Artist and author Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is most widely known as the originator of a new genre of cartoons he calls Haida Manga, or Manhwa, giving rise to his graphic novel, Red: A Haida Manga (D&M, 2009). The hardcover version was nominated for a Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award, a Doug Wright Award for Best Book and 2010 Joe Schuster Award for Outstanding Canadian Cartoonist.

Manga is the Japanese word for comics; Mahwa is the Korean word for comics. Yahgulanaas uses the term to establish that his Haida cartoons are positioned somewhere between two continents. Set somewhere off the northwest coast of B.C., Red: A Haida Manga is the story of an orphan named Red and his sister, Jaada, who are captured and taken away when their village is raided. Seething with rage, Red wants to find his sister and take revenge on her captors. A paperback version was released in 2014.

Yahgulanaas subsequently created another graphic novel that retells an ancient Haida tale in his unique mix of Northwest coast art and Japanese comic style. War of the Blink (Locarno $24.95) is about a fisherman caught in a high-stakes game of kidnap and bluff while trying to save his home village from raiders. In a showdown in which one of the sides must blink first, the villagers find a way to save face and their home. Ultimately, it's a story about finding the courage to choose peace over war.

In 2019, Yahgulanaas published Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga (D&M $29.95) a prequel to Red: A Haida Manga. It's the story of Carpe, a newly-unemployed carpenter who returns to his village to find a series of disasters taking their toll. A fuel spill has contaminated the village's food supply, climate change is causing havoc and people are getting hungry. A small group of hunters venture out in a canoe in search of sea lions. After Carpe kills one of the mammals, a surprise storm blows up and in the rush to get away, Carpe is left behind. After ten days, the hunters are able to return to the hunting spot but Carpe has vanished. Turns out, the Lord of the Rock where the sea lion was killed, exacts retribution for Carpe's role in the death and banishes the carpenter to a half-life between human and animal, life and death.

Yahgulanaas, also a sculptor and graphic artist, has work in the collections of the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Vancouver Art Gallery amongst others. He pulls from 20 years of experience in the Council of the Haida Nation and speaks frequently about social justice and community building.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas grew up in Masset. His experiences with institutional art training in Vancouver in the late 1970s were brief but eye-opening. He told Kevin Griffin of the Vancouver Sun, "I got into a roaring argument with the instructor. He said that in order for a Haida artist to be authentic, you couldn't use a power saw on a totem pole. You couldn't use commercial paint. That was so offensive to me. I couldn't spend the rest of the year with an instructor who thought like that. That was my experience with a Western art institution."

A great-grandson of Master Artist Charles Edenshaw, he returned to Haida Gwaii and apprenticed on a totem pole project with painter, carver and printmaker Robert Davidson, his elder cousin who introduced him to Haida iconography. He proceeded to mix his own experiences as a Haida with contemporary graphic literature to produce Haida Manga. Yahgulanaas also studied with Cantonese artist Cai Ben Kwon.

Illustrated with his own Haida style cartoons, Yahgulanaas' The Last Voyage of the Black Ship (Western Canada Wilderness, 2002) is a mythical history of a hungry civilization, industrial logging and rainforest ecosystems. The Black Ship is based on one of the world's largest self-loading log barges capable of carrying away 13,000 cubic meters of forest on each trip. A sleeping forest spirit is awoken by a young woman named Pink Gyrri and togeher they save a talking bear and provide a Buddhist solution to the devastation of industrial logging.

Yahgulanaas also adapted a Haida parable about two brothers traveling to and from the Spirit World. Incorporating versions from different dialects in A Tale of Two Shamans (Theytus, 2001), he has included a linguistic analysis of Haida by John Swanton and John Enrico.

As a cartoonist, he has challenged stereotypes in a variety of publications including Tales of Raven Vol. 1 "No Tankers Tanks" 1977; Tales of Raven Vol. 2 "Mutants of the Pit" 1987; Spruceroots magazine 1998-2002; Nonni's Will 2002; Vancouver Special Anthology 2002; What Right! Anthology 2002; MADBURGER, Czech Republic 2002; Redwire 2003, Crank magazine 2003, and Geist 2005.

According to the UBC Museum of Anthropology: "Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas was raised by John Bruce Hageman, Saangaahl laanas sdastaas, and Babs Hageman, Yahjaanaas, in Delkatla, Massett. He is a political 'Arrrtist,' and works professionally seeking solutions to jurisdictional disputes between Colonial and Indigenous governments both here in Canada and internationally...

"Michael was named Yahladaas (White Raven) at a feast given by Emma Matthews, Saanlanaa Yahjaanaas. He was first named Waatchesdaa (Fortunate Twin) by Emily White, 7waahl gidaag Yahjaanaas, at a feast given by Florence Davidson, Jaadrahl Yahjanaas. Michael was also named Simjuuaa by Nellie Yeomans, Srajuugaahl laanaas. He was born a Nicoll with a Red Hawk crest from Uladoon on the north west coast of Scotland; a Yahgulanaas Raven from inside Gowgaaia in the south and the Shark house from Daadans on the mid west coast; and a Twin-finned Orca from the northern coasts of Haida Gwaii at Klinkwan, Alaska. He is a descendant of Charles Edenshaw, Daa xiigang 7idansuu Saanggaahl laanaas sdastaas, and Alfred Adams, Kyaanuusilee, and grandson of Massett 7laanaas au (Town mother/village chief) Oliver Adams, Gaala of Gitaans. Cousin to Jim Hart on the Raven side of the family."

From July to December, 2007, the Museum of Anthropology hosted three of his installations for an exhibit called Travelling the Museum "transforming materials ranging from an entire Pontiac Firefly, to Plymouth and Dynasty car hoods, to archaeology storage trays. In the process, he brings his own brand of humour, narrative and social commentary to jumpstart new debates."

With contributions by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Yahgulanaas' Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment (Greystone) pre-sold rights to publishers for Australia, New Zealand and Spain. In this pictorial story, adapted from a parable of the Quechuan people of South America, he has presented the hummingbird as a talisman for progressive social and environmental change. This book was nominated for the BC Booksellers' Choice Award in Honour of Bill Duthie. It was repackaged and revised two years later as The Little Hummingbird.

He has also provided illustrations for The Canoe He Called Loo Taas (Benjamin Brown Books, 2010), a children's book by Bill Reid's daughter, Amanda Reid-Stevens.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas moved to Vancouver in 2002. Yahgulanaas was cited in 2010 as residing "close to the Two Sisters mountains on an island in the Salish Sea." He lives on Bowen Island.


JAJ: A Haida Manga (D&M, 2023) $34.95 9781771623537

Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga (D&M, 2019) $29.95 9781771622240

War of the Blink (Locarno, 2017) $24.95 9780995994621

The Canoe he Called Loo Taas (Benjamin Brown Books, 2010) $16.99 9780978255367. Text by Amanda Reid-Stevens.

Red: A Haida Manga (D&M, 2009, 2014) $22.95 9781771620222

Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment (Greystone, 2008) $16 9781553653721. Revised and renamed as The Little Hummingbird (Greystone, 2010).

A Lousy Tale (Self Published, 2004)

Last Voyage of the Black Ship (Western Canada Wilderness, 2002) 9781895123159

A Tale of Two Shamans (Theytus, 2001) 9781894778015


Nicola Levell. The Seriousness of Play: The Art of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (London: Black Dog, 2016) 9781910433119

Nicola Levell. Mischief Making: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Art, and the Seriousness of Play (UBC Press, 2021) $29.95 9780774867368

[BCBW 2023]


The Seriousness of Play reviewed by Eldon Yellowhorn, 2017

Play, playful, and playfulness best describe the visual jazz that Nicola Levell presents in her portrait of Michael Nicoll and the Yahgulanaas experience.

After a short preface by Cambridge scholar Jonathan King, Levell brings to light Yahgulanaas's work and story in five chapters following the introduction.

A practical guide and a tour of the artist's roots in Haida culture, Chapter 1 explores Yahgulanaas's backstory from his early years - he was born at Masset in 1954 - and lists the people and things that influenced his imagination. His maternal lineage fills a long paragraph, whereas he sums up his paternal ancestry in one sentence, mainly to explain his surname.

Yahgulanaas is Haida, a fact expressed through his art and his apprenticeship with his famous mentors, Robert Davidson and James Hart. Under their tutelage he cemented his reputation and set down the foundation for his eclectic career. Rather than follow the beaten path of carvers and painters before him, Yahgulanaas embarked on an unconventional interpretation of customary motifs.

Chapter 1 follows his transformation from a young artist intent on following tradition to an independent and creative activist and contemporary artist absorbed in iconoclasm. Popular art and novel media spread a smorgasbord of possibility before him that brought forth works such as Squids (2011).

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

As with boys everywhere, comic books were Yahgulanaas's favourite literature, and cartooning, was the persistent mote that settled in his mind's eye. Before long, superheroes and their whimsical kin abandoned the small squares of their storyboard to inhabit the open and fertile landscape in his imagination alongside the magnificent icons of Haida mythology.

In Chapter 2, Levell explores the blended narratives that emerged from mixing expressive styles with old motifs, such as his Bone Box (2007) at UBC's Museum of Anthropology. Channelling surrealist attitudes to animate ancient protagonists serves to bring them into the urban landscape as citizens who openly exclaim their commentary and critique of the modern world.

Chapter 3 chronicles the ensuing altered states of expression produced when Yahgulanaas cross-pollinated the artistic lineages of the north Circum-Pacific to create The War of the Blink (watercolour, 2006).

Heroes and their exploits have long entertained and educated young listeners, and the art of cartooning turns Yahgulanaas into a narrator who develops the plot and helps the story of his book The Last Voyage of the Black Ship (Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 2002) unfold, and in the process Haida legends gain a manga sensibility with which to wag their tales for this generation of fanboys.

Chapter 4 puts new meaning into the phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message. Praising both ancient and industrial metal, Yahgulanaas's repurposed copper designs adorn automobiles (Coppers from the Hood series, 2007), extravagant public art (Sei 2015), and re-imagined material culture (Craft 2012).

In juxtaposing coppers (ancient symbols of wealth) with icons of consumerism such as the Pontiac Firefly (2007) (chariot of the proletariat and Chief of the Odawa), Yahgulanaas plays with the mercurial concept of status.

The last chapter is a synthesis of the artist's vision, what influenced it, and where Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas finds his inspiration. Never one to remain confined within a genre, the final section simply announces: "Stayed tuned for more of the Yahgulanaas experience!"

In closing out this volume, Yahgulanaas ponders the new frontiers of expression roiling in his imagination. The clues about his direction are evident in paintings such as Valiant (2011), Kyrgyz (2013), and the EMMA Collaboration (Untitled 2014).

Nicola Levell

The Seriousness Of Play delivers many insights about the life of the artist and his oeuvre. It also serves as an artefact of his culture. As much as the Haida are manifested through Yahgulanaas, he too is a product of their aesthetic traditions. His creative vision may have its roots in his maternal family, but it both highlights and carries the changes wrought by twentieth century popular culture and the post-modernist melange that is globalism.

Unlike their isolated homeland on the north Pacific coast, the Haida were not an island unto themselves. Radio waves filled their airspace in the 1960s and 1970s. Yahgulanaas was the young man who tuned in, turned on, and locked onto those electronic signals. Modernity brought novelty as well as the challenges that shaped his youth and awakened his activism.

Blockades, protests, and a formidable original talent would shake the status quo on Haida Gwaii, as related in Temperate Rain Forest and Culturally Modified Trees (1998). Direct actions contested the rights to ownership claimed by the province, as seen for example in Red White: A Lousy Tale (2004) and In The Gutter (2011), just as Yahgulanaas's art tested the borders of Haida conventions on customary designs and motifs, such as English Bay (2006) and Hiroshima in Kitsilano (2007) - or pretty much everything in this volume.

For Yahgulanaas, animation, as in cartooning and manga, appeared first in the weekend supplements of newspapers and of course in the comic book literature that filled up his boyhood. He also grew up with television, where he saw the familiar superheroes of pulp fiction in animated form.

In their own ways, comics and cartoons competed for the heart and mind of this young fellow at the same time as he absorbed Haida oral tradition with it own cast of tricksters, heroes, and villains.

His fusing of folklores might involve Raven, Eagle, or Mousewoman marrying into the Spandex clan. Their offspring are the characters Yahgulanaas portrays in his artwork.


Yahgulanaas's contemporary mythical landscape is accessible through the pictorial storytelling in works such as Red: A Haida Manga (2009), but he never forgets that comics, first and foremost, must be fun. Humour is never lacking in his visual jazz, and his eclectic puns keep viewers busy with many surprises.

I see his work liven the streets and museums of my city, Vancouver. Finding them yields a "Where's Waldo?" kind of reward. In Abundance Fenced (2011), for example, Yahgulanaas uses 42 metres of industrial steel to capture the organic sweep of salmon swimming upstream against the current of the Fraser River.

I encourage all visitors to Vancouver to seek out this brutal landmark in Kensington Park, at 4900 Knight Street. Like The Seriousness of Play, the payoff will be a glimpse of the future of Haida art.

Nicola Levell has invested much energy in putting together a sumptuous and detailed volume that really does justice to the art and life of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

-- The Ormsby Review