Cole Pauls feels like his comics are a group effort. The Tahltan comic book creator says he often turns to his community for the ideas and stories that make up his collections.
In his most recent book, Kwändǖr, he tells the story of building a cabin with his grandpa; he illustrates the Arctic and Dene games; he credits the people he works with in the process of writing and translating from English to Southern Tutchone. With that kind of collaboration, he says, there’s a huge sense of responsibility to get it right. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of feedback.
“If I get something right, they’ll tell me I got it right. If I got something wrong, they’ll tell me I got it wrong,” Pauls says over the phone from Vancouver, a few days before the announcement of the recipient of the Yukon Prize for Visual Arts. Pauls, who grew up in Haines Junction, but moved to Vancouver after attending Emily Carr University of Art and Design, is one of six artists shortlisted for the $20,000 prize.
He says it was humbling to find out he’d been selected, first for the long list and now for the short, partly because comics aren’t often celebrated as either serious art or serious literature. That’s changing, he says (this year, East Coast cartoonist Kate Beaton won CBC’s Canada Reads competition with her graphic novel, Ducks), but just being nominated for things like this are huge.
It means even more to Pauls that his comics are being celebrated for telling First Nations stories.
It’s something he specifically wanted to do with his work. When Pauls was a kid, he read whatever comics came through the grocery store — X-Men, Spider-Man, Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side. He also fell in love, at a young age, with the work of Yukon artist Chris Caldwell.
“I’ve had people like Chris to show me that you can be a Yukon artist and you can be very successful,” he says.
The more he read, the more he knew he wanted to see his own experience reflected somewhere in comics, well beyond the tired tropes he occasionally came across when an Indigenous character was introduced in a mainstream book.
In 2020, Dakwäkãda Warriors won best work in an Indigenous language at the Indigenous Voices Awards. In 2023, Kwändǖr was nominated for best book at the Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning.
“[Beaton] beat me in the category I was in,” he says, laughing. “But even though I may not be winning awards that I’ve been nominated for, I’m at least getting Southern Tutchone language back into the common world and circulation. Even though I didn’t win the award, I’m still winning by people saying the word Kwändǖr in those rooms.”
They may not be stopping anytime soon. Pauls has a new book coming out with Conundrum Press, that’s an abstract play on Tahltan shapes, cultures and motifs. He’s got three more books written and waiting to be illustrated. Earlier this year he even made a romance comic. If that sounds funny for someone whose first two books were Pizza Punks, about his friends making music, and the sci-fi Dakwäkãda Warriors, that’s intentional.
“I’m kind of a one and done kind of guy,” he says. “I like to try different genres and storytelling styles […] I have no problem changing genres. I really like the challenge and I like catching people off-guard to not expect something from me.”
The Yukon Prize gala takes place on Sept. 16. Pauls will be at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore for a book signing on Sept. 15 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. as part of the Friday night art crawl in downtown Whitehorse. Visit yukonprize.ca for more information.
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org