story

BGretelling

Once some organic ideas began bubbling up in my head, I took the story and wrote it down from my own head, in my own words, beginning to end. Then I revised my retelling, trying to make it more similar (both in tone and in grammar) to the original text. (This involved using a lot of “thereupon”s and “so they say”s, as well as some fun compound nouns.) This served the double function of a) really solidifying the story in my mind and b) condensing the original text into something that wasn’t twenty pages long.

Step 3: Composing Layouts

bglayoutsmall  bglayoutsmall2

With the condensed story in-hand (totaling something like 4.5 pages of text), I sat down with my sketchbook and drew a bunch of nasty, sketchy layout thumbnails, just trying to understand the general composition of each page. I wrote the ‘theme’ of each page at the top, so I knew roughly how much information/plot I had to cover in the span of that page in order to arrive at a thirty page comic. Sometimes the layouts were WAY TOO DETAILED (usually when my perfectionism got in the way), and other times the only thing I sketched was the layout of the panels themselves, with no hint as to what was supposed to go inside of them. It depended on how clear it looked in my head.

Step 4: Sketching First Drafts (on paper)

bgsketch1   bgsketch2

The comic is divided into three acts of ten pages each. Once I was happy with the layouts for a complete act, I cracked open a fresh, book-sized sketchbook (thanks, Gervanne!) and did the hard work of drafting pencil sketches for each comic page. In hindsight, I might have spent less time nailbiting about whether the comic looked consistent if I’d done the layouts for all thirty pages at once–that’s a lesson learned for next time!

Step 4.5: REwriting The Story

As you can see from the sketches, I wrote in words on the page, which were an even further-condensed version of my retelling of the story. These were not intended to be the final draft of the text–rather, they were put there to give the pages a finished look, and to help me in determining whether the storytelling was having the intended effect. No, the final words had to wait for…

Step 5: LEARNING ANISHINAABEMOWIN

BGretelling2

For real. I could also call it “TRIPLE-CHECKING YOUR TRANSLATIONS”, because technically that’s what it is. At this stage, I’m running my retelling by fluent speakers of Anishinaabemowin to a) make sure there are as few Eurocentricisms (AKA colonial assumptions on everything from economy/the nature of possession to spirituality and death) hiding in the language as possible and b) check my attempted translations of whatever doesn’t have an exact correspondent in the William Jones version. But this stage is comprised of dozens of little impromptu lessons in Anishinaabemowin, along with Nish philosophy and sociology (because these things are reflected in the ways you can use the language), so if I’m being honest then this step really is about becoming as adept in the language as possible, at least for the purposes of the story (but hopefully beyond those bounds as well)!

Step 6: Inking & Rendering Pages (digital)

bgink1  bgink2

This is where we are today. While the text is being passed back and forth between me and my supervisor, I’m also working on the digital rendering of the pencil sketches. I’ll scan them all in and set up my drawing tablet and have at it. Each page takes between 2-3 hours of work. (Which means, given the time I started inking and the time this thesis is due, I will have worked anywhere between 20-30 hours PER WEEK on the rendering. Hand massages are appreciated.)

Step 7: Typography

bgtypopgraphy

When I get to this stage, I’ll be writing in the Anishinaabemowin first, then quadruple-checking to see if the English needs to change in order to more closely match the Nish before I pen it down as well. The point is for the Nish to give way to the English, not the other way around. The above image is a mock-up of the first page to show the overall effect of the words on the page, but they might change before the project is done!

Once all thirty pages have been rendered, the translations have been finalized, and I’ve handwritten my typography in both languages, we are essentially done our work. I’ll compile the whole thing into a .pdf file and possibly print out a hard copy version for the sake of wowing the Linguistics Department (80% of whom have no idea I can draw even after five years of knowing me, hee hee).

There are additional bonus steps, such as writing accompanying essays that unpack the meaning of the story, creating a Nish-English dictionary and glossary of terms to attach as language-learning resources, MAYBE COLOURING THE COMIC, and more. But all of these are ancillary to the thesis itself–they become important when the thesis stops being a thesis and starts being a valuable learning tool for Natives and non-Natives alike. More than anything, I wanted to use my thesis to create something useful beyond its function as something-to-be-graded. Something with a lifespan that extends past the end of April 2017. Something that could make a genuine impact outside of academia. Now as we’re coming up on the end of the project, I’m praying I’ve created just that.

Read it when it comes out and let me know, will you?

Love and handcramps,

~Sisi

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2 thoughts on “Indigenous Languages and Comic Books: A Walkthrough of My Honours Thesis

    1. Thanks! I’m just starting the fifth-in-a-row eight-hour workday on the illustration, so it’s REALLY GOOD to hear the work is going to be worth it!

      (PS – I finally finished reading Walking on Custard, and the end chapters were UNEXPECTEDLY EMOTIONALLY POIGNANT. You got me good.)

      Like

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