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Graphic novel The Outside Circle aims to become a tool for aboriginal healing

The Outside Circle

Racial prejudices continue to fester in Edmonton, home to Canada’s second-largest aboriginal population, and the setting for Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings’ graphic novel The Outside Circle, published by House of Anansi Press.

For the past 20 years, LaBoucane-Benson, who is of Métis descent, has grappled with the ramifications of government abuses. As director of research, training and communication* of Native Counselling Services of Alberta, she’s worked closely with aboriginal men, women, and youth, many of whom were ensnared in gang life and later incarcerated. Her Ph.D. dissertation, which she completed in 2009 at the University of Alberta, explored how trauma-healing programs for aboriginal offenders help build resilience in their families and communities. The university’s examining committee encouraged her to publish the dissertation, but LaBoucane-Benson opted for a more accessible medium: a graphic novel, which chronicles the troubled lives of two fictional aboriginal brothers, Pete and Joey, who must negotiate foster care, and also fall victim to crime and drugs.

Mellings, co-owner of the Edmonton design firm Pulp Studios, was integral to realizing LaBoucane-Benson’s vision. The duo had already produced a pair of comic books for the NCSA designed to teach youth about the legal system in an accessible way, which made LaBoucane-Benson’s pitch to convert her dissertation into a graphic novel less daunting.

“[Mellings] was probably the only person who didn’t laugh out loud and roll his eyes,” she says. “[The book] was specifically for a target audience who may not pick up a textbook ever. And who may never interface with the material because it sits in academia or higher-brow publications.”

The Outside Citcle (LaBoucane-Benson) coverThe pair had been collaborating on The Outside Circle for more than two years when a friend of LaBoucane-Benson’s forwarded the book to Anansi president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan. “She was on board right away,” says LaBoucane-Benson.

As part of his research, Mellings toured Blue Quills Residential School in St. Paul, Alberta, with a group of survivors. While listening to their accounts, Mellings imagined his own young children being forced to endure such a hostile setting. “I just started bawling. You just couldn’t imagine being stripped away from your family and being brought to a place like that.”

The graphic novel retains Mellings’s original illustrations from the manuscript (U.S. cartoonist John Rauch provided the colours). LaBoucane-Benson says the art evoked a spiritual response in her, particularly the image of blood snaking down Pete’s arm. A close-up panel reveals it’s a tattoo, punctuated with white letters spelling out the earmarks of aboriginal trauma, such as the 1867 Indian Act and the ’60s Scoop, during which the federal government dismantled residential schools, only to transfer the students to non-aboriginal homes.

Despite painful subjects and imagery, “the soul of the book is to be hopeful,” says LaBoucane-Benson, but not to overstate optimism. Mellings chose culturally significant symbols, like the bear as protector, which he conveys as Pete’s shadow on the front cover. He settled on a cinematic layout style for the book’s first half – a flashback to Pete’s inner-city life before joining an aboriginal warrior-healing program – confining the panels with dark borders.

“We wanted it to be confrontational, something you can hand to men who are in Pete’s situation,” says Mellings. As the narrative shifts to healing, the colour palette gradually softens and the panels expand.

Throughout Pete’s healing journey, his facilitator reminds him not to get in mired in blame. It’s a message that LaBoucane-Benson hopes readers remember. While The Outside Circle documents aboriginal injustices, it never succumbs to anger, she says.

“You might feel angry about what happened and that’s a human response. But it should never be about free-flowing rage. It’s about acknowledging what happened and now it’s up to you to make a change. You have to move forward. That’s the whole basis of the healing journey.” — Alex Migdal

This story appeared in Q&Q’s graphica spotlight in the May 2015 print issue.

*Correction, May 5, 2015: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that LaBoucane-Benson is director of Native Counselling Services of Alberta.