Vivek Shraya & Ness Lee's Death Threat aims to spark conversations about online trolling and abuse

Vivek Shraya's new work, a graphic novel illustrated by Ness Lee, is a semi-autobiographical account of Shraya's experience of online abuse.
Death Threat is a comic by Vivek Shraya (right) and Ness Lee. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Tanja Tiziana)

Vivek Shraya is a critically acclaimed writer, musician, scholar and visual artist based in Calgary. She teamed up with visual artist Ness Lee to create the graphic novel Death Threat, an autobiographical work that articulates Shraya's experience of receiving abuse online.

Shraya and Lee use text, colour and illustration to effectively explore what abuse means in the digital age.

Death Threat is a finalist for the 2020 Doug Wright Award, which is given annually to the best Canadian book.

CBC Books spoke to Shraya and Lee about how they created Death Threat.

Tackling abuse

Vivek Shraya: "A couple of years ago when people would say something hateful on the Internet they would like block out their name and they wouldn't use the image. You could always tell who a troll was on Twitter.

"But increasingly there are no systems in place to really protect people from being trolled. I find that trolls no longer have to be anonymous or care about their anonymity.

"I would love this book to be part of a broader conversation. Instead of just subscribing to this 'turn the other cheek' approach to trolling, we should continue to think about better ways to be addressing hateful behaviour on the Internet."


Ness Lee: "It was really great working together in terms of vocalizing visuals and seeing what we wanted to put forth. I think Vivek suggested variations in tones, when I usually work in black and white. So it challenged me in terms of considering colour. It was great in terms of pushing a vision, and in showing me how colours can express emotion and also tell a different story."

Selected page from Death Threat by Vivek Shraya with illustrations by Ness Lee. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Shraya: "Because of the way that the [email] messages have — for better or for worse — a kind of poetic quality, it was really hard for me not to imagine that in my mind. I could see these images very vividly.  So I arrived at this idea that it might be empowering to turn the project into a comic book."

Selected pages from Death Threat by Vivek Shraya with illustrations by Ness Lee. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Shraya: "When you're collaborating with another artist, especially one you admire, you want to make sure that they have as much space and freedom to be themselves. You never want to impose on their vision. I felt like Ness was always open to my ideas. She was receptive to hearing what I was imagining, what I was seeing."

A learning process

Lee: "I definitely did not anticipate all the ins and outs, all the little things that we had to consider in producing it.  There was a lot of communication with the publishers as well."

Shraya: "It takes time to find a voice and style. I feel like so much of Ness' work is about telling someone else's story.  I feel like there's a greater responsibility when you're trying to bring out someone else's story. How do you represent them? How do you draw them? How do you know?"

Approaching a new medium

Shraya: "Because I'm someone who loves exploring different mediums of art, I always worry that it comes across like me being an interloper. I never want to be disrespectful to people who have been engaging in their respective mediums for years. I think my biggest fears are around the graphic novel community and in hoping this book will be received as a gesture that comes from deep admiration and appreciation for the format."

    ​​​Lee: "I was nervous of how the book would be perceived in my comparison to my other work, my drawings and illustrations. In that sense I felt really good that I was able to explore and let go."

    Selected pages from Death Threat by Vivek Shraya with illustrations by Ness Lee. (Arsenal Pulp Press)

      Vivek Shraya and Ness Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

      Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

      A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

      Sign up now