In 1992, Fisher, a comic strip about a generation X creative guy who could not find a job began publication four days a week in the Globe and Mail, the most authoritative daily newspaper in Canada at the time. Cartoonist Philip Street wrote about Fisher, his family and his artist girlfriend. At the time, as a university student, I would devour each page of Fisher day after day. It was the only Canadian comic strip in the paper and the only one that I could relate to.
For Street, joining the Globe and Mail, as an unaffiliated cartoonist was a feat but being noticed was not easy. “I had sent an early version of Fisher to the Globe and Mail (as well as to the major syndicates) in 1989. I sent a follow-up batch in 1990. Neither one seemed to make an impact. So I created another strip, a humour-adventure strip called Rip Trousers, and sent that around in early 1992. Warren Clements from the Globe called to say that he liked parts of it but on the whole liked my earlier strip better. So Fisher started in the Globe in June of 1992.”
Fisher has grown over the years and finally found a job as a writer in an advertising agency, married his girlfriend Alison in 2002 and just had a baby. In a sense, the character aged with the generation X. Some people have compared Fisher to the television series Friends, that aired on the NBC channel from 1994 to 2004. About the comparison, Street says "I never watched Friends much, so I'm not sure."
Comic strip characters have a tendency to never age, staying at the same point in time in order to appeal to daily readers. But one of the appeals of Fisher is that he's a member of Generation X, and that generation has been aging. Street handles this dilemma by allowing "The characters in Fisher are aging so slowly — in real time, I hope — that it seems natural. At some point I decided that Tom Fisher is 4 or 5 years younger than I am, but I want his formative years to be the same as mine. It would be strange to keep him at, say, 35, so that the cultural references of his youth would have to keep changing as the years roll on.”
Perhaps due to the age of the creator and shifting preoccupations, the world of Fisher is becoming less career orientated and more focussed on personal relationships. Although he has no set plans for Fisher’s universe, Street says that “Right now it looks rather domestic. I'm feeling more and more like Lynn Johnston as the days pass.”
Fisher’s life is often related to the cartoonist’s life, but not always. “Closer some times than others. Sometimes the strip is just silly or following some fantastic logic of its own. But occasionally there is heartfelt experience behind the strip. And since my wife and I had a child, the strip has been preoccupied with, first, Alison's pregnancy, and next, with raising a small child. Apart from all of that the fact is that Tom in many ways is like me, so that even when the events of the strip are totally made up it amounts to a kind of fictional autobiography.”
As the character has changed over the years, the public response to Fisher has remained warm, although according to Street (he’s) “not sure how many people are actually reading it, but I know that some do follow it faithfully and I'm happy about that.” Street says that “since listing my web address on the strip I have received more correspondence, almost all of it positive.” Hard data on the readers of the Fisher comic strip does exist. “The Globe has done a few reader surveys since Fisher started in 1992. In the last couple of surveys I think it did well enough to hold its place on the page.”
One element that has always helped comic strips become more popular are book compilations that generations of readers can peruse. Unfortunately, there are no Fisher compilations available. Traditionally, editorial cartoons have been reprinted in several volumes and by many publishers almost every year. There are a few Canadian comic strips, like For Better and Worse, but Fisher seems to be in a category of its own. Street says that “Comic strips don't seem to have much presence in Canadian publishing (except for Drawn and Quarterly) and I'm not interested in self-publishing at present.”
With more readers using the Internet to obtain their daily news, the place of the comic strip in a traditional newspaper has changed. For example, the Globe and Mail, Fisher’s publisher, does not offer the comic strip online in its free edition. Other Canadian newspapers, like La Presse, do offer a sample of their editorial cartoons online, but not the entire contents. When asked if the Internet has affected the popularity of Fisher, Street says that he could not say, as he know(s) “that some people of all ages read it.”
Although Fisher has been a good success for the Globe and Mail, few homegrown talents are published in Canada’s national papers. Competitor, The National Post, also distributed nationally tried to add non syndicated Canadian comic strips like Fisher. Yet, Street says “that The Globe has been more supportive of individual artists than any other Canadian paper I've seen. They also publish "Back Bench" by Graham Harrop, which is another exclusive, and until recently they published "Maurice and Earl" by Peter Plant, who I believe is an ex-pat Canadian living in England.”
Perhaps part of the reason why there are so few comic strips created by Canadians is because, most newspapers, like the National Post, prefer to obtain them from established comic strip syndicates instead of sponsoring local talent directly. Although published by The Globe and Mail, for over a decade, Street still gets the standard letter of refusal from syndicates when trying to submit Fisher to them.
Street cites the consolidation of the newspaper distribution in several cities as one of the reasons syndicates are so cautious and not adding many new comic strips, from Canadians and others. “These are not good times for the comic strip. Many cities that at one time had several major daily papers now have only one (Toronto being an exception), and that means less space and less competition for strips. And I don't think most newspaper editors really like comics. Certainly comics have less cultural influence than they used to. So the syndicates each launch one or two strips a year, and even at that it's hard to dislodge a mediocre strip that has a loyal following. I'd love to get Fisher syndicated but as it is I'm very lucky to be published coast-to-coast by the Globe and Mail.”
Of course, Street would like more newspapers, Canadian or international to take more chances with unaffiliated comic strips like Fisher. A way of fostering such diversity that can bring a genuine return to the newspaper, is to encourage unaffiliated cartoonists to offer their comic strips exclusively to one paper. Fisher is exclusive to The Globe and Mail, even if according to Street, other newspapers have shown some interests in Fisher a few years ago.
About Philip Street
Besides his Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto, Fisher’s creator, Philip Street is “mostly self-taught, except for the 3 years at the summer school of animation at Sheridan College. A programme” he says “that, sadly, no longer exists. But it was a great experience for me, and wonderful to have anatomy and other subjects taught with a view to cartooning. In my work experience since I have managed to improve gradually, I think, and I hope to keep doing so.”
Doodling as far back when he was ten or eleven, when Street entered high school I had the idea that I was talented, so I drew more, and began drawing for the school paper. This continued at the University of Toronto. Summer jobs drawing caricatures honed my drawing line and animation school (Sheridan College) made me pull up my drawing socks somewhat. There's still plenty of room for improvement.
Street names Charles Schulz's Peanuts and MAD Magazine as some of his artistic influences. “If there is any visible trace of Harvey Kurtzman in my work it's not by accident. Peanuts was in its prime when I was growing up in the 60s, so I saw it in the daily paper and reread the paperbacks endlessly. Peanuts showed that this little disposable art form could deal with real feelings, and the fact that Schulz did it all himself impressed me. I read a lot of comic books too, and got a kick out of Kirby and others (and Eisner's Spirit grabbed me when it was reprinted by Warren), but it was in the humour stuff that I saw myself. Another big influence — at least it takes up a lot of brain space — was watching Warner Brothers cartoons every week until I knew them by heart. More recent influences are mostly from the world of animation — the films of Frederic Back and Kaj Pindal, for example.“
Although as Street says “The Globe pays me more than they would pay for a syndicated strip, but it is not a Toronto-sized full-time salary,” he still has to freelance and occupy other graphic design jobs.” When asked if Fisher is like a hobby or a life project for him, Street says “I'm not sure what other life projects may await, but Fisher is certainly more than a hobby. I'm grateful to the Globe and Mail and that deadline, by the way, for making me keep at it. It has been a wonderful opportunity to hone a craft.”
About whether Fisher’s fortune may rest with the Internet, Street answers “I'm a traditional kind of guy, so I think a real comic strip is printed on paper. Secondly, I don't see people making a living from the internet. Maybe I'm missing something, but as a commercial artist I want to see a commercially viable form. Exposure is great but I don't have time to work for free. Still, it may be that the future is on the internet, since the newspaper strip is languishing. Subtle colours and animation are two things that are available to the internet cartoonist. Maybe it'll be a hybrid form, more like animation than strip cartooning.
Canadians like to pride themselves on their particular brand of humour and about the number of comedians they have sent to Hollywood over the years. The world’s largest comedy festival, Just for Laugh, is as strong in English as it is in French. There are several stand up comedy shows in Canadian television promoting comedians from all parts of the country. In the world of editorial cartoons, cartoonists are held as gods and their books frequent best sellers. They even have a strong guild, annual reprints of the best editorial cartoons from the entire country and awards for best cartoonists.
Yet, with all of media and public attention on comedy and cartooning, very few have recognized the work of Philip Street. About his apparent anonymity in the Canadian landscape, Street says that “When Fisher was launched I thought: Oh boy! At one stroke I'm at the top of the heap in Canada, in Canada's National Newspaper! I soon realized that my profile was zero — not among readers, necessarily, but in the media. As a cultural figure I had no standing; I didn't exist. And so it is 14 years later. There are many possible reasons for this. Cartoonists in Canada mostly get the same respect as people who make animals out of balloons: "Isn't that interesting! I've never met a cartoonist before!" (There are exceptions. The national consciousness always has room for one or two cartoonists. Once it was Jim Unger and Ben Wicks; now it's Lynn Johnston and Seth — no disrespect to them.) But really I can't judge whether my work is worth media attention. It just might not be strong enough.”
Can editorial cartoons in Canada are partly responsible for the lack of visibility of the Fisher comic strip? Street retorts that the lack of political contents in Canada explains why his work is has less visible. “I do think that, rightly or wrongly, editorial cartoonists are seen as bold commentators on the BIG ISSUES, while "entertainment" strips only make the grade if they are wildly successful. But I should point out that Fisher did get some exposure in several editions of Portfoolio, the annual collection of Canadian editorial cartoons. I was invited to submit a strip that had a social-political comment, and for a few years I did get published in that book. But political comment is rarer in Fisher now.
Making the recognition of Fisher more difficult is the very audience who subscribes to the Globe and Mail and the exclusive nature of the comic strip. “Fisher is exclusive to the Globe; if the Globe isn't going to trumpet it, The Toronto Star certainly won't. The Globe is the national paper but in readership it often takes second place to the main local paper. And the Globe attracts the kind of serious-minded reader who is proud to say that he doesn't read the comics. Now, I know that I have loyal readers because I hear from them. But for the media at large Fisher is easy to ignore.”
Street does not feel like a pioneer in the Canadian comic strips landscape. “A pioneer would blaze a trail for those who follow. I'm not sure anyone is following or can follow, given the tight market for strips. But being published only in Canada has given me the freedom to use local references as I please, and maybe that's a new development.”
The essence of the Fisher comic strip, for those unfamiliar with it could be resumed in this strip featuring Homer the panhandler and a banker. Street says about this episode that (it) tells a truth in an unexpected way, and that's really my idea of humour. The panhandler character, Homer, is a kind of archetype: he's so far out of polite society that he can tell uncomfortable truths.