Comics and the Canadian Cultural Institution


An In-exhaustive Look at the Contemporary Canadian Comics Scene

By Erin Elizabeth Fraser
September 3, 2012



A Part of Our Heritage

Since the beginning of comics, Canadians have made significant contributions. It was a Canadian, Joe Shuster, who first drew Superman, a fact that as a child growing up in Canada I was frequently reminded of by short heritage pieces that aired on television. Heritage Minutes was a series that showed dramatized accounts of significant moments in Canadian history, including the creation of Superman. The short scene depicts Shuster and his friend Lois as he boards a train. He energetically describes a character he’s invented, a “strong man in tights” and she scoffs at the things “Canadian kids” will read. As the train takes off, he hands her a drawing from the window telling her it “might be worth something one day,” and she opens it to reveal the iconic image of Superman. So proud we are of our claim to America’s greatest superhero, and rightly so. Metropolis was even originally modeled after Toronto. Superman launched an entire genre that has come to define a medium, and yet, little else of Canada’s comics history and contributions is public knowledge. This is unsurprisingly to say the least, as even within Canada, Canadian arts are a niche interest.

In 2002, comics’ scholars John Bell and Michel Viau published a comprehensive history of comics in Canada with Library and Archives Canada. Beyond the Funnies chronicles the Canadian comic book from pre-Confederation to 2001. The project reveals Canada’s rich comics history, tracing its roots back to political cartooning in pre-Confederation times to the founding of Montreal based publisher Drawn and Quarterly and the autobiographical work of luminaries like Chester Brown, Julie Doucet and Seth.

Strikingly, Bell and Viau each provide a different history; Bell the English-language tradition, and Viau the Qubcois one. Both have developed alongside each other, yet separately. This genuine division makes learning Canada’s comic’s history twice as complicated, but also twice as rich. While this legacy is certainly vital to an understanding of Canada’s comic culture, I will not repeat it here for I cannot do it justice with such little space, and will instead turn to events post-2001.

New Voices

The onset of the 21st Century has seen many new comics creators rise to the forefront of the medium. While creators like the aforementioned Chester Brown, Julie Doucet and Seth have continued their groundbreaking work and carving out a niche for Canada in the autobiographical scene, many new voices have emerged.

With the rise of the creator in contemporary comics, many artists who work primarily in mainstream commercial comics have risen to prominence. Darwyn Cooke has worked primarily in the commercial mainstream for the big two, DC and Marvel. With a strong aesthetic evoking 1960s commercial art, Cooke’s developed a following for his cool and classic style. In 2004 he delivered his magnum opus DC: The New Frontier, a six-issue limited series that chronicles the end of the Golden Age of DC superheroes and the birth of the Silver Age, over the backdrop of the Cold War. Cooke’s work foregrounds Canada’s own obsession with the popular culture of our southern neighbours, a tradition he has continued with in his acclaimed adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels. Similarly, Stuart Immonen is a Canadian artist who has primarily worked in mainstream superhero comics, however along with his wife, writer Kathryn Immonen. They’ve self-published Never As Bad As You Think, and most recently Top Shelf has released their Moving Pictures, about a young Canadian art student in Nazi occupied Paris during WWII.

Bryan Lee O’Malley started out by self-publishing before working on various projects for Portland-based publisher Oni Press. He published his first graphic novel, Lost at Sea with Oni in 2003, but it was 2004’s Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life that would launch his career. Following the romantic entanglements of 23-year-old Toronto slacker Scott Pilgrim, the book and its five sequels follows Scott as he defeats the seven evil ex-boyfriends of his new American girlfriend, Ramona Flowers. Influenced heavily by Japanese manga and video games, the six-part series is a veritable manifesto for contemporary urban Canadian identity.

The Internet and the development of webcomics has made significant changes to the comics scene. Creators no longer need to publish and distribute physical copies of their work, and instead upload it to the World Wide Web for free consumption. This has greatly broken down geographical borders in the alternatives comics scene, and one strong willed Cape Bretoner, Kate Beaton, has risen to prominence with her webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, which was compiled into a collection from Drawn and Quarterly in Fall 2011. A genuine phenomenon in the comics world, Beaton is known for hilarious and satirical comics concerning history, literature, and contemporary culture. “Canadianness” permeates Beaton’s work, and while she is best known for her humor strips, she is the current torchbearer for Canada’s autobiographical movement creating comics about her time working in Fort McMurray and her Nova Scotia upbringing.

Recent Controversies

While Canadian comics have flourished in recent years, there have been significant drawbacks and disputes with bodies of the Canadian cultural institution. In 2008 cousins, artist Jillian Tamaki and writer Mariko Tamaki, published Skim with Groundwood Books. A coming-of-age tale, Skim told the unconventional love story between a young Japanese-Canadian girl and her teacher Ms. Archer. Critically acclaimed, the book was endorsed by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Awards in the Children’s Literature category. However, Skim‘s Governor General nomination only credited Mariko who wrote the book’s words, and gave no credit to Jillian who drew it. Canada Council was openly criticized for this fundamental misunderstanding of the comics medium. Chester Brown and Seth circulated an open letter to the council asking them to change their nomination and credit both of the creators. Many prominent comics creators endorsed and circulated the letter. However, Canada Council did not rectify the nomination and there is no certainty that they have reconsidered their nomination process vis–vis comics.

Three years later, in February 2011, comics again became a hot topic of discussion in the Canadian literature scene when Jeff Lemire’s Essex County was nominated in Canada Reads. Since 2002, the annual competition has a group of five Canadian media celebrities each select a book to advocate on behalf of in a public debate that is both broadcast on the radio and televised. At the end of each round of competition, the contestants vote a book off of the program until only one remains.

The purpose of the debate is to promote literacy and Canadian culture. Many of the selected works benefit from the exposure and see a large spike in their sales. Books chosen to compete are heavily advertised months in advance of the competition, so that listeners / viewers can read the books and engage with the program adequately. Sara Quinn, of the Canadian rock duo Tegan and Sara, chose Essex County when her turn came on the program. The book concerns Lemire’s home of Essex County, Ontario. Told in three interconnecting narratives, Tales From the Farm, Ghost Stories and The Country Nurse, the novel traces the lives of three southern Ontarians: Lester a 10-year-old comics reader and dreamer, Lou an elderly hockey player, and Anne a nurse. Lemire’s brings the book to life with his stark black and white lines and haunting aesthetic. Quinn beautifully advocated the book for the way it “reframes the lives of Canadians in a contemporary form.”

However, the first round of the debate was dominated by discussion around the validity of the book’s form instead its content. It was voted off four to one. Other panelists felt that the book didn’t inspire literacy, as there were more pictures than words. While the majority of the panelists admitted they enjoyed the book, they voted it off because they felt it wasn’t a legitimate novel. Ultimately, many feel that the book was at a major disadvantage because it was a graphic novel, and unfairly dismissed.

Looking Forward

Despite Essex County‘s early exit from Canada Reads, the program did more to promote Canadian comics and comics literacy than ever before. The book benefited from the promotion and press of the competition, arguably more people than ever in Canada were reading a Canadian comic, including those who wouldn’t have picked up a graphic novel in the first place.

Ultimately, Essex County placed first in the People’s Choice Poll, receiving more votes than all the other books combined. So while the panelists in Canada Reads may not be read to accept a comic book as a piece of important cultural literature, Canadians are.

The debate also brought to the forefront questions of literacy and how we define reading. While the majority of the celebrity participants understand reading as text, Quin and host Jian Ghomeshi advocated for the development of reading skills beyond text and the intricacy of Lemire’s illustrations. While one could view Essex County‘s overall placement in Canada Reads as disappointing, the very fact that the conversation took place at all, and on such a large public scale is a large step in recognizing the importance of comics in Canadian culture.

Canadian comics and creators receive overwhelming acclaim and success in the comics industry. In recent years, Canadians have dominated the annual San Diego Comic-Con. During SDCC 2010, Scott Pilgrim saturated the convention due to a large promotional campaign for the feature film adaptation by British director Edgar Wright. The entire cast and crew attended the convention and mingled with fans at a special Scott Pilgrim satellite venue. They also presented the world debut of the film and officially released the sixth and final instalment of the popular series. Scott Pilgrim fever reached its high point during the annual Eisner Awards Ceremony, where Bryan Lee O’Malley took home the prize for Best Humor Publication.

This past July, SDCC was once again invaded by Canucks. Drawn and Quarterly held a panel on Canada and Comics, featuring Beaton and Lemire, along with Doug Savage (who created the yellow-sticky-note webcomic, Savage Chickens), Calum Johnstone of the award winning Maritimes comic book store chain Strange Adventures, DQ design manager Jessica Campbell, and moderated by Chris Butcher of the mainstay Toronto comic shop, The Beguiling.

The focus of the panel was how, in the past decade, “the Canadian comics scene has changed wildly and no longer plays second fiddle to its southern neighbor.” I did not attend this years San Diego Comic-Con, so I cannot further extrapolate on their conversation.

However, there is no better evidence to sustain their argument than to point towards the 2012 Eisner winners and nominees. The big winners of this year’s awards include Ramn K. Prez and Darwyn Cooke. Prez, who hails from Toronto, beautifully adapted an original 1974 screenplay by the late Jim Henson for Archaia Studios Press. The resulting book, Tale of Sand, took home three wards at the prestigious ceremony: Best Graphic Album — New, Best Penciller / Inker, and Best Publication Design. Cooke continued to receive praise for his ongoing Parker adaptations, taking home the awards for Best Short Story and Best Graphic Album — Reprint.

The Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award was awarded jointly to Akira Comics in Spain and a Canadian establishment, The Dragon in Guelph, Ontario. Canadian creators received many nominations as well: including Lemire for Best Writer, and Ray Fawkes for his incredible One Soul, which lost the award for Best Graphic Album — New to Perez. Canadian comics talent isn’t hard to come by, and our neighbours to the south have taken note.

Back home the future is bright. Toronto has seen the development of a truly remarkable comics convention. The Toronto Comics Art Festival, takes its inspiration from the largest comics event in the world, the Angoulme International Comics Festival. Developed back in 2003 and founded by the owners of Toronto’s popular comic book shop, The Beguiling; the festival now runs a week long and culminates in a two-day exhibition of hundreds of comics creators from around the world.

Held at the Toronto Reference Library, admission is free to majority of the events. Funded by both The Beguiling and The Toronto Public Library, as well as Toronto’s arts weekly Now Magazine, Owl Kids, and a variety of cultural intuitions advocating for various language specific literature, TCAF is by far the largest advocate for comics literacy and Canadian comics in Canada. Furthermore, they present both English and French comics equally, bridging the language gap that often times leaves the two culture isolated from one another.

A true alternative to the typical convention scene, TCAF features no media celebrities, and instead places the interaction of creators and readers at its forefront. The open atmosphere encourages anyone to attend and discover something new in the great wide world of graphic literature, and their programming places emphasis on discussions of the medium and encouraging comics’ creation. TCAF is at the forefront of the conversation surrounding the legitimacy of comics as a culturally important art form in Canada and makes a compelling argument for their innumerable worth.

The future of comics in Canada is indeed bright, but it is one that requires continuous support and advocacy. While the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canada Book Fund have bestowed grants to comics publishers and creators, the CCA does not support Canadian cartoonists. Recently the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists created a petition to lobby the government to open funding for their art. Political cartooning is among the oldest comics tradition in Canada, surely it is worthy of our national support.

Canadians are proud of their arts. It speaks to the truly unique experience of the vast country we call home. But the future of the arts in this country seems constantly under threat of government cutbacks from our Conservative government. It is important not to take what we have for granted, and continue to support, read, and share the literature that defines us as a people. Especially if it has the benefit of pictures!

A Heritage Minute: Joe Shuster ? The heritage piece that aired on Canadian Television
Beyond the Funnies ? A History of Canadian Comics from Library and Archives of Canada
Canada Reads 2011 ? The debate that sparked controversy when Essex County was dismissed over its form rather than content
The Toronto Comics Art Festival ? Official site for the Toronto Comics Art Festival
Petitioning The Canada Council for the Arts ? The ACEC’s petition to receiving grant funding.


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