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Hyena in Petticoats: The Story of Suffragette Nellie McClung

by Willow Dawson

Given the success of historical graphic novels like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel and Scott Chantler's Northwest Passage, it’s not surprising that a pair of young adult titles are taking a few pages out of Canadian history books as well.

Aimed squarely at a young male audience, Lone Hawk chronicles the life of Canada’s best known war hero, Billy Bishop,  who racked up 72 victories during the First World War and was awarded every major medal, including the Victoria Cross. Debut graphic novelist John Lang deftly follows Bishop from his childhood in Owen Sound, Ontairo, to his early years in the war, and on to his role as a leader among fellow recruits.

Lang’s clear line style and attention to detail have a cinematic quality, with each panel acting as a window onto the past. His portrait of Bishop as fiercely strong and square-jawed is compelling. Yet our hero is also depicted as being closed off, with Lang rarely showing how the war affects him, even in private moments. As a result, Bishop’s characterization seems forced and incomplete – a portrait of a heroic idol, rather than a real man.

The action and events in Lone Hawk move almost as fast as Bishop’s Nieuport 17 fighter plane, so readers won’t have any trouble breezing through the pages. At times, however, the quick pace is a detriment, as the story barrels from one key event to the next. The ending is particularly abrupt, with only a few pages covering Bishop’s life from when he received the Victoria Cross in 1917 until his death in 1956. Even a brief look at Bishop’s life on the ground and his work in recruitment during the Second World War would have given a more complete picture of this important Canadian.

While Lang’s survey of Bishop’s life occasionally seems cursory, Hyena in Petticoats is extremely thorough in its look into the life of Nellie McClung. Graphic novelist and illustrator Willow Dawson provides an excellent summary of McClung’s life as a teacher, a bestselling author, and a suffragette, while also exploring her personal life. As a female activist in the early 1900s, McClung was a trailblazer who was fierce in her fight for women’s suffrage, yet Dawson’s portrayal of her goes well beyond key accomplishments and triumphs, presenting her as caring, funny, clever, and exceedingly relatable.

With elegant, intense illustrations that frequently break out of the panels into beautiful patterned borders, and stunning full-page images to start each chapter, Dawson’s art lifts this story off the page.

More than 80 years after the success of McClung and the rest of the Famous Five in having women declared persons in the eyes of the law, this detailed look at McClung’s life is a valuable resource for maintaining the activist’s place as a role model for young girls.