How Katherena Vermette combined Métis history with sci-fi to write her first graphic novel
Katherena Vermette's debut novel The Break was defended by Candy Palmater on Canada Reads 2017 and her poetry collection North End Love Songs won the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry in 2013.
Vermette recently took on the challenge of a writing in a new format — graphic novels. Pemmican Wars, the first issue in a series called A Girl Called Echo, is a sci-fi story about a young Métis girl named Echo, who is mysteriously transported back in time to key moments in Indigenous history. The series is illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk.
In their own words, Vermette and Henderson discuss how they created A Girl Called Echo.
A new challenge
Katherena Vermette: "I didn't intend to do a graphic novel. I had been talking with my publisher about how cool graphic novels were and how they should find more female graphic novelists and they should really do something on Métis history. I talked myself into a job without knowing about it or knowing that's what I was doing. I just agreed to it and said 'Sure, let's give it a try.'
"It was totally different than writing anything else. At first, I just outlined what I thought the words would be, but I quickly realized with graphic novels you can tell so much more story than you can in other mediums because the pictures and illustrations do the work for you. I scrapped my ideas and relied more on a filmmaking approach and on someone else's talent — in this case Scott and Donovan."
A different approach
Scott B. Henderson: "Katherena's writing style was a little bit more open-ended. It required me to figure out how many pages it would be, where page one would end where page two would begin, what pages would be facing each other and to break down the pages into its various panels. I met with Katherena and we quickly threw up some sketches onto a wallboard and sketched what we wanted to do and tried to get some details of the story."
A girl called Echo
KV: "Echo is a cool name and I like the idea of a girl called Echo. That's where the story started — she's very much an echo, a continuation of the history that came before her. But she's her own source as well. The story of her in present day is a result of the story of her people and her community that happened before her. She's a continuation of those ancestral lines. Looking at the young people in my family inspired me. My foster daughter does French braids, which is where Echo's French braids come from."
SBP: "Katherena had very specific ideas for some of the characters, like Echo. She knew that Echo would have braided hair. I ended up doing a double braid just to make it more distinct. Some of the ideas for how Echo dressed came out of doing research and looking into 1990s clothes because her clothes are from her mom's generation."
KV: "This is very much a story about Echo's cultural identity but also her gender identity. She has a trans teacher and as a young person you question and explore and learn about yourself and figure out who you are. It's helpful to do that through role models. For me, it's always been important to see different Métis and Indigenous people out there doing the things that I wanted to do. Echo is a strong, fierce young Métis woman. If you don't see someone who looks like you doing what you want to do, it can be hard to know how to get there."
Katherena Vermette and Scott B. Henderson's comments have been edited and condensed.