The Art of Comics

Left to Right: comic racks at The Beguiling; Festival poster for 2010 Toronto Comics Arts Festival by Daniel Clowes; TCAF organizer Christopher Butcher. Photos by Althea Manasan
May/June 2010
surface & symbol
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A boy named Gus is born with deer-like antlers in the midst of a mysterious epidemic. A sensitive artist named Mendleman roams through a bustling rural marketplace rife with malevolent undertones in early-20th-century Europe. A cynical, middleaged loner named Wilson reflects on his life of failed relationships.

These are just a few of the stories that you’ll find at this year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Yes, comics.

Forget about superheroes. Forget about tights. Forget about everything you thought you knew about comic books. TCAF celebrates the more literary side of the paneled and speechbubbled medium known to connoisseurs as “sequential art.” The event, taking place on May 8th and 9th at the Toronto Reference Library, will feature over 200 authors and artists from around the world. They will be here showcasing their work, which spans the gamut of genres – from slice-of-life stories and romantic romps to tales of adventure and fairy-tale epics.

“Marvel and DC don’t have booths at TCAF,” says Andy Belanger, referring to the major publishing companies known for standard superhero fare. The Toronto-based artist produces his own weekly online comic called Raising Hell. “TCAF focuses more on indie projects,” Belanger says. It's a departure from the larger, more commercial comic book conventions, the ones stereotypically filled with obsessive and excitable geeks. “TCAF feels more like a festival—calm and approachable. Just a celebration of comics.”

The accessible and affable atmosphere of TCAF is deliberate, says Christopher Butcher, the show’s organizer. His day job is managing The Beguiling, a treasure trove of comics and graphic novels in downtown Toronto ( To ensure that TCAF has a mass appeal, Butcher partnered with the Toronto Public Library and made the show free to attend.

“Comic conventions are for the hardcore fans,” says Butcher, explaining that he is determined to draw in a more diverse readership. “We wanted a festival open to the public, not just the regular comics cognoscenti.”  The people who visit the show span across all demographics, Butcher says: young and old, male and female, longtime comic fans and newbies who just want to see what all the buzz is about.

TCAF was founded in 2003, and originally held every two years, but its popularity grew so much so that it’s now an annual event. The idea for the show was conceived by Butcher during a road trip to attend the Small Press Expo, a large independent comic book festival in Maryland.

He decided that Toronto was in dire need of a similar event because of its “vibrant comic scene.” Though he admits that the city’s reputation has grown a little stale over the past few years, he’s expecting a revival, particularly with this year’s upcoming release of a major movie based on an independent comic book, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The book, as well as the film, are set in Hogtown, and proudly feature our locales as the story’s backdrop. “That’s Toronto at the forefront,” says Butcher. “It’s bringing the attention back. [People see it and] think ‘Oh I get it. There really is cool stuff out there.’”

One of the groups producing all this cool stuff is Transmission X, a local collective of professional comic book artists and illustrators. Founded in 2007, TX was an avenue for these artists to publish their own personal projects online ( “We really wanted to do our own thing,” says Belanger, one of the collective’s founders. “No editors were involved. It was just us being creative…pushing each other to create our own material.” At TCAF, the TX artists will have an entire room dedicated to only their work. Belanger will be offering “Hell Raiser,” “Bottle of Awesome,” and “Kill Shakespeare,” an imaginative adventure story starring The Bard’s characters.

One of TX’s grander missions is to push the comic book medium beyond the limited stereotypes. “”We want to do other things besides superheroes,” says Ramon Perez, another TX member whose online comic called “Butternut Squash” is about – in a nutshell – “boys, coffee, girls and sex.”

When Perez was just a young illustration student at Sheridan College in the early 1990s, he remember that teachers criticized his work for being too “comic book-y.” “Comic books were frowned upon [and considered] a substandard art style” he says, adding that years later, he is one of the few working artists from his graduating class. “Now it’s almost cool to say you work in comics.”

With a professional career spanning 14 years, Ramon Perez has traveled to festivals in places like Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. He has noticed that Europeans take a “more arts-based” approach to comic books compared to North Americans. “They’re more accepting of comics over there. There’s a love affair with [comics] that isn’t here,” says Perez. “In Europe, they revere the art. There are museums with rows upon rows of comic book art in frames.” Even in New York City, he says, there are gallery showings devoted to comics. “It’d be nice to see that kind of respect here.”

That respect for comics of all genres is exactly what TCAF is trying to bring Toronto. In addition to the booths where creators promote their work, the show will also feature programs, readings and discussion panels to inform, educate and engage the uninitiated. If people are willing to give comic books a chance, they may realize that there’s much more lurking beneath the glossy surface.