Don't Say Pitch

Power in Canadian comics

Descant 164 Comis

Canadian literary journal, Descant, features its first comics issue

In honour of Canada Day, I thought I’d take some time to write about indy* comics in my home country. Afterall, we’ve consistently produced internationally recognized talent in this medium. So my question is: why?

It may seem cynical, but I think one major factor in why Canada has produced so many amazing cartoonists that have gained recognition is because of something that’s largely out of our control: there isn’t a large market for indy comics.

In other mediums, Anglo-Canadian artists often face fierce competition from the cultural juggernaut next door: America. While other nations can rely on a language barrier to effectively act as a kind of unwritten barrier of tariffs to insulate their culture from American pop dominance, mainstream Anglo-Canada has no such protection. In a young nation struggling to produce a native culture, we Canadians tend to lean heavily on Francophone Quebec and First Nations/Inuit/Metis culture to represent us (despite the sorry fact that Anglo-Canada spends the rest of its time marginalizing these Canadians). Our Anglo indie music, film, literary, etc. scenes struggle in this cultural free market to be a viable contender against a much larger American market that is constantly encroaching upon our own. Except… when there’s not really a huge market to begin with. And that’s indy comics.

Maybe no one’s poaching our indy comic artists because… no one can freaking afford to. Unlike music, cinema, television, games, etc. there is far less capital and funding in indy comics. And because of that, Canadians can more easily step up as international players. There is no $$$$ fuelled American indy comics scene to overshadow and drown out ours. Because there’s not as much money and prestige in indy comics, Canada – and other countries – can hold its own.

I love how this makes it easier for people to access comics from all over the world. When was the last time someone recommended that I read a novel set in Côte d’Ivoire (Aya) or watch a Latvian film (kuš!) or listen to Israeli music (The Property)? In comics, the world is flatter. The soft power exercised by more powerful nations in the Canadian cultural landscape is easily circumvented by Canadian Anglo/Francophone comics readers. In a market that’s marginalized, it’s much easier to discover and buy indy comics from smaller countries with less political or economic clout, especially when we have awesome publishers like D&Q.

Alright, so let’s put cynicism aside. Because I also don’t think Canadian cartoonists are just lucky. I think we are looking at a confluence of factors outside of our control like market forces and audience tastes – but we’re also looking at a track record of sustained success, which requires consistent hard work and the ability to maximize advantages when they come your way. The perfect example of this is TCAF.

tcaf posters

TCAF posters over the years

TCAF is a space where the indy comics scene gets hyper-concentrated. It’s community development on steroids for a weekend. The model that TCAF has  – choosing a venue in a public space, keeping all events free, having a strong mix of small and large publishers and self-publishing creators, showcasing international and non-Anglo comics, inviting educators and librarians, offering industry panels, etc. all help to nurture a healthy creative community in which people tend to be welcoming, supportive and ambitious. Over the years, I’ve seen that TCAF’s multi-pronged, incredibly inclusive approach has not only supported and connected hard working artists, publishers and educators, it’s gone a long way to developing a more diverse comics readership. I think we are now starting to see the fruits of this collaboration today: in which small publishers like Koyama Press and younger artists like Kate Beaton and Michael DeForge are gaining international recognition and Toronto’s comics audience is becoming more widely-read and sophisticated.

Now I’ve mentioned how marginalized indy comics are but I hope it hasn’t escaped your attention that I haven’t said there is no power in comics. So often we equate power with the very things comics lacks: privilege, money, influence, fame. This is a dangerous equation to make that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what power is and how it works.

I will admit that I don’t know nearly as much about comics in Canada as a lot of other people making and publishing comics out there. But I do know a thing or two about community organization and especially, how power works. I’ve written multiple times on this blog about how I believe there are multiple forms of power and that not all power structures are equal. As far as I can see, comics people in Canada are getting the power structure right – and that is no happy accident. We have a system that runs lean on traditional power structures (e.g., money and privilege) and maximizes alternative power structures built on community, creative inspiration and resistance – while producing incredible outputs. If you ask me, compared to other Canadian cultural industries, the indy comics scene in Canada is a powerhouse that punches well above its weight.

So what more can I say except thank you? Thank you to all who keep making comics a truly empowering medium to work in…

*I know this term is problematic – for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say this category excludes mainstream superhero comics, “graphic novels” and mainstream manga.