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Comics, Cosmopolitanism, and Canadiana

The growing popularity and diversity of Canadian comics and graphic literature raises questions around how a culture and place presents itself to the world.


Publisher: Random House
Author: Bryan Lee O'Malley
Publication date: 2014-07

Wars of Streets and Houses

Publisher: Uncivilized
Author: Sophie Yanow
Publication date: 2014-04

On a hazy July evening, under sultry skies thickening again following an afternoon of thundershowers, I stand outside the Hot Docs Theatre on Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto. The lineup outside the door stretches far down the block, an array of waiting visitors of all ages and hues shuffling impatiently from foot to foot while clutching bags full of books or large, protectively wrapped frames.

They’re not here for a film, however. They’re here to meet a comics artist.

It was a homecoming of sorts, for Canadian comics artist Bryan Lee O’Malley, of Scott Pilgrim fame. It was also the Toronto launch of his latest release: Seconds.

O’Malley, who is of Korean and French-Canadian descent, comes from around here. Well, from Ontario, anyway. He lived for several years in Toronto, and it’s where he wrote the Scott Pilgrim series. But he now makes his home in Los Angeles. And this is one of only three Canadian stops – along with Montreal and Halifax – in a book tour that’s already taken him through the US and will take him on to Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.

O’Malley has, in other words, ‘made it’ as a comics artist. But what does all this success say about his identity as a Canadian comics artist? What does he say about it? And what does this say about the intersection of the comic genre and Canadian identity more broadly?

Cultural Scentlessness

In a 2008 essay on Haruki Murakami, Japanese professor and arts critic Inuhiko Yomota attributed Murakami’s global popularity to the “cultural scentlessness” of his fiction. This refers to the “cultural cosmopolitanism” of the material – the events in his books could take place anywhere. And they frequently do. At times we’re not sure where they take place (but it’s beside the point anyway, so we don’t care), and when they are situated somewhere definite, it could be anywhere. They are the offspring of globalization: not tied to any specific culture or place, and thus easily consumed by a global audience for which this sort of rootless angst resonates.

This is not a new theme (although Yomota’s use of ‘cultural scentlessness’ is a uniquely evocative way to describe it). But there is something redolent of this in O’Malley’s work, as well. And it could be an important part of what has attracted his enthusiastic following abroad.

Scott Pilgrim, for instance, was a surprise success; a surprise particularly for O’Malley. “I never expected Scott Pilgrim to be more than a weird Toronto cult comic,” he explains at the launch for his new book.

And yet it was. Inspiring a feature film with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, the box office revenues weren’t what Hollywood had hoped, but book sales have soared. With well over a million copies in print, it became a run-away bestseller, and has been translated into over a dozen languages. Apart from the magical realism of the plot (which is also evocative of Murakami’s fiction), Scott Pilgrim also evokes ‘cultural scentlessness’ – it takes place in the bars and basements of suburban North America. In that sense, it could take place anywhere.

And yet, it doesn’t. It takes place in Canada, and very specifically in Toronto. O’Malley jokes about one review that described the series as taking place in a 'mysterious, snow-drenched Canadian city'. “What was mysterious about it?” he exclaims, as the Toronto audience bursts into laughter. “Toronto was everywhere!”

Even the film version was filmed in Toronto, and Canadian audiences were thrilled with the sights of their country’s largest city on the big screen. In theatres, people clapped and cheered every time a landmark appeared. There was a sense of pride here: Canada achieving recognition on a much broader stage. And for something other than its hockey, its ski resorts, or its Justin Bieber.

Yet ironically, that recognition is partly the result of the geographic nebulousness of the work: outside of those (mostly Canadian) audiences familiar with the landmarks, nobody knows (or perhaps cares) where the film is based. Its plot and storyline very deftly escape the need for geographic specificity, and tap into a narrative that’s accessible to a much more global audience. ‘Cultural scentlessness’ helped the series achieve the global recognition that brought its very specifically-scented city site to a worldwide audience.

Second Take

This model is echoed in Seconds, O’Malley’s latest book. It’s a very different type of book – the central character is a young, 29-year-old chef (Katie) who started one restaurant (named Seconds) and is about to open a second. It too blends a very real sense of urban cosmopolitan life with magical fantasy (Katie discovers her restaurant is inhabited by a spirit who introduces her to a plot of magic mushrooms with which she can change events in her past – a virtually unlimited array of second-chances!).

Seconds too is based in a nebulously vague locale – a large city. When I first read the comic, I had the impression it was somewhere in the US (I don’t know why – perhaps because it resembled no Canadian city that I knew, and I know most of them).

Yet, as O’Malley explained at the launch, it is in fact an amalgam of very specific cities and locations which he has wrought together. It was partly based on a town in England. O’Malley had his plot in mind, but seeking inspiration for the location he literally googled ‘town’. He eventually found a town called Darby (or was it Whitby? – he isn’t quite sure) and it seemed to fit the bill. So he based the general shape and layout of the town on his internet find (making some adjustments: the hill atop which his fictional restaurant stands is in fact surmounted by a monastery in reality).

Other components came from elsewhere – streets were drawn from his memories of Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada), London (Ontario, Canada) and Pasadena (California, US). “I wanted it to be this dreamlike mashup of all these places I’d seen, or been, or traveled,” he explains.

And yet, it’s also redolent of Toronto. While he was writing Scott Pilgrim, he quit his job at a comic book shop and worked for some time in a well-known restaurant in the city’s west end, called Kalendar. An upscale bistro, it does indeed share a certain atmosphere with the restaurant in the book (somebody in the row beside me claps her hands excitedly – she knows and loves that restaurant). Working there gave him a sense of the flow of life and the conversational manner (and of course the food) as it manifests both inside and outside the kitchen in such a spot.

And so there we have it – a “dreamlike mashup” of locations which manages to transcend locale. Cultural scentlessness, cosmopolitanism, mashup, whatever one calls it, it lends the work a particular power and universal appeal.

Looking for Canada

And that’s not lost on his publishers. He jokingly comments that Random House dislikes finding Canadian references in his work, and prefers for his book to not be identifiably Canadian. How does that make him feel? As a Canadian artist living and working in L.A. (yet clearly still drawing, quite literally, on his Canadian experiences), does his Canadian identity shape his work, or how people engage with his work? I ask him this at the Seconds launch.

“I don’t know,” he responds, shrugging his shoulders with typically Canadian modesty.

“I feel relatively Canadian in L.A.,” he adds. But then he reflects on the fact that he had a temper tantrum upon arrival in Toronto: it may be summer here, but he can no longer handle the cool temperatures. “It was cold!” he exclaims, shuddering. “It was 22 degrees, but it was cold!”

He emphasizes that the restaurant he’s depicted in Seconds is not intended to be explicitly Canadian in any way. Still, he draws a connection between that and the way television producers often try to render their filming locations ambiguous. He points to the example of Orphan Black, a sci-fi television series that is also filmed in Toronto.

“You can CG out Canadian references, but it’s still Canada,” he says. For example, he notes that some critics asked him why his previous work, Scott Pilgrim, had so much snow in it (a question no Canadian would need to ask). It’s these elements which frame our everyday existence so ubiquitously that they blend invisibly into our perceptions of a place, which help to re-anchor them as specific locales no matter how well they are masked in book, film or television.

Streets and Houses of Montreal

One comics artist whose work deals very specifically with the politics of place and space is Sophie Yanow. Although she comes to the scene much more recently and is not as well known as O’Malley, she is in many ways his antithesis: an American (from “the woods just north of San Francisco”) who now lives and works in Canada (Montreal, to be precise). Earlier this year she released the remarkable little comic War of Streets and Houses (published by Uncivilized Books), which chronicles her experience of the Maple Spring.

This was a series of massive street protests led by post-secondary students in the Canadian province of Quebec in 2012. What began as a student strike against the provincial government’s plan to increase tuition fees turned into an ongoing occupation of the streets; tens of thousands marched on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, and it brought about the fall of the provincial government in an election sparked largely by the crisis.

Yanow’s work is a short and yet theoretically rich concept piece. She describes it as a “poetic cartoon memoir”, and her research interests in architecture and the intersection of streets and houses in political protest is readily apparent. The sparse nature of the sketches and dialogue, the self-reflexive and sometimes theory-heavy narration, prove to be a thought-provoking combination.

And yet it becomes apparent that place does matter; at least here it does. Yanow’s character in the book faces dilemmas unique to her identity in this place: an immigrant from the US who could be deported if she’s arrested. Yet peer pressure mounts: she doesn’t want to abandon her friends and not join them in the street protests, even if she’s afraid. And then the practicalities: should she wear a mask? Would that help her evade detection? Or would it draw police attention?

And throughout these musings, her thoughts keep returning to her own past, as she juxtaposes the wide urban streets of Montreal with the wide forested spaces of her American childhood, and with the history of colonial occupation from which the title of the work is drawn (it’s named after an 18th century manual for urban warfare, written by a French colonial officer who battled local uprisings against France’s colonial empire in Algiers).

Yes, place – and space – matters.

Yanow’s work is a fascinating reflection on the significance a place can have; more fascinating still as the product of an American writer writing about Canada. And even more fascinating yet as one writing about Quebec: the sometimes-rebellious Francophone province which periodically threatens to separate from the rest of the country and has historically had a very contentious relationship with its Anglophone partners.

Piecing It All Together

This article is not, of course, a broad survey of Canadian comics and graphic writing. A survey would have to integrate the many more comics artists doing fascinating work from coast-to-coast. Artists like Chester Brown who, once he moved on from his scatologically surreal clown comics, produced a best-selling comics biography of Canadian Metis revolutionary Louis Riel (hanged by the Canadian government following an armed separatist uprising in western Canada in the late 1800s).

More recently, Brown has stoked controversy with his book Paying For It; an autobiographical account of his life as a client of prostitutes/sex workers (he’s an ardent advocate of the decriminalization of prostitution). But even this work, both praised and derided, depending where one’s prostitution politics lies, is inherently a product of Canada, which is a country currently bitterly divided on the topic of prostitution following a lengthy legal battle which eventually saw the Supreme Court strike down Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional.

A survey would also have to include the likes of Julie Doucet, who has loudly criticized comics as too much work for too little pay, but who nevertheless has a secure place in the Canadian canon for work such as My New York Diary, which outlines her move from Montreal to make it big in New York (a very Canadian move, itself). It would include the likes of Wallace Ryan on the east coast, and Camilla d’Errico on the west coast.

And then of course, there's Canada’s growing roster of aboriginal and First Nations artists, such as Plains Cree artist Steven Keewatin Sanderson whose first comic, Darkness Calls, was subsequently made into a film in First Nations languages. Yes, Canada faces no lack of comics artists, nor lack of themes. Some of its artists and writers have even become famous; Joe Shuster (Superman) and Todd MacFarlane (Spawn) come to mind.

With the exception of these brief mentions, I’ll leave such a survey to others. But the point here is that the politics and consequences of place and space in popular culture are complicated and significant. On the one hand there are artists like O’Malley. Much like Murakami (whose work is a growth industry unto itself for Japan, and whose works are probably the first books by a Japanese author to be read by many of his fans from outside the country), O’Malley’s books have the effect of transcending and eliding cultural and geographic specifics, yet by so doing appeal to a global audience that winds up being exposed to the work of a Canadian artist and mashed-up scenes of Canadian life.

On the other hand, artists like Yanow demonstrate that there's also a rich inspiration to be found in exploring specific places and spaces; in querying the unique events and place-specific qualities that characterize those spaces in the popular imagination and public memory.

Neither approach is better, of course. Yet the fact that Canada is delivering such a rich variety of both types of work to the global stage is, if anything, a reflection of its vibrant role in the sphere of comics production, as well as the power of comics to help us explore our identity and understand who, and where, we are in the world.

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