Now iconic to Canadian, if not global culture, Cape Breton Island underwent a metamorphosis of sorts during the 1970s and 1980s. Long marginalized by geography, economics and predominant mainland political culture, a countercultural sea change brought the island’s deeply rooted creative side—music, drama, literature and humour—to centre stage. One such stage was Old Trout Funnies, a homegrown satirical series of comic books created by Sydney Mines artist Paul “Moose” MacKinnon from 1975 to 1977.
Old Trout Funnies features the exploits of the Cape Breton Liberation Army, a cadre of fierce Island nationalists based on MacKinnon’s circle of friends. Initially creating the comics as a student project for a commercial design course, MacKinnon found himself at the centre of a remarkably creative energy in 1970s industrial Cape Breton. It was a time of rediscovering traditional arts, the emergence of the community economic development movement and the birth of environmental activism. All were championed and lampooned in MacKinnon’s comic creations. Through the farcical exploits of the CBLA, Old Trout Funnies parodied and played with the caricature of Cape Bretoners as shiftless, happy-go-lucky rogues whose motivation emanated from the taverns.
MacKinnon’s creations—including comic books, illustrations, album artwork, street murals and a series of illustrated calendars featuring the CBLA—are enduring icons of Cape Breton’s struggles and are the subject of a new book from CBU Press and an exhibition at the CBU Art Gallery. Local comic and graphic novel collaboration company Artisync has digitally remastered the complete series of Old Trout Funnies and some of those images are used in the exhibition, opening this week, and in the book, available a week later.
Old Trout Funnies: The Exhibition presents a visual legacy of MacKinnon’s work, showing original materials from the archives of the Beaton Institute, copies of the original comics and various Cape Breton Liberation Army calendars. Curated by Dr. Ian Brodie, the exhibit will be on display until January 29, 2016.
Dr. Brodie is the Associate Professor in Folkore in the Department of History and Culture. His research interests include adolescent folklife, the intersections of folklore and popular culture, and stand-up comedy. In Old Trout Funnies: The Comic Origins of the Cape Breton Liberation Army, he explores the themes and the legacy of Old Trout Funnies, providing the cultural and historical context for a project that was intensely esoteric and in-the-moment. Published by CBU Press, the book includes a complete run of the comics, the calendars and some rarely seen ancillary images of the CBLA, and of some unfinished and unpublished works.
Due for release November 6, Old Trout Funnies: The Comic Origins of the Cape Breton Liberation Army contains a complete set of annotations for all those time- and place-specific references, and a contextualizing essay that sets Old Trout Funnies alongside other examples of 1970s post-industrial popular culture in Cape Breton.