Review of Nova Graphica: A Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History

By Mark J. McLaughlin

Perceptions about the comics medium have shifted dramatically over the last few decades. Not so long ago, comics were viewed by many as something to be read by children and the semi-literate. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars began approaching the comics medium as being worthy of serious study, and have produced numerous works analyzing comics from various different angles.[1] Historians, meanwhile, have used comics as an innovative means to tell stories about the past, everything from working-class struggles to the experiences of enslaved Africans.[2]

Nova Graphica: A Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History.
Image source: Conundrum Press

We can add to the mix the delightful book Nova Graphica: A Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History, edited by Laura Ķeniņš. It may not be a large book, at less than 140 pages in length, but the ambitions behind it certainly are. Nova Graphica does not feature a more traditional historical narrative, one perhaps focused on high politics or the “great men” of the past. As historian Sara Spike so aptly notes in the introduction:

Conventional histories of Nova Scotia, like those of North America more broadly, presented an uncomplicated story of colonial conquest and European settler ascendancy. These stories are not timeless. They were shaped in the 19th and 20th centuries by writers embedded in the political culture of their day, written to justify ongoing violence of racism and settler colonialism. In Nova Scotia, this was tinged with an invented tradition of Scottishness, which generalized the heritage of a few into a provincial identity for all (6).

As a partial corrective, Nova Graphica includes various stories featuring voices sometimes left out of provincial histories, such as Indigenous peoples, Black Canadians, the LBGTQ community, women, and even the land itself.

But Nova Graphica is not a typical provincial history. It does bear the hallmarks of a historical edited collection: an editor, an introduction by a professionally-trained historian, 12 “chapters,” and more than 15 contributors. Nonetheless, the inclusion of “anthology” in the title is one of the first hints that there might be an element of creativity or imagination associated with the book. One of the ways in which this is manifested is through the incorporation of ghost stories into the work. This comes across as inventive historical fiction instead of pandering, and is especially effective in thought-provoking pieces like “My Great Great Great Grandfather” by Dusty Keleher and Paul Hammond and Jordyn’s Bochon’s “The Daughter of the North Mountain.” For those who prefer more traditional approaches to history, there are several contributions that would work well in something like an undergraduate course, including the ones on Viola Desmond, Moses Coady, and the Halifax Infants’ Home.

Of course, the main way in which Nova Graphica differs from other provincial histories is the graphic element. The interplay of text and image that is at the core of the comics medium is used to great effect by the contributors. While most of the pieces are very text heavy, just as much, and sometimes even more, information is conveyed to the reader through the images. Indeed, the first half of the Moses Coady comic contains little text, and yet the reader is still transported to a lone house in Margaree, Cape Breton on a moonlit night, occupied by an aging Coady whose sleep is suddenly disturbed. Each comic features a different artistic style, and some have very defined paneling, while others essentially have none at all. One of the most powerful comics in the anthology is “Not Perfect” by Rebecca Thomas and Rachel Hill, both of whom are Indigenous. Their contribution is about the Cornwallis statue in Halifax, the broader processes of settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession and erasure, and how they refuse to stop resisting and be silenced. The more free-flowing layout of the comic compels the reader to slow down and really concentrate on the material, and in so doing have a better chance of fully grasping the important message contained within the comic.

As an environmental historian, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the natural and built environments of Nova Scotia were also the subject of some of the comics. My favourite is about the Spryfield Rocking Stone. Absurd from the outset, the comic depicts a talk show called “Nova Scotia Tonight” hosted by “Peggy the Lighthouse,” an anthropomorphized version of the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse. The entire comic is a sit-down interview with the Spryfield Rocking Stone, in which the reader learns about how the rock, a glacial erratic, became a local tourist attraction by the mid-19th century. Other contributions that focus on the natural and built environments of Nova Scotia include “In the Primeval Forests of Nova Scotia” by Kris Bertin and Alex Forbes, “Half Home” by Laura Ķeniņš, and Collen MacIsaac’s “Five Sided House.”

Nova Graphica presents some of the lesser-known aspects of Nova Scotia history in a fun and engaging manner. Far from a conventional provincial history, it will likely not appeal to everyone, nor be suitable in all educational situations. That said, it will definitely have a wide appeal, from its inclusion of frequently marginalized voices, to its innovative storytelling, to its powerful subject matter. Nova Graphica is a good example of how the comics medium can help make history more accessible to all.

Mark J. McLaughlin is an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies at the University of Maine.

[1] For a recent example, see Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz, The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

[2] See, for instance, The Graphic History Collective with Paul Buhle, eds., Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggles (Between the Lines, 2017) and Liz Clarke and Trevor R. Getz, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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1 Response to Review of Nova Graphica: A Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History

  1. Debora Pollock says:

    I wish to thank Prof. Mark J. McLaughlin for his review of Nova Graphica, a Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History, edited by Laura Kenips. Prof. McLaughlin attributes each contribution mentioned in his blog with the author’s name, except for his favourite comic about the natural and built environment, , called “The Spryfield Rocking Stone’. May I correct this error of omission? The author of that piece is Veronica Post. I happen to know because I have a copy of the book in question, and because (full disclosure) I am Veroenica’s mother.

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