Updated: Sep 15, 2019
Jay Odjick is an artist, writer and television producer from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabe community in Quebec, Canada.
Jay created the web comic POWER HOUR for producer Kevin Smith and also wrote and illustrated the graphic novel KAGAGI: The Raven, published by Arcana Comics. Jay is also an Executive Producer, lead writer and designer of the animated series adaptation, Kagagi, featured on APTN.
Kagagi is a 13 episode, half hour series broadcast in Canada which can also be viewed at aptn.ca/kagagi.
Jay and his production company created three audio versions of Kagagi - one in English, one entirely in Algonquin and a third one that is broadcast on television (English with 20% Algonquin dialog and subtitles).
Kagagi ranks among the only creator owned comics to be adapted for television (alongside Spawn, WildCATS, TMNT) and is one of the first Canadian-produced and broadcast superhero television series. Jay is also an activist, speaker and has worked in other creative endeavours such as children's book illustrations, having illustrated seven books published for the first time in Ojibwe, written by author Robert Munsch and illustrated a reprint of Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train."
Welcome Jay! How did you get into creating comics? BIG Question! I learned to read from comics, actually. I’m from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community in Quebec, which is where my father is from – but I was born in Rochester, NY.
There was a comic book store right down the street from where we lived and they did this thing...this real dubious thing – where they’d rip the covers off comics that didn’t sell and then sell ‘em for a dime. As a poor kid I thought that was awesome! We didn’t have a lot of money so, you’d go there with a quarter and come out with two books – no, for that extra nickel he wouldn’t tear a book in half and sell you half of it...but it was great! Now as a guy who MAKES comics I’m like, what’s wrong with you?!?
Was it a natural progression to TV? Actually it was a bit of a bumpy transition! Hit some turbulence on the way in. Writing comics and writing TV are similar in ways, because they’re both scriptwriting and there are some similarities in that for sure – but comics is the Wild West, or CAN be.
I don’t know about working for a Marvel or DC cause I’m an indie guy but in comics, you have much more leeway to do things however you’d like. In TV there are more rules – or more of a format. You have to do certain things by a certain amount of time, or by a certain page, leave cliffhangers and room for commercial breaks...bit of a learning curve. One of the unsung heroes of the Kagagi TV show was our story editor, Mia Divac who helped me get acclimated to the rules and lay of the land as quickly as possible – and I think I did okay. There are some things in that show I wrote that I’m very proud of. My staff writer Trevor Payer did an awesome job too and it was cool to work in writing as part of a team – comics is a more isolation based writing experience more often than not. What and who inspires you, and how does it factor into your art? Oh, I can get inspiration not only from art, but from life – from people doing great things or persevering. We all have our hills. Sometimes climbing them can feel or BE incredibly daunting. But when we look around and see not only the resilience and vitality of people – but the POWER that lies IN that – that’s incredibly inspirational. My maternal grandmother had a stroke; the entire left side of her body became paralyzed. She always...ALWAYS insisted she WOULD walk again. When anyone took photos, she would STAND. She had to be in the chair, but she refused to let that define her – and I took a lot from that. She handled this with such strength and grace...I never saw her down, or feel sorry for herself. She battled. It can be hard. Incredibly so.
But no matter how impossible it may seem – we can stand if we put our minds to it.
What is a day in your creative life like?
Right now? Incredibly packed! Heh! I sleep in – I’m not a morning person so this works out – but it’s born more out of necessity than preference. I know it’s hard sometimes when we have...what most would consider abnormal sleep schedules, especially those that are defined by work, I guess. People can be judgemental and think that because we get up later than most people, that’s a sign of laziness, but the truth is you gotta do what works for you, especially if you’re an entrepreneur or freelancer. Do you. Do what works. I get up around 10 or 11. Generally takes me an hour or so for my brain to move beyond a zombie grog-state. I get to work, but in the daytime it can be more or less impossible to get creative things done – I can draw and talk on the phone at times, but around half my day is spent on correspondence; the various email inboxes we accumulate in our current lives demand so much attention.
Three Facebook inboxes, Twitter inbox, two email addresses – three if you count the one attached to jayodjickshop.com – it adds up. I absolutely cannot write during the day, because I can start and stop while drawing but not during writing. When I write I have to be undisturbed. Various skies fall during and throughout the day and that makes writing impossible. So I break my work day up. I work straight through from when I’m awake enough to do so until dinner (Take breaks to walk around, stretch, etc tho – this is huge) and then break after dinner, maybe take a small nap, do.whatever it is that life entails...then get back to work. I draw or write until I start making more mistakes than I can live with and crash. Repeat!
What advice would you share with a new artist starting out? Grow a thick skin. These businesses can be about a lot more than how good you are and a lot more about how “hot” you are or valuable you’re perceived to be. Get used to criticism – if you can, be your own hardest critic. Be YOU. I know there are a ton of cool people out there doing cool things – and sometimes, we want to play music like them, write like them, draw like them – they’re our heroes. But you can’t be them. The upside? THEY can’t be YOU. You have a unique voice, perspective, to share with the world. No one can do that but you. Share YOU. We need you.
What are some of your most exciting offerings right now? I think it’s fair to say Kagagi: The Raven put me on the map; the graphic novel and ensuing TV series. I’m incredibly blessed in that. It was very much a labor of love in a few ways; there are some personal things in that and while it’s ostensibly a kid’s show, I feel it can be enjoyed or be relatable for anyone.
It deals with feelings of isolation, being different, a need to live up to expectations, to conform...we did an episode touching on Jung’s shadow self based ideas, explored the fears of the main character thru the people he knows and loves. It’s a good show, biased as I may be.
Kagagi was also a labor of love because the TV series is broadcast in three language versions – one completely in English, one completely in Algonquin and one that uses a mixture of the two languages.
This is important because our language...is a precious commodity that we are at risk to lose. We are losing our Algonquin language speakers and we need to fight to preserve this, of course. There was no money in the budget for the show to DO an Algonquin version – the show is pretty ambitious for the budget we had so I funded the Algonquin versioning, all costs included myself. It can provide a START for our kids to learn the language...at least that’s my hope. Blackflies, my book with author Robert Munsch (I illustrated it) is currently the #2 best-selling children’s book in the country and that is not only exciting but mind blowing to me. It’s a good fun, book but an important one because the book has First Nations characters and is set in a First Nations community – and as weird as this may sound, that isn’t the POINT of the story. This is a story that could happen to anyone.
It also , I think...is very, very cool and important to have a book out there for kids who don’t see themselves represented in media as often as they should. I never saw a children’s book that had kids that looked like me in them, for example.
Can you share a bit about your work in the Canadian Museum of History project? I’m very excited about the Museum project. Basically, the Museum of History is adding what they’re calling their new signature gallery – which will show the creation stories of First peoples. As the gallery is on Algonquin territory the Anishinabe creation story will be featured prominently or foremost; there will be a video installation depicting our origin, playing on a loop with audio in Algonquin and English subtitles.
I handled the art end of the Algonquin creation story (I didn’t animate it) and it was a bit of a daunting job because this entailed creating an animated version of Kichi Manido – the Creator. As far as I’m aware...there is no one recognized visual representation of the Creator. I was very scared to let people down or do something that didn’t represent my people well...it’s a lot of responsibility! I ended up using a mixture of modern digital effect heavy artwork and glows with a blend of traditional Algonquin woodland styled esthetic and tried to make the spirits seem as though they were made out of the stars themselves and so far, the elders who have seen it have been very positive, which is rather humbling. As far as I know, this will be a permanent fixture of the Museum so, if you’re ever in the Ottawa area...check it out. I hope you enjoy it.
Are there any plans to bring Kagagi to the big screen? Not by me, no. Getting the property to TV was a great, positive experience but also a real uphill battle. I’m okay with not trying to ice skate up another hill for the time being. Having said that – I think it’s a no brainer and I’m shocked there aren’t producers looking to do that.
If so, who would be your dream team of actors to play the characters?
I’m going to answer this even though I answered no to the above because this seems fun!
Kagagi / Matt would be played by a newcomer – a young Indigenous actor. I’d really like to give someone a shot, a break if we could be in such a blessed position to. Kagagi is a rarity in superhero media because it’s NEW – I think the actor playing him should be too. Having said that I believe Wes Studi would be an amazing, amazing Wisakedjak and that Loren Anthony would be a great Windigo!
Who would you love to work with next? Oh wow, what a great question. Might seem like a cheesy answer but...if you have great ideas, are dedicated and committed to your craft and want to use art to make things BETTER... You.
What is one of the funniest things that ever happened to you at an interview or convention?
Oh, so many great stories! Once, I was slated for a TV interview (won’t say with whom) and they never set a TIME – just a location. They texted me to ask where I was as they were setup at the location and just never told me when to get there. That was fun! I had one person at a con ask me if I could draw Wolverine tickling The Thing, because his claws he believed were the only things that could actually be strong enough to tickle rocks. He had clearly, clearly put time and effort into this. I met actor Jason Carter (Babylon 5) at a con as I was setting up my table – I was hurried and distracted and scrambling to get set up and didn’t recognize him whatsoever. He was there to promote a film he was in, called The Raven and he said “Oh, you make the Raven and I AM the raven” – in a thick British accent and I was like, “Uhhh...sure thing, guy.” Later I became a HUGE Babylon 5 fan and have felt like such a dink about that for years!
What did you really enjoy about working with Robert Munsch and Kevin Smith? The Kevin Smith thing was really, really cool because...I’m a 90s guy. IMO he and Tarantino really changed the way movies were written in that decade, especially re; dialogue. So it was a trip to get to do some stuff for Kevin, as he was someone in writing I admired a great deal. Robert Munsch...literally is one of the greatest, most successful writers of my lifetime. His book, Love You Forever is the third or fourth highest selling children’s book of all time, on our planet. I honestly, do not think I could ever work with a bigger name.
That was amazing and the best thing about working with Robert – when it came to Blackflies, I was given a manuscript and was given free rein to choose the “shots” or visuals that best accompanied the text that went with each page. Robert himself did not ask for a SINGLE change to any of my illustrations and he certainly COULD have, but he trusted me and in that way, this was a true partnership. I have had publishers offer me jobs with far, far less successful writers and had them tell me, “Oh this writer is a visionary and may want things drawn a certain way...” Well, they could stand to learn a thing or two from Mr. Munsch about collaboration. Trust the people you work with. Value them and allow them to enrich the work with their own gifts and we will all be better FOR it.
What always gets you into a fabulous mood? Ohh, so many things! Music. Writing. Acting. Artwork. Animals. Love!
What is your dream for a progressive North America? This is a big question – complex and I don’t want to go on too long but I believe...for the first time in my life I can see a better tomorrow. I’m seeing that Canadians CARE about First Nation issues and want to learn and want this country to be a place that they can truly BE proud of to call home. One in which people are treated fairly, where the idea that 130+ Native communities don’t have clean drinking water is a thing of the past. This is my hope – as it relates to my people and Canadians anyway. That we begin building bridges and communicate. For North America as a whole – my dream is that we stop looking for ways we are DIFFERENT and start looking for commonalities, common ground. Find ways we are alike. We are all in it together. This is where real change will come from. Empathy. Caring. Learning. Sharing. Things can’t remain as divided by politicians and media as they are. We have to start looking at one another and really trying to SEE each other, HEAR each other and understand. We have a responsibility to each other and those to come to leave this place better than it was when we got here, and we can do that.
Editor's note: Click here to read Jay's powerful article in The Ottawa Citizen about Canada and reconciliation. You can also click on the picture.
You're known for your generosity and philanthropy Jay. What are some of your favourite projects? Well, firstly thank you for that. I really appreciate it. I’m really glad if people DO in fact, think of those things when they think of me, but that is very humbling and touching. I am just trying to do my best to BE my best. We have many, many different versions of ourselves. I feel like it’s important to try to be, to put forward the best of those versions we can. Two of the things that really, really matter to me are language preservation and that communication I spoke of between FN peoples and Canadians. Re; language – I spoke earlier about Kagagi and how there were three language versions. As I said, I paid for this myself because I believed it was something, even if small that was good that I could do. I’ve also made all the translated scripts available at my website for anyone who wants to download them. I did this because we are losing our speakers at a dizzying rate. Two teachers did an amazing, amazing job with making Kagagi in Algonquin possible; Joan Tenasco and Annette Odjick Smith. What they did was truly heroic. Sadly, what we did would no longer be possible as Annette passed away earlier this year. I wanted to share the work these two incredible women did in the best way I could, so I have shared the scripts they translated, which was a huge undertaking. One of the most touching stories I have regarding Kagagi was speaking with an older Anishinabe gentleman who told me that he watched the show every week. I was taken aback by this as – again, it is a “kid’s show” and I asked why. What he said will stick with me forever. He said: “Because it’s the only chance I get to hear my language.” We have to battle. We have to stand. Thank you for this, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.