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Watershed Blues Autopsy: A Comic Artist Questions Himself

Kitz on Kitz. By Tim Kitz

Kitz on Kitz. By Tim Kitz

By Tim Kitz

Tim: Can you describe Watershed Blues for readers who have just picked up this issue?

Kitz: Watershed Blues is a mixed media comic that ran in the Leveller for the last ten issues, from Issue 7.2 (Oct/Nov 2014) to 8.5 (Feb/March 2016).

Tim: What do you mean by mixed media? How did you create the art for the comic?

Kitz: I can’t draw, so I used photos – old historic photos, and ones I took myself. But I wanted the photos to look more cartoony, stylized, and analog. So I would print them out and outline everything in black, using a brush. The idea was to ink the photos the same way a cartoonist would ink their pencil sketches. I was trying to ‘comic’ the photos or to ‘cartoon’ them, if that makes sense.

Tim: What was the comic about?

Kitz: It’s a series of meditations on the ecology of the Kitchissippi (AKA  Ottawa River) watershed. There’s some history, but also a focus on the present-day city of Ottawa itself.

Tim: Serious stuff. And yet it doesn’t have any of the things we tend to associate with comics. There’s photo-art but no drawings – and no superheroes or jokes, no dialogue and no real story. Is Watershed Blues really a comic?

Kitz: That’s up to other people to decide, I guess. I think it’s a comic, since it juxtaposes a series of images with text in an attempt to make a statement. But it’s all a big experiment.

Tim: If it was an experiment, what were you trying to test?

Kitz: I was trying to see if I could make comics alone, without collaborating with an artist – trying to see if I could create satisfying art for words I’d written. Also, I wanted to make comics that weren’t story-based. Even in non-fiction comics, there’s still usually some sort of story. There’s a lot of biography and autobiography in indie comics for example – so it’s the story of someone’s life. I didn’t want to do that. In my most pretentious moments, I would say I wanted to make a comic that was less like a story, and more like a song.

Tim: Can you unpack that a bit?

Kitz: It’s more straightforward than it sounds. Songs are a hybrid art; they combine music and words. Comics combine pictures and words. Most comics have a story to them, but a lot of songs don’t. Song lyrics tend to be more impressionistic and poetic. Often they’re about what’s going on in someone’s head, what it feels like to be them. It’s much rarer to get a song with distinct plot, characters, and exposition – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Of course there are exceptions – murder ballads and so on. But that’s not your average lyric. I wanted to try making comics where the script was more like lyrics or a poem than a story.

Tim: Okay, so I understand the ‘Watershed’ part of the title, but why ‘Blues’?

Kitz: Well, the comic is a sometimes-angry lament for all we’ve destroyed, but I wanted it to be more than that. To me, the blues involves complaining or crying out against something terrible, but somehow there’s also something triumphant about it. You triumph over your blues by singing them, maybe.

Tim: How does that note of triumph come into your comic?

Kitz: I try to show how nature is still so resilient and prolific, so fertile and productive. Though we’ve done irreparable damage – mass extinction and so on – life will go on, and flourish with or without us.

Tim: That’s sort of hopeful… I guess?!

Kitz: The hope for humanity is this: if we’d just ease up a minute, if we’d just stop standing on nature’s throat, she’d make a dead city into a living forest. That’s an example I keep returning to in the comic – the way urban weeds are the forest’s avant-garde. We just need to relax and get out of the way; life is very good at restoring and regenerating itself.

Tim: So the environment can save itself if we’d just get out of the way?

Kitz: Yeah, I think trying to ‘save the environment’ is a dead end. It shows how lost we are, that we think of nature as if it’s an abstract ‘environment’ that’s somehow separate from us.

Tim: Trying to save the environment in general can also feel pretty hopeless.

Kitz: It’s disempowering. I can’t save the world. It’s not my responsibility. But I can protect the trees growing outside my door, and the ravine or stream I walk by. I can actually help improve the health of the soil beneath my feet. We can make a difference; we do have power on a local level.

Tim: And all those small local changes can add up, presumably.

Kitz: Well, that’s how nature works right? It takes a thousand rivers to make an ocean, a million raindrops to make a storm – all those cheesy metaphors are actually true.

I suspect things will only change when we start falling in love with the specific plants and animals that are our neighbours  – when we start having a mutual and personal relationship with the specific land we live on and the waters that sustain us. That’s why it was important for me to write about the ecology of a particular place.

Tim: So did you want the comic to be educational? Political?

Kitz: Definitely, but only as a side effect. I didn’t want to be preachy, something I’m clearly failing at in this silly self-interview.

Basically, it affected me a lot when I started learning a bit about the land I’d grown up on – about its history, its people, its ecology. I really had to dig to find some of this stuff, and I wanted to share it in an artistic way.

Tim: That kind of knowledge is really underground.

Kitz: We can recognize hundreds of corporate logos, but not ten plants native to our area that could give us food. In school, we learn endlessly about wars fought in Europe but know nothing about the history of the place we live.

I grew up in Ottawa and I didn’t know this was Algonquin territory until university. And I didn’t learn that in the one elective course I took on the history of Canadian First Nations; I heard it at some activist fundraiser. We don’t talk about this stuff in our culture.

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