Inspired to create sustainable comic book plotlines

Ryan Winn

Justin Gauthier offers validation for future artists enamored with pop culture. On Nov. 17, the Menominee tribal member visited the College of Menominee Nation’s Keshena campus to deliver a presentation titled, “Writing Comics: What Happens Between the Panels.” Yet, before he explained the hallmarks of comic book writing, Gauthier led his audience on a journey through the four-decades of media that shaped him as an artist.

Balancing wisdom with wit, Gauthier discussed both the tangible and cerebral effect that video games systems and VCRs had on his generation. A self-described “centennial baby,” Gauthier conveyed how the Atari 2600 and John Hughes’ films each made indelible marks on his psyche. Gauthier spent little time explaining the finer points of the technology, preferring instead to capture how he shared the media with his father. Explaining the allure of his sentimentality, Gauthier contended that “Using former technology is like drawing back an era of time.”

It’s understandable that Gauthier would want to return to the 1980s, as that was the decade that sparked his interest in creating media stories. He recalled how visiting family in Milwaukee resulted in his seeing “Blade Runner” in theaters, which made him wonder, “How do I become a storyteller like this?”

Gauthier’s earliest stories were typed on a portable Speak and Spell toy, which he saw as an early version of the computer tablets that are ubiquitous deliverers of media content today. While the latter is primitive compared to the dexterous applications enjoyed by today’s budding scribes, Gauthier credits it as the device that enabled him to “learn how to write.”

Gauthier’s post-secondary education began at CMN, which inspired him to write. Thanking his host, he highlighted that the school “really nurtured” his voice as a writer. After earning his associate’s degree in liberal studies at CMN, Gauthier completed his bachelor’s at the University of Wisconsin. He then earned a Master’s of Fine Arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He saw the last degree as a “marriage of two ideas” that shaped his life — media content and the written word.

CMN’s Sustainable Development Institute is working with Gauthier to create comic books that promote the Menominee Theoretical Model of Sustainability. Gauthier explained that the appeal of comics lies within three areas — compelling stories with reliable characters, a catalyst to set the story in motion, and arresting, captivating visuals. Gauthier noted that using visual art to capture tribal teachings is hardly a new idea, as Native nations have been creating visual art, such as the Lakota tribe’s winter counts or his own peoples’ regalia, to chronicle important events and ideas since time immemorial.

Working with Menominee artist Nicholas Schwitzer, Gauthier relayed how the collaboration between the writer and artist both strengthened the work and kept it on track. Gauthier revealed that being a screenwriter is “super lonely,” while his time spent with Schwitzer has enabled them both to discover shared connections and “mine their own stories” for inspiration in creating the group of kids the books will focus upon. Adding later, “We can support one another through the collaborative method.” Part of their joint art is to inspire readers to furnish the action between the panels in their minds.

While Gauthier and Schwitzer are keeping the plot of their joint venture under wraps, they do hope to expand their work in the future to include Menominee language, stating, “Language is an umbilical cord to our past.”

Gauthier, being the nostalgic soul he is, admitted that if he could time travel anywhere or anytime, he’d travel to the Menominee Reservation just after the Industrial Revolution to glean some wisdom from his ancestors.

When asked what advice he’d give to his younger self, Gauthier’s response seemed directed more to those who saw themselves as fellow aficionados of pop culture. “All things you feel are wasting time are prologue to something.” Then added, “Don’t take things too seriously.” He joked that the wrinkles on his face were caused by his “laughing too much.”

Ryan Winn teaches communication, English, and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school visit