Aboriginal Superhero

Saving lives one comic book at a time

Shirley Muir

Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 20-21

Comic books and health are not words you normally hear in the same sentence.

In fact, some people may think comic books are an unhealthy pastime. But the Healthy Aboriginal Network (HAN) thinks they have the potential to save lives.

With that belief, and a lot of hard work, HAN published a 48-page comic book this spring on the topic of youth suicide prevention.

“It was apparent to us that youth had put up a lot of barriers to discussing suicide prevention. We needed a resource that they not only found non-threatening but actually went out of their way to find and enjoy. We needed to create an ice breaker,” says Sean Muir, founder and Executive Director of the Healthy Aboriginal Network.

By July 2006, 34,000 copies of Darkness Calls had been sold and distributed across Canada. A large part of its success lies in the story and illustrations that Steve Sanderson had created. But HAN has also done an amazing job of self publishing and marketing the comic direct to Aboriginal, suicide prevention, literacy, health and education groups across Canada. HAN’s mandate is the non-profit promotion of Aboriginal health, literacy and wellness.

It’s also HAN’s dream that tens of thousands of youth will read and open their minds to discussing suicide prevention wherever the comic is discovered.

“Government spends millions of dollars a year on brochures and booklets on health and social information. How much of that is actually being read by the target audience? I would argue very little of it. Our comics are designed to engage youth, to create literacy on suicide prevention for everyone, not just visual learners and those that have difficulty reading,” says Muir.

Muir goes on to say “I remember how growing up, I used to read comic books with a buddy. But he always used to finish his much faster than mine. So I asked him one day, ‘How do you read so fast?’ He replied, ‘I don’t read everything. I just look at the pictures and get the jist of what’s going on.’ I remember that kid. He had a very difficult time reading in class. It occurred to me that comic books could be a terrific teaching tool for visual learners.”

HAN started to explore the possibility of creating a suicide prevention comic book. Muir was lucky enough to find a funder in the BC Ministry of Health’s Aboriginal Health department. So all he had to do was find a story.

Enter First Nations cartoonist Steven Sanderson, born and raised in Saskatchewan but currently living in Vancouver. Sanderson has a powerful gift for storytelling. Muir remembers: “The first day we met, he told me the story of he and his cousin who, growing up on a reserve, had struggled with visions of killing themselves. It was powerful story that left me riveted to my seat.’

In the end, this became the story line for Darkness Calls, which Steven wrote and illustrated.

The opening scene of the comic book has a teenager, Kyle, sitting in a classroom. Kyle feels socially isolated and has difficulty at school. His teacher, classmates and parents bully him. His only escape is his art and cartooning.

One day, Kyle finds life just too overwhelming and considers killing himself. Just as the thoughts of suicide seem to be winning him over, an elder enters his life. Around the kitchen table, over a cup of tea, the elder teaches Kyle about the old ways of Wesakecak and Wihtiko.

This storyline was developed into a manuscript. But getting youth and health professionals to read a nine-page, single-spaced story was not as easy as Muir had hoped. “No one wanted to make the time to read it. So we decided to create the storyboard and import the pencil drawings into a movie editing program and have Steve tell the story in his own words. Then we had no problem previewing the story in front of youth focus groups and health professionals for authentic characters and language.”

Armed with feedback, Muir went about making changes to the original story. All in all, the process took nearly nine months to complete.

HAN’s initial print run sold out. But Darkness Calls will go into its second print run in November of 2006. HAN sells comics every day. And everyone seems to agree: comic books are healthy.

HAN has funding to create three more comic books this year on diabetes, staying in school and women’s sexual health.

 

 
About the author
Principal, The Media Bank, Selkirk, Manitoba: themediabank@shaw.ca
 
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