Comics / Comics News

The State of the Canadian Comic Book Industry


By Hervé St-Louis
October 9, 2008 - 00:01

I’ve been covering the comic book industry for years and have always found the level of professionalism and maturity of players involved lacking. Many times, I have written and said that what passes for public discourse in this industry would get all participants fired from their respective jobs, were they in any other mature industry. There is a lot of infighting, backstabbing, gossips, and similar nonsense that one watches in soap operas. For my own little part, I’ve tried through The Comic Book Bin, to act differently. Reacting to the collapse of Canadian publisher Speakeasy Comics, I’ve launched a series of articles to help fledgling publishers get their business act together. Collectively, at the Bin, we’ve refrained from commenting from other collapse like Virgin Comics, Minx and so on in favour of finding solutions to problems.

In the case of Minx, last year, The Comic Book Bin invited DC Comics to participate in our event Women’s Month, but they declined. I specifically mentioned last year, when Minx was launching that sites like Newsarama were hardly the place to advertise a comic book line geared towards women. In such matters, I’ve been consistent. Vendors need to tailor and reach the comic book venues that are best for their audience. Were I a DC Comics’ advertiser or publicist, I would have put more emphasis on Web sites like Comics Worth Reading or Sequential Tart. In the matter, of the recent Marvel Entertainment television advertising, I’ve already broken up why I thought why it was a good idea, but poorly implemented.

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What has this to do with Canadian comic books? The Canadian comic book industry is a graft of both the European comic book industry and the American one. Creators from the English and French side are essentially producing contents for a wider audience that is outside of their border. Only newspaper comic strips like Fisher or Canadian caricaturists can rely on a homegrown public. Animators, like me, have it easy thanks to better developed broadcast industry in Canada. Being a comic book creator in Canada means often living off grants from the Art Council of Canada, provincial equivalents like the SODEC in Quebec and having one’s comic books published by small local publishers or being a work for hire for the European and American comic book industries.

Our small Canuck section here at The Bin, tries to reflect on the limited exposure Canadians have. The Canadian comic book buying public is in many senses not very sensitive to local products. Even Francophones who are the most ardent supporters of local creators, buy more European products than local products made by artists, often living in the same city as they do. Covering the local industry in my home town of Calgary, I’ve noticed that the majority of comic book readers supported American products rather than Canadian ones. I don’t have a problem with this. Readers are free to spend their money where they want. They don’t have to let patriotism and nationalism get in the way of their personal preferences and spending patterns.

Sales, of course!

Hence, the onus to make Canadian comic books more appealing to the local market, if it is the goal of local creators and publishers is on them. The Comic Book Bin tries to facilitate this exchange of information, but very few Canadian comic book creators and publishers take advantage of the obvious bias the main and largest Canadian-based comic book related media outlet provides them. I’ve often argued that our American cousins are far more successful at getting their message across as Canadians. Is it true that Canadians’ national character is so defined that they prefer deference to aggressive publicity?

From my part of the world, I blame this on the maturity of the Canadian comic book industry. Canadians are still accustomed to thinking small and thinking that what really matters is the success, they gather outside of their country before they are taken seriously. The Canadian comic book industry is small. Readers are not connected to that industry or taught to care about it very much. The Canadian comic book industry is more insular than the American one which is now learning to play in the court of the big Hollywood boys and therefore, needs to step up in order to be admitted and taken seriously.

The Canadian Government’s support for artists also creates a fog around the industry. While some publishers take no part of the various funds available to the arts, some use these extensively. I’m not totally against the funding of the arts by the Canadian public. However, in the case of an established business, I believe in weaning them off the system quickly and let them fly on their own. Artificially supporting businesses that can function on their own is not a great way to build a sustainable industry.

Publishers and creators do not understand the need to engage their readers, especially when they are local ones. Once a comic book series has been  decided upon and is ready to be published, the most important thing anyone involved in that comic book has to do is get the word out and make sure people care and hear about the comic book enough times to remember to purchase it when they are faced with it in the comic book store. The sales and marketing aspect of the comic book is as important as its creation.

In the Canadian context, one can base one’s marketing strategy either locally or internationally. Both strategies are defensible and possible. The main question before basing this strategy is to ask what the ultimate goal is. Is the objective to sell many units or to gain critical accolades? I prefer moving units out the door, personally to any other objective. Selling locally is not a problem at all and is probably easier to achieve than selling say through Diamond Comics. Once sales points have been identified, all one has to do is to figure out how to get them on your side.

Then, there is the media. There is little media about comic books in Canada but at the same times, there are great advantages. The media in all of Canada has a bias towards local talents and T he Comic Book Bin is not different. This is where, I see the most immaturity from the local comic book industry. It attempts to get its message out with a minimalist approach and by relying on old networks. A few press releases are sent. Rarely review copies. There is no work done to branch out of usual networks into new ones. I must continue to say that The Comic Book Bin, which should be the first choice in terms of getting a message out when it comes to comic books in Canada is continually ignored no matter how many times, I have personally appealed to creators and publishers to please let us know about their projects. Before sending a press release to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, publishers should send them to us.

Geography

On that front, the Canadian comic book landscape is pitiful. There is a language divide. Anglophones and Francophones use different networks. Within the Francophone community, there is a divide between Quebec City and Montreal. I would argue that there is a third Francophone group centered around the Université du Québec en Outaouais  (University of Gatineau), which has a comic book university program which is not even spoken about in Montreal, a mere hour away. The program of the University of Gatineau, seems to exist as a Francophone counterpoint to the strong animation programs across the river in the neighbouring province of Ontario and the nation’s capital, Ottawa. Where Ottawa rightly calls itself an animation hub, Gatineau attempts to call itself a comic book hub. The problem is their natural allies in Montreal are so busy fighting against Quebec City or ignoring anything else happening in the comic book universe, that they totally ignore the folks of Gatineau who are natural allies.

Montreal

The dynamism and competition between the Montreal School and the Quebec City School do create many opportunities. In Quebec City, the comic book industry has associated itself with the Quebec City book fair. They’ve become one of the main attraction point of that fair. In Montreal, because of the greater size of the city and even because of its dual language culture, there are far more many groups operating. In the Francophone world, there is a network of stores, creators, and activities all supporting comic book creators. The local press is quick to interview local creators on television, newspapers, magazines, and radio.

But Montreal, in the English world is best known for its contribution to English comic book literature with strong publishers and many creators. The small but organized Anglophone community organizes regular jams. Of course, bilingual Francophones reinforce this community continually. Montreal also has had in the past the support of major institutional promoters like the Just For Laugh group.

Toronto

Yet, Montreal’s efforts are discussed more often outside of Canada than inside. Anglophones’ center of gravity in the comic book world rests in Toronto. However, there are many groups in Toronto. Toronto being the most culturally diverse city in the world, boast many interests groups in the comic book industry that, I will repeat, do not engage the public properly. The Toronto Comic Book Expo is the best way the industry reaches out to the public. Another group whose efforts I have noted are the Shuster Awards. But that’s another can of worms.

In the words of Canadian advertising guru, Terry O’Reilly, awards are created by groups to self congratulate themselves and to advance commercial interests for the granting associates. I’m not sure all that can apply to the Shuster Awards, but this definitely applies to the Doug Wrights Awards which The Comic Book Bin does not recognize because of discrimination against Francophones. I call the organizers of the Doug Wright Awards (DWA) the Toronto School of the Canadian comic book industry. They are less concerned with the popular aspects of the medium and reaching a critical mass of Canadians. They are more elitists and certain that their view of the comic book industry is the right one.

The Toronto School is more concerned with individual works by cartoonists than comic books published by teams of creators that may or may not be completely Canadian contents. The Shuster Awards will celebrate creators who participate in comic books published by American publishers. All that is required of the work to be considered is Canadian blood. The DWA prefer autonomist works. The award itself was probably created by a small clique to self congratulate each other every second year. It is not an award that intends to be open to the public or criticism, as The Comic Book Bin’s denunciation of that award has proven. Since that event, I have been asked to apologize for denouncing the discrimination towards Francophones and The Comic Book Bin has been banished from appearing in the main Canadian comic book industry blog, called Sequential (until I apologize, I guess), which is closely associated with the DWA.

Center vs Periphery

The problem with the Toronto School is that they are used to living in a city where all matters related to Canadian culture is disseminated and decided in that city. They of course leave Montreal and Quebec alone because they can’t possibly challenge’s Montreal cultural hegemony and are more than happy to leave all the crazy French stuff to those fois-gras poutine munchers. However, when an upstart from Calgary, the new economic motor of Canada comes along, there is a problem.

The cultural battle I describe here is in effect in more than the comic book world. In the literary world, the movie industry, and even the gaming business, although there are constant challenges from Vancouver, Toronto is expected to be the center of reference. Now, The Comic Book Bin is clearly Canadian, but not Toronto-based. As the publisher of the site, I don’t know anyone from the Toronto School personally. When I lived in Montreal, I was similarly aloof of rules of behaviour related to the local industry. I cared as much about the folks from Gatineau as people from Montreal and Quebec City.  

The Comic Book Bin’s approach to the comic book industry is aloof. I personally don’t care for the politics and the power plays. I’m not here to make friends and get a job working as a staffer for a publisher. I only care about informing the readers. Since I’ve been in Calgary, I’ve found the perfect city to match my values for the Bin. We are independent, strong, and free!  It’s in that regard that I saw the attitude of the Toronto School more a reaction to the challenge from the upstart from Calgary, than an English / French fight. I was told on several occasions that I was intruding in a debate several provinces away and that because of that my contribution was not legitimate.

The real reason why non-translated works are not opened to awards from the Dough Wright Awards is because no one in the English Canadian market is expected to buy a book that has not been translated. The DWA are closely tied to a well-known comic book store in Toronto. The Doug Wright Award becomes nothing but a strategy to move units for that particular store in Toronto. As O’Reilly argues, awards are nothing but attempts to make the public care about a product instead of using traditional advertising means. It’s a publicity stunt, that I suspect is shared by other American comic book awards.

But Toronto is more than the Toronto School I criticized above. As noted, the city is a cultural magnet for people from around the world. Yet, unless one moves to the city, one rarely learn about all the initiatives that happen there. Iranian dissidents involved in Web comics have moved to the city. There is a strong Asian community that is friendly to mangas. One thing I notice about Toronto, is its constant struggle to be the Canadian center of the universe yet, a player to be reckoned with by Americans. We can see this everywhere. The city desperately wants an NFL franchise, while it ignores its Canadian football team. Comic books, such as those by Udon Comics and Dreamwave before them, try to sell comic books to the world and barely mention their Canadian origins. At the other extreme, an elitist group like the Toronto School attempts to define Canadian comic book culture for the rest of the world.

Vancouver

Vancouver is another place that is totally ignored in the Canadian comic book world. Vancouver shares a lot with cities like Portland, and Seattle, in terms of culture and climate. Yet, although there is a high concentration of artists and cultural experiments in that city, one rarely hears from what happens in the comic book world. Mainly, this is based on the economic opportunities for video game production, animation, and film studios that thrive in the city called Hollywood North. The talent that would otherwise focus on comic books creation is too busy making Saturday cartoons and Hollywood blockbusters. Yet everything is ripped for Vancouver to become the next Mecca for comic book creators.  There are strong schools in Vancouver, but one of the problems might be the focus on producing industry ready artists for the film, video game, and animation industries. Are experiments and a free creative atmosphere welcomed in that city? Universities like Emily Carr seem to promote that, but flanked by animation schools like Capilano College and the Vancouver Film School that promises candidates a quick entry in the industries that operate in the city, one wonders if the fine arts community and its comic book component is enough to weather the competition.

The Canadian comic book industry is not monolithic and several groups, mostly regionally based operate and do not communicate and interact with one another. I believe that it is The Comic Book Bin’s mandate to chart and reach out to this industry, even if we are frequently accused of pandering to American interests or Marvel and DC Comics. I see no problems for us to continue to cover all comic books as it is in our mandate to cover anything related to the ninth art.


Last Updated: September 6, 2021 - 08:15

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