Cloudscape's comic jams

With a gallery show and a book on the way, the local group builds camaraderie amid the sometimes lonely field of indie cartooning
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Since its inception, Cloudscape Comics Society has galvanized local cartoonists into creating anthologies touching on everything from urban sword-swinging fantasies to real-world historical events, planet-hopping sci-fi, and the lost medium of the large-format Sunday funnies. When the Vancouver group was pressed to think up a theme for its next collection, it only had to look to the water for inspiration. Due early this summer, Waterlogged: Tales From the Seventh Sea unites the Cloudscape crew through stories that highlight their shared coastal heritage.

“We’re a British Columbia–based group, so we all spend a lot of time near the sea or thinking about the sea,” Cloudscape vice-president Jonathon Dalton tells the Straight at the Ayden Gallery, where the collective is holding a group show called Stratus. The walls display work like Paul Gill’s ghost-busting Bill Murray caricatures, and a vibrantly painted, spear-toting warrior in a lion-skin headdress by Chenoa Gao. Nearby, an iPad full of preview pages from Waterlogged sits on a table, ready to be scrolled through. “We got back a whole bunch of stories, lots of them to do with pirates, sea monsters, mermaids—all kinds of stuff,” Dalton explains, noting his “In the Hall of the Octopus” is a creature tale set in a Pacific Northwest First Nations community.

Cloudscape president and founder Jeff Ellis, meanwhile, dug into his grandfather’s past to shape his log-riding contribution, “Into the Eastern Sun”, a period piece set in late-1920s Vancouver.

“It’s about some young men rafting on the Fraser River—apparently, it was a regular practice,” the bespectacled Ellis explains animatedly from a couch in the gallery’s back room. “My grandfather would latch some logs together and go on an adventure, which seems insane to me. But I wanted to put it down in a story to share that experience, and that history of the city.”

Ellis founded Cloudscape in 2007 to preserve another side of Vancouver’s history: its indie-comics scene. After returning from a teaching stint overseas—an experience both he and Dalton are telling in their ongoing online comic Teach English in Japan—the writer-artist found himself rudderless, save for attending a monthly comic jam where he would drink and socialize with other cartoonists. Inspired by the camaraderie, he opted to start a weekly discussion group under the Cloudscape banner at a local coffee shop, which quickly put him in touch with a number of artists. He then came up with the idea of self-publishing anthologies of their own work, the first being 2008’s black-and-white compendium Robots, Pine Trees, and Broken Hearts. Later collections, like the globe-travelling 21 Journeys and Funday Sunnies, flirted not only with different themes, but with different publication formats.

“We’re not trying to be like Spider-Man, where it’s all the same size and the same shape and characters,” Ellis notes.

Cloudscape is currently holding an online fundraiser to help offset the costs of Waterlogged, which will be presented as a landscape-format hardcover book. Laura Bifano’s haunting cover image of a sunken ship’s womanly figurehead will be in full colour, and the stories will be published in black and blue ink. One such piece is writer Cameron Morris and illustrator Nina Matsumoto’s “Deep Rule”, an interspecies marital drama Ellis describes as “very creepy and disturbing”.

Reached by phone at her Coquitlam home, Matsumoto admits she’s a fan of whipping up eerie imagery—her manga-style pencils of mangled and maimed Simpsons characters in “Murder He Wrote”, from an issue of Bongo Comics’ Treehouse of Horror series, helped land her an Eisner Award for best short story in 2009. As for “Deep Rule”, a preview of the tale shows a domesticated Black Lagoon–type character in a tattered crew-neck sweater, staring at a piece of fish with unhealthily hungry eyes.

“He’s a human at first, but as their marriage goes on, he becomes more and more monstrous, regressing into his sea-monster state,” Matsumoto says, later explaining of the creature’s wife: “Because she loves him, she just rolls with it.”

While Matsumoto admits that she doesn’t make it out to meetings that often, a couple of dozen die-hards show up each week at Cloudscape’s current headquarters at Vancouver’s Memorial South Park Field House. Writer-artist Colin Upton, who’s been publishing comics independently for nearly 30 years, is a regular attendee, always looking forward to chatting with his cohorts.

“Comics is a very lonely profession. For the most part, it’s just you in a room at a drawing table all by yourself,” he tells the Straight at the Ayden Gallery. “It’s nice to go someplace and talk with other artists, find out what medium they use and which techniques.”

Ellis agrees that the meetings are great for shop talk, whether it’s brainstorming an anthology theme or critiquing a colleague’s portfolio. And while Cloudscape serves to promote local artists’ work, its function is to strengthen the bonds within Vancouver’s comics community.

“People can come and ask for advice and support each other. There are days where you think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing comics anymore,’ and we kind of talk people off the ledge, so to speak.”

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