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“Comics with a Cause” is funding a web comic series to promote awareness about violence towards women. The inspiration behind the cause, Rod Caballero, is here to talk about the initiative and their upcoming web comic Branded.
Me: Can you explain the purpose of “Comics with a Cause”?
Rodrigo Caballero: Comics with a Cause is the name of an informal collective of artists based out of Vancouver who have been involved with raising funds for and producing a web comic series titled BRANDED. We first received a grant through the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Assault Initiative Fund (administered by the Sexual Assault Support Centre) to get the project going then we later raised some more money via a crowd funding campaign on indiegogo to complete an entire first issue. I created BRANDED with the aim of spreading awareness of the prevalence of violence against women using comics and storytelling. Some people may be familiar with the subject already from news reports or from the important work of non-profits dedicated to ending violence against women and supporting survivors. Or maybe they’ve come across statistics or a report. These are essential in raising awareness of the subject. What we’re trying to do is offer a new approach by putting the subject into the form of a story so that people can engage with it in ways perhaps not possible with statistics and reports.
The other thing I am trying to address is the skewed representation of sexual assault in other media such as movies and tv. Quite often, rapists are depicted as a minority of evil psychopaths lurking in dark alleys waiting to pounce on unknowing victims, whereas according to the statistics, most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the survivor (a friend, partner, relative) and in the perpetrator or survivor’s home. Unfortunately, as readers familiar with the “women in refrigerator” phenomenon already understand, the portrayal of sexual violence in comics has also been limited to the sudden and violent killing off or maiming of women characters in order to provide a motivation for a male protagonist. With BRANDED, I am very conscious of portraying women as survivors of sexual violence, not as mere victims, and of illustrating the consequences of violence on peoples’ lives.
Me: Who came up with the idea for the project of “Comics with a Cause?” What was the inspiration behind the idea to start the project?
Caballero: I came up with the idea for BRANDED while I was attending a panel discussion at last year’s Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Part of the event involved a striking installation of hundreds of life-size black silhouettes of women, each one describing a real-life (often horrendous) incident of a woman who had survived male violence. These were collected over the period of one month by a local non-profit. There was something very visceral about being surrounded by all of these stories and realizing most of them have never reached public consciouscness. It was very moving for me, especially personally knowing women who have survived sexual violence. Later on during the panel discussion, the question was raised, “what is the role of men in helping to end violence against women?” The idea just entered my mind: I was going to make a comic about it. It’s like one of those things that just pop into your head and you realize you just know it’s something you have to do.
Me: Why was it decided to make this project non-profit?
Caballero: We decided to make this a non-profit project so we could release the comic for free which means hopefully we can reach a wider audience than if we charged for the comic. This is also the reason we decided to launch it on the web– it’s possible to reach so many people so easily using the Internet and social networking. This is very much the environment we’re hoping the comic will flourish in.
Me: Who are some of the other people who have been instrumental in “Comics with a Cause”?
Caballero: Firstly, I’m grateful for having received the support of the Sexual Assault Support Centre at UBC to get the project going. Really, when I first went into their office to pitch the idea, I had no idea what they would think. The staff at the support centre- Anisa and Ashley Bentley – have also lent their valuable insights and experiences by giving feedback on the script. I’ve also been lucky to get feedback from a staff worker at BC Women’s Hospital sexual assault services. This is indispensable, especially as a male writer trying my utmost to be sensitive and honest in my representation of the subject. Babette Santos, a performing artist and activist, has also lent her voice in supporting the idea of engaging audiences with the issue of violence against women using comics and the importance of involving men and boys as well. Then, of course, there are the artists who have lent their talents in bringing the story and characters to life– Reetta Linjama who is handling the illustrating and lettering, Shari Chankhamma is doing superb colouring, and Delia Gable (from New York) who illustrated the cover for our first issue. I’m lucky to be working with such great talent for the very first issue.
Me: What has the response to your project been like?
Caballero: The response has been overwhelmingly supportive and in general people seem to be really enthusiastic about raising awareness of the issue in a new and novel way. On a more personal note, while we were first promoting the comic, more than one friend came forward and professed to me their experience of being sexually assaulted. This probably wouldn’t have happened if I had not decided to create this comic so it has certainly given me inspiration to make sure the comic comes to fruition. It’s precisely this sort of real-life discussion and exposure that I hope BRANDED will generate amongst readers on the subject of violence against women. The release of our comic on campus will certainly be timely with all the recent media attention surrounding rape chants and non-consensual sex on campuses across Canada during frosh week activities. It recently came to light that rape chants were being sung and tolerated during frosh week at UBC, so I certainly hope our comic holds relevance for readers.
Me: Can you describe the story of Branded for us?
Caballero: Putting a twist on the superhero genre, BRANDED Issue 1 launches the story of four characters whose lives become entangled with, and eventually transformed by, the controversial actions of an anonymous vigilante named “The Brander”: Theresa, a first-year college student and date-rape survivor; Tory, a young student-activist who must find the strength to support her; ‘Dez’, a young “street poet” who struggles to make a name for himself as a hip-hop artist of conscience, and; Detective Perry, a police investigator who begins to question his role in society as a criminal investigator.
Thematically, BRANDED sensitively calls attention to the shame and stigma which are frequently visited upon the victim rather than the perpetrator in cases of sexual assault as well as the need for redress that so often remains unattainable for survivors of sexual violence.
Me: What are you hoping readers will take away from Branded?
Caballero: One of the fundamental challenges with raising awareness of violence against women in society is the unacknowledged code of silence that shrouds the subject. It very much continues to be a taboo subject that most people are not comfortable with openly discussing or confronting. Unfortunately, this means that sexual assault and violence against women has continued to loom in the shadows and its prominence remains obscured. It’s my hope that seeing more stories being told about sexual assault in society using a popular medium such as comics will inspire people to start engaging in a dialogue about the subject. I hope that by portraying the subject through compelling stories and characters that readers can relate to, we can reach audiences in a more engaging manner. It might be difficult to discuss violence against women directly, but maybe we can start by discussing a story about violence against women.
Me: When and where will readers be able to get their hands on Branded?
Caballero: Issue 1 of BRANDED will launch this Friday September 27th at www.brandedthecomic.com. It will be released in 4 mini episodes. As far as getting their “hands” on it, if the comic is successful enough we’ll be able to look at publishing a print version of Issue 1 a bit further down the road.
Me: Are there any other comic books from “Comics with a Cause” that are coming in the future that you can tell us about?
Caballero: We have put all our time and resources into getting BRANDED Issue 1 off the ground and we very much hope to be able to continue the series afterwards. Consequently, there are no plans at the moment to begin any other series (though I definitely have ideas). My vision for BRANDED, however, is to be able to finish a full, 12-issue mini-series then publish a print graphic novel version. With a bit of luck and support from readers, I hope this happens!
Me: Thanks for your time! Anyone interested in Branded, remember you can read it for FREE at http://brandedthecomic.com/. Also read my interview with Ashley Bentley, the consultant on Branded who works at the Sexual Assult Centre.