PhD student, English Department at the University of Florida
The widespread devastation of ocean ecosystems due to marine pollution, overfishing, and rising temperatures caused by climate change has emerged as one of the greatest man-made environmental issues of the twenty-first century. This crisis will undoubtedly have devastating, far-reaching consequences, particularly for today’s youth, who will need to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable world ravaged by environmental disaster. Given this unsettling reality, Carlie Trott contends that “empowering today’s children to understand and take action on climate change should be an important goal, both to support children’s agency and to promote present and future community resilience in the face of climate change impacts” (43). Katie O’Neill’s middle-grade comic Aquicorn Cove (2018) takes up this challenge by using a “gentle fantasy” narrative to educate children about ocean conservation. The comic centers on young protagonist Lana as she returns home to her storm-ravaged, nameless village and rescues an injured baby “Aquicorn,” an adorable seahorse-unicorn hybrid. Soon, Lana discovers that the village’s unsustainable fishing practices have contributed to coral bleaching and endangered the Aquicorn population. Beyond merely using the colorful, Disneyfied Aquicorns to evoke sympathy in the reader, I argue that O’Neill’s comic models “global feminist environment justice,” which Noel Sturgeon defines as “using an intersectional approach… and revealing the connections between social inequalities and environmental problems to uncover the systems of power that continue to generate the complex problems we face” (6). By drawing attention to the larger systemic issues threatening the oceans, Aquicorn Cove empowers children to engage in justice-oriented environmental activism.
The comic’s exploration of the link between social issues and environmental destruction manifests most obviously through a series of disagreements between Lana’s aunt Mae and Mae’s former lover, Aure. A blue, humanoid sea-creature, Aure resides in the coral reef off the coast of the village and protects the Aquicorns. While Aure and Mae initially strike up an unlikely interspecies romance, the ex-couple clash over the village’s harmful fishing practices. In a series of darkly colored panels that stand out starkly from the rest of the comic’s vibrant frames, Aure shows Mae the sparsely populated, dying coral reef (Figure 1). The grim tour concludes with an image of sea creatures encased within a net as Aure direly warns Mae, “Plastic nets have no feelings, they take everything and they never break. You have lost your connection to the sea. You say you only take what you need, but you seem to need more now” (60). Functioning as a less-shrill, sexier version of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, Aure explicitly links the reef’s plight to human actions, denouncing the village’s greed and disconnection from the natural world. However, Mae justifies the village’s exploitation of the ocean by highlighting the economic necessities motivating their overfishing, insisting, “We have to bring money to the village, or it won’t survive” (ibid). Moreover, she underscores the apparent powerlessness of small groups of people to enact meaningful environmental change, stating, “My village is a speck in the ocean! You’re asking us to sacrifice our livelihood for what? Barely making a difference” (61). Rather than simply vilifying the humans, the comic emphasizes the tension between economic survival and environmental stewardship. In this way, O’Neill invites young readers to consider how the unequal distribution of wealth in capitalist societies contributes to the destruction of the oceans and the environment at large.
Though Mae initially resists Aure’s message, Lana later realizes that the dying reef no longer effectively shields the village from powerful storms. She convinces Mae that the survival of the reef and the humans are inextricably linked, saying, “[I]f the reef dies, I think our village will die too” (75). The comic concludes with the villagers vowing to destroy their plastic nets and return to the traditional, small-scale fishing practices used by their great-grandmothers--not their male ancestors, significantly. Additionally, Mae resolves to find alternative, more sustainable ways to generate income, stating, “It’s time to see what our village can grow and provide for itself. And Aure said they would help us find other things to sell, things the Aquicorns make” ( 85). Of course, Mae’s suggestion that friendly marine creatures will help to financially support the humans by producing goods is clearly a utopian fantasy that still operates within capitalist logics, rather than envisioning less destructive economic systems. However, the comic’s conclusion does effectively model what Kamala Platt terms “environmental justice poetics” by “promot[ing] both environmental well-being and social justice” (184). In other words, by portraying the villagers compassionately working with nature to develop mutually beneficial solutions, O’Neill encourages children to imagine more environmentally friendly, harmonious futures.
Finally, O’Neill includes nonfictional paratext that extends the comic’s environmental justice message by encouraging children to participate in real-world activism. A section titled “How Can We Stop This Damage?” suggests ways that readers can help to confront the global, systemic issues endangering the oceans, such as building coalitions, contacting local politicians, and boycotting corporations. However, in the back matter O’Neill cautions, “It’s also important to make sure that local communities are still able to make a living with these changes.” By facilitating children’s involvement in environmental conservation, while also reminding readers of the pressing need for more equitable and sustainable ways to generate income, Aquicorn Cove demonstrates how transformative environmental comics can bring structural problems to the forefront in order to empower children to challenge the status quo and participate in environmentally justice-oriented activism.
O’Neill, Katie. Aquicorn Cove, Oni Press, 2018.
Platt, Kamala. “Environmental Justice Children’s Literature: Depicting, Defending, and Celebrating Trees and Birds, Colors and People.” Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism, edited by Sidney Dobrin and Kenneth Kidd, Wayne State University Press, 2004, pp. 183-197.
Sturgeon, Noel. Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of the Natural. University of Arizona Press, 2009.
Trott, Carlie. “Reshaping our World: Collaborating with Children for Community-Based Climate Change Action.” Action Research, vol. 17, no. 1, 2019, pp. 42-62.
Brianna Anderson is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Florida. Her research interests include children’s and young adult comics, picture books, ecocriticism, digital humanities, and visual rhetoric. She is currently working on a dissertation examining representations of climate crisis and environmental disaster in children’s comics. Her work is forthcoming in Studies in Comics.
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing