Thursday, July 21 was a scorcher.
Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley had been living in Halifax for four months. They didn’t know many people and didn’t think anyone would show up. They’d put out the flyers and the leaflets and the posters, they’d mentioned their idea to people they’d met through the local comic emporium Strange Adventures. They’d even taken out a classified ad. It said, “CARTOONISTS’ SUPPORT GROUP Forming! Thursday, July 21, 7-10pm. Grab your pen and come draw, gossip, eat cookies.” The ad gave the address of their little apartment on Oxford Street as the place to meet.
Larson and O’Malley, or Mal to his friends, are cartoonists. They write and draw comic books for a living. They have discovered that, just like any other creative endeavour born out of one person’s head, creating comics is a solitary business. O’Malley admits there are days he’s desperate to get out of the house, to get away from the drawing board. The meeting was Larson’s idea, not only to combat the solitary nature of the work but to reach out to those in Halifax with similar ambitions to make a living through their art, to interact with other like-minded individuals, if they existed.
More than 15 young and enthusiastic illustrators and cartoonists showed up at the door of their modest apartment.
“There’s this one teenage girl who is Mal’s biggest fan,” says Larson. “She brought some friends. They’re interested in drawing Manga (Japanese comics).” Also in attendance were a group of animators and aspiring artists. “It was really informal. I pulled out a box of mini-comics—stuff I’ve amassed from conventions.”
The heat inside their apartment was unbearable, and there was no place to put all these people, so they relocated to the Common. Finding a grassy, unoccupied corner, they all sat down and drew. Thus began the Halifax Cartoonists’ Support Group.
Larson, originally from North Carolina, had gone to a comic jam while she was living in Toronto with O’Malley. A jam is a regular meeting where cartoonists hang out and work on one comic while they’re together, passing it along, a panel at a time.
“It was really structured, I wasn’t into it,” says Larson, explaining what she wants to do here is different. “I just wanted to get people together to talk and sketch and hang out. It’s for people who think there’s someone out there who are into the same things.”
The second meeting of the group was in late August, also at the Common. Ben Jeddrie was there. He works at Strange Adventures and is a part-time cartoonist. “There are people I’ve seen in the shop that I now know are cartoonists,” he says. “There’s a definite sense of a growing community.”
Since the weather has cooled off the support group has moved indoors, usually on the last Monday of the month at the St. David’s church hall opposite Pizza Corner, where the gathered cartoonists can spread their work on broad tables and shoot the breeze.
“I’d love to see the scene grow more,” says Larson. “I’m just hoping to encourage people. It’s so interesting to talk about the craft. Weird details—like brushes. I want to make it more creative. We hope to do more demonstrations, inking and basics of Photoshop, that kind of thing.”
It’s no mystery why Larson and O’Malley can draw such interest: they come with credentials that make up the stuff of comic artist dreams. O’Malley writes and draws Scott Pilgrim, a black and white Manga-influenced story published by a Portland, Oregon, independent comic company, Oni Press. Scott Pilgrim—the name is culled from the Plumtree song—is the tale of a young and unmotivated Torontonian, his problems with a girl (or two) and all the other boys he must battle for her attention. It is a literal battle, full of martial arts action sequences punctuating the scenes of awkward romantic liaisons. Mentioned in the Globe and Mail, and being developed as a movie in Hollywood, O’Malley is riding a wave of interest in his work—the first Scott Pilgrim book is in its third printing and the third is soon to be released—and earning a certain kind of offbeat celebrity. At a spring convention in Toronto, O’Malley was, by his own admission, mobbed, though he downplays his sudden indie success.
“It’s a moderate level, which is nice,” he says.
Larson is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since completing school she’s been writing and drawing comics regularly. This summer, her book, Salamander Dream, a whimsical story of a little girl and her mysterious, forest-dwelling friend was released by AdHouse Books. A fan of O’Malley’s, Larson met him in Toronto and the two were married last year.
The couple has recently moved from the Oxford Street apartment to their first house together in Mount Uniacke. O’Malley is a modest and soft-spoken guy of Korean and French Canadian decent. He grew up all over Ontario, and looks younger than his 26 years. Larson is blonde, slight, three years younger but equally as self-effacing as her husband. It is somehow perfectly fitting that these two people should write and draw comics for a living, and that they should choose Nova Scotia as their home.
“It was mostly Hope’s idea,” says O’Malley, of coming to Halifax. “We visited last summer and we really liked it, and Hope hated Toronto.”
“Almost all my stress just vapourized when we came out here,” she says.
A regular attendee at the cartoonist support group, Mike Holmes is a local comic creator/graphic designer. Holmes was recently recruited by Oni Press to pencil a 160-page graphic novel called Shenanigans, due on shelves late next year, written by a Texan, Ian Shaughnessy. Though he was discovered through a talent search, Holmes credits O’Malley for putting in a good word for him with the Oni Press editors. He is also roommates and a regular collaborator with the manager of Strange Adventures (and Coast contributor) Dave Howlett.
“I feel like I’m working in a vacuum so far away (from my editor in Oregon),” Holmes says. “But I’m part of this community in Halifax. Feedback is much easier. It’s kind of nice to have that critical input.”
Holmes says the cartoonist support group is a meet and greet, story-swapping kind of event. “It’s one of my favourite things to do, look at other people’s sketchbooks,” he says. “It’s all ages. It’s going to sound corny, but age really doesn’t matter. These kids aged 14 or 15, they’re really good.” Holmes plays bass and has gigged with musicians in town. He admits there is friendly competition—when you see someone who is better than you, you want to best them—but he likens the comic scene to the musical scene. “There’s a lot of support, there’s a lot of bands who share members. In the comic community it’s the same. It has more to do with the city you live in. Here, people stick together.”
Halifax is also home to comic creators who draw superheroes. Darwyn Cooke worked for years as an art director and animator in Toronto and Los Angeles before getting into comics full time. He made his name with series for DC comics including New Frontier and the Batman one-shot Ego, and he’s responsible for the relaunch of Catwoman as a sleek and sexy, retro, leather-clad heroine, a character who appeals to both male and female readers. Cooke and his wife now live in the Halifax area.
Another local working for legendary comics publishers is Steve McNiven. Born in Michigan, McNiven, 37, grew up in Halifax, studied sculpture at NSCAD and worked as a schoolteacher for years before getting into comics. In a short period of time he went from getting noticed drawing for the Florida-based CrossGen comics to being a star artist at Marvel, drawing a Fantastic Four title as well as the phenomenally popular New Avengers. His artwork is clean and crisp, full of detail. It has the look of something that takes a great deal of time to do, with no rushing through the backgrounds, something to consider when you think a mainstream comic artist has to produce at least 22 pages plus a cover of art per month. McNiven is tall, friendly, quick to laugh and, typical of these comic book people, modest about his success. Like Larson, O’Malley and Holmes, he finds being a comic artist an all-consuming lifestyle, and maybe a little lonely.
“I’m lucky to have my wife and kid, because if I didn’t I think I’d go nuts,” he says. “You live inside your head when you try to create things, you’re constantly talking to yourself, to organize your thoughts. You have to have a connection with other people or you can turn a little weird.”
McNiven admits he’s very happy to be living here. “I grew up here, went to high school, left, came back, the usual Maritime thing. A lot of people go from the Maritimes to get work, but if you can work from home, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be.”
This may be part of the reason so many comic creators are choosing to live in and around Halifax. The medium requires reasonably low-tech supplies, such as brushes, pens, ink and paper, a drawing board, and a great deal of uninterrupted time, all available here. It doesn’t require a particular cosmopolitan locale. Computers have made it much easier to create comics, to print them, and to share the work with publishers as well as potential readers. Larson published Salamander Dream online where her publisher noticed it and approached her to put it into print. She says everything good that has happened to her career she owes to the internet. Fed Ex would be the only other requirement, for getting those raw pencilled pages to Toronto, New York or Portland.
As a comic buyer, there’s no lack of quality comic retailers in town, including Mirror Universe on Alderney Drive in Dartmouth, Allgoods Comics and Curiosities on Hollis Street and Odyssey 2000 on Quinpool Road.
Mike Crossman is owner and operator of the new comic store on Gottingen Street beside Taz Records. He’s been in the retail comic business for five years. He bought Wilkie’s Wonderful World of Comics when it was located on Robie Street, and recently moved to Gottingen and reopened his business as The Monster Comic Lounge.
“The first little while I didn’t see much of it, ” says Crossman of the grassroots Halifax comics scene. “Now I’m seeing it more. It’s a lot cheaper and easier for the average person to put something out on their computer, whether they want to print five copies or 5,000. It’s attainable.”
Since the late 1980s, the comics industry has gone through the best and worst of times. The ’80s saw the deconstruction of superheroes and the beginning of a more serious, sophisticated mainstream comic, as seen in work by industry giants Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman). Along with this sudden resurgence in comics interest came the Batman movies, which drove more people into comic stores looking to rekindle childhood obsessions, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust tale Maus, which gave comic books a whiff of literate respectability.
In the ’90s, the speculative market blew up. This made for big short-term sales, but it also encouraged the comic companies to go for gimmicks to sell their product, which included alternative covers, rebooting long running titles at number one and killing off popular characters, only to resurrect them a few issues later. By the mid-’90s, the bottom dropped out. These collectables weren’t worth the paper they were printed on and no one was reading comics for just the joy of reading anymore. Even the longtime industry leader, Marvel, was under bankruptcy protection.
Out of this environment, with the ubiquity of computers and the internet, an independent scene has prospered. It may be ironic, but Hollywood has played a big part in promoting non-mainstream comics. Movies adapted from comic books are practically their own genre, and though they include the superheroic and fantastic Men in Black, The Fantastic Four, Batman Begins and Blade, one can count more offbeat fare such as The Crow, Road To Perdition, A History of Violence, From Hell, Sin City, American Splendor and Ghost World as movies with independent comic book origins.
Many people who are exploring the new independents have already been comic book readers. Yes, superhero comics are as popular as ever, but so are Japanese Manga comics translated into English, which have a large female audience, one not traditionally attracted to North American power fantasies. Japanese animated TV fare such as Sailor Moon has had a great deal to do with fostering this interest.
Crossman recognizes the new audience for the medium coming into his store. “I see a lot more people buying independent books that I wouldn’t have seen buying comics five years ago. I don’t know if it’s because of the availability and diversity of them now. There are a lot more that are art and story driven, a little more unique, not just standard panel-to-panel comics.
“A lot of people are tired of reading about men running around in tights beating each other up, they want something different.”
Crossman credits the high turnover in the student population as a prime reason Halifax is a buyers’ market for comics. They’ll come to town, indulge in their comic buying interest, and sell them back to the stores when they leave, not wanting to carry the telltale longboxes full of comics all the way back home. “There’s a constant supply of stuff. People can always find the older stuff they’re looking for.”
The Superman of comics in Halifax is Calum Johnston, owner of Strange Adventures comics. His Sackville Street store, open since 1994, brings together the creators and the collectors of the local comics scene. Steve McNiven credits Johnston for fostering the community and bringing it together. Hope Larson goes further. She and O’Malley met Johnston at the San Diego Comic Convention last year, the world’s biggest and most prestigious comic event, and he encouraged the couple to look him up if they came to Halifax. “We called him, and he’s been a huge help to us,” says O’Malley. “Cal is the hub. He’s willing to go to crazy distances to help support people. If it wasn’t for Cal, I don’t even know if we would have made it out here.”
People of average height or taller must stoop to enter Strange Adventures; it has a cave-like quality that opens up, a little, once you get inside. The store smells of paper. Despite being the kind of place only a Hobbit would describe as roomy, it’s impossible to take in all at once, because it’s so absolutely crammed with comics. The place actually seems bigger inside than out, like Dr. Who’s Tardis time machine, hidden in a police phone box.
The average age of the customers tends to be in the 20s and 30s, though Strange Adventures sees teenagers, children and seniors. The employees are knowledgeable about the stock, but they can talk to customers both converted and curious. Mike Drake managed to win Halifax’s Best Salesperson in the Coast’s readers’ poll, despite an endearing curmudgeonly streak. Shawna Lipton, 22, thinks sometimes people are surprised to see a girl behind the counter but “once you start geeking out, it doesn’t matter who you are.” She is always trying to recommend books with a pro-female stance and strong, inspiring female characters that “kick as much ass as the boys in tights do.”
Dave Howlett has been working at Strange Adventures most of his adult life. Howlett is also a comic creator, responsible for the Supersnipe strip that promotes the store in print and on the website, as well as other independent comics including a black and white, self-published series called Scenester.
One staff member who has been conspicuously absent in the store of late is Samantha Robertson. The 24-year-old is a longtime comic fan and has worked at Strange Adventures since high school. Through a combination of luck, timing and hard work in the resume shuffle, she recently landed a job as an editorial assistant at Dark Horse comics, also located in Portland, Oregon. Dark Horse is a leading publisher in the comics industry, and counts the award-winning Hellboy, Concrete and Sin City among its titles. While Robertson is away from the scene here, she still feels like part of the community.
“A lot of times, comics fans are portrayed by the media as being people possessing minimal social skills and grooming habits,” she writes in an email from Oregon. “On the whole, however, I am very proud to say that comics fans are some of the most intelligent, sensitive and creative people I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with.”
Johnston, 39, is usually in the back of Strange Adventures in a small office, the door always open, his sheepdog Balou a regular fixture at his feet. He’s soft spoken, but get him talking about his work and his hands start moving, guiding the flow of ideas. He is a man with a plan. He points to a tradition already in place in Halifax, the fact Hal Foster, creator of Prince Valiant, was born here, and mentions Haligonian Owen McCarron, Marvel comics artist and Canadian comic publisher. He’s proud to be part of that tradition, to cultivate a community of consumers, creators and fans.
Johnston’s intentions are simple and direct: to beguile the reader. “As good as we’ve done, as good as comics have done, we still have so far to go,” he says. “Comics are still pigeonholed as such a little niche market.”
One night in late October, Johnston asked McNiven, Larson and O’Malley to a dinner at The Argyle. Inevitably, Larson and O’Malley got into the crayons supplied by the restaurant and doodled on the paper-covered tabletop, leaving behind collectable sketches for anyone who might have had the sharp eye to grab them up. Larson’s was a girl in a bunny suit, and O’Malley’s was a character out of Scott Pilgrim. The talk was shop, comparing notes on contracts and experiences with publishers, favourite drawing implements, computer programs, and O’Malley’s ongoing brush with Hollywood. It was an impromptu cartoonists’ support group. What was so telling was the absence of any sense of elitism or ego, something perhaps unique to this scene. An offer of creative collaboration was made between the artists, despite broad differences in the style and genre of the comics on which they work. The respect and the suggestion was genuine and, just then, ever so slightly, the community widened and strengthened.
The Cartoonists’ Support Group meets November 28 at St. David’s Church Hall, 1537 Brunswick, 7-10pm.