On Writing, with Brian Wright-McLeod
Brian Wright-McLeod is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Red Power (Fifth House Publishers).
Red Power tells the story of Billy, who is called in to assist community members caught in the middle of a manufactured land struggle.
Brian talks with Open Book about how Billy came to be, having a wolf as a narrator and his many and varied upcoming projects.
Tell us about your book, Red Power.
Red Power tells the story of a disenfranchised Native man-turned activist who is called upon by his Native movement chapter and a community embroiled in a manufactured land struggle. The usurpation of Native rights at the hands of government, corporate and corrupt band council interests occur with organized grassroots response to the situation that provides an insider’s view of such situations. The story also conveys aspects of traditional teachings and mythology. The activists in the story are composites of several people I met along the way. The geographical locations are all fictionalized places. It is a work of fiction based on fact and mingled with fantasy.
Red Power was a project that began more than 25 years ago as a graphic novel and remained as a ten-page idea with no story or direction. After being involved in activism and learning the stories and seeing the struggle first hand, being directly involved in ceremonies and learning a different perspective on history and culture, the seeds of Red Power were planted. Much of the contemporary history and actual events and people exist between the lines of the text. If you know the stories of American Indian Movement activists Anna Mae Aquash or Leonard Peltier, then you will know. Some of the dialogue is based on actual quotes from several individuals on both sides of these issues.
Why did the graphic novel format appeal to you? What made it the perfect form in which to tell this particular story?
The graphic novel process was the perfect vehicle to tell this story simply because the visual form and strong story line can evoke emotions and realizations in different ways. The graphic novel format has also been described as the “poor man’s movie.” And since I am both a writer and illustrator I figured, why waste good talent.
How did the character of Billy evolve for you? Were you able to relate to his experiences?
For the most part, many of the other characters are inspired by the heroes and villains of actual events in our contemporary history involving Wounded Knee 1973, Oka 1990 etc. The character Billy Moon evolved from a long creative process — he is a composite of a few people I know and a bit of me as well; some of his experiences are also based on some of my own. One example of is found in Chapter Three when he and Shelley climb up the cliff side and find the wolf trail — it is derived from a hiking adventure I had with my niece in the Coastal Rockies of northern California. When I discovered the trail, and it was like a highway of many different animal tracks, I put some traditional tobacco down along with a prayer and we traveled over two mountain tops on our hands and knees — and all in a matter of a couple of hours — it was a breath-taking trip — a sacred journey and one I will never forget.
The wolf makes a fascinating narrator. What prompted that choice? What significance do you feel the wolf has in the narrative?
The wolf in the context of narrator represents freedom in captivity — the captive spirit of Native people. Culturally, the wolf is also a clan symbol for many first nations as well as the symbol of the teacher and a representation of the family unit in respect to social order.
What are some graphic novels you've read and really loved?
Some graphic novels I’ve read include Louis Riel by Chester Brown, it’s pure Canadiana, simple but articulate and executed in a dynamic way. Riel is and was such a controversial character, that a graphic novel depicting his life is a perfect vehicle to open new perspectives on the discussion of this part of our history. Another more recent offering is Scalped by Jason Aaron and art by R.M. Guera and Lee Loughridge described as The Sopranos on an Indian reservation. As illustrators I love anything by Moebius, Vaughn Bode, Barry Windsor-Smith and Arthur Rackham — to name a few off the top of my head.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m writing two academic pieces: one on Native music for Routledge Press in the United States and another on Native graphic novels for the European Journal of American Studies in Norway.
Additionally, I’m completing the Red Power trilogy — the story is plotted to the final page and the closing line as I draw and design the opening pages for Book 2. The process takes a lot of time and thought both in the written form and visually to create dynamic pages and perspectives. It’s similar to story boards for film and television. Ideally I’d like to have both Books 2 and 3 published together in one volume.
I’m also writing a crime/horror novel that grew from a series of nightmares. Once I began writing down my thoughts a story began to develop and several characters emerged. I couldn’t stop and the story took on a life of its own. The working title is The Sign Above and it takes place in Toronto in 1940. I’ll be writing that one under a pseudonym of Willard Speck. I thought it all had a nice ring to it since I find that names can be just as important as the characters themselves. Even the author is a character of sorts. The main protagonist is a jaded homicide detective approaching retirement; the murders he and his partner are investigating are hideous and unexplainable. He tracks down a WW I buddy who is a northern Ontario-based Native who helps him understand the nature of what he’s dealing with. It is a story that involves the supernatural, the mortal horrors and crimes in society, the horror and crimes of war and the horrors and crimes of the heart. The time and location were derived from the memories of my father who served in the Second War and all of the research I’ve done on that time period, my mom lived in Toronto before he shipped out overseas and since I live here now, I’ve taken an interest in some of the local colour and flair from that era.
I’ve also been developing a Native music documentary television series based on my first book The Encyclopedia of Native Music, and a sit-com about an upwardly mobile Native family living in an upscale neighbourhood. We’ll see how those two develop.