Not just words: Comic books, health, and Indigenous youth

Sean Muir is the executive director of the Healthy Aboriginal Network (HAN), which creates comic books and videos on health and social issues for Indigenous youth. Muir gave a public talk about his work with HAN at Douglas College.

Muir founded HAN after recognizing that brochures and pamphlets weren’t really reaching youth or connecting with the community, and he got tired of reading about parents who couldn’t buy healthy foods for their kids on reserve. He wanted to recreate the connection that kids have to their favourite books and movies: a relatable, enjoyable story. He aimed to give young people health and social information as narratives rather than as facts and figures. “Tell me a story. Tug at my heartstrings. Move me in some way, and maybe we can do something,” said Muir.

HAN was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2005 and has worked with organizations at all three levels of government across the country. Muir considered using video at first but found the costs prohibitive, so he turned to comic books, which can draw in even reluctant readers. “And these aren’t Archie comics,” said Muir. “They deal with issues like suicide prevention, child protection, and family violence.”

His first comic books were funded by Vancouver Coastal Health through its Aboriginal Health Initiative Program, which supported innovative health-promotion projects. The first book was about health and social issues, the second was about suicide prevention, and Health Canada funded a third about diabetes prevention. Since then HAN has created more than 20 books, along with affiliated videos and posters.

Muir knew he wanted to test the content before creating a final product but couldn’t find anyone—neither health professionals nor youth (his target audience)—willing to read a 20-page manuscript. So he recorded the dialogue and had an artist sketch a rough storyboard, and he used those to create videos. He could send the videos out to health professionals for their feedback and have youth view them at focus groups. The youth would watch the videos for about 20 minutes and had 40 minutes to offer feedback. “These were just rough pencil sketches,” said Muir. “We told them not to focus on the images but to listen to the story. We’d revise the story and images later.”

“The youth got into it no matter the subject,” said Muir. “They weren’t used to getting asked their opinions.” He asked open-ended questions like “What did you like?” “What did you remember?” “What emotions did you feel?”

At first these rough videos used one voice actor. “We felt it was more traditional, like telling a story around a campfire,” Muir said. But when there were many characters, the youth got confused, and Muir had to bring in more voice actors.

All of HAN’s books are now tested this way—with urban youth, rural youth, and elders. After five or six in-person focus groups for each book, Muir’s team would revise the story and create the final comic book, which they would print and distribute on the HAN site and through their vast network of libraries, schools, and friendship centres. Their first titles sold half a million copies.

Some of the finished comic books were turned back into videos. Muir used techniques like motion comic animation, where the shot pans in and out of a frame to simulate motion and some movement is added, but the action is not fully animated. The youth don’t really notice the difference, and it reduces the cost of a 20-minute animation from about $120,000 to about $20,000.

“I get tired of hearing stories from teachers who think comic books are not for serious reading,” said Muir. “Graphic novels, well presented, bring out things kids never would have thought of.” Muir was gratified to get a note from a teacher whose students read HAN’s books and produced detailed book reports about them.

Another bit of correspondence Muir liked from was a grandfather who first wrote to say he found HAN’s books—like one on suicide prevention—too dark. A few years later Muir heard from him again: his grandson had read the book, connected with it, and started talking to people about how he felt.

Muir’s testing ensures that the books are culturally appropriate, and the target audience responds well to them. “The final products hold attention for a surprising amount of time.” In fact, Muir says that the longer the story, the better. “They spend the first half of the book trying to connect to the story.” The most important thing is for the youth to see themselves in the character and relate to the story. His first dozen titles were 40- to 48-page books, which gave readers the space to develop that connection. Because of budget squeezes, HAN’s more recent books have been 16 pages long, which Muir thinks is too short. Everything is condensed and rushed.

Ever since the 2008 recession, budgets for these kinds of social initiatives have shrunk. Muir considers himself lucky, in that HAN has survived the economic downturn, but many other Indigenous organizations did not. The Harper years were particularly tough because, as Muir said, “Conservatives don’t like giving funding to groups that don’t vote Conservative. And Indigenous people don’t vote Conservative.”
Another challenge for HAN is that youth are getting more information through their devices and much less on paper. Muir is concerned that screen time and a sedentary lifestyle exacerbate problems like obesity, diabetes, and antisocial behaviour in youth.

“If I had a million dollars to do whatever I wanted,” said Muir, “I’d move forward with some ‘hard-to-fund’ projects.” He hasn’t been able to secure financial support to tackle LGBTQ issues and HIV prevention, for example. And funders often want to have a say in how a message is presented. HAN’s books generally end on a positive, hopeful note, usually because that’s what a funder wants. Muir recalled one case where this approach backfired: in focus groups for a book about child protection, many participants were upset about the story’s rosy ending, with a mom reunited with her children. They didn’t see their own realities reflected in that narrative. Although Muir understood their anger at what they considered a “sugar-coated” story, Muir had to stick to the original ending because of the funder’s goals.

HAN sells its books to community organizations and individuals directly. Muir said HAN doesn’t use third-party distributors because he didn’t want companies adding their profit margin to the books. Although HAN seems to know how to reach its audience, I can’t help wondering if tapping into traditional distribution channels, adopting archival best practices and rich metadata (including ISBNs), and using crowdfunding platforms that have so benefited the comic-book community wouldn’t improve HAN’s reach and discoverability. The content may be geared toward Indigenous youth, but I can see other groups benefiting enormously from it. For settlers and health professionals especially, these comic books and videos offer a candid look at some of the key health issues affecting Indigenous groups and can inform empathy, decolonization efforts, and Indigenous cultural safety.

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