Medium as Message in Comics about Place

Storytelling relates to politics and power. Historians Ian McKay and Robin Bates, for example, chronicle how narrative has been used strategically to mobilize a sense of Nova Scotia’s “Scottishness.” This largely invented concept, they argue, problematically operates as an origin story, eclipsing competing cultural narratives that reflect the province’s actual historical complexities and diverse lived experiences, especially those that have been harmed and disenfranchised by its effects. Nova Graphica is a literary work and activist project that aims to disrupt this legacy by asserting different ways of conceptualizing the province’s narratives-of-place. As its title suggests, its anthology structure and general approach to representing Nova Scotia’s history embraces plurality, tension, and even a degree of uncertainty. Not only do the twelve short comics that comprise this anthology take on a range of different topics, but they also look very different from one another. Graphic storytelling, as a result, is this book’s medium and also functions as a meta-reflection on how historical accounts of the province reflect the perspectives of their creators.


Arguably, the curatorial strategy of this anthology is a figurative manifestation of the idea that histories of place reflect multiple ways of seeing. Sara Spike’s masterful introduction to the volume foregrounds the long history and practice of this concept, from the province’s petroglyphs to the strategic aesthetic rendering of its maps and satirical print journalism. While Spike sees the collection as an intervention in the province’s representation, her introductory essay also locates the work within a long history of authorial, literary, and visual representations of Nova Scotia. Many of the comics in the collection feature hand-drawn panels and lettering, which also foregrounds the varied ways in which the province’s historical narratives are conceptualized and rendered through authors’ and artists’ hands and lenses. In this sense, the collection offers itself up as a “sampler” of Nova Scotia history that invites future editions.


Nova Graphica’s comics take on a wide range of subjects, tones, and subject positions, but there is not a lobster or fiddle in sight. Aside from Rebecca Roher’s moving and original take on the now canonical Viola Desmond story, the comics in this collection are unconventional in their subject matter. Folktales, ghost stories, and personal experiences of place are featured in this anthology alongside accounts of known but under-represented landmarks such as the now-demolished Halifax Infants’ Home and the Spryfield Rocking Stone. Lesser-known aspects of the province’s built environment are also given careful attention in Laura K̦enin̦š’ Marxist account of the Cape Breton company home, and in JJ Steeves’ feminist reading of the contribution of carports and double sinks to the 1960s homes of Halifax’s Clayton Park neighbourhood. Felt experiences of place are also given agency in contributions such as Sarah Mangle’s rendition of a job interview at the 1990s Wolfville shop, “Seekhers,” and in Rebecca Thomas and Rachel Hill’s collective articulation of frustration over the continued defense of anti-Indigenous public monuments.


The foregrounding of medium has a double-meaning in this collection, as many of the selections deal with folklore, ghost stories, and hauntings. The idea that experiences of place are ephemeral and illusive is an important and arguably political throughline that guides this work. Concepts of place and home are also central thematic concerns, as many of the contributions question whether Nova Scotia is a location, or an individual or collective idea experienced in a moment. Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes’ contribution features many panels of a man drinking a beer, deep in thought, wearing an East Coast Lifestyle sweatshirt. This sense of place as located-thoughtfulness-in-time may be this book’s most accurate and moving thesis statement. It’s certainly relatable. Even at the time of publication, with the news of the pandemic and Portapique’s deadly mass shooting, Laura K̦enin̦š’ editor’s forward draws attention to the important central fact of this collection, that the story of Nova Scotia resists stasis, is subjective, and keeps on moving.


Work Cited

McKay, Ian, and Robin Bates. In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2010.

This review “Medium as Message in Comics about Place” originally appeared in Pasts, Presents, and Futures of Canadian Comics Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 249 (2022): 184-185.

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