Friday 9 December 2011

Back when comics were really, really cool

A Brooklyn gang member poses in front of a rack of comic books, c. 1959 (courtesy Retronaut)

Friday 2 December 2011

Lace them up

I could post season-specific NFB films every day for a year probably.  (The Rink, Gilles Carle, 1962.)

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Another look at 'Now You're Logging'

After too many years, I have finally got around to writing an appreciation of Now You're Logging, a great long-gone graphic novel by the B.C. outdoorsman-turned-cartoonist Bus Griffiths. The essay (with art) is now up at The Comics Journal.

As I say in the piece, this book has haunted me -- in a good way -- for the better part of a decade, ever since Seth and Peter Birkemoe first told me about it. To describe it as being "out-of-print" seems like a half-measure: this book has been neglected. Among the first verifiable graphic novels in Canada (it started as a serial in a Canadian Whites comic during the Second World War), Now You're Logging is a wonderful hand-made gem of a comic that surprises and charms the reader on every other page. 

Griffiths was a self-taught artist, which is often a disaster when it comes to constructing good comics --but in this case his lack of formal experience resulted in a refreshing, innovative approach to the medium. His goal here was to create an accurate document of logging in the 1930s, before machines, when men climbed hundreds of feet in the air to lop down trees. His sheer devotion to this should be enough to make this book a classic, at least in Canada where its set. Heck, I'd be happy even if folks in British Columbia showed this book some love. But it's not the case: it's simply fallen off the edge of cultural relevance. For years now its publisher Harbour Books has maintained a Now You're Logging page on its website, despite the fact that the book is out of print. Good luck finding an affordable copy online.     

You've got to wonder what Griffiths would think about his life's work being allowed to fall out-of-print for so damn long.

Monday 28 November 2011

Grey Cup highlights (circa 1967)

Grey Cup, 1967, Ottawa. (Courtesy of Seth.)

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Remembering Alvin

R.I.P. Alvin Schwartz. I plan on writing a proper remembrance of writer Alvin Schwartz soon, but in the interim I penned the above obituary for Sequential. As you'll see, Alvin was a creative force who spent his life making things or reading things. I sought him ought a couple of summers back when I read in a local paper that the Golden Age writer who created Bizarro lived an hours' drive from me.

I felt like a 16-year-old again. Bizarro Superman melted my brain when I was a kid, in part because the idea was so great (a mirror-image of old granite-jawed Supes) but also because it made you think. I mean, what was the opposite of Superman? A square planet called Htrae? I guess. But after reading a few stories my brain started to hurt. And I wasn't the only one. Chester Brown once told me that in Grade 8 he lent his buddy a pile of Bizarro comics and after he finished reading the last one he threw up. The mental strain of all that backwardness was just too much for his young mind to handle.

Anyways, I'll leave you with a portrait of Bizarro done by Toronto cartoonist John Martz a couple of years back for the Doug Wright Awards fundraising auction:

Monday 21 November 2011

Review of 'The Death-Ray' in The Globe and Mail

 Like you, I love me some Daniel Clowes. In the past decade or so the creator of the epochal alt-comics series Eightball has rightfully scaled to the summit (or close to it anyway) of literary comics, where he has proceeded to produce some of the medium's most thought-provoking works of art. Whether it's Mister Wonderful, Wilson, Ice Haven or Ghost World, the Clowes seems to have genuine insight into the human soul.

He even knows how to write good super-hero stories, as evidenced by his latest book The Death-Ray, which I reviewed this weekend for The Globe and Mail

And I agree whole-heartedly with that headline. If this book isn't the last word on superhero comics for you I'll eat my cape. 

Friday 28 October 2011

How Nipper took Addis Ababa

If there's one thing I learned from my 10 or so days in Ethiopia it's that time has no meaning and generosity no bounds. Case in point: last Saturday Fatuma Ahmed Ali, a Ethiopian parliamentarian and the first lady of the Afar state, took me shopping in Addis Ababa after hearing me stress-out over the purchases I had to make (including for my wife whose birthday coincided with my return home). So, when Saturday morning rolled around she rolled up in her car with her charming nephew and niece and we headed out to the markets of Addis.

The gang's all here
The joke here is that Fatuma told one of my colleagues that she'd have me back in 15 minutes; an impossible feat in a city like Addis. Minutes into the ride she asked me if I had eaten lunch. When I said Yes, she asked if I wanted to eat a second lunch - she was not joking. As I quickly learned, the Afar are very generous; more generous than an Italian/Jewish grandmother. Their need to please is ever-present and boundless. After insisting that I was not hungry, we drove about 20 minutes to a market somewhere in town (preceded by lots of dead-ends and sharp turns).


Once we were there we hopped out and Fatuma quickly made a bee-line to a clothing store where she proceeded to pick out silk scarves for my wife, my mother and my mother-in-law -- and anyone else who might need a gift. Then we moved on to dresses (for my daughter) and a traditional Ethiopian suit for my son. Some trinkets followed - and some shirts, and some souvenirs. When I pulled out my wallet to pay, her driver and accountant jumped between Fatuma and myself as if I was brandishing a gun. They take their generosity very seriously here.

After an hour or two of shopping we were driving again -- i assumed back to the hotel. It was not to be. Instead we ended up at an Italian restaurant for lunch (of course). I chose a safe menu option: spicy tuna pasta.

Our driver went for some tibs (beef), also good. 

But the kids, being smart and fearless, ordered some pizza. They ignored my please to stop as I tried to snap a photo.

This little guy Hoovered down most of the pizza, so I figured I'd ask him to show off his belly.

Full of "za"

In fact, they were so nuts about pizza that I let them play a "Pizza Maker" game on my iPod that my kids are crazy for.Fun stuff.


At some point Fatuma disappeared to conduct some business, so I burned time by handing the camera over to the kids.
I know. I am so cool. 

So, I'm done right? Of course not. We returned to the market where more goods were acquired (this time for my fellow Canadians in Ethiopia) then we hit a jewelry store where she helped me pick out earrings and a necklace for my wife. (I was successful in paying for this one). 

A couple of stops later (more shopping) and we finally rolled into the hotel at around 5:30 p.m., where she deposited me on a couch in the lobby. I felt like I had been subject to the most benevolent kidnapping ever, one in which my captor fed me like a prince and lavished goods on me. Anyways, even though I understood her extreme generosity I felt bad about it. But what could I do? I couldn't give her money, right? That's crass.

Then I remembered that I had brought a copy of one of Doug Wright's Nipper collections with me. Fatuma was talking about a library she was building back home in an Afar school she established (and we had visited) so I zipped up to my room and got the book. Famously, Doug Wright drew his classic Canadian strip without the benefit of words, so language wasn't going to be an issue. She seemed very pleased by the gift, but not as much as her nephew who grabbed it and was well and fully absorbed in the 1960s antics of Nipper and his family. 


I swear, I think he may have liked this better than the pizza. And why not? Nipper's devilish antics have rung true with my kids and many others some 40 years after they first appeared, after all a kid is a kid, right? Anyways, it was a genuine thrill to see this Ethiopian kid, who knew maybe 10 words of English, devour this book. Here's to the global power of comics!!
That's a Nipper look if I ever saw one

Saturday 22 October 2011

The Macchiato Diaries

So, for those who may not know I’ve been in Ethiopia for more than a week now on an (what exactly can I call it?) assignment/fact-finding mission/humanitarian junket. The basics: a few weeks ago I was offered a trip here by a Canadian charitable organization to see and hear the issues facing the Afar people, an indigenous group of nomadic Ethiopians who have existed in the Horn of Africa for more than 2,000 years.

So, last Friday I flew with a group of Canadians (which included two Afar-Canadians) to Addis Ababa and then drove 10 hours north to a remote Afar town called Samara. Lots of eye-opening surprises there like, who knew BlackBerry reached all the way out here? Or that a small truck stop called the Erta Ale –cafĂ© could make such a good espresso?

Anyways, I’m currently back in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sweaty, sweet capital city, and I can report that the coffee obsession continues. I’ve never consumed so much: it’s intoxicating and ever-present. Since the city is predominantly Muslim (or Orthodox Christian) you don’t meet over alcohol. Instead, coffee is the go-to ritual. Which makes sense, since it was discovered here.

A very cool man on Churchill Street

So, this morning we headed out from our hotel, which serves a very good macchiato (a single costs the equivalent of 33 cents Canadian) and walked to Tomoca one of the city’s best coffee shops.

A brilliant little spot off of the thruway of Churchill Street, it’s a pleasant throwback to the coffee shops of Italy (which didn't do much pleasant here during the Second World War). Men stand around (no seats) and sip their coffee as they read papers and check their iPhones. Founded in 1953, the dance they make you go through is fantastic. You buy a coffee at the front (again, too cheap) and they give you a hard, square plastic tag that you bring to the bar at the back.

The front cash at Tomoca

The weighing scales for fresh beans, and the awesome lion logo at the back

You give it to the woman there and tell her what you want. I had already had three machiatos, so we got espressos instead. Then the barista works his magic and you enjoy the results. Mine was deep, dark and sweet. You almost didn’t require sugar. Almost.

Yes - that is a moosehead on the wall above the espresso bar.

My fellow traveller-in-coffee, Warren Creates

No over-priced cookies, fresh smoothies or CDs in sight. Just this sweet, black fluid.

Anyways, that seems to be one of the dominant themes of my trip so far. It's like I’m like Hunter S. Thompson, but fueled to distraction by caffeine. Enjoy the pictures. Tomorrow: Nipper takes Addis!

Thursday 13 October 2011

Kid Koala profile in Mcgill Alumni magazine

 My piece on Montreal-based DJ and cartoonist Kid Koala is now up on the McGill University Alumni magazine website. I was a big fan of his music, say mid-90s, but had lost track of him so this was a great opportunity to play catch up.

Like most of us, he's done some growing up: he's married now with a three-year-old daughter. His music and art have matured a lot as well, with his new book and CD Space Cadet, turning out to be a real gem. Thoughtful and moving, it's been on steady rotation in my office and living room. He's touring it right now, so go check it out!

NOTE: Tomorrow I leave for an 11-day trip/work assignment in Ethiopia. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for itinerant updates and pictures from the savannah. Wish me luck!


Friday 7 October 2011

CBC TV spotlights Drawn and Quarterly comics

Every now and then life allows me to do some fun things. Like the Doug Wright Awards, which writer-director-actor Don McKellar has helped out with the past couple of years. This summer Don asked me to lend a hand with finding some comics that he could incorporate into a new TV series he was directing in Ottawa (my hometown). The show, Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays, is about an anxiety ridden young man and his relationship with his therapist, who also has his own neuroses. So far, it is very funny and charming.

Part of a recent episode deals with Michael having a gal over to his apartment, which is decorated with many geeky accoutrements, including posters for alt-comics. Spotlighted in the episode are Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Black Blizzard and Joe Ollmann's Mid-Life. 

The episode may contain the only joke I have ever seen that is built upon a knowledge of the comics of Tastumi.

(Many thanks to Drawn and Quarterly for securing the permission to use these.)


Friday 12 August 2011

When Ira Glass met Wolverine and Nightcrawler

There is certainly no shortage of improbable crossovers in superhero comics. But this bit of cross-promotion between Marvel and NPR's program This American Life may rank near the top of the list:

This is a limited-edition print that TAL is currently selling on their website. The art is taken from a recent X-Men comic featuring art from Michael Allred. At some point the story features Wolverine and Nightcrawler on a road trip, during which they tune in to a broadcast of This American Life. That word balloon features host Ira Glass doing his familar intro:

The theme this week? Corporate Synergy!

Wednesday 10 August 2011

'The corporation badly needs to be shamed into doing the right thing", Seth on the Marvel boycott

Over at his Mystery Hoard blog, Bryan Munn has posted an original essay from Seth about the simmering Marvel Boycott that Steve Bissette launched last week. It all comes down to a recent court decision that dismissed a suit by Jack Kirby's heirs that was seeking to get copyright on some of the characters and concepts that he created for Marvel in the 1960s.

These include The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men and Captain America. (That's a great list -- and I didn't even include Devil Dinosaur in there.) Marvel, which is owned by Disney, refused to even consider the fact that Kirby --- the inexhaustible engine behind most of their most enduring "properties" --- might be deserving of more than what he got during his time working for the company.

Bissette is calling for a boycott of all Marvel products, including comics and any of the movies that are currently running rampant in a multiplex near you. Seth chimes in on this, and supports the fledgling movement 100 percent; even saying that he'll never work for the company until they gives Kirby his due:

I am certainly in favour of it. I hope it catches fire and spreads. The corporation badly needs to be shamed into doing the right thing.

Admittedly, it's a pretty symbolic gesture on my part. I cannot even recall the last item I purchased from the corporation (maybe a Marvel Masterworks volume or something of that sort), nor have I ever worked for them. I certainly won't work for them in the future either until something is done to right this wrong.

Seth admits this is a largely symbolic gesture on his part, as he's never worked for Marvel, but symbolic or not --- it's still significant.

He also makes a suggestion for Marvel Maniacs: spend your dough on back issues of classic Marvel comics. That way you support the classic comics, but avoid giving your cash to a greedy corporation.

Sounds good to me: count me in. 

Wednesday 3 August 2011

New 'Nipper' collection to be released next week

As covered on The Doug Wright Awards blog and The Comics Reporter, a new Nipper book is imminent from Drawn and Quarterly. Nipper: 1965-1966 is the latest in an ongoing series of classic newspaper strip reprints from Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright. (Here's a preview.)

As with Nipper: 1963-1964 Seth is handling the design chores on this puppy (the image above does not do the cover justice; it actually has a nice, comforting sheen to it) and I am providing the introduction. These intros are in some way more challenging to write that the wide-open essay I did for The Collected Doug Wright Volume One in that there's an economy of space operating here. The essay was around 10,000 words; this is more like 700 words and change.

As a result, I'm kind of forced to concentrate on one single facet of the subject (Doug Wright), which as anyone who's read my Volume One essay knows, I'm not a big fan of. What can i say? After years of writing 500-1,000 word newspaper articles I tend to relish the chance to go deep. But, I have so much to say about Wright at this point that I welcome any opportunity to write about him.

Plus, this period in Wright's life was actually pivotal personally and artistically. Here's a brief excerpt:

By 1965 Doug Wright was in an artistic and creative sweet spot. Mid-way into his 32-year run on Nipper, he was a heavyweight in the cartooning establishment: his strip was appearing in dozens of newspapers across Canada and the U.S. and he had fame to spare. It’s fair to say that his name was the most recognizable in Canadian cartooning at the time. But Wright was not content.

Privately he was bristling to start fresh, to pull up stakes and exit Montreal. His journal from 1964 captures his mindset: “Dreaming of being summoned by the Hall Syndicate or Hank Ketcham. Nice to dream anyway! Would like to live halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago. In that old Middle West. CHRIST! Imagine getting away from everything that irritates me around here!”
  You can read my full introduction in the book, which is scheduled to hit shelves August 10th.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

You've come a long way Jacky Boy!

With Canada's Parliament set to resume Thursday, I thought it only fitting that I post this great photo of the country's new Leader of the Official Opposition from 1984:

Yes, that is indeed Jumping Jack Layton some 27 years ago back when he was a mere Alderman in Toronto. Judging from this photo -- which is pulled from Unofficial Portraits a book collecting self-portraits done by politicians -- I think I finally understand what Quebeckers see in him. The defiant stance, the cocky attitude the disturbingly form-fitting GWGs. Yikes!

Anyways, congrats Jackie boy! Enjoy your first day in your new position. 


Sunday 1 May 2011

'Paying For It' review in The Globe and Mail (plus a bit of back-story)

My review of Chester Brown's contentious new book, Paying For It, ran in The Globe and Mail Saturday. Even though the book just hit shelves, there have already been some great reviews of it including Sean Rogers over at The Walrus and Tom Spurgeon's at The Comics Reporter.

As I was writing mine, it dawned on me that I had helped draft a letter to Chester years ago to express outrage over a storyline in his comic series Yummy Fur that dealt with pornography. I thought the comparison of my outrage and what is sure to be current reader outrage kind of made sense. After I filed my review I dug up my old issues of YF and found the one that included the letter I remembered writing; it was issue #24 (featuring my favourite stand-alone Brown story "The Little Man").

To my surprise, the letter I recall writing with my girlfriend at the time bore no evidence of my involvement. In fact, my name was nowhere to be found.


Pretty embarrassing, especially since I had just openly admitted in a national newspaper to writing this letter -- when I could have just blamed it all on my girlfriend and walked away Scot-free. But the truth is, I distinctly remember writing this letter with Joanna -- i even remember the insane Christmas card we wrote it in (there was a feather on it). I think at some point we must have decided the message would hold more weight if it came from a woman. Go figure. 

Still, these words pretty well sum up my proto-feminist point-of-view at the time. What can I say? It was the early 90s and I was a university student. Sigh.

Anyway, there's the truth of the whole sort-of sordid matter for you.

Monday 25 April 2011

Nipper gets a regal re-do

It's been a long time coming. The Doug Wright Awards finally have a new website which launched Saturday night. The old site served us valiantly for a long time --- okay, too long, really --- and we've been talking about relaunching it for a couple of years now. But it was only when Diana Tamblyn came along last summer and politely (she's very nice) suggested an overhaul that we started talking it seriously.

You may not know this, but in addition to being a talented cartoonist Diana is also a dab hand at web design which she brought to bear on our sorry old site. There are still a few pages to tweak/update, which we'll get too in the coming weeks, but overall we are all very pleased in how it turned out.

Seth even re-designed our trusty logo for the occasion, which you can see all over the site. Check it out and let us know what you think (click on the image below top see it in context). We plan on using the blog to roll out news on a more timely basis; we had previously been using Twitter and Facebook for updates, but often had no home for these on the old site.

Hail to the King!: Nipper's regal re-do, courtesy of Seth



Thursday 14 April 2011

Getting dressed by Seth

Contrary to what you may believe, my involvement in The Doug Wright Awards is not all parties, showgirls and celebrity hobnobbing. Most of the time it's a lot of grunt work, anxiety and stress. Which is okay; after all, no one was exactly begging me to start up a Canadian comics awards back in 2004. So I can't/shouldn't gripe, right?   

Still, it can be a lot of work sometimes. Then there are times when it seems to all pay off; like today when I received an unexpected package in the mail from Seth (the "Creative Director" of the Awards).

As you probably know Seth designed a lot for us over the years, starting with our distinctive awards to a set of buttons and even a t-shirt. So it shouldn't have surprised me when I opened the package and found this:


According to the note included in the package, this is the official Doug Wright Awards club jacket to be worn by the organizations director (me) on the night of the awards ceremony. The plaid tie came with. Talk about spiffy! The image on the breast pocket is an embroidered version of our new logo which will debut on our new website in the coming weeks):

You know, the last time I was told how to dress I was about 10-years-old.  But somehow, I'm willing to make an exception in this case. Thanks Seth! 

Tuesday 12 April 2011

A lost monument to a comic strip of the past

I suppose I should have saved this post for Canada Day, but the guys over at Sequential compiled a thoroughly satisfying post today about Canadian cartoonist landmarks that roused me from my lazy blogger tendencies. Is there anything more satisfying than a statue or structure to a once-great comics character? They serve as permanent reminders of the profile these characters once enjoyed, even long after their cultural gravitas has waned. Just think of Chief Wahoo (who is based on the 1940s comic strip character Big Chief Wahoo) or,my personal favourite, Hamilton Tiger Cats mascot/booster Pigskin Pete who is the direct descendant of Jimmy Frise's boisterous Birdseye Center character Pigskin Peters.      

All of this got me thinking about a great lost monument to Birdseye Center, made by Frise's replacement on the strip, Doug Wright. On top of being a master artist, Wright was also an obsessive model-maker. During the research for The Collected Doug Wright Volume 1 I heard stories of his model plane, cars and trucks -- all made from scratch in his spare time. So it only made sense that after inheriting the popular strip from Frise, he would eventually turn his model making to the strip's fictional namesake.

At some point in the 1950s, Wright turned his obsession to Frise's great creation and built a scale model of Birdseye Center (which had become known as Juniper Junction due to copyright issues). The model (seen below) featured "Noazark" (a sightseeing ship/tourist trap), a dock building and a structure that looks to be the town hall.    

For comparison's sake, here's a Juniper Junction strip as drawn by Wright depicting the sink-prone  "Noazark".

I was lent the picture by Phyllis Wright, Doug's widow, who told me that he passed the model on to a neighbourhood teen after the strip came to an end in the late 1960s. That was very kind of him, if a bit foolhardy. The teen eventually grew up and grew tired on the model and threw it out years later. Egads, that shattered a little piece of my soul! But at least Wright was smart enough to take this picture, which remains the last evidence of a great comics -- if little-seen -- monument to Canadian comics history.