On -isms: The Outside Circle Review

By | Thursday, August 27, 2015 Leave a Comment
One class of people that continue to get the short shrift are Native Americans. Within comics in particular, there are amazingly few creators out there and how they're represented as characters is frequently based on horrendously outdated stereotypes. I attended a "Native American Portrayals in Comics" mini-convention about eight years ago in Indiana and, from my perspective, things haven't changed all that much since. So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble acros The Outside Circle from Anansi Press about a week ago. It came out in May in Canada, and in June in the U.S. but I haven't seen any press about it.

The story is about an Aboriginal (that's Canadian for "Native American") young man who's arrested from gang-related activities. Much of the book follows his emotional journey while he's in prison, while touching briefly on some the difficult lives of some of his immediate relatives outside the prison walls. His younger brother gets himself wrapped up in gang after running away from the foster home system, his mother dies under "suspicious" circumstances probably related to her heroin addiction, and an uncle he never knew he had shows up while trying to locate their incredibly dispersed extended family.

I'd heard a report a couple months ago on the horrible treatment of Aboriginals by the Canadian government starting around 1870 and running for well over a century. There was an overt system of insitutional racism where Aboriginal children were removed from their parents' care, placed in state homes, and forced to separate themselves from any and every part of their native heritage. This obviously ravaged their collective culture, and caused immense and very personal pain and suffering on all of the families involved. To make matters worse, many of the children were flatly abused while in state custody.

The Outside Circle covers much of that ground. Although neither Pete (the protagonist) nor his brother spend any real time in that system themselves, they do see its effects very clearly. Much of the tale is very tragic in that regard, although I will say that it ends on a more positive and hopeful note.

One of the more interesting things about the story, to me, is that author Patti LaBoucane-Benson drops in a few pages of what could be mistaken for textbook material. The text of the contract where the mother signs over custody of her youngest son, for example, is actually a summary about that dreadful school system. When Pete gets a gang tattoo, it bleeds a timeline of government actions against Aboriginals. Coupled with some pages of exposition where a tribal elder details some of the broader effects of various government policies, a review of the book could easily sound like it's a dreadfully long-winded and boring history. But it really isn't. It's very much a well-crafted, personal story of Pete's journey, as I noted above, and the historical pieces are woven in for context. The exposition all flows very well into the story and makes sense narratively, plus it's given emotional resonance by tying it directly to Pete's current situation. Some of the infographic type pieces aren't quite as successfully integrated into the story, but those are considerably fewer in number and can easily be skipped over.

I have to say that I was really impressed with both the story overall, as well as the integration of the historical context. As I said, I was nominally familiar with the history thanks to that report I'd heard, but I suspect most readers would not be and there's more than sufficient material here to appreciate the tragedy what the Canadian government did to so many families. That it's intergrated at all into a very personal story is impressive, and that it's integrated as smoothly as it is doubly so. Given that (I believe) this is LaBoucane-Benson's first comic work of any sort, and it does not seem to have been a deep area of study for her, I think a lot of credit goes to illustrator Kelly Mellings for some top-notch storytelling abilities.

Like I said at the top of the piece, I think far too little attention is given towards Native American representation in comics. The Outside Circle not only helps to remedy that, but it does a damn fine job of showcasing part of the reason why we don't see more in the first place. I was incredibly impressed and highly recommend everyone pick this up!
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