Comics Marvels

Underground And Mainstream, Vancouver's Ink Studs Are Flourishing Panel By Panel

All of a sudden, everyone's into forensics. Even comic-book publishers. "One publisher called me and said he liked the art but he didn't like the story," says Rebecca Dart, who this year saw the printing of her ambitious, layered RabbitHead by Florida-based Alternative Comics. The 31-year-old artist wears a Dinomutt T-shirt and is taking lunch at a Gastown sushi restaurant down the street from the animation studio where she works. "So he wanted me to do something similar to it but more like an episode of CSI."

Fortunately, Dart stood her ground and, instead of CSI: RabbitHead we have RabbitHead. An impressive achievement, the 24-page, magazine-size black-and-white comic is a complex, multilayered work that packs an emotional punch at the same time that it experiments with the visual storytelling possibilities. Part spaghetti western and part nature film--and starring a noble, horse-riding humanoid rabbit--the book begins with one narrative strand that branches into seven separate, yet connected, story lines.

Dart's work is one of a number of hopeful developments in the local comics scene in the past year. Worn Tuff Elbow, Marc Bell's first comic for world-renowned Seattle publisher Fantagraphics, shipped in early October and it's a beaut--a lovingly packaged book teeming with whimsical black-and-white strips from the artist's imagination. A third issue of Drippytown Comics & Stories, an annual showcase for local and international artists, hit the stands in the spring, shortly before Drippytown publisher Julian Lawrence began teaching a course on comics at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design.

Sean O'Reilly's Arcana Studios, a year-old Coquitlam-based comic-publishing venture, is producing several ongoing superhero and fantasy titles, with plans for more. (It's really the first such B.C. effort, apart from the mid-'80s boom in small-press and self-published titles, since Maple Leaf Publishing's five years of glory that ended in 1946.)

And then there's the usual batch of work by local creators for the mainstream companies. Ian Boothby and James Lloyd write and draw monthly comics for Matt Groening's Bongo line, which includes Simpsons Comics and Stories and Futurama. Pia Guerra is the penciller and cocreator of Y: The Last Man, a tale set in a world without men and one of the best-selling titles of DC Comics' mature-audiences imprint, Vertigo. Steve Skroce, who worked on Wolverine and The Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel before storyboarding the Matrix flicks and I, Robot, makes his return to comics this month with the first issue of Doc Frankenstein.

Add to that list artists Kaare Andrews (The Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men), Troy Nixey (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight), Steve Rolston (on Queen & Country's roster), and writer Sara "Samm" Barnes (Doctor Spectrum, Strange) and Vancouver has a small but significant community contributing to the stream of monthly titles filling the racks at your friendly neighbourhood comic-book store.

And that's not even counting the community of independent artists that includes Robin Konstabaris, Owen Plummer, Robin Bougie, Ted Dave, Brad Yung, Nick Threndyle, and many more. Some, like the creators of Broken Saints ( and the Bent Comics crew ("where ink studs come to flex their stuff"), are getting their stuff out via the Internet, others by the tried-and-true method of photocopying their strips into mini-comics. Leonard Wong's Comicons are regular events attracting the funny-book--loving crowd to Main Street's Heritage Hall, and the annual Comicon offshoot Comix & Stories, held in August, gives small-press writers and artists from the Lower Mainland and Seattle a chance to meet their public. Raincoast Books has begun distributing what it calls "graphica" by comics publishers Drawn & Quarterly out of Montreal and Fantagraphics for more than a year. And, for the past six or seven years, Lucky's Comics at 3972 Main has hosted a showcase wall of local artists, often comics-related, every month.

"THE LOCAL COMICS scene is pretty big and flourishing," says Robin Fisher, who hosts a weekly CiTR show on comics called Onomatopoeia (Thursdays 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.) and works behind the counter at RX Comics at 2418 Main Street. She has also edited the Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium anthologies What Right? and What's Wrong? and, for the most recent issue of Drippytown, wrote a history of Vancouver artists' contributions to the form that, at its most high-minded, is known as "sequential art".

"What I like best is there are always new cartoonists, nearly every month," Fisher says. "I see people at art shows influenced by comics, a lot of people always doing comics. Just this past week, a new comic called Almost Evil by Dustin Ladd came out. It's funny cartoons with stick guys but really stylized, and I thought it was really excellent. We managed to sell all six copies."

Though six copies might not sound like a lot, that's still a respectable amount for a self-published book by an untested talent not operating in the genre-dominated aboveground milieu. In this, Ladd is following a decades-old Vancouver tradition, where the city's first comics artists were decidedly counterculture. People like Rand Holmes, George Metzger, and Brent Boates (who would go on to design the Ghostbusters movie logo) contributed to the late-'60s and early '70s underground-comics boom. In particular, Holmes, who died two years ago, has been acknowledged by comics historians as a major talent. His warm, detailed style graced several covers of the Georgia Straight, which also published a comic strip featuring Holmes's hippie character Harold Hedd, and his '80s underground classic Hitler's Cocaine. Former San Franciscan Metzger, meanwhile, is credited as having created one of the first graphic novels, Beyond Time and Space, in 1976 before the term graphic novel had even been coined.

The Straight also published All Canadian Beaver Comix, the city's first comics anthology, and was instrumental in launching Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman upon an unsuspecting world. Creator David Boswell began his cartooning career at this paper, which published his first full-page strip, "Heart Break Comic", featuring Laszlo, the Great Slavic Lover, in 1977 and 1978, and subsequent strips featuring Fleming. In 1980, the appearance of the first issue of Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman shocked the comics world with its depiction of flagrant milk abuse. Its long history makes Boswell's creation, a new issue of which appears every few years, Vancouver's longest-running title.

In the '80s, artists like Emily Carr instructor Carel Moiseiwitsch and Colin Upton began getting noticed for their work. Upton--whose recent work will be on display at the New Tiny Gallery on Union Street near Main on Saturday (November 20)--led the mini-comics raid on Xerox machines with titles like Socialist Turtle, Famous Bus Rides, and Real Rubbie in 1985, and five years later he published his first comic, Big Thing. In '89, Fantagraphics collected some of Moiseiwitsch's strips in comic-book form and a year later added Big Thing to its catalogue. Two locally produced anthologies, Spatter and New Reality, served the comics community until the 1990 appearance of New! Comics. Featuring work by Shaun Hayes-Holgate, Theresa Henry, and Ted Dave, the book was inspired by the creative energy a couple of hours south of Vancouver, where Seattle had become the epicentre of alternative-comics publishing.

"There seemed to be a glut of art students and a glut of zinesters," Fisher says of the burgeoning alt-comics scene in the '80s and early '90s. "But there was no one theme. Some people were doing serious stuff, others were doing funny-animal stuff." Some of the '80s artists, Fisher says, went into animation. Others, like Hayes-Holgate, now work for video-game companies.

Yet a few have been fortunate enough to turn what was once a hobby into a full-time gig. Ian Boothby was in the frontlines of the second wave of the mini-comics revolution with titles like I, Sqared and Expo 86'ed, and he was a contributor to the anthology Dysfunctional Comics. Now Boothby's boss is the creator of The Simpsons.

Five years ago the cartoonist was selling his Xeroxed minis down at APE, a small-press convention in San Jose, when he attracted the attention of people a few tables down. They were from Bongo Comics Group, the publishing house for Matt Groening's Simpsons-related comics. After a two-year wait, Boothby was finally given the go-ahead to write some backup stories, and he now turns in one 27-page story a month. He also conceptualizes the art for The Simpsons and Futurama calendars and "jokes up" products such as trading cards. As the writer for Simpsons Comics, Boothby's work can be found in just about every 7-Eleven in North America.

"It was very much do-it-yourself back then, and since that time a lot of people have found professional work," the writer says. "And a lot of people balance that by still doing DIY work."

Boothby has sat down for an interview in the second-floor Main and Broadway studio he shares with partner Pia Guerra, a drawing table, a computer, a few action figures, and a stuffed monkey. The monkey bears a marked resemblance to the one that hangs around Yorick, the protagonist in Guerra's series Y: The Last Man. The series, about a virus that kills off all the planet's men save one, has proved to be hugely popular, with sales in the tens of thousands for each monthly issue. The trade paperback collections have also been successful, and a film version is in development.

The two moved to their new workspace in June, after finding that their nearby apartment was becoming just too crowded and offered no respite from work. Guerra, who toiled in the trenches for nearly a decade before landing the Y assignment, especially seems worn from meeting deadlines, and she plans on taking a four-month vacation after completing the next two issues. "I need to breathe and do my own thing and get creatively recharged," Guerra says. "Every day of drawing the same Yorick head in every panel... I can't do it. I like to have diversity in my work."

Both realize their complaints aren't likely to garner much sympathy. "It's the dream job everyone wants," Boothby says. "And as soon as you say 'I quit!' there's someone ready to take your place."

Job satisfaction comes from positive reviews, fan letters, recognition at comics conventions. "It's the same for anyone who's a success at anything," Boothby says. "You're usually too busy doing it while you're doing it to enjoy it."

MARC BELL IS ONE of the few local "ink studs" who has been able to make a living doing solely personal work, although he's quick to point out that if he relied only on his comics, it would be a very meagre existence.

"I'm doing art, too, and that's a bigger part of my income right now," says Bell, reached at his Strathcona home. "It's not illustration, it's also stuff I want to do, and it's not just comics per se. It's paintings and drawings. But they're related to the comics. There's an overlap."

In December, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly will publish The Stacks, a book collecting some of the London, Ontario--raised Bell's noncomics art. He'll join the ranks of comic artists like Seth (Palookaville), Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth), who have also been the subjects of the Drawn & Quarterly coffee-table art-book treatment.

Bell's work is also shown at New York's Adam Baumgold Gallery, which specializes in comics-influenced art. But the 33-year-old cartoonist is in no hurry to see the medium he loves invade the Louvre. One of the charms of the form is its pulp origins and its disposability, and he keeps his hand in one of the most disposable variations of all, the mini-comic. He recently collaborated with artists Keith Jones, Owen Plummer, and Luke Ramsey on the first issue of something called Puffer, the first issue of which has a (photocopied) print run of a whopping 20 copies.

But for a real sampling of Bell's work, look no further than the first issue of the aforementioned Worn Tuff Elbow. The just-published book--which will get its official launch Saturday (November 20) at Lucky's Comics--showcases the artist's whimsical sense of humour as personified by the sausage-shaped denizens of Bag Town and the civic unrest that arises when the powerful Monsieur Moustache accidentally spills his coffee on the much smaller Pantaloons. Each of Bell's detailed, lovingly inked panels is a visual feast, while the absurdity of the many characters and the story hides astute political satire.

Someone teaching novices about comics could do worse than use one of Bell's gag-filled strips or Rebecca Dart's structural experiment in RabbitHead as examples of how to utilize the medium. But so far Julian Lawrence has been sticking to the basics in The Contemporary Comic, the course he began teaching at Emily Carr this past summer.

The students' familiarity with the medium ranged from people who know "the newspaper funnies", as Lawrence puts it, to those who had read some underground comics, and the instructor has brought in guest speakers like Robin Konstabaris and Upton. By the end of the course, students are expected to turn in a four-page comic.

"A lot of people are inspired by Japanese manga [comics], but I'm trying to get them to develop their own style," says Lawrence, who has been asked to plan a second course. "Most have never really drawn a comic book before. I try to get them to keep in mind proportion and being clear with their drawing, so that when it's reduced and reproduced it's clear."

As an instructor, Lawrence is in a better position than most to see if there's going to be a new generation of Vancouver cartoonists. "There are 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds just discovering the form as a way of expression," Lawrence says. "They are people who haven't experienced the 'zine explosion of the early '90s."

Boothby, a part of that Xerox-happy generation, meets young cartoonists at the Vancouver Comicons held at the Heritage Hall. But if they're serious they're usually at home, working. "It's such an introspective thing, working on your own writing and drawing and then only occasionally daring to show it to someone else," the Simpsons writer says. "I remember when I was showing my first strips to Colin Upton. Colin had just come out with Big Thing and I was so nervous, because I felt I was exposing myself so much. I remember I would submit my cartoons to newspapers by sneaking them into the mail slot late at night when no one was in the office."

But despite the soul-baring vulnerability, long hours, low pay, and slight recognition, for some comics remain an ideal form of expression. All that's required is a pencil, a piece of paper, and a little imagination.

"One of the nice things about working in comics, and one of the nice things about comics being underappreciated in general, is that it gives you freedom," Dart says. "There are no expectations. You can do whatever you want. It's like Dan Clowes [creator of Ghostworld, the comic on which the movie was based] said: 'Wanting to be the world's greatest cartoonist is like wanting to be the world's greatest badminton player.' Nobody really cares."

Only a comic-book artist would find comfort in such a thought.