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Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2007:

Canadian Comic Creators

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2007 Poster
by Darwyn Cooke

"Canadians can be so needy!", as Graham Norton once joked. They may not have an inferiority complex but they seem to feel overshadowed by their powerful, brash southerly neighbour and maybe underappreciated. I’ve found it’s usually wiser to ask a stranger with a North American twang if they are Canadian first, rather than presuming they must be American and having to apologise. Yet when it comes to comics, and a great deal more, Canada is definitely not some subsidiary ‘51st state’. It may not boast the USA’s big-muscle publishers and global icons but look at the bigger picture and you realise how many of the creators who changed comics history have originated from north of the border.

For starters, imagine how different comics would have been without Joe Shuster, Toronto-born co-creator and artist of the superhero archetype Superman; or Hal Foster, a Halifax, Nova Scotia native, whose illustrative genius on Tarzan and Prince Valiant transformed the newspaper strip; or Dave Sim from Hamilton, Ontario, self-publisher of the 300-issue Cerebus graphic novel and champion of creators’ rights; or even Spawn-ographer and Image-maker Todd McFarlane, raised in Calgary, Alberta; not forgetting today’s popular pros like Steve McNiven or Darwyn Cooke, now reviving The Spirit.

True, in most of these cases, to make their name meant working for, if not relocating to, the American market. Nevertheless, considering how Canadian comics have been buffeted between the American industry giants and a tide of Euro-imports from Britain, France and Belgium, the vigour and originality of the homegrown culture defy expectations.

It’s that mix which explains how Carl Giles’ very English Grandma from his Daily Express cartoons and Margaret Thatcher herself can wind up in Sim’s Cerebus saga. And why Canadians like Paul Rivoche on Mister X or Michael Cherkas and Larry Hancock on Silent Invasion were among the first and best artists outside France and Belgium to synthesise the sleek ‘Atome’ style bandes dessinées by Serge Clerc and Yves Chaland with retro chic Americana. Back in vogue, Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart continue that line now.

Add to them Canadian authors like Julie Doucet, Chester Brown and Seth nurtured by fine Montreal-based publisher Drawn & Quarterly, and it seems all that input of different cartoon cultures has combined with Canada’s own traditions to result in some of the greatest comics produced today in North America, if not anywhere in the world.

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2005 Poster
by Darwyn Cooke

I certainly discovered more of this when I was invited to the 3rd Toronto Comic Arts Festival  in August, 2007. Held every other year, TCAF celebrates diversity and quality, Canadian and otherwise, and succeeds in reaching out to as broad a public as possible by making admission free. That’s right, free, so no passes, no tickets needed, and nothing to put off any curious punters. As co-founder and Beguiling manager Chris Butcher put it, "We kick open the doors and invite the public to witness firsthand that comics and graphic novels are a living, breathing and most importantly booming medium." The venue for 2007 was large, central, accessible and welcoming, a beautiful, historic, wood-panelled college building on the university campus. Outside there’s a whole marquee of publishers, artists and activities for kids, while inside talks and panels were held in the chapel beneath dazzling stained-glass windows, proto-comics in themselves.

It helps that TCAF enjoys high visibility in the city, for example cover-featured on the alternative listings magazine Eye Weekly with a photo of guest and poster-boy Paul Pope, exposure which helped draw in over 6,500 people across the sunny weekend. Several I chatted to were ‘civilians’, for whom the festival was a first-time experience, a pleasurable one discovering the vibrant variety of current comics. TCAF selects exhibitors and guests from the whole spectrum with a special emphasis on the small press, from superheroic stylists Cameron Stewart, J. Bone and Stuart Immonen to fast-rising indies Bryan Lee O’Malley and Jeff Lemire, from acclaimed graphic novelists Seth and Chester Brown to OEL manga Dramacon inventor Svetlana Chmakova, and yes, all of them are Canucks too.

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2005 Poster
by James Jean

I got to TCAF in time for Friday’s opening night ceremony for the Doug Wright Awards in two English-language categories, Best Book and Best Emerging Talent. Canada’s equivalent of the Eisners or Harveys are named after the creator of a long-running wordless newspaper strip originally titled Nipper, its boy hero. Unknown abroad and slipping from memory at home, Wright’s gentle gem is set for further revival in a collection from Drawn & Quarterly in 2008. Seth is one driving force behind this project and he was also on hand that evening with Chester Brown as they were reunited with Joe Matt. Their US-born crony was back from Hollywood after a failed attempt to adapt his self-denigrating autobiographical comic Peepshow for television. Together for the first time in five years, the threesome were in fine form, Matt hilariously countering Seth’s every complaint about how inaccurately he had been portrayed in the latest Peepshow storyline, Spent.

Over my whirlwind weekend I caught up with Nick Craine, at work on a highly promising life story of Shakespeare, as well as meeting brilliant opera-loving illustrator Maurice Vellekoop, and Ron Holmes, son of the late underground cartoonist Rand Holmes (1942-2002) of Harold Hedd infamy, whose comix art and oil paintings cry out to be publicly exhibited and gathered into an art book. Fortunately, Canada is blessed with substantial state support for publishing from the Council for the Arts, that helps make many great Canadian-created graphic novels possible. Another key figure at TCAF is benign, determined Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, a ‘store with an agenda’ celebrating twenty years as easily the most richly stocked comics emporium I’ve ever come across in North America. An added treat was a late-night visit home to rummage through his rarities from Canada’s ‘Golden Age’ (1941-1946), when American imports were banned and local heroes like The Penguin, in a bird-mask and long beak, and Nelvana of the Northern Lights could briefly flourish.

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2005 Poster
by Marc Bell

Fortunately, researcher John Bell has uncovered many secrets behind Canada’s unique characters and their creators in Invaders From The North, a full, fascinating record of English-language Canadian comics. Bell begins with their 19th century roots - did you know the Kodak ‘Brownie’ box camera was named after Canadian Palmer Cox’s pixie phenomenon The Brownies? Bell identifies one strong candidate for Canada’s first graphic novel as Southern Cross from 1951, told in 118 textless woodcuts. As the Cold War was hotting up, noted illustrator Laurence Hyde channelled his fury at America’s testing of atomic weapons in the South Pacific by showing and telling the tragedy of one fisherman’s family whose tranquil life is decimated when their Polynesian island is overrun by US troops and commandeered for an atom bomb test. Reissued by Drawn & Quarterly in a hardback facsimile, this silent yet eloquent graphic indictment still speaks to us with stark clarity more than fifty years later. Bell also celebrates national superhero Captain Canuck; I’d echo his praise of George Freeman‘s visual storytelling "...for the sheer joy of its unrestrained, square-jawed heroism". And Bell follows through to the 21st century rise of adult graphic novels, rightly spotlighting Chester Brown as an outstanding exemplar. Brown’s biography of freedom fighter Louis Riel has brought him mainstream prominence, but I hear his next book will revert to his candid confessionals to detail his experiences with prostitutes.

To pick out three other distinctive contemporaries, I’d start with the book’s cover artist, Dave Cooper. Without even knowing it, you’ve probably already ingested a portion of Cooper’s oversized imagination via his period tin-toy-style designs for Matt Groening’s Futurama. But for undiluted Cooper, you need to experience his comics, admired by Crumb and Cronenberg alike. There’s a bulbous, warts-n-all fleshiness to what Cooper cartoons, not just humans and critters, but architecture, furniture, machinery - everything seems quiveringly alive. The roots of this may be that Cooper’s Dad, the town doctor, always left copies of the British Medical Journal lying around for little Dave to study. "It had medical imagery in it that you probably wouldn’t let children see nowadays, lots of weird sores and defects, all meticulously photographed." This creepiness also leaks out in the sweaty anxieties about female sexuality in his Fantagraphics trilogy, which began with Suckle, his comics of the new flesh, pouring out like a projectile stream of consciousness. Sure to upset the politically correct, Crumple‘s gender satire is set after an alien invasion, when fearsome, man-hating matriarchs dominate sexist, loser males. Cooper’s softer, subtler linework for Ripple, his most intimate work, makes his powerplays of obsession and cruelty all the more tortured between Martin, a horny artist, and his plumptious, self-loathing muse Tina. In goofier mode at Dark Horse, Cooper teams with London-born writer Gavin McInnes on priceless pair Pip & Norton, sending up Pip’s bug-eyed infatuations with ‘Spinning Buddha’ toys and a psychic Barbra Streisand. Cooper’s other outlets include paintings of Rubens-inspired ‘pillowy’ women with ample figures and alarming gums, and portrait commissions, including one of another fan and patron, Jonathan Ross plus family.

Winner of the 2006 Doug Wright Award for Best Book for his Paul Moves Out, Michel Rabagliati  grew up on bande dessinée, like most people in Montreal, unaware superheroes existed apart from the Batman TV show. When he tried making up fictional characters, they never clicked for him, so he switched to graphic design. It was only in 1990, when he was hired to design Drawn & Quarterly’s logo, that he rediscovered comics through their authors and created his alter ego Paul to recount his life in graphic novels. He rates them as "90 percent autobiographical with 10 percent fiction, because you have to make a good story with the material." In Paul Has A Summer Job, set during his Seventies adolescence in Quebec, the heady first experience of love rings universally true. "It’s funny, when I talk it over with the guys, their hottest memories of being in love date back to their experiences between 14 and 18. We’re so naive at that

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2003 Poster
by Seth

In contrast, Jay Stephens has said, "I’ve tried to keep this five-year-old alive inside of me." Stephens grew up in Toronto on a sugar buzz of frosted cereals, comics and Saturday morning cartoons. Now he has a wife and two kids to do all that with him and since November 2003 his own TV animations to watch with them based on his comics character Tutenstein. His re-animated junior pharaoh with attitude dates back to Stephen’s early childhood, when an exhibit of Tutenkhamun’s treasures hooked him on ancient Egypt. Then in 1994 his leaky, soul-destroying dungeon of an apartment with no natural light was so much like an ancient tomb, it was the perfect setting to resurrect his bandaged Mummy’s boy. Now a two-time Emmy-Award winning series, Tutenstein concluded his third season this year and his strips have run in the Toronto Star along with other characters like Melanie McCay alias junior superheroine Jetcat. By recreating the streamlined graphics and snappy patter of the wackiest Hanna Barbera shows, Stephens is listening to the kid inside and knows just how to maintain that delicate, delightful balance between knowing parody and wide-eyed wonder.

In his foreword to Invaders, Seth points out that "Canadians have assumed their own media culture is second-rate, and therefore they direct their interest to the American juggernaut for quality entertainment." In fact, not only are Canadians continuing to contribute enormously to that juggernaut, but their unique local voices are being hailed as first-rate around the world and, as Bell’s book and TCAF show, at home as well.

Posted: May 18, 2008

This article originally appeared in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about Comics, Graphic Novels and Manga.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Featured Books

From The North
How Canada Conquered
The Comic Book Universe

by John Bell

by Dave Sim
& Gerhard

The Spirit
by Darwyn Cooke
& J. Bone

The Silent Invasion
by Michael Cherkas
& Larry Hancock

Scott Pilgrim
Bryan Lee O’Malley

Essex County
by Jeff Lemire

by Svetlana Chmakova  

by Maurice Vellekoop

Southern Cross
by Laurence Hyde

by Joe Matt

Louis Riel
by Chester Brown

It’s A Good Life
If You Don’t Weaken

by Seth

My New York Diary
by Julie Doucet  

by Dave Cooper

Paul Moves Out
by Michel Rabagliati

Tutenstein (DVD)
by Jay Stephens