How to Make It as an Indie Cartoonist

The new generation of Canadian cartoonists is diverse, innovative, and unapologetically weird

A black and white comics panel titled "World's Toughest Milkman." The cover features a crowd of men standing around two people prepared to fight.
Courtesy of David Boswell

In 1958, Canadian cartoonist Doug Wright attended a lavish international cartoonist summit in Amsterdam. There, he got to meet one of his heroes, Zack Mosley, creator of the popular comic strip The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, and ask him for advice on how to crack into the American market.

Born in England in 1917, Wright had immigrated to Canada in 1938 and, after a long apprenticeship as a commercial artist, had made a name as arguably the most famous and successful postwar Canadian cartoonist. He was best known for his weekly strip, Nipper, which followed the wordless misadventures of a rampaging rapscallion whose gleeful anarchy kept his parents on edge. Appearing in Weekend, a supplement included in a handful of Canadian newspapers, Nipper delighted a million and a half Canadian homes once every seven days. But doing one strip a week for one publication, however popular, was not enough to sustain a livelihood. Wright took over Juniper Junction (a weekly strip for the Family Herald) when Jimmy Frise died in 1948, produced editorial cartoons for the Montreal Standard, and churned out commercial illustrations for magazines.

Diligent and hard-working, beloved by editors as a consummate pro, Wright carved out a patchwork career for himself as a cartoonist in Canada, but he had long dreamt of making it big in America, where top syndicated cartoonists were wealthy celebrities. This was not an idle fantasy but a simple financial reality: the most successful Canadian-born cartoonists of that era were those who had left for the United States, be they Palmer Cox (creator of marketing phenomenon The Brownies), Richard Taylor (a fixture in The New Yorker) or Hal Foster (celebrated chronicler of Prince Valiant). If Wright could follow their paths, he wouldn’t have to keep juggling assignments and could focus his talents on one strip.

In 1945, Wright corresponded with the American cartoonist Ham Fisher, creator of the guileless lunkhead boxer Joe Palooka, in the hopes of getting tips for making it in the big time. In a disappointing trip to Manhattan in 1946, Wright found he didn’t have the right gag-making sensibility to impress the editors of The New Yorker or the Saturday Evening Post.

Meeting Mosley in Amsterdam rekindled Wright’s curiosity about working in the States. Mosley told Wright that the American cartooning scene was too competitive and that, for every success story, “there are thousands who took to drink, couldn’t stand the pace, or otherwise didn’t measure up.” If Wright was making “a half-decent living” in Canada, Mosley suggested he “should stay there.” Wright ended up following Mosley’s advice and sticking to the jerry-rigged niche he had created for himself in Canada.

Unlike the United States or France or Japan, Canada has never had a thriving comics industry that allowed artists to specialize. There have been newspaper jobs, magazine assignments, and more recently, graphic novels (usually drawn in time squeezed between other, more lucrative work). Wright is an emblematic figure for Canadian comics, an influence on many of the artists working today not just for the high quality of Nipper and his other strips but also because his makeshift career shows the peculiar survival skills that are necessary for anyone who wants to cartoon in Canada.

Very few of Canada’s major cartoonists have had the luxury of a full career devoted to nothing but cartooning. This can be seen in the four contemporary cartoonists singled out for prominence in This Is Serious: Canadian Indie Comics, an exhibit on now at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Seth (the pen name of Gregory Gallant) was born in Clinton, Ontario, in 1962; Chester Brown (born in 1960), Fiona Smyth (1964), and Julie Doucet (1965) all hail from Montreal—a city that, by this fact alone, deserves the title of Queen City of Canadian Cartooning.

Seth’s cartooning work has been supplemented by commercial illustration, book design, and fine art. Doucet is a central figure in the history of comics, yet comics form only a decade in her broader career as an artist. Smyth has also balanced cartooning with other pursuits—as a muralist, painter, children’s book illustrator, and animator, among other practices. Brown is the exception: a Canadian cartoonist who has been single-mindedly focused on drawing comics. That Canadian cartoonists have so often had to branch out into other fields has, in truth, been a blessing in disguise, a source of enrichment from a range of artistic forms. Perhaps the best example is how Smyth’s murals (with their noodly outlines and placement of characters in allegorical as opposed to three-dimensional space) cross-pollinate with her cartooning.

Emerging in a sparsely populated country overshadowed by larger cultures, cartooning in Canada has always been a matter of survival on the margins. Cartooning itself has, at the best of times, been a marginal art form, existing at the perilous intersection between fine art, narrative, and mass culture. Canadian cartoonists are thus doubly marginalized.

The condition of marginalization, of working in a perilous cultural environment where survival is never assured, has given Canadian cartooning its deepest connections with the nation’s artistic and literary traditions. Survival, as Margaret Atwood titled her 1972 “thematic guide to Canadian literature,” is a venerable Canadian preoccupation.

Expanding on Atwood, the literary critic David Ketterer, in his 1992 book Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, argued that “America’s aggressive attitude toward nature and the unknown, whatever lay west of the ever-advancing frontier, translates readily into the mythology of conquering and domesticating the unknown that finds expression in much [science fiction]. The Canadian attitude seems to be that nature is simply too vast, too threatening, too powerful: man is nature’s victim rather than the reverse. Survival, not conquest, is the issue. The best that can be hoped for is some kind of accommodation.”

Cartoonists, of course, work not in abstract themes but in images. Writing about Doug Wright and the other major cartoonists of the twentieth century, such as James Simpkins (1910–2004), Seth located their importance in the way they modernized the inherited iconology of survival.

“It’s an almost entirely neglected fact that these artists, who worked mostly in the middle of the twentieth century, had an instrumental role in taking the mouldy old nineteenth-century images of Canada and making them modern,” Seth contended in the book on Wright that he designed and co-edited with Brad Mackay (The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist, 2009). “They recast those Mounties and trappers and habitants into contemporary (for that era) streamlined icons. It’s the kind of thing, done in plain sight, that no one thinks to notice. The Canadian pop culture images that we know so well today were largely reshaped in those times. Images which had once served a wilderness culture were recontextualized with humour and machine-age drawing styles for a Canada that was turning largely urban and suburban. We can almost chart Canada’s transformation from the rural to the urban in a time flow chart from Jimmie Frise to Doug Wright to Peter Whalley.”

By this account, Wright, Simpkins, and the other pioneers created a vernacular Canadian iconology, one that was pervasive in newspapers and magazines during the golden age of print. Hence, the imprint of “wilderness culture” persisted even as Canada became a predominantly urban and suburban nation.

Beyond the thematic concern with survival, the inheritance of wilderness culture explains the special type of individualism that so often marks Canadian graphic narrative: not the conquering individual on the frontier or the triumphant rags-to-riches hero, but the contemplative, quirky, self-exploring, solitude-seeking individual. Even in the work of Doug Wright, who operated in a commercial context, there is a striking eschewal of cuteness and chumminess, the usual softening gestures by which cartoonists make misbehaving characters palatable. Wright’s attitude toward his characters seems to be, Here’s who they are—take them or leave them as you will. This diffidence might seem chilly, but it opens up the possibility of a liberating candour. As Canadian cartooning moved away from the commercial realm into the less constrained realm of alternative comics, this clear-eyed honesty has remained a frequently used technique, especially in the work of Chester Brown.

This obdurate individualism, with its respect for oddballs and misfits, opened a plethora of narratives exploring sexual diversity and the fluidity of gender identity (especially notable in the works of Brown, Smyth, and Doucet, but also evident in the output of many up-and-coming cartoonists).

Canadian cartoonists are a diverse lot, working in many styles and genres, taking inspiration from a myriad of traditions, so it’s a mug’s game to try to pigeonhole them into one slot. Still, despite the variety of talents on display, if we examine their careers, certain patterns become apparent.

Since the 1970s, the most potent talents in the field have been working in alternative comics, rooted in small-press publishing and countercultural values, rather than the older tradition of commercial work that prioritized mass appeal. Brown has been a pathbreaker in the turn toward alternative comics. Although his first published cartoon, done when he was eleven, was an homage to Wright, Brown’s mature work was shaped by the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s, with their frank exploration of sex and altered psychological states. His initially self-published series Yummy Fur, which started in 1983, was infused with absurdist humour and a strong bent toward the scatological, as in the tale of the man who couldn’t stop defecating.

In 1986, Yummy Fur was picked up by Vortex Comics, and in 1991, Brown moved to Drawn and Quarterly, which became the cornerstone of Canadian alternative comics. A restless experimenter, Brown moved on from the Dada hijinks of his early Ed the Happy Clown (1989, subsequently revised) to do nonfiction work that was superficially more down-to-earth but marked by a masterful ability to register a striking variety, from the tender melancholy of I Never Liked You (1994) to the fusion of memoir and polemic of Paying for It (1994) to the historical biography of Louis Riel (2004) to the revisionist biblical exegesis of Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus (2016).

Brown and Seth have occasionally featured each other as characters in their autobiographical comics, and the two artists, friends since the 1980s, serve as useful foils for each other. The taciturn Brown contrasts with the chatterbox Seth, a division echoed in the comics themselves, with Brown’s focus on external action (taking a cue from classic comic strips like Little Orphan Annie) and using long shots as a distancing device finding their antithesis in Seth’s use of comics to explore the internal life of his characters via monologues, soliloquies, and extended bouts of rumination, sometimes interspersed with excursions into dreams.

Often wrongly pegged as a dandy and a nostalgist, Seth is in fact a Borgesian counterfeiter, setting up camp in the uncertain zone between fact and fiction, where he can invent pasts that didn’t quite exist but perhaps should have. He’s given us the fictional town of Dominion and an array of imaginary Canadian cartoonists who, in another dimension, might have rubbed shoulders with Simpkins and Wright. To complicate matters, he’s also done research into actual Canadian cultural history. The goal of this busy work, which often extends outside the page to assembling a cardboard city and other tangible simulacra, is to create an imaginatively inhabitable world: not to wallow in the past as those intoxicated by nostalgia do but rather to manufacture artifacts that bridge the gap between what happened and what we might have wanted to happen. As a result, the past ceases to be fixed, settled, and unchangeable and becomes instead a place we can journey into or even a personality we are in dialogue with.

Julie Doucet, like Brown, started as a self-publisher of zines before finding a home at Drawn and Quarterly, which published her series Dirty Plotte from 1991 to 1998. As a Francophone coming of age in Montreal, she grew up with the classics of Franco-Belgian comics (Tintin, Asterix, and company) and, as an adult, took inspiration from the American tradition of underground comics as created by figures like Robert Crumb, Carol Tyler, and Krystine Kryttre. Like the best underground cartoonists, Doucet was unhampered by any inhibitions. Dirty Plotte was a revolutionary exploration of Doucet’s psyche with a focus on body issues: the interplay of desires and anxieties, fantasies and biological imperatives.

In the pages of Dirty Plotte, there seemed nothing Doucet was afraid of drawing: dreams of having a penis, a menstrual flow that becomes a biblical flood sweeping through the city, sex with bottles. With a dense, drippy, viscerally grotty style, Doucet created some of the most daring comics in history.

Fiona Smyth, who grew up in Montreal before moving to Toronto with her family when she was fourteen, also emerged out of the nexus of underground comics and zine-making. Smyth was raised Catholic, and her work is characterized by a strong fascination with iconic forms borrowed not just from Christianity but many other faith traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indigenous Animism, all merged to create a syncretic, psychedelic vision.

Like Doucet, Smyth has found comics to be ideal vehicles for disrupting traditional and patriarchal ideas of proper feminine behaviour. “My childhood was full of contradictory messages of feminine compliance and the burgeoning women’s movement,” Smyth told The Dalhousie Review in 2018. “When I got my period, I was attending a private Catholic girls’ school where no one spoke of periods, and students in grades seven, eight, and nine weren’t even allowed to carry purses. The female self-image was all about outer appearances, menstrual secrecy, and being of service to others. Thankfully, my family moved to Toronto, and I was enrolled in an arts high school where girls proudly spoke about being on the rag!”

Speaking about her 1987 comic Whore/House, Smyth noted, “The purpose was to critique the stereotypical roles forced on women by society, such as virgin/whore or mother/slut, which reflect a kind of naive 1950s view. I wanted to portray how women aren’t singular characters; rather, we are good/bad and ugly/beautiful all at the same time. In other words, I was embracing all of these roles simultaneously in a super-energized graphic way.”

Artists like Brown, Seth, Doucet, and Smyth represent only a small sampling of the exciting work now being done in Canadian comics, a growing literature that, through its thematic boldness and visual elan, has won a robust and expanding audience both in Canada and internationally. Canadian cartoonists have always had trouble surviving in a national culture rarely conducive to their art. Yet, against the odds, our cartoonists have forged a homemade tradition, a makeshift legacy that will last.

Reprinted from This Is Serious: Canadian Indie Comics, co-edited by Alana Traficante and Joe Ollmann, with introduction by Jeet Heer © 2019. All rights reserved. Published by Conundrum press and Art Gallery of Hamilton

Jeet Heer
Jeet Heer is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation magazine. His most recent book is Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles.