June 16, 2022
Graphic novelist recognized for his work bridging cultural divides
Jamie Michaels, a doctoral student in the English department, is the University of Calgary’s newest Trudeau Scholar.
That’s no small feat. The Trudeau Scholarship is one of Canada’s most prestigious graduate awards, given annually to emerging leaders across Canada’s doctoral programs. It’s an extraordinary honour for extraordinary students, and as such is a fitting recognition for Michaels, who is also a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellow and Killam Laureate.
Michaels is and does a lot of things. Prior to starting his PhD, he was a writer, journalist, the leader of a helicopter firefighting team and founder of Dirty Water Comics, a publisher of graphic novels. Now, the focus of his work is a conjoined graphic novel biography of two celebrated martyrs — one a Palestinian Arab, the other an Israeli Jew.
“The work will be presented in alternating chapters to show the perspectives of the lives of each man, and how they impacted the cultural legacies of their respective communities,” explains Michaels. “Critically, the emphasis of the work is to showcase Jewish and Arab perspectives in a single volume.”
The Jewish community of Michaels’ hometown of Winnipeg was a formative influence on the writer, whose work has often explored Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in a Canadian context. In 2019, he published Christie Pits, a graphic novel created in partnership with illustrator Doug Fedrau. The work relates an infamous episode of violent anti-Semitism that erupted during a Toronto baseball game in 1933 when Nazi supporters flew a swastika flag, provoking and clashing with Jewish and Italian fans. The shameful event reflected a widespread, institutionalized anti-Semitism that limited Jewish participation in Canadian society at the time.
A black-and-white graphic novel, Christie Pits explores the unique narrative potential of the panel-by-panel format originating in comic books that is now a hallmark of the graphic novel form.
“The gutters and panels [used in graphic novels] demand inference,” says Michaels. “The reader is in the driver’s seat and is forced to make narrative connections.” As an active participant in creating the meaning of the work, a reader of Michaels’ current project will also be in a position to draw parallels between the lives of the two martyrs. In this way, the work may help bring mutual understanding to communities at political and historical odds.
While the graphic novel is a well-established medium, it’s also a relatively young art form. Michaels names a couple of titans of the field as important influences, including Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, and Will Eisner, the comic book writer who coined the term "graphic novel" and whose work, A Contract with God, established the form in the late 1970s.
“It’s pure enjoyment with Will Eisner. Sometimes you read a text and feel like it was written just for you,” says Michaels, noting that Eisner always kept his Jewish name and identity.
An exceptional English department
With a background that includes an undergraduate degree in political science (University of Alberta) and master’s degrees in creative writing (University of London, Royal Holloway College) and cultural studies (University of Winnipeg), Michaels is animated by his passion for creation and learning.
“I’m driven by parallel needs,” he says. “To create short stories, graphic novels or films — these things are important for my own sense of who I am as a human being. I’m also delighted by education, and by the opportunity to share these things with others.”
UCalgary's English department is unique, says Michaels, because, “it offers a great intersection between creative work and critical practice.” Drawn to the ethos of the program, Michaels notes both the collegiality of the department and the generosity of the faculty — in particular, of his supervisor Dr. Michael Tavel Clarke, PhD, and committee members Dr. Suzette Mayr, BA'90, PhD, and Dr. Michael Keren, PhD — as key elements that make the program one of the best in Canada.
The Trudeau Scholarship is more than a financial award; recipients participate in a three-year leadership program with training activities and mentorship. Scholars also plan and host a conference to help disseminate their research.
“This is the second time a UCalgary graduate student has been named a Trudeau Scholar in the last two years,” says Dr. Donna-Marie McCafferty, PhD, associate dean (awards) with the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “This is a great accomplishment, and, on behalf of the University of Calgary, I’d like to offer my heartfelt congratulations to Jamie. This news speaks to his exceptional work, and to that of our first-rate English graduate program.”
Michaels is honoured and optimistic about being named a Trudeau Scholar. The scholarship will help to support his research, including a year of residency doing archival work in Israel. “It’s important to have this opportunity to workshop material with Israelis and Palestinians living in the region,” says Michaels. “I wouldn’t have the same access to these opportunities to exchange ideas if I remained in Calgary. I’m looking forward to the chance to expand these networks which are so essential to my work.”