Moses Coady, Graphic Novel

Donald (Donnie) Calabrese is working on a graphic novel about Moses Coady and the Antigonish movement.

That’s a complete oversimplification of the theme — I’ll get back to that in a moment — but when I spoke to Calabrese the other night about the project (which has been excerpted in the Summer 2018 Issue of The Dalhousie Review), we started with a whirlwind tour of the graphic novel genre, and I thought it might be a good idea to start the article the same way. (I’m telling myself that’s because it helps put Calabrese’s project in context but it may just be because I find it really interesting.)

Donnie Calabrese and his alter-ego from the graphic novel, Coady.

Donnie Calabrese and his alter-ego from the graphic novel, Coady.

 

The title “father of the graphic novel” has been awarded to Will Eisner, who was born in New York, in the Bronx, in 1917. Eisner was an established comic book artist in the ’60s when he created what was arguably one of the first “comic books for adults” — an M16 rifle manual commissioned by the US Army. Calabrese says it wasn’t that new recruits were illiterate, but that they’d grown up reading comic books and the Army figured it might be a way to hold their attention long enough to teach them how to handle and care for their guns (click to enlarge):

Excerpt from Will Eisner's 1968 M16 rifle manual (Source: eBay)

Excerpt from Will Eisner’s 1968 M16 rifle manual (Source: eBay)

Seeking “a more mature expression of the comics’ form,” Eisner spent two years creating four stories which he published in 1978 as A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. His work redefined what a comic book could be and ensured Eisner would be forever associated with the graphic novel even though, as Calabrese told me, he himself preferred the term “sequential art” for what he was doing. As Eisner himself explained in the introduction to the first edition of his book:

I was working around one core concept — that the medium, the arrangement of words and pictures in a sequence, was an art form in itself. Unique, with a structure and gestalt of its own, this medium could deal with meaningful themes.

While Eisner, on the east coast, was pushing the boundaries of the comic book genre in dark, serious ways (The Contract with God is a cautionary tale about why you can’t make a contract with God, says Calabrese), artists like Robert Crumb, immersed in San Francisco’s hippie scene, were pushing the boundaries in other ways, creating acid-influenced work that Calabrese characterizes as “a lot of weird animals smoking weed.” And, in Crumb’s case in particular, “horrifically profane and puerile, disgusting, racist stuff…about drugs and counterculture.”

The artist who would establish graphic novels as a bone fide literary genre, Art Spiegelman, was influenced by both coasts.

Spiegelman (who doesn’t actually like the term graphic novel either) was born in Stockholm, Sweden and raised in New York but moved to San Francisco in the ’70s. and joined the underground comix movement. He counts Crumb as a friend and influence (and he himself created the Garbage Pail Kids), but his ground-breaking graphic novel tackled a subject as dark as they come — the Holocaust. Maus, in which Spiegelman portrayed the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats, was first serialized in Raw, a magazine he published in New York (to which he’d returned in ’74) with his wife, Françoise Mouly. Eventually, the chapters were published in book form.

In 1992, the Pulitizer Prize jury created a special award and citation for Maus.

 

With that, the genre exploded. Calabrese said that he himself first discovered graphic novels around 2003:

2003 is when I read Maus, just like everybody else, first serious comic. But it was like, you read Maus and then Persepolis and then Watchmen and then Frank Miller Batman and then [Joe] Sacco and then Ghost World and then Black Hole.

Today, he says, graphic novels are one of three genres — the other two being memoir and young adult (YA) fiction — keeping the publishing industry alive and the art is getting “better and better.” Also remarkable is that a genre that started out so heavily dominated by men has opened up to include so many women — like Alison BechdelKate Beaton (who is now working on a graphic novel) and Emil Ferris (whose graphic novel, My Favorite Things are Monsters, Calabrese calls “hands down, the greatest graphic novel, ever”).

 

For all his enthusiasm for the genre, Calabrese says the idea of creating a graphic novel himself didn’t really strike until 2011 — after he’d started seeing the artist Alison Uhma (now his wife, who is working on a graphic novel of her own) who had “these really nice black pens.” They began trying their hands at comics although Calabrese, a musician (he played with both the Tom Fun Orchestra and Sprag Session) who now teaches English at Cape Breton University (CBU), had never formally studied art. He said he would “look at Joe Sacco books until I figured out how to draw things,” but it wasn’t easy:

I stunk at it and remember getting so frustrated trying to draw and I’d be like, “I can’t draw a Javex bottle,” and Alison would be like, “You just do it like this.”

With practice, though, he found his style.

And then he found his subject.

 

He was attending a lecture in New Dawn’s Ideas Powered by Passion series by Moira Coady, the grand niece of Moses Coady, the Roman Catholic priest who was one of the most influential figures in the cooperative movement in Canada.

Moses Coady, photographed by Yousef Karsh (Source: Wikipedia)

Moses Coady, photographed by Yousef Karsh (Source: Wikipedia)

Moira Coady’s lecture, he says, was “mostly about international development” which was “the world she worked in,” but in explaining how she came to that work, Calabrese said:

[S]he put up this photo of Moses Coady which I had never seen before. I was in my twenties, and so, if you live in Cape Breton you hear the name Coady, and Moses Coady, everywhere. It’s a street in Sydney, it’s a street in Glace Bay…there’s the Credit Union…Coady Avenue in Antigonish, and then in Margaree, everything’s named after Coady…And it was crazy, looking at the picture. It took up the whole screen…it’s a Yousef Karsh portrait…I thought it was a mind-blowing photo.

The photo was so striking, it set him to reading about Coady, and he discovered Coady was a cousin of Father Jimmy Tompkins, whose name Calabrese was more familiar with, having “grown up around Glace Bay.”

And that was just amazing to me, that the two most famous social reformers — not that there’s a long list of social reformers, but in Canada they rank pretty high — [that] they were first cousins. And then the stories about them, the way Tompkins kind of tutored or mentored [Coady] when he was young.

The story, he says, resonated even more at the time — it was 2011 — because of the Occupy Movement.

I was like, okay, capitalism is going to collapse, for sure, but in the meantime, here is a model that works. Then I was sort of asking… what happened to it? Where did it go? What happened to the cooperative movement, the Antigonish Movement? And like, seriously, the… labor movement in Cape Breton?

Those are all questions he hopes to at least explore, if not answer, in the novel, which he began by making a few comics about stories from Coady’s life:

So, [t]here’s a story where he goes down to the wharf in Margaree, starts…bossing the fishermen around, says, “You can’t afford to buy coal and the coalminer can’t afford fish. Why? It’s because of the middleman.” And he was like, “You sit there and listen, I’m going to teach you about economics.” And then the middlemen would show up and they’d try to muscle him — which happened everywhere he went. Which is amazing, right?

[T]here’s all these anecdotes, especially in the ’20s and ’30s, when he was organizing the teachers and then organizing the fishermen, where he would go to a place like Lunenburg, which is all protestants, and…the merchants would hire hecklers to go in and throw tomatoes at him and stuff like that. And places where Catholic priests had no power, based on their costumes, they got a ton of shit…But he was also huge and looked like Superman so, why isn’t there a comic book about him?

Coady is a work in progress and getting part of it published in the Summer 2018 Issue of The Dalhousie Review (TDR) happened by accident — he’d submitted a short story, which wasn’t accepted, but in his accompanying bio mentioned he was working on a graphic novel about Moses Coady and the Antigonish Movement. The editor of the TDR (which, in passing, is an amazing bargain at $25 a year for a hard-copy subscription), who was working on the publication’s first ever comics edition, asked to see an excerpt from Calabrese’s novel, and the rest is history (click to enlarge):

Excerpt from Coady by Donald Calabrese (Source: https://ojs.library.dal.ca/dalhousiereview)

Excerpt from Coady by Donald Calabrese (Source: The Dalhouse Review, Summer 2018)

 

Calabrese says he expects it will take a year to finish the project.

But don’t despair: while you’re waiting, you can expand your knowledge of the graphic novel by visiting your nearest branch of the Cape Breton Regional Library, which (Calabrese agrees) has a very respectable collection of them.

 

 

 

 

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