Monday 29 December 2008

Pre-order, like, now

Order now,order often. The Collected Doug Wright: Volume One: Canada's Master Cartoonist. Or not. I'm just saying - it'll be out soon.
- B.

Friday 14 November 2008

Awards process is ‘imperfect’’ and ‘imprecise’ say GG jurists

It’s a few days after a letter of protest from Chester Brown and Seth landed in the email boxes of the Canada Council for the Arts. Unfortunately since then, they haven’t had much of substance to say about the Skim debacle.

The last I heard (via Quill and Quire’s blog) the Canada Council’s Melanie Rutledge—head of Writing and Publishing—had rejected the idea of adding Jillian Tamaki’s name to Skim’s nomination, saying: “The horse has kind of left the barn, unfortunately, and we’re not really in a position to simply stop and re-do things.”

I’m not quite sure what she’s talking about, since no “re-do” is required: just a simple matter of bending the rules a little to add Jillian’s name on the citation alongside her cousin’s, Mariko. Rutledge’s reaction seems kind of pat and toothless, and smacks of the kind of bureaucracy that we have come to expect from faceless government departments not the august, artist-friendly Canada Council. (Their motto being "Supporting Canadian Creativity.")

Her reaction is doubly puzzling when you consider the thoughts of the jury members, who seem to agree that the GG process is flawed and in need of an overhaul.

Kevin Major and Teresa Toten, two-thirds of the jury for Children’s Literature – Text (the category Skim is nominated under), seem to agree that the situation Jillian finds herself in is a symptom of the fact that the GG’s long-standing categories are outdated. Toten, a Toronto-based author, told me this morning that she thinks the process is “imperfect and imprecise” and that the events of this past week have been “a learning opportunity, for me and the Council.”

Admittedly not well-acquainted with comics and graphic novels before she was asked to be a GG judge earlier this year, she stressed that she thought Skim was “a stunning piece of work” and expressed regret that one of it’s creators was feeling snubbed by their decision.

“I get it now,” she added. “I don’t think I got it before, but I get it now.”

As Toten (and others) have pointed out, the GGs operate under a set of categories that seem to have been created without the medium of comics in mind. Skim, thanks to its young-adult orientation, was submitted for consideration in two categories: “Children’s Literature – text” (Mariko Tamaki) and “Children’s Literature – illustration” (Jillian Tamaki).

I’m sure if they had a flux capacitor and a DeLorean handy, the staff in charge of applying for awards at Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press (the book’s publishers) would fly back in time in an instant and undo what I see as the initial, grave miscalculation. By submitting to these outdated categories, they kind of guaranteed that either Mariko or Jillian would be snubbed. Maybe they thought a comic didn’t have a chance anyway, and decided to hedge their bets by pretending that Skim was an illustrated kid’s book?

Anyways, I also talked with Major via email in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Also an author, he was very forthcoming about what he thought was wrong. When asked where he thought the fault lied, he said:

"The book was submitted within the present classification system and guidelines, which the publisher was well aware of. We were asked to consider the word text only, and could really do no more than that in submitting our shortlist. I would say there has been an awareness among juries (past and present) that it is an imperfect system, for picture books as well as graphic novels, since in both cases the two elements (words and images) work in unison. However, that debate has been on-going for years (at least back to the 1970s), long before graphic novels were in the mix. As have other debates about the system, of judging YA [young adult] fiction in the same category as books for 5-year-olds, as an example."

And, a little later on:

“In the case of SKIM, the artwork of many of them conveys parts of the story that the words alone do not. In my opinion the drawings in the best picture books, as those in graphic novels, do not simply illustrate text, but are equal in their contribution to the telling of the story…SKIM is indeed a wonderful book, with two contributors of equal merit.”

While both jury members sympathize with Jillian’s predicament—and acknowledge the arguments made in the open letter—they stopped short of saying her name short be added to the nomination. Considering how much they liked Skim, and the crucial role that Jillian’s art plays in it, not formally acknowledging—even at this late point in the process—seems like losing on a technicality.

Major did however close out his email with this small light of hope:

“No doubt this matter will be raised at the next GG awards meeting of the Council. Maybe it is time to rethink the classification system. If the protest is loud and long against what is in place now, then the Council would have no choice but to rethink it.”

So, speak up comics fans! Blog your heart out or contact the Canada Council now! Vote early, vote often!

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Comics' big guns take aim at the Governor General's Literary Awards

So, i've heard some rumblings from my comics pals in the past few weeks about this, so it's nice to see that someone finally had the gumption to put pen to virtual paper.

Below is an open letter sent (like an hour ago) to the Canada Council for the Arts (which administers the Governor General Literary Awards) that takes issue with their puzzling decision to omit cartoonist Jillian Tamaki from the GG nomination for her book Skim (her cousin, Mariko Tamaki, wrote the book).

This is especially galling since it marks the first time a graphic novel has ever nabbed a nomination in the prestigious awards, and yet the cartoonist is unable to share the glory (not to mention the $25,000 prize it offers). Part of the blame here can be placed on the seemingly obsolete categories at the GGs - Skim is honoured in the "Children's Book - Text" section - but, still. The three members of the jury for the category should have expressed concern about this when they voted for the book. The official nomination summary clearly identifies Skim as a "graphic novel" (an "audacious and original" one at that) yet it makes zero mention of Jillian's contribution, which simply cannot be understated. Anyone who has read the book realizes that her art is an integral part of the story-telling. If you don't believe me, check out this six-page excerpt.

And if you don't believe your eyes, consider the New York Times. In it's recent review of Skim it said:

The black and white pictures by Jillian Tamaki, Mariko's cousin, create a nuanced, three-dimensional portrait of Skim, conveying a great deal of information often without the help of the text. The book's most striking use of purely visual communication occurs in a lush and lovely double-page tableau of Skim and Ms. Archer exchanging a kiss in the woods that leaves the reader (and maybe even the participants) wondering who kissed whom. In another sequence, Skim and Ms. Archer sip tea without ever making eye contact, the pictures and minimal text communicating the uncomfortable emotional charge in the room and the two characters' difficulty in knowing what to say to each other.


Tamaki's palette often becomes noticeably darker or lighter to signal a change in mood. Various night scenes communicate Skim's depression, her unhappy moon-face isolated in fields of inky black, streetlights casting long, lonely shadows. In contrast, Tamaki sets the outdoor memorial service for the dead boyfriend on a frozen winter field, the participants drawn in lightly, almost as if they're ghosts, the snowy backdrop and blank white balloons (shown caught on bare winter trees) conveying absence and emptiness.

Anyway, Jillian briefly blogged about her feelings but otherwise that's been the extent of the commentary on this. Which makes this letter all the more sweet. Seth and Chester Brown wrote it and a Who's Who of comics cognescenti signed on in support, including Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, Lynda Barry, Joe Ollman, and hey - me too! Ha ha.

Anyways, read em and weep. (Take that Michaƫlle Jean!)

- B.


November 12, 2008

As individuals involved in the art form of comics and graphic novels, we are glad to see that a graphic novel has made the short-list for this year's Governor General's Literary Awards. SKIM (by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki) is a wonderful book and deserves the attention. But we're troubled by the fact that only one of its co-creators is receiving credit for the creation of the book's text. We understand that an award-category exists for illustration, but to have nominated Jillian in that category would not have rectified the problem. Indeed, that would have highlighted how our medium is misunderstood.

We're guessing that the jury who read SKIM saw it as an illustrated novel. It's not; it's a graphic novel. In illustrated novels, the words carry the burden of telling the story, and the illustrations serve as a form of visual reinforcement. But in graphic novels, the words and pictures BOTH tell the story, and there are often sequences (sometimes whole graphic novels) where the images alone convey the narrative. The text of a graphic novel cannot be separated from its illustrations because the words and the pictures together ARE the text. Try to imagine evaluating SKIM if you couldn't see the drawings. Jillian's contribution to the book goes beyond mere illustration: she was as responsible for telling the story as Mariko was.
In an October 21st article for the CBC website, one of your jurors, Teresa Toten, was interviewed: "Toten praised SKIM for using the graphic novel format to tell a sophisticated story about what life is like for teenaged girls. The work is remarkable in part because of how the words and pictures both contribute to the literary quality, she said." And that is the point of this letter. "[T]he words and pictures both contribute to [SKIM's] literary quality".
A new category does not need to be created to properly address the graphic novel. In fact, it is best to see graphic novels appear in literary awards only when they deserve to compete equally against prose on their literary merit alone.

In writing this letter, we don't mean to slight Mariko. One of the reasons this collaboration works so well is because she understood how to write for this medium. But we feel that as things now stand, Jillian is being slighted. We want both of the enormously talented creators of this book to be honoured together for their achievement.

Chester Brown
(Author of Louis Riel)
(Author of It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken)


Lynda Barry (Author of What It Is)
Peter Birkemoe (Owner of The Beguiling)
Dan Clowes (Author of Ghost World)
David Collier (Author of The Frank Ritza Papers)
Julie Doucet (Author of 365 Days)
Brad Mackay (Director of The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning)
Chris Oliveros (Publisher of Drawn and Quarterly)
Joe Ollmann (Author of This Will All End in Tears)
Bryan Lee O'Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim)
Michel Rabagliati (Author of Paul Moves Out)
Art Spiegelman (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus)
Adrian Tomine (Author of Shortcomings)
Chris Ware (Author of Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth)

UPDATE: In a news piece on,
the Canada Council responds to this letter via Melanie Rutledge, head of writing and publishing.

"We'll certainly take the suggestions in the letter under advisement."

"We do take the feedback very seriously. At this point, it is too late for us to make any changes this year: the finalists have been announced. In terms of making the change now — for the 2008 edition of the awards it's a little late in the game to do that."

"But as I said, we take the feedback very seriously. We welcome it. And when we're planning for next year, we'll certainly take it under consideration."

This is interesting, but I'm still curious what the jury members themselves (Michael Kusugak of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Kevin Major of St. John's NFLD. or Teresa Toten of Toronto) think. Sure would be good if there were any journalists out there with a bit of spare time on their hands.....

Monday 3 November 2008

At last, the truth can be told

If memory serves, this was one of the possibilities floated out by me and my buddies back in the summer of '77. (courtesy The Onion): "Burned Lower Half Of Mort's Face Revealed In 'Bazooka Joe' Stunner""

"Bazooka Joe has always been about mankind's search for meaning in a world marked by pain," said staff artist Martin Shore, who claimed that the idea for Mort first came to Gelman after he watched entire villages burn to the ground in the Philippines. "Sure, the sight of Mort's charred and blackened jaw may shock some of our readers, but maybe they should be shocked. Maybe it's time they woke up and realized the true, unrelenting nightmare that is our very existence."

Added Shore, "If they don't like it, they can buy another fruit-flavored gum."

Tuesday 21 October 2008

RIP Rudy Ray (aka: Dolemite, the Avenging Disco Godfather et al.)

First, it was Mr.Blackwell. Now comes news that another pop culture icon my fast receding youth ( I turn 40 next month) has passed. I just heard that the great Rudy Ray Moore is now the late, great Rudy Ray Moore. The man behind such improbably durable movies as Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw the Devil's Son-In-Law and Avenging Disco Godfather (my gateway drug to his bizarro oeuvre), Moore was a singular creation of the 1970s.

Equal parts sex symbol, stand-up comedian, MC, auteur, aspiring actor, anti-drug crusader and African American agitator, it's a good bet that Rudy Ray's movies seemed as strange to black audiences as they did to white. Riding the polyester coattails of Melvin Van Peebles breakout 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, Moore unabashedly embraced the "Blaxploitation" genre like no other before or since.

While the producers behind such blockbuster studio films as Shaft strove to duplicate some of the seriousness of Pebbles' success, Moore would have none of it. He took the basic Angry Black Man premise of the genre and exploded it in a mash-up of soft-core pornography, profanity, slapstick comedy and badly choreographed kung-fu. As you can expect, this was manna to my 17-year-old self. (He also made albums!)

I first came across RRM's films in the late 1980s in a Jumbo Video in my hometown of Ottawa. Having already watched the entire Shaft (including the under-rated Shaft in Africa) and Superfly series, my friend Glenn Sheskay and I were aching for a new fix. That's when we discovered the "Super Action" racks at the local video superstore. I'm not sure how - or why - they came into possession of them, but they had every Rudy Ray Moore film ever made. I vividly remember watching Avenging Disco Godfather for the first time. I completely lost my shit: The movie is a gonzo combination of goofball comedy, rudimentary rapping, and brutal violence (racist cops and hoodlums are killed without mercy). In quick order it melted my brain and moved my heart.

We tried our best to spread the word about Moore's legacy, but our friends were likely worn out with the results of our increasingly strange cultural excavations (or they were too busy smoking dope and having sex. "Losers"!). More than a decade later I was shocked to witness a renaissance of sorts for Mr. Moore; one that culminated in me meeting the man himself at a showcase of his work in Montreal in 1999. He was in full-on Dolemite mode, telling off-colour sex jokes in front of a crowd of university kids (many of whom left in disgust), while hawking flimsy back-scratchers with his logo on them (he had hired a flunkie to actually walk around the theater to sell them). I only wish he had been selling this great onesie at the time:

It was a moment of affirmation -- at least for me -- to see the 71-year-old Moore up there, using his moment in the sun to hype his latest film. A showman to the end.

Sure wish i would have bought one of those back-scratchers though.......

Thursday 16 October 2008

Done and gone, like dinner

Yes, I have been horribly remiss in keeping up this blog. But I have a good reason, really. It's all Doug Wright's fault, see. First, it was the 2008 Doug Wright Awards, which I am the director of and the host. When I wasn't doing that, I was busy finishing up my part of the upcoming book The Collected Doug Wright: Canada's Master Cartoonist.

The first volume of this retrospective look at the artist's life is due to hit shelves next Spring, and for much of the past year (longer if you include the months of research) most of my free time and holidays have been consumed with writing what I hope is the definitive take on Wright's life and art. Anyway, I'm happy to report that the final book is being sent to the printer later today. This piece of art from a 1950s Christmas card kind of sums up how i feel right about now:

It's been a long process, and an eye-opener for me in terms of the publishing process. It's a laborious, back-breaking job getting a 200-page plus book in shape and I'm glad it's not my . I mean, how can any right-thinking person (ie. Chris Oliveros) feel like they can do Seth's amazing design justice, not to mention Wright himself?

Luckily, he is the right man for the job. I've seen a layout for the book, and what can I say: it's eye-popping. Seth has outdone himself, with a classy (duh!) design that both honours Wright's work and frames it in a way I think newer readers will embrace. So, here's to Doug, and hopefully the beginning of a mini-renaissance for his work. (below is a sample strip that kind of sums up what was so great about the strip: that combination of anger, frustration and, well, love.)

Monday 11 August 2008

All hail Pigskin Peters!!!

So, for those of you who were unable to attend Friday's Doug Wright Awards at the Toronto Reference Library, one of the standouts of the evening was the unveiling of our latest award category; the Pigskin Peters Annual Award for Nominally Narrative Canadian Cartooning (P.P.A.A.N.N.C.C.) or, as I like to call it (because my every breath is precious) the Pigskin Peters Award.

The great Canadian cartoonist Seth devised and designed the award itself, which honours the best in non-traditional or experimental Canadian comics. As the audience heard, the award itself is a derby hat (or bowler depending on your take on these) that is based on the hat worn by the great Canadian comic strip character Pigskin Peters. Yes, that Pigskin Peters. He of the seminal Canadian comic strip Birdseye Center which was drawn from about 1920 until 1948 by Jimmy Frise (and, for 20 years after his death, by none other than Doug Wright himself).

Anyways - Julie Morstad won the inaugural P.P.A.A.N.N.C.C. for her fine, dark little book Milk Teeth and will soon be receiving a trim derby hat fit to her head. But, Seth being Seth, there's much more to it than that.

The award comes with a custom-made pin featuring Mr. Peters himself:

As well, it comes packed in a box decorated with custom stickers:

Which, once opened, features a Birdseye Center strip inside that gives the owner an idea of what kind of a guy Peters was:

And I didn't even get to talk about the plaque which features a chrome peg that you can use to display the hat for all to see. I probably went a little overboard in my appreciation of Seth's work on this at the event itself, but goddamn! That man never misses a detail!

When he suggested the award last year, I was personally a little puzzled by it. But when I saw the final result, I was instantly won over. Here's a full set of pics for the curious.

(Ceremony pics, and party pics to come!)

Later - Brad M.

Saturday 21 June 2008

A real keeper: Dick wallpaper

The first in a series of posts from Heritage Signature Auction #807, a catalog from a comics and pop culture auction that took place at the San Diego Comic Con in July 2003.

Behold, Harlan Ellison's "provenance" statement for a roll of Dick Tracy wallpaper! (Wimbledon Green, eat your heart out!)

Monday 2 June 2008

Will the real Iron Man please stand up?

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I think I missed out on an opportunity for blockbuster blog post a few weeks back. Even after going to see the Robert Downey Jr.-fuelled Iron Man last month and witnessing the ample coverage of its out-of-the-gate success, I completely blanked on the fact that nearly three years ago to the day I had written a piece about the original Iron Man; the Canadian Iron Man no less.

Back in the spring of 2005 I was working at the CBC in Toronto and was going through one of my periodic love affairs with superheroes (it's OK; my wife is totally cool with it). This time my affections were focussed on the "Canadian Whites," a series of short-lived but highly popular superhero comics that existed during the Second World War. Among the better known characters of this era were Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights (who I discovered, preceded Wonder Woman as the first female superhero by a few months.)

Printed in black and white and often on cheap paper, the comics had a rough charm about them — a charm only amplified by their names: the Polka-Dot Pirate, Freelance, Canada Jack, Stuffy Bugs and Senorita Marquita.

Anyway, as obscure as the Whites were it dawned on me that no one had actually confirmed who the first real "made in Canada" superhero was. (Though, if you believed these guys you'd think otherwise.) So, with a bit of sleuthing I managed to find out that the first true Canadian superhero was …. Iron Man. Seriously.

Created by Vancouver artist and animator Vernon Miller, Iron Man debuted in Better Comics No. 1 in March 1941. Any description I could muster will pale next to a simple image. Like this one from Better Comics No.2 with Iron Man in full fighting form:

Pretty great huh?

White's Iron Man (which preceded Marvel's by a couple of decades) was the sole survivor of a destroyed civilization who lived and brooded underwater, surfacing occasionally to help out a couple of trouble magnets named Ted and Jean.

After countless hours of independent research I wrote a short pithy piece about Canada's Iron Man for the CBC Arts Online site, which all things considered was a perfect match. Looking back on this fine hero, it kills me the amount of blind adulation nationalistic comic fans heap on characters with little to no Canadian connection. Meanwhile, perfectly thought out home-grown characters are left to moulder in neglect. I mean, Canada's Iron Man was ahead of the curve; part Submariner (he preceded Namor) and part Tony Stark.

Nothing against the US of A's Iron Man, but he's never exactly been a heavy hitter. Apart from his changing costume, he just seemed like Donald Trump or Gordon Gekko in armour.

I just wish I was on the ball! As is, I feel like i was either three weeks too late or three years to early. I guess it's Better late than never.

(ps: I urge anyone curious about the Canadian Whites to visit Golden Age Canadian Comics Books. I have no idea who's responsible for this site, but it's the first I've ever seen to offer full scans of these rare books. A true gem!)

Friday 25 January 2008

The C-word

According to toady's National Post, being "Canadian" has taken on a whole new meaning in the southern United States:

In the U.S. south, is Canadian a new racial slur?

- B.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

An investigation of investigative comics

I wrote a feature piece on the surprisingly old - to me anyways -medium of investigative comics (or "comix reportage" as one publisher recently dubbed it) in the new issue of THIS magazine. This is the first time I've written for the awkwardly-named proudly-socialist publication, so I wasn't sure what to expect (requests to include more quotes from Naomi Klein maybe?). But I'm happy to say it was a pleasurable doctrine-free experience; they're a swell bunch of folks.

Anyway, here' s a link to the piece. And here's a snippet, starting with the words of noted comics journalist Joe Sacco:

“The great thing about comics is that they’re so loose and so little had been done with the form that I didn’t feel like there were any footsteps that I had to follow,” [Joe Sacco] says. “Comics then, and maybe even now, were like untrampled grass and you could walk across it in any direction you wanted. It’s one of those mediums that’s so open to interpretation.”

Sacco is by no means the only cartoonist to take advantage of this creative freedom. Though he’s credited with giving comics journalism its name, many other cartoonists have worked in a similar vein, including Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman (founders of the socialist comics magazine World War 3 Illustrated), British cartoonist and anti-capitalist Sue Coe (an alumni of the groundbreaking “commix” anthology RAW), Canadian Guy Delisle (with Pyongyang, Shenzhen and his forthcoming book about Burma), and even the likes of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith and Leonard Rifas, the rabble-rousing leftist cartoonist who created Corporate Crime Comics during the 1970s.

But to many comics historians, including Jeet Heer and cartoonist Art Spiegelman, the roots of today’s comics journalists can be traced nearly 150 years further back, to the American Civil War. When the war began in 1861, newspaper and magazine editors were hungry for images to run alongside their coverage of the divisive confrontation. Unfortunately, nascent photographic technology wasn’t advanced enough to allow photographers to capture battles, says Heer.

“During all of the 19th century wars, like the Crimean War and the Civil War, the main defining images weren’t photographs of the battlefield, but from illustrators who were sent out there,” he says from Regina. “There are photographs of the Civil War, but they’re always after the battles because the cameras required exposures of five to 10 minutes.”

One of the most enjoyable things of doing a wide-ranging piece like this is you get to do some real digging and can occasionally come across some really neat stuff. In this case, it was journalistic work done by Harvey Kurtzman, original editor of Mad magazine, architect behind Little Annie Fanny and all-around comics innovator. They couldn't include any of these 1950's gems in the THIS piece due to copyright issues, but here's a sample of the Jimmy Cagney profile he did.

Anyone interested in the other journalistic comics Kurtzman did should check this out. It's beautiful stuff.

All things said, I'm pretty happy with this piece of writing. My only regret? The picture I sent them for the contributors page (too surly) and my bio, which is about 200 words longer than anyone else's. I didn't know - i swear!

Later - B.