Canuck comics come of age

Globe and Mail Blog Post

Off Saturday night last to the grand new Frank Gehry-inflected Art Gallery of Ontario for the presentation of the Doug Wright Awards for best Canadian comic and graphic works, named for the great Canadian cartoonist icon, creator of Nipper and guardian of the very amusing Juniper Junction after the death of its creator, Jimmy Frise.

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As a child I was a devotee and avid collector of comic books (Mum, you owe me $137,000 for all the valuable ones you chucked out) and as an adult of sorts have developed a love for high-quality graphica. Comics for grown-ups - you have to be careful tossing around the word "adult" these days - have long been popular in Europe. But in North America, cultural acceptance has been slower in coming. At Globe and Mail Books, though, we've been pushing their interest, relevance and complexity for a number of years now. There are not many straightahead novels superior to Alan Moore's and illustrator Dave Gibbons's brilliant and morally complex  Watchmen, for instance, or Art Spiegelman's devastating  Maus .

So I was thrilled to be asked to be a juror for this year's Doug Wrights and was much impressed by the quality of sumbmissions in the two categories I was involved in. Best emerging talent, made up largely of entrants who hand-stapled their painstaking and passionate labours, went to Kate Beaton, who has developed a strong Internet following for her clever and often hilarious series, History Comics (Danish philosopher Kierkegaard taking issue with his critics over both his thought and his supposed hunchbackedness; Maggie Trudeau in the process of tranforming Canada from "Boresville to Party Country").

Best book went to a sterling collaboration between cousins Mariko (words) and Jillian (images) Tamaki for Skim, in which title teenager bumps up against bullying, lesbianism, suicide, Goth culture and other things which ordinarily would be of little interest to a middle-aged man, but which I found  both compelling and moving, not least because of the seamless melding of story with the often jaw-droppingly lovely art.

You may accept the growing seriousness with which comics are taken - and why should they not be in a culture where the comical is portentous and the portentous comical - by the fact that actor Don McKellar acted as nimble host for the evening despite being sassed by animated versions of the nominee's work, Stuart Maclean read a tribute to Jimmy Frise, who was named to the Canadian cartoonist's hall of fame and that among other judges were Bob Rae (who seems to be making a second career out of literary judging) and Andrew Coyne, both men of distinguished intellectual sobriety and, it turns out, range. We wordy types were held in check and forced to consider the art by the presence on the jury of comix practitioners Diana Tamblyn and Joe Ollmann

Canada is producing some of the best comix artists - Seth (an expert on Doug Wright), Chester Brown, Michael Rabagliati and Julie Doucette among them - and is home to one of the world's great comix publishers, Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly, whose founder, Chris Oliveros, received a special award for not merely surviving, but flourishing in the business for 20 years.  

I have long held that one way to get boys to read (a vexing problem for publishers and parents alike) is to expose them to first-rate comix. And I won't claim that they'll then move on to the real thing. For comix at their best are as real as it gets.