How an Island man turned tragedy into hope through an award-winning graphic novel
'The book itself and the award, they mean so much to me'
Ramón Sierra remembers feeling helpless in 2017, as Hurricane Maria devastated his family's home in Puerto Rico.
He remembers frantic, sporadic phone calls and messages from family members who still live in Puerto Rico while he was in Halifax, thousands of kilometres away from the chaos.
He remembers the chilling silence when communication abruptly stopped.
"I could only find out how they were ... two weeks later because there was no cellphone reception," Sierra said. "It was really frustrating because even if I was able to send money they weren't able to get it."
It's been almost two years since the hurricane overwhelmed the island. Two years since the Charlottetown-based artist's family lost nearly everything — including their home.
Now, this year's Eisner Award for Best Anthology has gone to the graphic novel Puerto Rico Strong, and Sierra illustrated one of the many stories in it.
The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, often called the Eisner Awards and regarded as the industry's equivalent to the Academy Awards, celebrate creative achievement in American comic books.
In short, it's a big deal.
As a self-proclaimed introvert, Sierra said, he spent much of his childhood in his bedroom in Puerto Rico dreaming and creating art. His father encouraged him from a young age to pursue animation.
"The book itself and the award, they mean so much to me because it's actually my first published work," he said.
Sierra began working on the anthology in December 2017, and it was officially released by Lion Forge in March 2018, he said.
The anthology explores what it means to be Puerto Rican and features over 40 individual stories compiled by an array of writers and artists.
I think [it will] really help to bring Puerto Rico to the forefront.— Ramón Sierra
"100 per cent" of the proceeds from the anthology go toward rebuilding Puerto Rico, Sierra said.
"I think [it will] really help to bring Puerto Rico to the forefront and give awareness to the world about the struggles that we've been through after the hurricane because it's been one thing after the other," he said.
But there is added meaning to this accomplishment for Sierra. Last summer, his mother was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away in August 2018.
"Just a couple days after the anniversary of her [diagnosis] we got the award for best anthology," he said.
Sierra illustrated a story included in the anthology called Hope, which follows a man who travels to Puerto Rico with his son, but grapples with whether or not he made the right decision to expose his child to the wreckage left behind by Maria. The story was written by Neil Shwartz.
As the artist, Sierra was able to include a couple of familiar faces into the comic: his mother and father.
"Because I'm the artist, I was able to sneak my dad and my mom as the the main character's parents," he said, "It was really really nice for them to see themselves in a comic."
Since the hurricane, Sierra said, his family has found an apartment and are moving on.
"They're good, they're back on their feet and they're just keeping going," he said.