Local author brings Christie Pits riots to life

Dirty Water Comics’s latest graphic novel, Christie Pits, tells the story of Canada’s largest race riot you probably haven’t heard of.

Written by Jamie Michaels and illustrated by Doug Fedrau, Christie Pits will be released on March 23 at McNally Robinson Booksellers Grant Park.

Set in Toronto in 1933, just after Hitler rose to power in Germany, the graphic novel follows several characters who become involved in the Christie Pits riots.

“In Toronto [in 1933], Jews are the largest arguably visible minority […] they refused to be ghettoized and abused any longer,” said Michaels.

“As swastika clubs form around the city of Toronto, Jews meet them in verbal and often physical confrontations.”

Christie Pits culminates in a confrontation at the titular baseball field, where a riot erupts after a homemade Nazi flag is unfurled at a baseball game.

The riots led to the mayor of Toronto establishing Canada’s first anti-hate legislation, banning the swastika badge.

“I came across this story quite by accident,” said Michaels.

“It was referenced to me at a pub and I had no knowledge of the history like many Canadians, and as a Jew who studied history and politics at a university level, I was a little embarrassed that I wasn’t aware of the situation.”

As he researched the riot further, Michaels said he felt this was a story that needed to be told in a dynamic, accessible way.

Michaels said he developed characters for Christie Pits by “reading my way through the history to not view it in retrospect.”

“So reading the newspapers in the lead up, the Toronto Daily Star, the Globe, the daily Mail and Empire, as though I were a Jew living in that time and kind of trying to gauge the threat level of global Nazism, fascism and anti-Jewish sentiment living in Toronto and really feeling the uncertainty of that time period.”

Immersing himself in the period allowed Michaels to flesh out characters to make the novel feel more visceral.

After extensive research, Michaels began storyboarding and put out an open call for submissions on social media to find an illustrator and ended up choosing local artist and graphic designer Doug Fedrau.

Michaels and Fedrau worked together for over a year on the project.

“It was very collaborative,” said Fedrau.

Fedrau studied and worked in graphic design, but has had a passion for illustrating his whole life. This is the first graphic novel Fedrau has ever illustrated.

“I was kind of surprised I had never heard of this, that it was the biggest race riot in Canadian history as far as I’m aware and that it had made some impacts on hate crime legislation in Canada […] and that it’s virtually unheard of,” said Fedrau.

“That was one of the reasons I thought it would be a great topic for a graphic novel to reach a new generation, because it’s been over 80 years since the actual riots.”

With the resurgence of vocal anti-Semitism and white supremacy, this 86-year-old story is a stark reminder of the effects these ideologies can have.

“This history is depressingly topical,” said Michaels.

“I think knowing that this history is a constant, knowing that the threat of this vitriol and this xenophobia and this hatred of those we first perceive as different is so palpable and so easy to fall into, when we make exceptions for our time period we ignore that,” he said.

Creating a plot and relatable characters surrounding the event enables people to better empathize with the conditions of the past, according to Michaels.

“When you read a novel you can kind of immerse into a worldview that will give you a better understanding as a human being as opposed to being a historian,” said Michaels.

 

Review

Christie Pits delivers Michaels’s promises. The graphic novel is historically rich, with vivid characters — and it is funny, too, without detracting from the serious themes and dramatic passages. The graphic novel has an underlying tone of resistance and resilience.

It is evident Michaels and Fedrau worked closely together, as the pacing of story through novel feels even-handed and deliberate. A graphic novel as a medium allowed the action-packed scenes to be delivered in a dynamic way that is not as achievable with conventional prose. Christie Pits features many fight scenes, but the graphic novel does not feel like a juvenile superhero comic book — it feels real.

There are several different characters who get introduced throughout the 140-page graphic novel. Michaels gives readers a glimpse into each of their lives but manages to make the short sections allocated to each character have depth.

Certain characters occasionally stray close to being one-dimensional, as some of them act more as instrumental representatives of different perspectives on the conflict without getting their stories fleshed out.

Others, such as Rochelle, have particularly heart-wrenching passages, delving deep into their pasts. That being said, the main characters remain likeable and relatable.

Without feeling scattered, Christie Pits allows the reader to piece together the characters’ lives and pasts that led them to the Christie Pits riot.

Christie Pits offers characters you can empathize with and an engaging plot, both of which add to the true historical narrative rather than distracting from it.

 

The Christie Pits book launch will be held at McNally Robinson Booksellers Grant Park on March 23. For more information visit dirtywatercomics.com.