Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Twisted Genius of George Feyer

It's been in the works for two years, but now I am happy to say that my profile of cartoonist George Feyer has been published in Canada's History Magazine. (April/May 2015 issue.) I suggest you buy/order a copy. You're in for a hell of a yarn.

Born into a privileged Hungarian Jewish family in 1921 he lived through both Fascist and Nazi regimes, experienced the brutality of the Siege of Budapest first-hand, then emigrated to Canada where he made his irreverent mark in the mid-century Toronto arts and culture scene - becoming best friends with Pierre Berton and chumming around with Marshall McLuhan, June Callwood and Peter Munk. But despite his out-sized talents and abundant potential, Feyer ended up dying  in Hollywood at the age of 47. 

Telling Feyer's story in such a high-profile venue is something of a personal victory for me. I've been reading the magazine for years and I'm told this marks the first time it's published a profile of a Canadian cartoonist, so that's good. But it's also because George and I go way back.

About 10 years ago, when I was working at the CBC Digital Archives, I was given a chance to tackle my dream job: to research, write, and produce an online feature about the history of Canadian comics and cartoonists. This involved weeks of combing through the CBC's TV and radio archives to find content that dealt with one of my favourite subjects, old comics.

At the time there was so little awareness of this part of our cultural history that I felt like I was a one-man guerrilla operation within the Mother Corps, labouring away passionately on a cause that few shared or understood. (One day, a CBC Archivist I was screening material next to asked what I was working on. When I said a feature about Canadian comics she visibly perked up, "Oh, that's great! I always loved John Candy!")

In the end, the project (The Comics in Canada: An Illustrated History) turned out great, and it's been nice in the decade since to see it and the footage I unearthed pop-up in unexpected places, and get referenced by the occasional historian. One of the highlights of the experience though was discovering this pint-sized, politically motivated shit-disturber who gleefully tore a strip off the stuffy arts and culture scene of 1950s Toronto.

George was a one-man art army armed with a felt-tip pen and a deeply dark Hungarian wit. His world view,  shaped by his experiences with religion and politics during the war, was best described by fellow Hungarian George Jonas as "central European gallows humour" and it coloured everything he did. Berton estimated that only half of Feyer's cartoons ever saw print, and even the ones that did were often toned down for mass consumption.

But even then his talent could not be contained by one medium. His knack for live-drawing (borne of necessity during his WW2 black market passport business) quickly gained him a gig as a personality on CBC Television, where he plied his trade mostly on the saccharine children's shows of the 1950s (see above). But he occasionally had the chance to use his skills for a more mature audience, like this 1964 clip from the current affairs show The Observer.

I quickly became entranced by this dervish, and began reading whatever I could get my hands on. Eventually I met his son, Anthony Feyer, at the 2006 Doug Wright Awards where George was inducted into the Giants of the North Hall of Fame. After chatting with Tony and learning more about his Dad's life, I knew right then that I had to tell his story.

Then, in 2013 I got an email from the editor of Canada's History Magazine asking if I had any ideas for a cartoonist profile. I pitched three, but I knew as I was preparing them that Feyer was the only choice. Next to him the others didn't stand a chance. His talent was soaring and years ahead of its time, and his sad, solitary end -- he was found dead after weeks in his apartment, owned by the ex-wife of James Mason -- was a heartbreaking punctuation to a life lived large.

His death crushed his family and friends and apparently cast a long shadow. Berton's 1975 book, Hollywood's Canada, The Americanization of Our National Image, is dedicated to his good friend, who died seven years before.      

And I feel like that shadow extends into the 21st century. His intelligent, jaded outlook and his ability to respond to current affairs with quickly-drawn comics seems a perfect fit for today's web comics landscape.

Anyways, I hope this background helps explain why I feel so inordinately proud of this piece. George was a singular talent whose story needed to be told. I'm honoured that he chose me to tell it. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

My review of 'Seth's Dominion'

Way back in 2006 I was asked to be interviewed for a NFB documentary about Guelph, Ontario cartoonist Seth. At the time I was working at CBC Toronto and doing freelance writing on the side, the latter of which served to introduce me to Seth. I had been reading his work for years but had only been introduced to him a few years before after I wrote an article about the historic/legendary weekly lunches that took place in Toronto between him, Chester Brown and Joe Matt (friends, and fellow cartoonists).

Anyways, during the 2006 Toronto Comics Arts Festival the very enthusiastic director Luc Chamberland asked me to answer some questions on camera for a film he was making about Seth. I agreed. Forty-five minutes, and many retakes later, I shook his hand and asked when I might expect to see the final product. "The ways things are going at the NFB these days it could take a few years," he said. Aside from seeing him briefly the following year when he filmed Seth's on-stage appearance with Chet and Joe at The Doug Wright Awards, that was the last I saw of him - or heard anything about the film. 

Then out of nowhere, this summer, news of the film's release bubbled up online. Not only was Seth's Dominion (great name) finally being released but its world premiere was happening at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which was taking place in my hometown. Serendipity never felt so good.

So, last Friday I'm standing in the line-up outside the Bytowne Cinema when I notice a man dressed in a snappy hat and vest staring at me. No, it wasn't Seth; It was Luc. We quickly caught up, he thanked me for my interview and informed me that I made the final cut. Great, I thought. That means I have to watch a much younger version of myself on film (ugh) and I won't be able to pitch a review of the film. So I figured I'd just chime in on the old blog.
See, Luc is a very spiffy dresser

Before I do so I should say, for those who don't know, Seth and I have worked on a few projects together (The Collected Doug Wright being one of them) and co-founded the Doug Wright Awards together. That being said, knowing Seth and his work probably made me a tougher critic of the film - and I certainly had my concerns going in.      

Two things concerned me. One was the length of time it took to complete the film. I know I'm significantly different in 2014 than I was in 2006, and so was Seth. The other bigger concern was the use of animation. The road to adapting comics to cartoons is often a bumpy one, simply because people fail to understand that the two are different mediums that require a different skill set to effectively pull off. So when I heard that Luc had adapted some of Seth's comics into animated form I admit that I was nervous since in my experience the adaptation process more often than not loses something essential to the original comics.    

Luckily, any trepidations were quickly dismissed within the first five minutes of Seth's Dominion. The director wisely sets the tone for the film during the opening credits by having a clip of Seth expressing his amusement at the NFB's request to phrase his answers to questions "in declarative statements" only. This gets a laugh in early, but it also allows a bit of Seth's natural gregariousness to shine through; which serves as a counter-balance to the mostly serious subject matter that makes up most of the rest of the film. It also acknowledges the inherent but unspoken lie that rests at the heart of all documentaries; the notion that they are telling an objective truth, rather than engaging in story-telling.    

The rest of the film does a remarkably artful and efficient job of conveying Seth's life and career in a way that felt fulsome and fresh even to someone like me, who brings a robust understanding of the subject to the table. Chamberland leaves few stones unturned, exploring Seth's published comics work, his stamp diaries, his Dominion cardboard building project, his puppetry, his home renovations, and even his design work on his wife's barber shop. (There's even a great little in-joke waiting in that last part for eagle-eyed aficionados.)

The doc is divided almost evenly between on camera interviews with Seth and people who know him (Chris Oliveros, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, *me*, his wife Tania) and animated versions of his stamp diary strips. 

The interviews are insightful, especially Chester's, and it was a thrill (to me anyway) to see Joe Matt reemerge from the aether like some sort of grinning Ghost of Comics Past to comment of Seth's nature. (Which he does a very good and characteristically honest job of.) It would have been nice to see a few more interviews with the likes of Beguiling owner Peter Birkemoe or Jeet Heer, or any one of Seth's other cartoonist pals -- Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, Chip Kidd, Ivan Brunetti -- but that's a minor quibble, especially given the constraints of time and budget.   

Then there's the animated segments, which I admit I was prepared to hate. Yet, when that little animated Seth pops up early on to explain the unique nature of the comics language I was immediately hooked. It turns out that Seth makes a perfect cartoon character. He certainly has the uniform for it. I mean, look at this:

His ever-present fedora and suit make perfect sense in animated form; even his voice -- with that trademark nasal twang -- is an ideal fit for a cartoon character. At one point it crossed my mind that he might have missed his true calling. 

The animated segments are done digitally (or "tradigitally", a new term i learned at the festival), which typically would leave me cold. But whoever animated these segments had a keen understanding of the morose, human engine that drives Seth's best work. The result are some of the most engaging cartoons I've seen in decades - and a true heir to the NFB's legacy of top-rate animated films.  


The tone here is flawless. Nothing is lost from page to screen; the music, voices and colours are bang-on, and combine to give the viewer a deep understanding of Seth's most powerful comics work. Then there's the simple "Wow" factor of seeing his comics come to life -- let's not discount the simple pleasures of life shall we?  

I was particularly excited to see the adventures of Kao-Kuk -- Seth's Inuit astronaut character from the pages of The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists -- come to life on screen. It was so good it left me yearning for a Kao-Kuk spin-off film (Luc, are you reading this?)  

While it's too early to gauge the general public's reaction to Seth's Dominion, based on the reception it got at the premiere I think it will appeal to Seth fans and non-fans alike. As a whole, it does a masterful job of gathering all of Seth's varied artistic outputs and presenting them together with a through line that taps into the heart of his artistic impulses. Fresh yet familiar, it's bound to please. And judging on the fact that it won the OIAF's Grand Prize for Best Feature, I'm sure you'll be able to judge for yourself once it screens in a theatre near you.   

As for my contribution to the doc, I suggest you do what I did: close your eyes and wince.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

George Feyer's stamp of approval

The other night I had the pleasure of watching the world premiere of Seth's Dominion, a long-awaited documentary from the NFB about the life and career of Guelph-cartoonist (and my pal) Seth. The doc is great -- no superlatives will really do it justice -- and I plan on reviewing it here soon. 

Director Luc Chamberlan has done a very good job of capturing the full breadth of Seth's artistic output, which includes comics, model buildings, puppets and his famous rubber-stamp diary. Based on a joke he told a fellow cartoonist, the rubber-stamp diary is exactly what it sound like: he had a set of rubber stamps made with some basic comic panels on them (him walking, smoking, working, exterior shots of his house). To spark his creativity he then stamps a page ion one of his notebooks with a random assortment of comic panels, then he fills in the word balloons to make a strip out of it. They're great. 

Here's a still from the film featuring Seth's stamps: 


The idea made me think of Canadian-Hungarian cartoonist George Feyer, who tragically killed himself in 1967. George famously had a stamp made up with the words "Horse Shit" on them in a Gothic script. Whenever he disagreed with somebody who wrote to him out came the stamp. It was a reply that was simple, brusque and outrageous (given the era). 

I recently wrote a profile of Feyer for Canada's History Magazine and during my research was lucky enough to come across a 1966 letter that he had applied his singular stamp to. I give it to you here as evidence of the power of Feyer's fiendishly iconoclastic nature. What a guy.      


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Is this the earliest example of Jack Chick's career in comics ?

This might be the strangest, odd-ball find I've seen in a while - and I've seen my share. While poring through a collection of old Maclean's magazines that he recently acquired, cartoonist Seth came across this gag cartoon from the May 15, 1949 issue that looks to be done by none other than Jack Chick! Yes, that Jack Chick - now better known as Jack T. Chick, he of the notorious fire-and-brimstone Baptist comics.

Check it out.

That's definitely his name in the lower left-hand corner:

Sure, it's a pretty pedestrian gag , but if it's actually from the pen of Chick it casts some overdue light on his mysterious career: primarily that he was a published (secular) cartoonist 64 years ago. From what we know, Chick drew as a child and underwent his pivotal religious conversion after the Second World War thanks to his new bride, a Canadian-immigrant he met in Pasadena, California named Lola Lynn Priddle. Apparently she was very religious and during a visit to her family's home introduced him to a popular evangelical radio show from Charles E. Fuller that was responsible for flipping the God switch in his head.

The couple settled in El Monte, California where he got a job as a technical illustrator for an aerospace company. According to Wikipedia, he was too shy to evangelize to people directly so turned to comics in the 1950s after learning that the Communist Party of China had used comic tracts to gain influence among Chinese workers and labourers. He self-published his first tract in 1960, and established Chick Publications in 1970. The story since then involves a steady, relentless stream of freaky, reactionary (yet highly influential) tracts, comics and assorted material. But I've never read anything about his comics career prior to his religious conversion -- i guess until now.

Chick married Priddle in 1948: a year before this cartoon was published in Maclean's, one of two marquee venues for cartoonists of the day. Is it possible that Chick, then an illustrator/nascent cartoonist, was pointed in the direction of Maclean's by his new Canadian wife? Who knows. If anybody else has insight into this cartoon, and this period of Chick's comics career, I'd love to hear about it.

Jack T. Chick

Many thanks to Seth for alerting me to this.