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ARCHIVED - New Directions, 1989-2001

Since 1989, the North American comics industry has undergone several painful restructurings. Publishers, distributors, and creators have been forced to adjust to significant economic, technological, and cultural changes, including the advent of new media and the erosion of a mass audience for comics. These changes have encouraged the evolution of three somewhat separate comics sub-cultures in Canada: mainstream superhero comics, alternative comics, and small-press zines.

Cover of comic book, SPAWN, number 1

Between 1989 and 1995, numerous Canadian creators were active in the US superhero field, including Ken Steacy, George Freeman, Gabriel Morrissette, Neil Hansen, Kent Burles, Stuart Immonen, Dale Keown, Denis Rodier, Tom Grummett, Ty Templeton, Richard Pace, Dave Ross, Peter Grau, Jason Armstrong, Max Douglas, Mark Shainblum, and Lovern Kindzierski (whose Winnipeg-based graphic-arts firm significantly advanced comic-book colouring). By far the most important superhero creator of the era was Alberta artist Todd McFarlane, who first achieved recognition in the late 1980s while working for Marvel Comics. In 1991, following a bitter dispute over creators' rights (a crucial issue that simmered through the 1980s), McFarlane left Marvel, stunning his legions of fans. Early the following year, he defiantly rallied other creators and co-founded a major new American comic-book company, Image Comics. Not long after, Image began publishing McFarlane's Spawn, which became one of the world's best-selling comic books. Spawn's phenomenal commercial success led, in turn, to a host of spin-offs, including a feature movie, a line of toys, and an animation series. Previously frustrated by his lack of creative control at Marvel, McFarlane now heads a multi-media empire based in Arizona that rivals that of his former employer.

Image's success accelerated profound changes then underway in the superhero genre. Throughout the 1990s, the portrayal of superheroes supposedly became more adult. This did not always mean that comics increased in sophistication and depth, featuring more complex and believable characters; instead, it often resulted in darker, more violent and more explicit narratives that involved a bewildering multitude of excessively brawny heroes and anti-heroes. Despite its shortcomings, this new approach initially seemed to promise a brighter commercial future; ultimately, however, these graphic narratives became dead ends, as scripting and characterization were sacrificed to flashy presentation.

Since the mid-1990s, the audience for superhero comics has been shrinking. Perhaps more fatal to the superhero genre than a perceived decline in story quality and a marked homogeneity have been the loss of young readers (there is no longer an entry point into comic books for children, except for Archie comics, which remain extremely popular in Canada); competition from video games (which increasingly incorporate complex narratives) and other media such as superhero movies and role-playing games; and the closed nature of the superhero comics universes, which have grown inaccessible to the uninitiated. Due to these factors, during the 90s mainstream comics (superhero comics, essentially, in North America) ceased to be a mass medium.

Many of the Canadian creators who were active in the superhero genre in the 1980s and early 1990s have since left the field and more than a few now work as storyboard artists in Canadian animation, television, and films. It should be noted, though, that some of the leading Canadian artists who contributed to superhero comics in the same period still work in the genre, including John Byrne, Todd McFarlane, Ken Steacy, George Freeman, Ty Templeton, Dave Ross and Dale Keown. Since the mid-1990s they have been joined by newcomers such as Laurie E. Smith, Sandy Carruthers, Neil Vokes, Lou Douzepis, Yanick Paquette and Tim Levins.

Cover of comic book, CEREBUS THE AARDVARK, number 149

While superhero comic books faltered during the latter years of the century, alternative comics proved to be far more resilient, nurturing North America's most exciting and creative comic art. The business side of alternative publishing remained volatile, though, and by the end of 1989, virtually all the significant publishers that had been active in Canada during the first wave of alternative-comics publishing were gone or on the verge of folding. Dave Sim's Aardvark-Vanaheim was the exception. Sim's strikingly designed, sometimes controversial, Cerebus narratives continued to appear throughout the 1990s.

The challenge of surviving over the long term in the alternative market did not deter new publishers at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Numerous Canadian publishers boldly entered the field, including Special Studio, Drawn and Quarterly Publishing, Tragedy Strikes Press, Black Eye Productions, Highland Comics, Mad Monkey Press, Semple Comics, Predawn Productions, Egesta Comics, Blind Bat Press, Exclaim! Brand Comics, Planet Lucy Press, Subterranean Comics, High Impact Studios, I Box, Crash Communications, Ironlungfish Press, Deep-Sea Comics, Fractal Comics, Helikon Comics, Victory Comics, and Aporia Press.

Cover of comic book, DRAWN AND QUARTERLY, number 9

For the most part, these new publishers issued a handful of comics and then folded, usually after a year or two. Two major exceptions to this pattern were Black Eye Productions -- which was active for much of the 90s -- and Drawn and Quarterly -- which was launched in 1990 and still had a major presence in 2001. These companies shared a commitment to publishing the best comics possible, whether by Canadian or foreign creators, and both viewed graphic narrative not only as a form of popular entertainment, but as a serious art form. Furthermore, they embraced non-traditional comics, encouraging innovation in both technique and genre. Drawn and Quarterly, in particular, combined this commitment with sound business sense and was soon thrust into the forefront of Canadian -- and then international -- comic art. As the 90s progressed, it became increasingly clear that English-Canadian comics had found a champion in Drawn and Quarterly's founder, Chris Oliveros.

Oliveros' publishing firm emerged in Montréal, a hotbed of comics, where creators and readers have long been exposed not only to the comic art of Europe and America, but also to that of English-Canada and Quebec. No other city in North America can boast such a co-mingling of traditions. From such a vantage point, Oliveros could see that comics in North America were overly preoccupied with superheros. He realized that this concentration on a genre designed primarily for adolescent boys represented a serious obstacle to the maturation of North American comics.

Cover of comic book, DIRTY PLOTTE, number 8
Cover of comic book, LOUIS RIEL (Drawn and Quarterly), number 3

Determined to steer comics in another direction, Drawn and Quarterly made its debut in April 1990, with the first issue of an alternative-comics anthology magazine, Drawn and Quarterly. Not long after, Oliveros convinced Julie Doucet to transform her brilliant Dirty Plotte from a self-published zine into a professionally produced alternative comic book. Drawn and Quarterly then recruited a coterie of exceptional Toronto artists: Seth (Palooka-Ville), Joe Matt (Peepshow), and Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Underwater, and Louis Riel). Since joining Drawn and Quarterly, all four artists have achieved international recognition, figuring among the leading creators in modern comic art. Initially, they were known for their autobiographical narratives; however, Seth and Chester Brown later shifted to the exploration of historical subjects.

Drawn and Quarterly has also promoted the work of many other Canadian alternative-comics creators, including Maurice Vellekoop, Luc Giard, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Fiona Smyth, Bernie Mireault, and David Collier. In addition, Oliveros has published numerous important international artists, such as Mary Fleener, Richard Sala, Adrian Tomine, Jacques Tardi, Peter Bagge, Jason Lutes, and David Mazzuchelli. Drawn and Quarterly has come to be recognized as one of the leading comics publishers in the world. In the North American context, it is doubtful that any other publisher has done more to encourage alternative approaches to graphic narrative.

Cover of comic book, VECTOR, VICTOR AND YONDO, number 1

In addition to the creators associated with Drawn and Quarterly and with Aardvark-Vanaheim, there were a number of other important Canadians active in alternative comics at various times during the 90s. Among the most notable were Ho Che Anderson, Greg Hyland, R. G. Taylor, Rob Walton, Bernie Mireault, Diana Schutz, Jacques Boivin, Dean Motter, Jay Stephens, Dave Cooper, David Boswell, Mike Cherkas, Larry Hancock, David Collier, Tony Walsh, Ken Steacy, J. Torres and Tim Levins.

Of course, alternative comics were not the only alternative to mainstream comics. Canada's lively small-press community remained a vibrant source of new, sometimes daring graphic narratives. Since the early 1990s, small-press comics have become a widespread phenomenon, encouraged in part by the emergence of Broken Pencil, an important Canadian review journal devoted to zine culture. While the expansion of small-press comics publishing has resulted in dozens of local zine communities and the publication of hundreds of comics, many of these have been regarded as amateurish or self-indulgent, and fewer small-press creators have had a national impact than was previously the case. Nevertheless, small-press publishing remains an important underground current, offering creators complete freedom of expression, independent from virtually any commercial considerations. It has also been, since its inception more than twenty years ago, a crucial recruiting ground for alternative comics.

Many important creators have been associated with the Canadian small-press field at various times during the 90s, including Colin Upton, Julie Doucet, Rick Trembles, Bernie Mireault, Greg Hyland, Jeff Wasson, Chris Howard, Luc Giard, Marc Bell, Peter Sandmark, Leanne Franson, Greg Kerr, Jean-Guy Brin, Tim Brown, Joe Gravel and Mike White. During the past few years, some of these creators, as well as various other small-press artists, have turned to the Web in order to promote their print publications or to create original, digital comics. This is a trend that will likely increase in the future, although most creators are still very attached to the hands-on production of mini- and digest-size comics.

At the same time that Canadian alternative and small-press comics were thriving, English-Canadian comic strips experienced an unexpected boom. Curiously, this was happening just as newspaper comic-strip sections were shrinking, both in number and in terms of the size at which they were reproduced. Among the many new strips to run between the late 80s and 2001 were Vance Rodewalt's "Chubb & Chauncey," Phillip Street's "Fisher," Sandra Bell Lundy's "Between Friends," Graham Harrop's "Backbench," and Adrian Raeside's "The Coast." However, by far the most important Canadian strip of the period was Lynn Johnston's continuing domestic comedy "For Better or for Worse," which remains one of the most popular comic strips in the world, enjoying syndication in nearly 2000 papers in 25 countries. In 1993 the strip became an unlikely source of controversy when one of Johnston's characters, Lawrence, revealed that he was gay. The resulting debate underscored the fact that comic strips have remained a mass medium, even if their offspring -- mainstream comic books -- have not. Johnston's strip is also featured in countless reprint collections and in an animated television series from Nelvana studios.

Cover of exhibit catalogue, GUARDIANS OF THE NORTH: THE NATIONAL SUPERHERO IN CANADIAN COMIC-BOOK ART

In addition to the growth of comic strips and non-mainstream comics, the 1989-2001 period saw further scholarship relating to Canadian comics history. In 1992, John Bell served as the curator of a Canadian Museum of Caricature exhibition entitled Guardians of the North: The National Superhero in Canadian Comic Art, which was accompanied by a book of the same title. Guardians of the North, which represented the first attempt to examine a particular theme within the English-Canadian graphic-narrative tradition, prompted Canada Post, in 1995, to issue a popular set of superhero stamps featuring Superman and four Canadian national superheroes. In 2001, the substantially revised, electronic version of the exhibition became part of the former National Library of Canada's digital library.

Another important work of comics scholarship to appear during this period was Michel Viau's landmark BDQ: Répertoire des publications de bandes dessinées au Québec des origines à nos jours (2000). Although the focus of this French-language study was primarily on Francophone comics, it also provided information on English-language comics published in Quebec.

The 90s also saw a great deal of academic interest in the anti-crime-comics campaign of the late 40s and 50s. Most of this research was undertaken by feminist scholars, such as Mary Louise Adams, Mona Gleason, and Janice Dickin McGinnis, who were less concerned with comics history as such, and more interested in the era's comics-related moral panic from the point of view of social and legal history or the history and sociology of sexuality.

Conclusion

Although most of the academic attention devoted to Canadian comics has focussed on the period when comic books were a hugely popular, mass form of entertainment intended primarily for children and adolescents, contemporary Canadian comic art has evolved in another direction entirely. After 60 years, comic books in Canada have grown up, becoming a serious art form aimed at a smaller, but adult, audience. Not surprisingly, this maturation has been a difficult process. Adult comics have proven to be controversial and have, at times, been the target of censorship and repression. The new comics have also had the misfortune of emerging at a time when the comic-book industry in North America has been beset by economic difficulties that have resulted in the demise of numerous publishers, distributors, and retailers.

Despite these and other obstacles, Canadian comics continue to receive significant recognition within the international comic-art community. Mainstream critical acceptance of comics has been much harder to achieve, but more and more critics are slowly, and somewhat grudgingly, recognizing that this hybrid art form affords an opportunity to create unique and powerful narratives, and that there is a large body of Canadian graphic storytelling worthy of serious attention.

At the beginning of the new millennium, after a century of comics, the very best Canadian comic artists are combining art and literature in new ways, exploring the limits of graphic narrative and questioning our conceptions of the boundary between art and popular culture. The major challenge facing these creators and their publishers is to bring the comics resulting from their exploration and experimentation, in all their forms, from the artistic and literary margins to a more central place in Canadian culture, where they can reach a larger audience and gain further acceptance as a legitimate form of storytelling. As the acceptance of comics as an art form increases, more and more Canadians will discover what many comics readers around the world already know: Canada produces some of the best and most sophisticated graphic narratives available today.

John Bell

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