Saturday 2 October 2010

A rare peek into McGill University's indy comics history

Last year I wrote a piece for McGill University's alumni magazine, McGill News, about graduates who had gone on to success in comics. Unfortunately, two of those interviews didn't survive the final cut; Canadians Mark Shainblum and Jordan Raphael. In the process of doing a much (much) needed update of my website this past month, I realized that I needed to rectify this. I have done so there, and now here (below).

Shainblum's story is classic punk-rock comics; start a comics company with no money or experience, while living in your parent's house. Of course he flamed out, but in the process he founded Matrix Comics and introduced the world to Bernie Mireault via The Jam and Mackenzie Queen. He also talks about the genesis of his own series, Northguard.   

Raphael's story is equally intriguing. Now a L.A.-based lawyer, Raphael is better known as the Mark Zuckerberg of alt-comic, thanks to his work behind the scenes at The Comics Reporter and The Comics Journal, not to mention his co-authoring of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book with Tom Spurgeon (as good a read out there about the towering and divisive comics legend).

Here he also discusses his role in Newbies Eclectica, McGill's little-known and short-lived alt-comics anthology (featuring early work by Mireault, Rich Tomasso and Al Columbia) that would have made William Shatner proud. Hope you enjoy the read - and let me know what you think.

Mark Shainblum (Dip Ed '91)

The comics book contributions of McGill graduates are not limited to just contemporary efforts, in fact, they stretch back some 25 years to the independent comix boom of the 1980s. That's when 24-year-old Mark Shainblum founded Matrix Comics, which would publish seminal alternative Canadian comics like MacKenzie Queen and The Jam, along with his own unique take on Canadian superhero mythology, Northguard.

Operating out of his parent's basement in a Montreal suburb, Shainblum's company thrived in a time when small-press publishers were selling thousands of copies of their largely black-and-white comics, and giving Marvel and DC a run for their money in the process.

Now 46, Shainblum has a full-time job (in McGill's Communications Department) but still finds time to write comics and science fiction in his spare time. He took a little time out recently to reflect on his experiences as a comics creator and publisher. 

Looking back on it, Matrix was a remarkable Canadian success story for its time. You started it from nothing and ended up being the toast of the independent comics world for a while—addressing huge crowds at conventions hob-nobbing with cartoonists. What was your inspiration?    

MS: Dave Sim [of Cerebus] and Wendy and Richard Pini, who did Elfquest, they were my model going into this. This was the heyday of independent comics. It was the internet before the internet in that everybody who had a couple of thousand dollars was publishing comics.

The 80s were certainly fertile ground for independent comics. Everyone from the Hernandez Brothers to Dave Sim and Chester Brown were putting out ground-breaking work in self-published form. In Canada, Bernie Mireault was considered an indy star. How did you end up publishing his work?

MS: We ran into Bernie in Ottawa at a comic convention (he later told me he was looking for me because he had heard that I was publishing comics). He had these comics and I loved them and agreed to publish them. We did his first series MacKenzie Queen and later The Jam, which started out as a backup feature in Northguard.  

I have to say of all the things I've done, the thing that I'm the proudest of is being the first person to have published Bernie Mireault.      

Of course, you also published Northguard, a revisionist take on the patriotic superhero that you created with artist Gabriel Morrissette. What was your inspiration behind that?

MS: At the time I was reading a lot of British comics, like 2000 A.D., which had stuff in it like Alan Moore's Miracleman which was dealing with superheroes in a totally different way. I think there were only a couple of copies of that comic in Montreal at the time, but I managed to hunt them down. 

Northguard is regarded as a highlight in the history of Canadian superheroes, which stretches back to the Second World War when the home-grown comics dubbed "The Canadian Whites" debuted. Were you aware of this history going when you were developing your characters?

MS: Yes. I was very consciously working in the shadow of those comics. The first comic I published was called New Triumph, which was a reference to a comic by Adrian Dingle [The creator of Nelvana of the Northern Lights which ran in Triumph-Adventure Comics]. I was very influenced by his style.

Like many indy comic companies at the time, I'm thinking of Sim's Aardvark-Vanheim and Aircel, Matrix experienced huge growth for a number of years before going bust due to an overheated market and rising material costs. Do you have any regrets?    

MS: I look back on it with great fondness, but also frustration. In one way it was like a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie—you know, 'Hey guys! Let's make some comics!' In some ways I really miss it, but it wasn’t sustainable. I was always more interested in the creative side and not enough in the business side of things.

They were very heady times. In some ways, I think [it was] an undervalued time in North American pop culture history.      

Jordan Raphael (BA'97)

Born and raised in Toronto, Jordan Raphael is a patented over-achiever. At McGill, he was an honour roll student with a joint honours degree in English and Mathematics, which he followed up with an MA in journalism from the University of Southern California, and then topped off with a law degree.

Yet, ever since the age of six abiding passion has been comics. It's clear that they've informed many of his life choices, including; the founding of Newbies Eclectica while he was an undergrad at McGill; his employment at The Comics Journal; his co-authoring of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book; and his co-founding of The Comics Reporter, the go-to website for smart comics news and criticism.

Now 34 and working at a law firm in Los Angeles, we caught up with Raphael to discuss how comics changed his life.

So what's your earliest memory of comic books?

JR: In 1981 a friend of my father's bought out the inventory of a comic shop that was going out of business and he just dropped off a huge box of comics—it must have had like 600 comics in there. What was nice is that they were all wrecked; they were all these old, random comics. There was no order to them at all. So you could pick up one and it'd be Spectacular Spider-Man #76 and the next issue would be some terrible Charlton comic, and then Man-Thing #14. There was no rhyme or reason. It was just a mix. I just read and re-read and re-read those comics. And eventually I started buying comics and worked in a comics store in Toronto.

I was surprised to find out about your role in a critical period of comics history at McGill, mainly your founding of Newbies Eclectica via a student group called the Graphics Cartel. What can you tell me about that?

JR: It was an anthology, and honestly, I'm just not very good at choosing names. I just came up with a stupid one—it was terrible. There could have been better ones.

So you formed a club, called the Graphics Cartel, whose 'activity' was publishing comics? Is that how you pulled this off?

JR: Every semester the student government would pony up some money for student clubs, a thousand or $1,500, and that would pay the printing bill. It was actually an interesting experience, because I got to learn about printing and how to deal with printers. The first time I had no idea what you did, I just sent him a bunch of pages, and he said 'Well, you know you might get a better result if you make the proofs yourself.' So we ended up getting more and more professional.
By the end of it, I had a little bit of a—I don’t want to use the word, 'scam'— going. But basically what we would do is publish say two or three thousand copies and we'd just drop at different places on campus, like the way you would with the university paper. By the end of it we had a pretty high quality publication, and we'd drop them for free and keep maybe a thousand copies to sell off campus. So, we made a bit of money too.

Looking back at it, you pulled off quite a coup. During its seven issues you featured contributions from everyone from Rich Tomasso and Bernie Mireault to Al Columbia and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

JR: Sure. And Roberto, frankly, is the most successful of all the comics-related folks who came out of McGill.

I remember, one of the big thrills some of the artists would get is, they would be at someone's apartment and they'd go use their bathrooms and there'd be a copy of Newbies Eclectica next to the toilet. And they though that was, like, the coolest compliment.   

So, how did you get involved in Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter?

JR: I had just started law school [and] I had been talking to Tom and he was looking for something to do. So we decided a site would be a good idea to get him out there and give him a platform. Frankly, I think he's one if the best writers about comics out there.
I set it up for him, and now I just kind of maintain it for him. I take of all his business and he just writes.

So, you used to be a journalist. How do you think we should wrap this up? 

JR: I guess you could wrap it up by saying that right now I'm a lawyer, so I'm not deeply involved in comics anymore. But all those comics are still back in my parent's house in Toronto—including 1,500 issues of Newbies Eclectica. Every time I go back they remind me about it.