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ARCHIVED - Alternative Visions, 1975-1988
The years from 1975 to 1988, which mark the first wave of English-Canadian alternative comics, might best be characterized as Canada's Silver Age of Comics. Certainly no other era has produced so much first-class comic art. More than 300 different titles appeared during the period. Neither have Canadians been as active in the American comics industry as they were during the late 1970s and 1980s. Fortunately, unlike the 40s and 50s, such participation did not require creators to move to the US, although fan favourite John Byrne (X-Men, Alpha Flight, etc.) did eventually leave Canada.
The new era in Canadian comics was ushered in by the nation-wide release of Richard Comely's Captain Canuck in July 1975. While somewhat marred by stilted artwork and scripting, the full-colour comic represented the first appearance on the newsstands of a non-satirical Canadian superhero since the heroes of the 1940s. In fact, Captain Canuck's very existence underscored the scarcity of Canadian heroes that had been available to kids in the 50s and 60s. More importantly, Captain Canuck served to demystify the comic-book business. The dream of creating Canadian superhero comics was suddenly attainable.
This new optimism was soon reinforced by a second development in 1975. James Waley's Orb magazine, which had begun life as a semi-professional alternative comic, became, in the fall, a professional, nationally distributed newsstand periodical. Unlike the early issues of Captain Canuck, Orb was distinguished by first-rate artwork and scripting. (Among the most notable characters to appear in its pages was a rival Canadian national superhero, the Northern Light.) Although the magazine folded in 1976, many of its contributors soon after resurfaced in American and Canadian alternative comics. Waley himself was briefly involved with the early Detroit independent publisher Power Comics. Later, he became a major promoter of comic-book conventions in the Toronto area.
The 1975-1976 period also witnessed the publication of several more alternative comics and a number of undergrounds. Among the former publications was an excellent magazine from Sheridan College entitled Gamut. Regrettably, distribution was a major obstacle for most of these periodicals. Denied access to newsstands, their sales efforts were largely restricted to ads placed in the fan press and direct contact with a handful of specialty dealers.
One of the few sources of encouragement during the first few years of the era was California distributor Bud Plant, who proved to be extremely supportive of Canadian semi-professional, underground, and alternative comics. A few years later, Plant, Phil Seuling of New York, and other comics distributors introduced changes that would result in the formation of a new, "direct-sales" market. Finally, small publishers were able to plug into a North American distribution network that existed independently of the newsstands. As a result, the distribution and sales of English-language comics in North America increasingly shifted from newsstands to comic-book shops. These began to spring up across the country, first in urban centers, and then in smaller communities.
Although both Captain Canuck and Orb had disappeared from the newsstands by early 1976, they nonetheless inspired the efforts of several other independent publishers the following year. The first of these new ventures was an ambitious science-fiction title, Andromeda, published by Andromeda Publications of Toronto. Not long after, Andromeda issued a second comic book, Arik Khan. These Toronto-based comics were soon followed by two Vancouver publications, Jim McPherson's superhero comic Phantacea and Stampart's Fog City, a combination underground-alternative comic book.
While these new titles were impressive, the most significant comic to appear in 1977 was released in December by Aardvark-Vanaheim Press of Kitchener. Entitled Cerebus the Aardvark, it was created by Dave Sim and published by Deni Loubert. The title was taken from an aborted fanzine that Loubert had tried to launch earlier in the year. Although it began as a clever sword-and-sorcery parody, Cerebus evolved into a sophisticated work of art, a projected 300-issue graphic novel, exploring not only the comics medium, but also other facets of popular culture and society at large, not to mention Sim's personal life. The longest-running original comic in Canadian history, it is one of a kind; standing among the country's greatest achievements in comic art, it has received considerable international acclaim.
In early 1978, while Cerebus began to receive some distribution in the US and Canada, its future success and impact were not immediately apparent. Rather, it was simply one of more than a dozen Canadian comics vying for attention during a year in which the field experienced considerable growth. Similar expansion was also apparent in the fanzine milieu. Although George Henderson's publishing activities declined in the early 70s, other publishers arose to take his place. Two of the leading new figures were George Olshevsky and Tony Frutti of Toronto's G&T Enterprises. They launched the ambitious Marvel Index series in 1976 and the magazine Collector's Dream the next year. Other notable comics-related fan publications of the mid-to-late 1970s included The Journal, Visions, Fanarama, Borealis, Collector's Delight, Canadian Graphic Collector, and Stripscene.
As the 70s ended, however, there was some faltering in English Canada's comics industry. Both of Andromeda's excellent titles folded in 1979, as did Fog City. Phantacea ceased publication early in 1980.
The loss of these three major alternative publishers was at least partly compensated for by three developments. First, Aardvark-Vanaheim had by this time become one of the success stories of the developing direct-sales market. Second, Richard Comely, Ken Ryan, and a silent partner had resumed publishing Captain Canuck. Their new Calgary-based company, CKR, shifted art responsibilities from Canuck's founder, Comely, to the brilliant newcomer, George Freeman. In Freeman's hands, Captain Canuck was transformed into one of the most accomplished alternative superhero comics ever published. And third, 1979 witnessed the first publishing efforts of a group of prolific Winnipeg artists that eventually included Roldo, Basil Hatte, Jack D. Zastre, Frank McTruck, Bobby Starr, and Kenny Moran. A few years later, when they hit their stride, they would figure as the first "new-wave" comics group in the country, although stylistically and thematically they were probably more attuned to the culture of the 60s than that of the 80s. What distinguished their comics was the use of photocopy technology and the adoption of such non-traditional formats as mini-comics (typically 4 x 5 ½ inches) and digest-size comics (usually 8 ½ x 5 ½ inches). Eventually, as photocopy technology improved and became even cheaper, more and more artists would turn to these inexpensive formats. Such comics would come to be known as "zines" or small-press comics.
Although Cerebus and Captain Canuck remained the most important alternative comics in 1980-1981, there were several other significant titles. Chief among them was David Boswell's manic masterpiece, Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman. Almost as funny -- and even more perverse -- was Stephen Ellis and Michael Merrill's Cows Crossing - Men Working, a deft and improbable celebration of cows. Also worthy of note was Barry Blair's Elflord series, which debuted in June 1980. While others utilized the new photocopy technology to produce intensely personal mini-comics, Blair endeavoured to push it to the limit by creating semi-professional, alternative fantasy comics.
This escalation in comics publishing during the early 80s was accompanied by increased fan activity, including conventions and publications. Among the latter were Miriad, Comic Cellar, Gratis, Orion, Dreamline, Fandom Zone, and Plastizine. Two fan publishers of the period, Bill Marks of Miriad and Mark Shainblum of Orion, quickly made the transition to professional comic books.
At the beginning of 1982, while a good deal of comic-art activity was underway in Canada, Cerebus was the only alternative comic that enjoyed any widespread distribution. Captain Canuck, which had once attracted an even larger readership, had disappeared the previous spring. Cerebus was joined by another Richard Comely newsstand publication, a magazine called Star Rider and the Peace Machine, in July. A vehicle for Comely's conspiracy theories, Star Rider folded soon after its second issue in October. About the same time, Bill Marks of Toronto released Vortex, the first in a slick new line of alternative comics. Like Cerebus, it received good distribution in both the US and Canada. Marks' Vortex Comics imprint would be a major force in Canadian comics publishing throughout the 1980s, offering encouragement to some of the country's best artists.
The next year, as the alternative market began to blossom, Aardvark-Vanaheim launched an alternative line of its own. Their first new title appeared in February -- Arn Saba's whimsical Neil the Horse, Comics and Stories. A Canadian, Saba had been a regular contributor to the fanzine Fantarama. He had also appeared in Potlatch Publications' The 1980 Comics Annual (edited by Ian Carr) and had contributed well-researched items on comics history to CBC Radio. The second new Aardvark-Vanaheim title, by American Bill Messner-Loebs, was Journey, a historical-adventure narrative. The year 1983 also saw the debut of Peter Hsu's space-fantasy comic book, Quadrant.
At the same time, the centre of small-press comic-book activity in Canada shifted from Winnipeg to Toronto with the appearance of Chester Brown's Yummy Fur in July, and Peter Dako's Casual Casual Comics in September. Another notable small-press comic, Chris Gehman's Mind Theatre, made its debut in London, Ontario in December. These titles were followed, early in 1984, by No Name Comix, issued by K. G. Cruikshank of Toronto. Unlike the earlier Winnipeg mini-comics, these Ontario titles reflected a post-modern sensibility quite different from that of the 60s counterculture. These artists were, in a sense, picking up where bp nichol and the Coach House comix artists of the late 1960s and early 70s had left off, pushing the limits of comics, stylistically and thematically. Chester Brown, in particular, subsequently emerged as a major figure in Canadian comic art, underscoring the role of the small press in nurturing innovative approaches to graphic narrative.
Canadian alternative publishing further developed in 1984. Although Aardvark-Vanaheim lost Journey to the US publisher Fantagraphics in September, they continued to grow, acquiring Ms. Tree, formerly published by the American company Eclipse, and launching two bimonthly comics by American artists, Flaming Carrot and Normalman, as well as publishing the one-shot A-V in 3-D. Bill Marks's Vortex Comics also added new titles: the much-awaited Mister X and Ty Templeton's Stig's Inferno. In addition, Mark Shainblum's Montréal-based Matrix Graphix Series made its debut with a national superhero comic, New Triumph Featuring Northguard. Written by Shainblum and drawn by Gabriel Morrissette, the Northguard graphic narratives represented an attempt to bring a new degree of realism and sophistication to the increasingly hackneyed superhero genre.
A second Dave Boswell publication, Heartbreak Comics, also appeared in 1984. As the year ended, it appeared that it would likely stand as one of the peak periods of Canadian alternative publishing. A dozen different titles were being distributed throughout North America, but even with the addition of new comic-book titles, this number fell by the spring of 1985, due primarily to major changes at the country's leading comics publisher, Aardvark-Vanaheim.
In April 1984, Deni Loubert left the firm that she had co-created in 1977 and launched her own imprint, Renegade Press. At first, it appeared that she would remain in Canada; however, she soon decided to leave for California. With Loubert went four of the country's leading alternative comics: Flaming Carrot, Ms. Tree, Neil the Horse, and Normalman. Furthermore, she later inaugurated two titles which might otherwise have been published in Canada: Black Zeppelin and Wordsmith, both of which featured Canadian creators.
The much-lamented departure of Loubert was partly offset by the expansion of Vortex's line to include Kelvin Mace and Those Annoying Post Bros. Matrix also enlarged its output in 1985, with the launching of Bernie Mireault's bizarre limited series, Mackenzie Queen. As well, Dave Sim added a second Cerebus-related title to the Aardvark-Vanaheim line-up: Cerebus Jam. Towards the end of the year, two more independents appeared: Aircel's Samurai and Strawberry Jam's To Be Announced, both of which demonstrated the diversification and decentralization encouraged by the new comics market. Meanwhile, John Byrne, Gene Day, Dan Day, Jim Craig, Rand Holmes, Geof Isherwood, Ken Steacy, Dean Motter, George Freeman, Dave Ross, and numerous other Canadian artists continued to contribute regularly to American comic books.
Much to the surprise of many observers, in 1986 the alternative-comics field experienced unprecedented expansion. As the direct-sales market developed and comic-books shops flourished, the new alternative comics came increasingly into demand as collectables, their values carefully tracked by eager collectors in seemingly authoritative price guides. Directed less and less at children, and more and more at affluent adolescents and young adults, new alternative comics (generally produced in small press runs with colour covers and black and white interiors) soon became the object of a speculative frenzy.
Almost overnight, virtually any alternative comic-book, regardless of its quality, was welcomed by comics distributors, as speculators rushed to invest in the next potentially hot title. The resulting mania was a boon to Canadian printers (who, to this day, still print many of the comics published in North America) and, at least initially, to Canadian alternative publishers.
Most publishers already active in Canada expanded their lines during 1986 and 1987 in response to the demand for new comics. Ottawa's Aircel launched nearly ten new titles, including Adventurers, Dragonring, Stark: Future, and Warlock 5. Among the new artists associated with Aircel during these boom years were Dave Cooper, Denis Beauvais, Rob Walton, and Dale Keown. Toronto's Vortex underwent a similar expansion, adding titles such as Kaptain Keen & Kompany, Savage Henry, and Paradax. More significantly, Vortex began publishing Chester Brown's small-press comic Yummy Fur in the alternative-comics format, bringing Brown's haunting, surreal narratives to a much larger audience.
The other established Canadian publishers, Matrix, Aardvark-Vanaheim, and Strawberry Jam, made somewhat more modest additions to their lines of comics. As well, several new publishers became active. Among the most impressive alternative titles to appear from these newcomers were Nick Burns' Arctic Comics, Panic Productions' Dan Panic Funnies, Vanguard Graphics' Privateers and Project: Hero, Icon Text's M the Electronaut, and Spider Optics Comics' Icon Devil. In addition to comics periodicals, Aircel, Vortex, and Aardvark-Vanaheim started publishing book-length graphic novels and compilations.
The expansion of the alternative-comics market also permitted David Boswell, Michael Cherkas, Larry Hancock, Rand Holmes, Ken Steacy, Ty Templeton, Bernie Mireault, William Van Horn, Jacques Boivin, and many other leading Canadian creators, to publish comics with US firms.
Unfortunately, the boom was not to last. Many of the new titles that flooded the market were not especially impressive, and some were plain awful. Soon the inevitable occurred: the deluge of alternative titles became a glut. Collectors suddenly became much more wary and discriminating. Comic-book dealers, who had accumulated large quantities of alternative comics as the overheated market expanded, found that they could barely give away much of their stock. In the first quarter of 1987, the market for new alternative comics in North America sharply declined.
The downturn continued throughout the latter part of 1987 and through 1988, although not all firms were equally affected. For instance, Aardvark-Vanaheim, benefitting from a loyal readership, emerged from the volatility largely unscathed. Matrix, on the other hand, ceased publishing, as did many of the new publishers who had surfaced during the boom. Strawberry Jam managed to publish one comic book in 1988. Vortex Comics, which like Matrix, had started publishing before 1986, was able to hang on, and even launched a few new titles in 1988, including the erotic thriller Black Kiss, featuring artwork by the noted US artist Howard Chaykin. By the end of the year, though, Vortex's publishing schedule was erratic and its future was doubtful. Aircel also continued publishing and, like Vortex, introduced a few new titles; however, in the fall of 1988 it merged with the US publisher Eternity Comics / Malibu Graphics.
The 1985-88 boom and bust in alternative comics had little impact on the small-press field. Largely independent of the comics market, it continued to experience growth. Whereas earlier English-Canadian small-press activity had been centred first in Winnipeg and then in Southern Ontario, in 1985 the locus shifted to British Columbia and then, starting in 1986, it became less centralized, and more of a national phenomenon.
One of the most notable creators associated with the small-press movement between 1985 and 1988 was Colin Upton of Vancouver. Starting in 1985, he published dozens of mini-comics, many of which portrayed his encounters with Vancouver street people and other marginal characters. Another impressive small-press creator was John MacLeod of Guelph, whose Dishman offered a brilliant send-up of the superhero genre. Perhaps the most significant artist of the era, however, was Julie Doucet of Montréal, who began publishing her Dirty Plotte comic in the fall of 1988. Like Chester Brown, Doucet utilized the freedom offered by self-publication to explore her darkest visions unfettered. The resulting narratives were searing, poetic masterpieces, eventually recognized as among the most exciting comic art in North America. Not surprisingly, Upton, MacLeod, and Doucet would all make the transition from the small-press movement to more widely distributed alternative comics, which could pay substantial royalties to successful creators.
Among the other outstanding small-press comics of the era were the British Columbia Cartoonist Society's New Reality, Don Fuller and Garrett Eng's Masque, Spatter Publications' Spatter, Roger Williamson's Miscellaneous Stuff, Sylvie Rancourt's Melody, and Reactors' Fabulous Babes. It should be noted, though, that none of these were typical small-press comics, which were usually photo-copied mini-comics.
In 1987 Peter Dako of Casual Casual Comics organized a major exhibition of cutting-edge graphic narrative, called Casual Casual Cultural Exchange: A Travelling Exhibition of the Graphzine Arts. Featuring artwork by Canadians such as Carel Moiseiwitsch and Henriette Valium, as well as artists from France, Japan, England, and the US, the exhibition was mounted first in galleries in Montréal and Toronto, before traveling to Europe and Japan. It was accompanied by a substantial catalogue, which surveyed small-press comic-art activity worldwide.
Although the 1975-1988 period ended with some discouraging developments in the alternative-comics field, the era did mark a welcome rebirth of English-Canadian comic books. It also saw the emergence of several important newspaper strips, including Jim Unger's "Herman," Ben Wicks' "Outcasts," Ted Martin's "Pavlov," Vance Rodewalt's "The Byrds," and Lynn Johnston's "For Better or for Worse."
Other notable comics-related developments were the publication, in 1986, of the first serious study of English-Canadian comic books, John Bell's Canuck Comics (with contributions from Robert MacMillan and Luc Pomerleau), and the establishment, in 1987, of the Comic Legends Legal Defense Fund (CLLDF). Originally founded by comics creators Derek McCulloch and Paul Stockton to help a Calgary comic-book shop in its battle against an obscenity charge, the CLLDF has since offered assistance to Canadian comic-book retailers, distributors, publishers, or creators who run afoul of obscenity laws. In order to raise money for their anti-censorship cause, the CLLDF has published two impressive True North anthologies showcasing Canadian comics creators.
Not surprisingly, as comics shifted to more adult themes, there were numerous instances of censorship actions against comic-book shops and bookstores that stocked comics. In addition, Canada Customs began to pay increasing attention to shipments from US alternative-comics publishers and distributors. Although a number of women creators who considered themselves feminists were embracing the freedom offered by alternative and small-press comics to explore taboo subjects, much of the new pressure on comics also came from parts of the feminist community, as did support for new proposed federal anti-pornography legislation, Bill C-54. In the fall of 1988, the renewed attacks on comics prompted the editors of the University of Ottawa's Law Review to devote a special issue to the Canadian crime-comics campaign of the 1950s. The year 1988 also saw the release of Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann's well-received documentary on the history of comics, Comic Book Confidential.
All these developments -- even the negative attention of censorship -- pointed to a new maturity in the English-Canadian comics milieu. Comics, it seemed, were finally coming of age in English Canada. The question was: Now that they were ostensibly an adult art form, would comics be able to survive the next decade, as the marketplace underwent further changes and as unforeseen threats to comics emerged?