Interviews conducted by Indu Singh.
Our popular monthly program meetings often feature a jam-packed agenda. We like to keep our introductions short, so you can hear more from our panellists and less from us! It’s hard to do justice to the incredible wealth of experience these guests bring to the table, so we are offering you a preview with this short Q&A beforehand.
This month, we are honoured to be joined by Steven Andrews, Allison O’Toole, and Megan Kearney. Meet all three panellists in person at this month’s program meeting on October 22.
Raina Telgemeier has been topping bestseller charts since the release of her middle grade autobio, Smile, in 2010 and is credited with changing both the face of comics and the publishing landscape. Her most recent title, Guts, is currently the #1 bestselling book in North America. What other graphic novels do you think are deserving of this attention?
Steven Andrews: I’m fascinated by the recent resurgence in political and historical comics. Congressman John Lewis, inspired by the protest comics he read as a child, created a graphic novel series called March recounting his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Beautifully illustrated by Nate Powell, it carefully navigates a harrowing period of recent history and ties it to the modern day with eternally relevant themes.
Similarly, the comic magazine The Nib collects short illustrated essays and comic journalism. You might find deeply personal stories from refugees, an introduction to net neutrality, or silly satire taken from the headlines in it.
Allison O’Toole: While she’s also quite popular, I think that everything Tillie Walden makes should be an instant bestseller—her work is incredible. Her colour palettes are always unbelievable, her figures very emotive, her characters nuanced, and her emotions complex and engaging. Her work would be accessible and relatable for teen readers, but they’re so smartly written that they’re wonderful for adults as well.
Megan Kearney: Linda Medley has been flying below the radar since the 90s, when she toured with Jeff Smith and Charles Vess, and then sort of dropped out of the spotlight. Castle Waiting is basically perfect, everything I could ever ask for out of a comic—draftsmanship, storytelling, the whole package. The first time I read it, I was shocked. I had never seen something so perfectly suited for my sensibilities. I read it front to back three times in a row. It’s such a masterful work, I can’t understand how it hasn’t been more lauded!
When people think of comic creators, they often think of Stan Lee or Jack Kirby and their pantheon of superheroes. Who are the faces of comics today?
SA: The internet changed everything by removing gatekeepers from the equation. Anyone can post artwork to the web, so stories that would have died unread in slush piles were suddenly connected to massive audiences.
A lot of these new superstars are folks that the traditional comics industry had rejected: queer creators, folks of colour, women in general. In 80 years of Batman, only a single woman has ever written a core Batman title. With new funding models like Patreon and Kickstarter, new creators can be truly independent of publishers. They can share their own stories filled with heroes that look like them. As readers, we’ve never enjoyed so much variety in the stories, and storytellers, available to us.
AO: In terms of overall sales, superheroes represent only a very small percentage of the comics market (according to a recent Forbes article, about 10%). The major superhero companies, Marvel and DC, have moved away from superhero comics that appeal to younger readers, so other genres have been dominating sales charts by taking over that audience (like Raina Telgemeier, Jeff Smith, and Dav Pilkey, whose work has been popular with kids for years and years).
Even outside of kids’ comics, there are creators whose work doesn’t conform to the traditional superhero mold and is popular with readers and critics alike. For example, Kate Beaton made a name for herself through sketched comics about history and pop culture and remains a force in the comics scene even as she’s moving into other formats, like picture books.
There are also creators who are finding channels for their work outside the traditional market, often by self-publishing after raising money on Kickstarter. Spike Trotman and Zainab Akhtar, of Iron Circus Comics and ShortBox, respectively, have become highly successful publishers through this model. Others choose to publish their work online, like Rachel Smythe, whose Lore Olympus has been optioned for adaptation as an animated TV show.
MK: In spite of superheroes getting most of the mainstream media attention, the actual landscape of comics as I have experienced them is overwhelmingly young, female, and often queer. There’s a tsunami of talent cresting now, a wave of creators who grew up during the manga boom and the maturation of the webcomics movement and who bypassed traditional publishing structures and the floppy market by going straight to self-publishing. The industry at the time was very hostile to the sort of stories this cohort was interested in telling. Both subtly and overtly they were being told: “These stories aren’t saleable, nobody wants to hear this kind of thing, webcomics don’t count, manga aren’t real comics, stop trying to change the industry, go and make your own comics somewhere else.”
Well, that backfired spectacularly, because they did, and now the entire landscape of comics has changed. It’s these creators and these stories that are topping the charts and raking in the awards, and the next generation of cartoonists is growing up with a wealth of wonderful, diverse titles to choose from and a much broader vision for what the medium can achieve.
The stereotypical image of a comic book character is a hulking hero or a blonde bombshell, but that only shows a narrow sliver of the broad spectrum of stories, styles, and characters that comics represent. What are some characters that challenge that stereotype, and who is the medium representing now?
SA: As the YA and middle-grade comics market booms, we’re seeing younger protagonists from more diverse backgrounds. School-focused publishers like Scholastic and First Second rule the NYT bestsellers with titles like Dog Man, The Baby-Sitters Club, and The Adventure Zone. Meanwhile, the bestselling superhero book is My Hero Academia, a Japanese manga that outsells anything Marvel or DC publishes. Your modern comic protagonist is younger than ever.
As a contrast to that, I really enjoyed Shå from Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely’s The Spire. In a fantasy fiefdom, she’s a mid-50s guard captain hiding a lifetime of secrets, as well as her scandalous romance with the kingdom’s heiress.
AO: I think comics aimed at young adult and middle grade audiences are breaking a lot of ground right now in terms of representing and appealing to broader groups. Lumberjanes is a hugely popular series created by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson. It’s about a group of campers at a scout camp where the strange and unusual seem to happen. The series is about friendship and teamwork and being true to yourself, and the characters are lovable and aspirational, while being a far cry from the white boys who have historically headlined mainstream adventure series.
From the same publisher, BOOM! Studios, I’ve recently enjoyed Carly Usdin and Noah Hayes’ The Avant-Guards, James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh’s The Backstagers, and John Allison’s (with several artists) Giant Days. All three series focus on characters who are in school, are trying to find themselves, and manage to get through the tough times with the help of their friends. But all three series are also interested in exploring characters with varied interests, body types, and racial or sexual identities. More diverse writers and artists means more diverse storytelling.
MK: I’ve really enjoyed Akiko Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish lately. It’s the story of a shy young artist who stumbles into the world of high fashion when she meets a bombastic cross-dressing boy named Kuranosuke. Throughout the series, Tsukimi designs haute couture that she herself can’t even wear. Ultimately she decides to take her fashion line in another direction, designing clothes that make her, and her friends, happy without asking them to change who they are.
There’s a real love for all the cast, and a variety of body types that’s rare for the genre—from rotund, doll-collecting landlady Chieko to tall, gaunt, fangirl Mayaya, to short, stocky train-obsessed Banba, and Kuranosuke, who uses his androgyny as a shield. Although there’s lots of comedy around these characters, their bodies are never the punchline.
Are you surprised at all by the meteoric rise of blockbuster movies and TV shows based on comic book characters?
SA: Comics have long been a major part of the silver screen, but until recently they’ve been a little ashamed of their origins. The Addams Family, A History Of Violence, Road to Perdition, and the Men in Black series were all based on comics, but that provenance was carefully excised from their marketing. Comics have been viewed as a lesser medium for children and the immature, and it’s only recently they’ve started getting their due as a distinct medium with different needs and advantages.
AO: I don’t find it surprising at all! Comics make a lot of sense for translation to TV, as they’re both serialized in a similar way, and some of the visual and design work is already being done by the comics for the television designers (more than when adapting a novel, for example). Comics are also a medium that lends itself well to giant emotional moments—we love a nice close-up on a beautiful face! Comics also excel at action, which we love to see translated on screen. Also, huge, bombastic emotion is baked into most comics narratives. I think this is why we’re starting to see comics being made into musicals, both successfully (Fun Home) and less successfully (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Superhero comics in particular are like soap operas; every other issue is about some life-and-death situation, so putting that up on the big or small screen will have an appeal even to people who don’t read comics!
MK: I’m startled in that comics are a medium that often doesn’t receive a great deal of respect, so to see them doing well in the mainstream is exciting. But I’m not startled in that comics and cinema already share so much of their vocabulary. They’re both visual mediums from the get-go, so much of the thinking about shots, framing, visual shorthand, metaphor, and so on have already been taken into consideration in the comics. While a comic isn’t a storyboard, and you definitely couldn’t shoot directly from one, it does offer up a really solid starting point both shotwise and scriptwise.
Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a great example. They took the visual shorthand present in the comics and amped it up while compressing the story. That created a much more compact narrative that still managed to distill the quirks of the books in such a way that the feel and flavour were still there.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is another fantastic page-to-screen example. The style of the black-and-white comic is preserved fantastically, but the addition of music and montage sequences helps to stitch narrative threads together and make the story flow seamlessly, where the comic was more meandering.
More about our speakers
Steven Andrews works in the casual gaming industry and has run TO Comix Press since its inception in 2014. Books he’s produced have been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, Quill & Quire, CBC Books, and Rue Morgue.
Allison O’Toole is a freelance comics editor and a lover of monsters and dogs. She has edited a number of anthologies, including the Joe Shuster Award–winning Wayward Sisters, its forthcoming sequel Wayward Kindred, two volumes of the Toronto Comics Anthology, and Called into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein. Allison also edits a number of comic series including AFTERLIFT; The Pitiful Human-Lizard; Seeress; and Life, Death & Sorcery. You can learn more about her work at allisonotoole.com.
Megan Kearney is a multi-award-nominated writer and illustrator working in the fields of comics and animation. Notable works include properties such as Disney Princess, the Secret Loves series, and her award-winning adaptation of Beauty and The Beast (2016 winner, Excellence in Webcomics, Drama category, top three Judges’ Choice, Writing category). Her 2011 film, Once Upon A Winter Wood, was selected for showcase by DreamWorks Animation. She lives with her family in Toronto, where she manages Comic Book Embassy, a co-work studio serving the comics and animation community. Find out more about Megan at thequietly.com.
Indu Singh is a Toronto-based writer and editor. She is the vice-chair of Editors Toronto.
This article was copy edited by Jeny Nussey.