Writer Jamie Michaels and artist Doug Fedrau’s graphic novel Christie Pits uses the comic book medium to explore racism in Canada. While set in a particular historical time and place, the issues the book touches on are painfully relevant to 2019 life in Canada and elsewhere. Michaels sometimes puts too fine a point on those present-day parallels, but the book still serves as a potent warning while telling a story of triumph against oppression.
The book is a fictionalized recounting of the 1933 Christie Pits riots in Toronto, where local fascists clashed with Jews and immigrants in what has sometimes been called “Canada’s worst race riot.” Michaels and Fedrau explore the weeks leading up to the riot as tensions simmer in neighbourhoods populated with Jewish and Italian immigrants.
The main characters are an extended family having recently escaped anti-Semitic violence in Germany. It’s the second such migration for the parents in the family, who escaped pogroms in Kiev decades earlier. The younger generation are siblings and cousins (the cousins’ parents are still trapped in Germany).
Whether these characters are entirely fictional is a little unclear. The writers explicitly state, “This book is entirely fictional,” but an asterisk suggests this might be more about avoiding a lawsuit than an appraisal of the book’s veracity. Either way, Christie Pits has been meticulously researched, with a firm grasp on the Toronto neighbourhoods, workplaces and cultural moments (such as the Baer vs. Schmeling boxing match, the Toronto Star’s reporting on Nazi Germany and the anti-Hitler strike) which grace its pages.
Those pages are also graced with Fedrau’s black-and-white artwork. His characters are drawn with an elegant simplicity that evokes the Warner Bros/DC cartoons of the early 1990s, opting for cartoonish directness rather than gritty realism or warped exaggeration.
The cleanliness of his character design contrasts wonderfully with the world around them, backgrounds thick with detail, a collision of thin, straight lines and round, enveloping shadows. Neighbourhood buildings are as pockmarked with visual minutiae as a craggy cliff-face, while the interior of the local boxing gym is a dark void housing a lone fighting ring.
The dialogue between characters about the struggles of living under oppression in their daily lives injects Christie Pits with even more detail. But it’s when the conversation moves from the personal to the political and philosophical that Michaels falters.
A small handful of conversations read more like Facebook comment threads debating “is it okay to punch Nazis?” than actual conversations. Not that a graphic novel requires kitchen-sink dialogue, but the characters and events are strong enough to inspire these conversations in readers without actually having them themselves.
Anti-Nazi comics are nothing new. From Hitler getting punched in the face on the cover of Captain America #1 to Gord Hill’s recent graphic novel about the history of anti-fascism, the topic is nearly as old as the medium itself.
But the ways in which Christie Pits examines the depth and depravity of anti-Jewish racism in 1930s Canada does feel new. And at a time when Canada’s right-wing political parties are rife with white supremacists and the leader of the opposition refuses to apologize for giving speeches alongside literal neo-Nazis, that self-examination is necessary.