Saturday, October 15, 2016

Colin Upton Kicks at the Darkness, plus Holocaust denial vs free speech; and Allan Remembers the Haters

Speaking of (legendary, once-Vancouver-based noise/ performance art band) the Haters - who came up a couple posts ago, in the Destruction Unit interview - I saw them once upon a time, didja know?  It was at (I think) an all-day festival of punk bands at (I think) the York Theatre in the late 1980's or early 1990's. It was the one time (I think) that I saw the Spores, the one time (I think) that I saw vintage Death Sentence - but all I remember about either band was arguing with a friend I was with about how the Spores were better than Death Sentence, which obvious fact she disagreed with (I think the liked the Death Sentence guy's big hair, which was almost as big as hers). There is not a single thing about their actual sets that stuck in memory, however, and no single other band on the bill that I recall, nothing else I can tell you about that day. It's even foggier in my memory than the one time I saw Tad (where all I really recall was my shock and awe when Tad stage dived). There is exactly one performance that I actually remember from that whole day: the Haters. Whom I hated: "I don't know what the hell this is, but it's not music!" Which it wasn't: they had power instruments with microphones attached and were drilling and grinding and cutting and welding onstage, with no other instruments involved. There might have been some smashing, too. Whatever exactly the hell they were doing, they were making sparks fly, because I remember the sparks; and they were making an ungodly ruckus, sonically, and had black hoods, which were quite menacing and anti-social. I remember trying to get as far away to them in the venue as I could, going upstairs, even, but there was no real way to escape. I couldn't wait for it to finish.

So go figure: the one time I think I saw one of my favourite ever Vancouver punk bands, the Spores, and all I remember from the gig was the band on the bill whom I could not stand. (Not that I feel that way now).

Not sure if Vancouver cartoonist, raconteur, and man-(walking)-about town Colin Upton was in the band or not, that day - I believe he has told me that the band never played the York Theatre, but maybe the gig was somewhere else? Regardless, he has been affiliated with the Haters for some time, even has a comic he does, in collaboration with the Haters, called The Happy Hater, "the cartoon mascot of The Haters noise art performance group."

The Haters also pop up now and then in his more autobiographical Self-Indulgent Comics, which I like a great deal - they're rich in psychological detail, show the inner workings of a man every bit as neurotic and eccentric as myself (maybe even moreso!) - sort of akin to Woody Allen or Albert Brooks in his level of self-deprecating, warts-and-all confessional, but in a very engaging and entertaining way; his own best comic creation, it seems, is Colin Upton. I have tried my own hand at cartooning, and freely admit that Colin is wayyyyy better than I am, has developed it to a level of success that I will never aspire to, but which speaks to me in a very personal way ("if I did something like this, I would do something almost exactly like this; this is just great.").

(I chose the above image because Erika just now was complaining about the drainage in our bathroom sink).

And with apologies to the (also phenomenally talented) Robin Bougie, probably my favourite ever Cinema Sewer strip is the one where Colin Upton shares his reactions to Bougie's diet of perverse pornography. (That's in one of the Cinema Sewer anthologies, maybe the first or second?). And, I mean, how can you not love Colin Cthulhu?

Colin was at a Robin Bougie birthday gathering not long ago - the one that set me off on my Bronsonquests, written about below - and told me that he had been commissioned to do some comic work relating to the theme of the Holocaust, to show as part of a Vancouver exhibition. Which is actually (to be totally honest) a side of Colin's I have less enthusiasm for: when buying bundles of his comics off him - I have a few around here somewhere, which have gotten boxed up in one of my several moves - I tend to skip through the ones themed around Canadian history. The ones about his frustrations with the transit system, his struggles with diabetes,  or  the restorative power of kitten farts are all more entertaining to me. But history has never been a passion of mine; I also have no real interest in Colin's meticulously painted historical miniatures, either. I mean, they're cool to look at, and it's educational to hear Colin explain about the uniforms on the armies and the details of the battles whatnot, but - I mean, history is just not my thing. It obviously is Colin's, which I can respect from afar. (It's also the thing of Danny of the Spores, didja know? He's a big WWI enthusiast and shot second unit on Passchendaele, where he got to play a dead soldier. But I digress).

(Colin refereeing a game of the war of the roses at the Trumpeter Club)

The Holocaust is a pretty interesting subject, however, and one of the few historical topics that I have read about, in the form of a book by Deborah Lipstadt on the dangers of Holocaust denial, currently relevant to the film Denial, discussed below. Plus I'm happy for Colin's participation in the event, so what the heck, let's do a Colin Upton interview! The exhibition opens this Sunday - see here, or also the PDF Canada Responds to the Holocaust .

Thanks to Colin Upton for his generous participation in what follows!

Allan: What do I need to tell people about your background, Colin? I know you first and foremost as a comics artist, but I also know you paint historical miniatures, that you are a tea lover, and that you were a member of the Haters... what else should people know about you?

Colin: I collect hats? I like to walk. I don't have a cell phone. I am a great big history nerd. I was interested mostly in military history but also, as an atheist in the history of religion, economics, politics, art, tea... put most anything in an historical context and I get interested. I have been for most of my life a war gamer, which gives me a good excuse to read more history. Even my work as an autobiographical cartoonist is for me leaving an historical record of my life and our times. I've also done comic strips, editorial cartoons, comic reviews of comics, illustration, concept art (for miniatures and a Douglas Coupland sculpture), paint, I've done some 3D sculptures and in the past co-hosted on a radio show about Noise and two about comics. This Northern Crusades image is from a game I put on pitting the Teutonic Knights VS Baltic pagans:

How did your passion for history get underway? When did you start doing comics dealing with Canadian historical themes?

Seriously, I was born into history. My father was a professor of Canadian history at UBC so history is in my DNA. My first mini-comic on Canadian history I did back in the 1990's, A short history of the longest undefended border, about the times the united States has invaded Canada. Canada has a long history of conflicts that nobody knows about because everyone thinks Canadian history is BORING! Actually, it's better now but when I was growing up nobody talked about Canadian history except Pierre Berton. My father was an Englishman, they had to bring him to this country because nobody here was interested in teaching Canadian history. It made me so frustrated because there were stories to tell. I started a series of Canadian history mini-comics about odd moments in Canadian military history, (Papal Zouaves anyone?) and approached the Canada Council about doing an expanded version, only so much information you can pack into a mini-comic, but they turned me down,,,, again...              
(Colin's painted miniatures dealing with the Fenian raids).

How did you end up doing the Holocaust-themed comic, Kick at the Darkness? How were you approached? What exactly will they be showing in the exhibit?

Miriam Libicki was speaking to a class' "The Jew in the Graphic Novel", being taught by Richard at UBC when they approached her about doing a comic to tie in with the exhibit he and Ronnie were putting together for the Holocaust Education Centre on the Canadian Army in WWII and the Holocaust. Knowing I was a BIG HISTORY NERD, she recommended they contact me. We met over tea and scones, they liked my work, I demonstrated a good general knowledge of the subject and the project interested me so I agreed to do it... plus I got paid. The exhibit is primarily photos and text although there might be an audio component, maybe even film... I'm not sure.

How was your family affected by World War II and/ or the Holocaust? Are there any personal resonances in this project for you? Are you tying in any family history, or is this a more objective project?

(The raw art for the Kick at the Darkness cover)

My father was affected by the war, as a boy he was evacuated from the south of England to the Welsh border during the Blitz. His parents stayed, my grandfather was a "fire-watcher" during the Blitz as part of the Home Guard, standing on the Houses of Parliament watching the bombs rain down on London on the lookout for fires started by incendiaries. My mother was safe in rural Wisconsin. I have no family connections with the Holocaust. I'm not Jewish but that hasn't been a problem for the people I've worked with. The focus of the comic is on the Canadian Army, which was overwhelmingly not Jewish  discovering the Holocaust, what they knew and what they discovered, so some objectivity was necessary. There were of course many Jews in the Canadian Army and they are part of the story... Complete objectivity is impossible when dealing with something so abhorrent. Studying military history you come across many atrocities which I view as the terrible things we humans do to ourselves.

I love your more personal comics, but, umm, I've noticed that there's an antipathy to spellchecking, sometimes! (You even remark on it in some of them, as I recall, about grammar Nazis getting your ire). It's interesting, though, because you seem to be a meticulous researcher, and to care about historical accuracy a great deal in your miniatures, - so it doesn't entirely fit. So does a project like this require extra attention to spelling and language (I assume you are hand-lettering your work, as is your norm..?)

Hand lettering, yes. Don't worry, I have editors. The problem I have with spelling is that I am slightly dyslexic and if I spent all my time worrying about spelling I'd never get anything done.

What research did you end up doing for this project, exactly? What are some of the more interesting things you've learned?

I have a massive reference library on military subjects that I was able to draw from and it gave me an excuse to buy MORE BOOKS!!! I did quite a bit of research online but mostly for visuals, the internet is broad but shallow. You can find lots of stuff online but often it lacks context, is inaccurate or someone is flat out lying to you. There are so many conspiracy theory, neo-Nazi Holocaust denying nutjobs out there but they are usually easy to spot. Even more respectable web sites can tell diametrically opposing stories about the same events. There are two mutually contradictory accounts of the liberation of Vugt Camp for example - I went with the one that told the better story. We found six stories of the liberation of Westerbork Camp, three I incorporated into the comic. I don't think people are always lying, but human memory is fallible and plays tricks on the best of us. I was very concerned with getting the uniforms and equipment correct, having glaring historical inaccuracies in comics really takes me out of the comic, and it's amazing how many versions of the Sherman tank there were! I had to find the right Sherman tank the for that time period in North-West Europe and the M5 75MM calibre gun Sherman the Anglo-Canadians used had a different hull structure from the American's 76MM calibre gun! Things nobody but me and similar history nerds would even notice, but I needed it to be as right as I could. I think the parts of the story that I was surprised with was that not all camps were death camps, some were transit camps and one that is part of the story was quite, well, pleasant - at least compared to a camp like Bergen-Belsen. It was the hardest part of the book to write because it dealt with collaboration, not wanting to know and what people will do to save themselves and their families. I imagine it will spark some conversations. It was also interesting to trace the changes in the Canadian Army's tactics, appearance and professionalism over the campaign.

Will you be present at the exhibit? Will you have other art or comics on hand? (It seems like the sort of thing where you might have to restrict yourself, but if fans want to drop by, can they?).

I'll be at the opening Sunday, haven't discussed anything beyond that. I won't have any of my comics for sale there. Fans are welcome. If someone wants to buy a copy there's a suggested $5 donation to the HEC.

I'm very curious about something. Your friend and occasional collaborator Robin Bougie seems to take a strong position on free speech; he doesn't seem to believe that people should be persecuted or arrested for works of art or writing or such, however controversial, seems to believe in absolute artistic freedom. I seem to recall him weighing in quite passionately on the Charlie Hebdo matter, and I believe you've voiced some opinions there yourself (but I'm not sure which box of stuff the comics I've bought off you are in, but you did, didn't you?). So before we get to the next question - what is your opinion on the issue of artistic freedom? Do you feel like artists should ever be censored for controversial or tasteless views? Has the issue of censorship ever affected you? (Were you at all restricted in what you could say or do in this project, by the way?).

I am a believer in free speech. I find attempts to silence, censor and de-platform speakers that are disagreeable that appear to be all the rage on college campuses these days to be despicable. If you disagree with someone by all means voice that disagreement, hopefully with reasoned argument rather than just by shouting them down or banning them. When you start censoring where does it stop? Already you have people feeling threatened if they use the less than current pronoun. The idea seems to be that we must not listen to each other and demonise anyone who threatens consensus of our "tribes". SJW's, AltRight, there is so much acrimony and hate! Which of them am I going to trust to chose what I may or may not read?

I am against child porn or similar that necessarily exploits real people but I am less bothered by drawings even if I do find them distasteful. In my own work I have not had much trouble with censorship but I've never felt the need to be really explicit. If the story needed it I have few qualms about being explicit. Virtually everything worth doing is going to offend somebody and religion should have no special protection from criticism or satire. Taste is in the eye of the beholder. It wasn't that long ago gay erotica was considered "distasteful" and banned. And in the age of the internet, I mean really, who are you fooling? If people want it they have more access to more kinds of porn (really, the variety of fetishes displayed on line is staggering) then at any time in human history and banning a few comics will not make a difference. I do accept content warnings on the cover of comic books to save on the hassle from parents.

On this project (and others that are not my own that I've contributed too) I accept that there will be restrictions because of the age of the intended audience or other factors. Kick at the Darkness had to pass review from a board of educators who didn't change much beyond some minor wording but I dropped a scene in a bar because they didn't like the depiction of men drinking beer! Holocaust is one thing, but beer? It's alright, the comic was better without that scene anyway. We did go through three drafts but that was mostly fitting a complex story into only 24 pages.    
This obviously leads to the question of Holocaust denial, hate speech, and the trial of Ernst Zundel. Is that discussed as part of this exhibit?  

I don't know for sure, I'm not involved in the exhibit myself. I get the impression it's fairly narrowly focussed on the Canadian Army in WWII but I do touch on Holocaust denial in post-war Canada in the comic in that virtually from day one people had a hard time believing or didn't want to believe such things were possible in Europe of the 20th century. People had been so used to wartime propaganda they didn't know who to trust, which is why making a record of the camps was so important. In the comic, I tell the story of Aba Bayefsky, one of several Canadian war artists who went to Bergen Beslsen concentration Camp to record what he saw in drawings and paint.

Does it come into your art? Do you think the Canadian government was right to go after him? (Have you read Deborah Lipstadt's books on the matter, or followed the libel suit by David Irving? Apparently it's the subject of a new film, Denial... haven't seen it yet, myself).

I did see Denial (with a friend who was a spectator for much of the trial) and I do recommend it. I'm a big Timothy Spall fan... did you see Mr. Turner? I have qualms about punishing people severely for their ideas, awful as they might be. If they aren't allowed to speak how will we know who the idiots are? Certainly Jim Keegstra should not have been teaching children. But once again, where does it stop? Anyway, it all seems so last century now that people are free to post any sort of hate-filled insanity online without consequence... particularly now that a certain American presidential candidate has made hate respectable.  

What else you working on these days? Where can people who want to check out your more, um, "entertaining" comics find you next? How should people contact you if they want to buy some of your work?

Right now I'm working on a comic just for fun, an adventure story set in HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos featuring HPL himself. I needed a break from Holocaust. I still put out the occasional mini-comic when the mood fancies and am thinking about a couple graphic novels (having a publisher would help), one an collection of Canadian history stories (the one the Canada Council rejected) and another world wide history of tea. There is one comic shop that stocks my mini-comics, R/X Comics on Main near Broadway, or you can E-mail me directly. I have an almost up to date listing of my comics at There's also Colin Upton Comics on Facebook and on my Youtube channel you can find "Today's Tea" where I review teas and talk about tea history.

Thank you, Mr. Upton! 

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