Smash Pages Q&A: Cole Pauls

The creator of ‘Dakwäkãda Warriors’ discusses his work, making a bilingual comic, the influence of ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ on his comics and more.

In his comics series Dakwäkãda Warriors, which was recently collected by Conundrum Press, Cole Pauls tells a story that draws equally from pop culture and from Southern Tutchone culture. If that weren’t enough, the book is bilingual, intended to help teach the Southern Tutchone language. Before I reached the end of the book, I found myself not needing the notes as I had picked up the ability to read a few words. 

It’s hard to say what’s more impressive, the ways that Pauls is able to craft a comic that is both entertaining and educational, or the way that he manages to craft a story that references and pays tribute to his culture, that is wonderfully specific, but also uses these pop culture elements to make it familiar, though Pauls is intent on using and subverting the stories in interesting ways. 

Conundrum just announced that they’ll be publishing Pauls’ second book, Pizza Punks, next year, and we have a preview of the book here. I spoke with Pauls recently about his work, what he doesn’t like about a lot of indigenous picture books, and the influence of Calvin and Hobbes.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I always liked comics as a kid. I grew up reading The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I had a babysitter who was really into comics and Dungeons and Dragons and video games. I never thought about it until I became an adult but that babysitter introduced me to everything I loved now. I invited him to my sixth or seventh birthday and he gifted me five Calvin and Hobbes books and I obsessively read them and would draw Hobbes and Calvin. I didn’t realize how much gag strips influenced my comics, but they totally shaped my brain and comics.

I can see that influence on Pizza Punks. Those aren’t single panels or strips, but I can see the influence and the rhythm of those strips on your comics.

There are some strips that are three panels or one page and that sort of storytelling and pacing really influenced me on Pizza Punks. You don’t have to stay with one small limitation. Most of The Far Side were one panel but he would do different things with it. The three panels gag isn’t a box, you can go other places.

So you read Calvin in books and never read them in newspapers? I’m sure that was a different experience.

I have the box set now and I realized that I started reading the comics at the end. One of my favorite comics, I found out, was the last strip. I didn’t really know which was first or second. They were gag strips and you could start anywhere.

So you’d been making comics for a while and you tell this story in the book about how it all came from a single image you drew for Yukomicon in 2015.

It all came from that tote bag illustration. I’d always wanted to incorporate my heritage with my comics. I did that as a kid. For school assignments I would incorporate indigenous culture and comics.I found a lot of educational comics and books as a kid so stale and phony – and how little of it represented the Yukon and how little I enjoyed it. I wanted to make my own book that fought that. That was engaging and educational and fun, but also resourceful. It came through that commission from Yukomicon, Yukon’s only comic convention. They asked me to draw something equally Yukon as it was nerdy. I came up with the Wolf and Crow power rangers. It all snowballed from there. I got so many compliments about how I could have written a story about it. I had so much fun drawing it that I thought of a story. It wasn’t until a year later that I finally drew the first issue.

The idea of having the language play a role and the educational aspects were a part of the idea from the start?

I came up with the characters and the imagery first. Once I had that set, I realized, what can I do to elevate this? One of things was incorporating Southern Tutchone into it. When I came up with that idea and suggested it to my translators, they were ecstatic. They thought it was so cool. They were super helpful from day one saying, “Let’s do it.” It more brainstorming how can I elevate the story from just incorporating the imagery in it.

You wanted to make something you hadn’t seen before.

Yeah. Like I said, I’ve been reading indigenous comics my whole life and thinking about them and critiquing them about what I like and don’t like about them. I put all the things I wanted in a comic into one story and tried to push it further. A lot of Highwater Press comics or other indigenous comics will have one or two words in the indigenous language and I wanted to push that and make a bilingual comic. I saw other people making indigenous comics and I tried to process what I like and don’t like about them and how can I apply them to my own work. 

This isn’t a strict retelling of a story or stories, you’re very playing with elements of these traditional stories.

The first part is like a spinoff of Raven Steals the Sun, a very famous Northwest coast legend. It’s one of the well-known indigenous stories. I play with my own heritage in the story. Sasquatches have lots of folklore stories in the Yukon and British Columbia. They’ve always been characters I’ve drawn in my sketchbook because they’re just a fun thing to draw. What do I do? I make him a cyborg. Things like that, which have cultural significance, but get twisted. 

What didn’t you like about a lot of the other indigenous books and comics?

A lot of the books were very cookie cutter. It’s important to have these stories and I understand the background and reasoning for this, but when you’re making a children’s book and it’s forty years from the first indigenous children’s book, you want to do something different. I find that a lot with indigenous art. People have the same five things and they go back to each one. I have the same problem with tattoo artists where they have flash and their new drawing is a skull, but they’ve drawn 500 skulls before. A lot of first nations artists will make an eagle, but I’ve seen them do that before. I found the children’s books had the same moral stories and the same characters. On the West coast here our trickster is the crow or the raven. In the south, they have the coyote. So very similar stories but a different character. It felt so repetitive. How do I break this cycle of retelling a story told 100 years ago that was retold 50 years ago that was retold 25 years ago that was still being retold now.

One aspect of your book I enjoyed is that so many stories are retold in much the same way, but encasing them in amber like that can cut people off from what they meant and what they originally were. Adding the other elements you brought in were trying to capture a sense of what these stories were and how people used to relate to them.

I would say so. It’s a modern retelling but it’s indigenous futurism seeing into the future telling these stories in the future. I feel like there’s enough artists already talking about those things.

I was going to ask about indigenous futurism and your relationship to that.

My definition of indigenous futurism is being able to see myself in the future, and having the comfort of knowing we still have a presence and a voice 100 years from now – or a 1,000 years from now. It proves how resilient we are as a community and as people. Seeing yourself in the future and having comfort knowing your culture and people haven’t died off. It’s still present in a future society. The world’s history has not stopped us.

When did you first encounter indigenous futurism work? Were you already on that path when you first encountered it?

That’s a good question. I made my comic not really knowing what indigenous futurism was. I knew about people of color twisting it to make their own scifi. There’s a lot of African-American sci-fi comics. I read about those before I considered making an indigenous futurism comic. As a kid I was obsessed with EC Comics. When I’d go to Vancouver I would go to Golden Age and buy those huge archive books. One of them has the famous comic where the astronaut takes off his helmet and he’s a black man – and how controversial that was. When I read that as a teenager I thought that was so cool. Processing the cultural and historical moments happening then, it was super forward thinking. It’s not surprising to hear that the comics world was super racist towards it and offended that this would be an idea someone had. 

My biggest influence was when I visited Vancouver at 14. My uncle took me to the Vancouver art gallery and when we left we stopped at the gift shop which had Michael Yahgulanaas’s Red manga. That would have been the year or the year after it came out. Flipping through that book, I was blown away. I was already a huge anime and manga nerd so the fact that someone had made a native manga! Seeing the artwork and how fluid it is, how beautiful the watercolors are, every single page turns into a giant totem when you stack them together, I was totally blown away by that. That’s a distinct memory in my head. Seeing that book on the shelf and flipping through it and realizing you can incorporate indigenous culture with comics and make something really good with it.

So you were on this path, reading comics and making comics and you saw this work that made you go, yes you can do this, and showed you what was possible.

I have comics from when I was in grade two and three. I published by first zine at 15 after reading Nog A Dod. I read that a year or two after it came out and it blew my mind. That you can be a total weirdo and self-publish comics about anything you want and you can make as many as you want. That it’s not about selling something to the big two, you’re making  it for yourself and give them to your friends. When I read Nog A Dod I was like, you can just do that? I had seen Michael Yahgulanaas, but I had never seen another artist make a zine. That was not the world I was in yet. It feels full circle to me as an artist because Nog A Dod was a Conundrum book so it feels cool to be on the same label as the book that blew my mind as a kid.

So you made an issue of Dakwäkãda Warriors, printed them, out it out, like you have previous comics.

I made the first issue thinking it would be a standalone. That it would be a one shot comic and that was it. But the reception was insane. I released it the weekend of the Vancouver Art book fair and I sold out of the first printing that weekend. I made it for myself but I quickly realized that there was an audience for it. I thought, I can extend the story and I realized what I hadn’t done with the characters yet and wrote the second issue and then the third issue came right after.

The first issue stands on its own but after that you were clearly interested in expanding the world and building on these ideas in different ways.

I realized there was a lot of action and then the book’s over. I didn’t go into any depth with any of the characters. That’s why the second issue I realized I can go deeper into the villains and in the next issue I go deeper into the heroes. I don’t read a lot of superhero comics. I’ll read issues if I like the artist. I own a Brendan McCarthy Spider-Man book which I bought for him. I feel like not a lot of superhero stories are told that way. The first issue is more like the pilot, you have to introduce everything and get into their back stories so I feel like Dakwäkãda Warriors is sort of a superhero storyline backwards. 

I’m curious how you work.

I draw and think in my sketchbook. I have my entire life. I’ve never not had one. It’s like an extension of myself. Part schedule, part doodles, part diary. When people ask to flip through my sketchbook, I do it for them. My whole thought process is in my sketchbook. I write in my sketchbook, too, dialogue and everything. I thumbnail everything first. I don’t start pencils until I have the entire story thumbnailed, because then I have an idea of how many pages my comic will be. Once I have the thumbnails done I start penciling. When I pencil I start the dialogue but rewrite it in my sketchbook or type it. With Dakwäkãda Warriors I had to type my dialogue because I had to get words translated. I had to type up my script to email it and get people to translate words and then I would incorporate those words into my script. I’ve enjoyed that process because it made me rewrite things I’ve written and see I can edit this out or move this sentence here or cut this panel out. Once I have my pencils down and the text is written on my artwork, I go to inks. I normally ink the text and the panels first and then characters and then backgrounds. All the color and zip atone is done digitally on Photoshop. 

The joys of Photoshop. So the red gets added there after you’ve finished inking.

All the originals are in black pen. I just isolated whatever I need to turn red. It’s a lot easier for me because I don’t have to hesitate and look at my page and go, what do I make red? What do I make black? It’s easier to make it black and then add red and adjust it in Photoshop. I consider the final artwork the book. I don’t consider the comic page the final artwork. There’s a lot of talk about how perfect a comics page needs to be and how effortless and crisp it needs to look. If you look at my originals, I don’t use whiteout. If there’s a mistake, it’s left there. There are some pages where people will ask if they can use a piece and I hate that page because this hand is drawn three times on itself and so it’s just a scribble, but I was able to fix it in Photoshop. I don’t find the comics pages to be that precious. I want the final product to be the book. I don’t make comics with the intent of displaying them in a gallery. I want someone to be reading them in a book.

Why did you want to use red in the book?

Black, white and red are the traditional colors of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. It’s on our flag, in our clan logos. It’s an homage to that. The South Tutchone people is not the only nation that uses black white and red. It’s a very Northwest Coast thing.

You wrote in the back of the book about your experience with the language and your translators. Have you had a chance to see kids and other people respond to the book?

I have. When I made the first issue I went home for Christmas and brought a stack of books with me. I went to my old school. My collaborator Vivian Smith was still teaching native language classes at the time. She’s since retired. She was in class teaching and I knocked on the door and she said, guess what class, we have a special presentation today. Cole Pauls is here with his new book. She just put this on me and said, we’re going to teach a lesson now. As a class we read the book together. When we got to a word Vivian would ask, what’s that word? What’s it mean? And then we’d continue and we did that for the whole book. It was cool to see the kids in class who had been learning the language for a few years now and when they go to words they knew they were just so ecstatic. It was so cool to see their home language in the book. My community is so small and everybody knows each other. It’s 800 people. When I came home to show off that book, my little sister was in grade eight at the time so she was like, ugh, my brother’s here. Other kids were like, the lifeguard is here? He draws? It’s such a small community but everyone’s been very supportive. 

The world premiere of the book was in my home town and we had a huge potluck. I did an artist talk. My cousin performed. The Dakwäkãda dancers performed. I performed with them for the first time in 10 years. My whole family was there and they’re members of the Dakwäkãda dancers so we all danced as a family. It was really special. It was so nice to do an artist talk to my community. They knew a lot of the information and there are a lot of Easter eggs for Yukon First Nations in the book. They were able to catch them right away and see all these things that I wrote and made for them. That was the most rewarding thing. That’s how I knew my book was successful. It’s nice that my book is successful so that non-Yukon First Nations people can pick it up and read it and understand it and get a grasp of the language and understand where I was coming from, but the book was made for Yukon kids. The fact that I got to go home and show it to them as a finished product, and not just a single issues – it was really rewarding to see my community be so proud of my book. It was a community effort. I wrote and drew it, but I had collaborators and support. I did it for them.

Do you have any plans to make more Dakwäkãda Warriors?

I consider Dakwäkãda Warriors done. Maybe in 10 years I’d want to return to the characters? But right now I have another book coming out with Conundrum. It’s not announced yet so I can’t really say. It’s not coming out until next year, but I’m writing a sequel to that book. That sequel will be an indigenous comic. It is important for me to create more indigenous comics. The next one I’m going to write is contemporary. There’s very few comics that showcase that. First Nations in comics are either in the past or in the future, and there’s not a lot of comics in the present. I really want to show that. I want to show my story of moving from the Yukon to Vancouver and the culture shock of growing up in a small community and moving to a big city. It’ll be an indigenous punk comic. There’s not any representation of indigenous punks. There’s some bands, but not much documentation about that. There is a community of indigenous punks, especially in Vancouver. If I had to coin it, I would say that it’s my indigenous version of Scott Pilgrim.

I love it. It sounds like you really want to make different kinds of projects.

I have my next three books planned out, but after that, the sky’s the limit. Also, three books is probably going to end up being five to eight years worth of work.

You mentioned culture shock of moving from the Yukon to Vancouver. Did you go to school in Vancouver? 

Straight after high school, I went to SOVA, the Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City. It’s a foundation program so it’s only first year and after that you can transfer to one of their sister schools. So I transferred to Emily Carr and graduated in 2015. I enjoyed it and stayed in Vancouver cause I love the comic community here and I’ve grown attached to all my friends and family here and I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now. 

As far as Yukon, you mentioned the one comic con where this started, but was there a community of other people into comics and gaming when you were growing up?

Yukon is very small. Say there’s 50 hardcore nerds – we all know each other. The thing about the Yukon is that there’s 40,000 people. So you know everybody. I know almost everybody in the Yukon. I grew up in Junction, but you get bundled up with all the other small communities. Being engaged in First Nations culture my whole life, you go to a pow wow or a stick gambling tournament in another community so you drive seven hours to Watson Lake and meet all the kids your age across all the Yukon because all the community members have driven to that same stick gambling tournament. So I knew all the nerds that would like this in the Yukon because I grew up with them. The guy who sold me comics as a kid still sells me comics when I got to the Yukon. I’ve known Shawn, the owner of Titans, my entire life. We have one comic book store, Titans, and it’s also a gaming cafe and a restaurant. It’s kind of the hangout place for dorks. You can play video games on the computer and Magic with your friends and buy comic books. It’s a very tight knit community. The same with the music scene in the Yukon. I talk about that a lot in the book I was talking about.

Driving seven hours is a little different from living in Vancouver I’m sure, where people on the East side won’t visit the West side during the week, and vice versa.

It’s wild! I live in East Van and I have friends who live in Kitts but they’re like, “It’s 5 p.m., I don’t want to leave.” You’re like a 30-minute bus ride away! Growing up in the Yukon I’m used to literally driving seven hours for a weekend visit to my auntie and uncle. That’s a normal thing. In the Yukon everyone has vehicles and everyone travels. I talk about that in my next book, too. Dakwäkãda Warriors was a three-year project and I’ve been promoting the book for like six months now and I love the book, but I’m also ready to move on as an artist.

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