In the  1950 classic film Harvey, the central conceit is that Elwood P. Dowd (charmingly played by James Stewart) is the only man who can see a six-foot rabbit he calls Harvey. In the end Elwood's life is notably enriched by his invisible Leporidae buddy and his family decides not to try to cure him of his "disease."

As a Canadian comic creator I'm starting to wish my homeland saw the damn rabbit as well.

Earlier this month Canadians were nominated for three of the top five cartoonist awards at the 2011 Harvey Awards.[1] The cartoonist award is the equivalent of best director in the comic world, and this isn’t an isolated incident - Canadian talent is on the rise in the world of comics with Toronto becoming an industry hotbed. All three cartoonist nominees (Jeff Lemire, Darwyn Cooke and Bryan Lee O’Malley) have a connection to the city and have contributed to shaping the Toronto scene. Yet by and large this uprising has gone unnoticed by the average Torontonian, let alone Canadian.

Look, it's Harvey! (No, seriously Canada, look).

Sadly, but predictably, the excellent Canadian presence at the Harvey Awards, my quick count had Canadians nominated for a baker’s dozen’s worth of awards, was completely and utterly ignored by the cultural mainstream in my home country (nevermind the fact that if Canadians accounted for 60% of the finalists of almost any other artistic award the national media would be whetting themselves).

 A big part of this is how comics, because of the dominance of the superhero, are seen as for kids. Here in Canada that relegates the medium to the fringe.  And while comics aren’t lauded as “high art” in the States either, there is still the enviable American habit of taking pride in your inventions and your excellence.

That relates to the other strike comics face in Canada. Despite the fact that Canadians were instrumental in bringing iconic characters like Superman to life the comic book is seen as being distinctly American. Oddly enough the modern comic book made its debut when the first seeds of rock and roll were being planted in the 1930s. Both of these American art forms met stiff resistance at first. But rock music eventually became accepted by the masses to the point where The Beatles are considered worthy of being discussed in the same sentence as the likes of Bach and Beethoven.

When will a comic creator get the same respect as these guys?

However in comics, no great crossover occurred. If anything the medium was reduced to a genre, a genre that was also forced to suffer the indignity of some of the harshest censorship laws of our day – the much maligned Comics Code Authority (which despite not being a Canadian law was more or less followed up here).

Even now when a comic DOES get noticed by the mainstream there is the whiff of tokenism.  When Lemire’s highly-praised “literary comic” Essex County made it through as a finalist for Canada Reads[2] it was done the disservice of seeing multiple jury members admitting they simply hadn’t read it. The inference was clear — Mr. Lemire’s work wasn’t truly worthy of their time.

Ignore the Canada Reads judges and check Essex out.

As a comics creator I spend a lot of time at Canadian conventions. After a while you get to recognize a certain type of person. This person invariably has been pulled along to the convention by their boyfriend, or wife, or son, or daughter. I like to ask these attendees what sort of comics they like to read. Almost invariably the answer is a polite shrug, and a: “Oh, I don’t read comics.”

The answer always strikes me as absurd. It’s akin to saying “I don’t listen to music”, or “I don’t watch live theatre”. What I suspect they really mean is “I don’t like superheroes and I’m not a Star Trek fan”.

The sad thing to me, as one of your neighbours to the North, is that in that disconnect between what their tastes are, and what they think an entire medium encompasses, is a gigantic gulf wherein lies the careers (and livelihood) of dozens and dozens of Canadian creators and some of the most compelling storytelling of our time.


Bryan LeeO'Malley's Scott Pilgrim SHOULD be considered a Canadian triumph

Thankfully, North America is a step behind much of the rest of the world. In Southeast Asia and in Europe (especially France and the Benelux territories) comics are seen in a different light. Without the ever pervasive presence of the super-hero, comics were never relegated to being simply a genre or for kids. The shame is that here in Canada, while there is no shortage of (excellent) superhero material, there is also an abundance of stories that cover everything from real-life stories from WWII (Scott Chantler’s Two Generals), to touching coming of age tales (Essex County), to gritty noir detective stories (Cooke’s Parker series), to painfully honest depictions of the hell of being a teenage (Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim). [3]

What makes my homeland taking a mulligan on stories and talents that they would otherwise admire so odd is the fact that Canada routinely works on the sort of insecurity crisis that a 14-year old girl would envy. For a nation that so hungrily looks for foreigners'  approval of its cultural output the lack of attention paid to our success in the comic world is unfortunate, even a bit shocking.

Uh oh, somebody ignored Canada's feelings again...

We seem incapable of understanding that these men and women are at the vanguard of an incredibly rich and sophisticated form of storytelling, one that marries the written word and the power of images in a wholly unique way. While for every Crumb or Pekar we have a Seth or a Chester Brown no movies have been made about our illustrative recluses, no national cult of personality has emerged to enhance our understanding of the power of the humble comic.

But I have faith. After all, every time I talk to one of those bored fellow-Canucks I try to recommend a title or two based on what they tell me they DO read.  And you know what? More than once they’ve come back and said thanks.

Conor McCreery is the co-creator of Kill Shakespeare, published by IDW. The series was nominated for a Harvey in the “Best New Series” category. He can’t draw for shit.

[1] The Harvey’s are the comic equivalent of some sort of mash-up of the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes.

[2] Canada Reads is SORTA like American Idol, but with books. The nominees are all chosen by the public and the finalists are then defended by famous (or semi-famous) Canadians as part of a program broadcast coast-to-coast. If you’re ever looking for a reason why Canadians and Americans are different start here (also, if you’re ever looking for why the average Canadian would get his lunch money stolen by the average American - this explains a lot there too).

[3] And that doesn’t even touch the bizzaro Canadian-made “history meets feminism stylings” of Kate Beaton’s web-comic Hark, a Vagrant! Anyone who can make me laugh out loud with a strip about a sympathetic Austrian nobleman and the Mexican revolutionary who hated him is alright in my books.

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