How did you come up with the idea for "1918" ?
When I learned that the theme for this year’s SPX Anthology was "travel," I had been dealing with a close friend’s recent HIV+ diagnosis. My initial thought was to tell how HIV traveled around the world. Unfortunately, once I started researching the history of HIV/AIDS, it became too unwieldy to deal with in the 4-12 pages allowed. I also had a passing knowledge of the 1918 pandemic and became fascinated by how little has been written about it considering the enormous devastation it caused. In fact, while drawing the story, I discovered that my own great-grandfather caught the virus in 1918 but was a lucky survivor.
What is the connection between SARS and the influenza pandemic of 1918?
The obvious connection is that humanity has been stricken again with a killer virus that modern medicine is unprepared for. In both cases it’s a kind of Titanic situation; the bravado of a society believing it had created an unsinkable ship. I think by 1918 the faith in a golden age of science had been quashed a bit by four years of war, but there was still a lingering belief that "modern" science was capable of dealing with anything. When the influenza pandemic hit, all bets were off. We still place a lot of faith in high tech science and medicine. The deadly outbreak of SARS reminds us that we can believe ourselves to be as smart as we like, but we can still be threatened by something as infinitesimal as a virus.
Reading "1918" takes me about 5 minutes -- how long did it take you to complete?
(Laughs) Weeks and weeks; partly because it’s a story based in historical fact. My original story idea began quite differently. Unfortunately, I worked a bit backwards and researched as I plotted, so some aspects of my initial idea became better served by later altering locations and characters. The most time consuming research was for historically accurate visual reference for things like transportation, housing, uniforms and the like. I’m sure there’s a military buff somewhere mocking my misplaced stitching on a uniform or something, but I did my best in the time allowed.
How long have you been doing comic art?
I started drawing as soon as I could wrap my hand around a pencil. Although comfortable with text, I have always been a visual learner and a visual communicator. It is very much a language. For a long time I was torn between telling a story textually or through visuals. Comic art is a nice marriage of the two.
Why should I read comic art - isn't comic art for kids?
Some comic art is very much for kids, but to me comics are like any other storytelling medium. We have books and films aimed specifically at children but also at adults. Sometimes, as Harry Potter has proven, there is no difference. In Europe, and even more so in Asia, there is little or no stigma attached to reading graphic narrative as an adult. In fact, Japanese comics, or Manga, are often explicitly "adult" in content, complete with extreme violence and sexuality. Even in North America the average age of a comic book reader is 22. This has been helped along here because the comic marketplace has changed in the last 20 years in such a way that newsstand distribution--the traditional entry-level access to comics for most young children--has been largely removed. More recently, comics have seen an increasing penetration into traditional bookstores.
You call yourself an artist, but is comic art really art? (i.e. does comic art have any real artistic or cultural value?)
Creating comic art can require skill in everything from composition to colour theory. The average comic book contains 124 separate illustrations. That’s quite a workout. A good artist does his or her best to make each panel a mini-masterpiece. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus and, more recently, Joe Sacco won an American Book Award for Palestine, so obviously somebody believes this art form has something valuable to contribute. Comic art is also very much like film in terms of framing a story visually. In recent years we’ve seen a number of film properties snapped up from the comic world. In addition to the obvious superhero properties, we’ve seen films such as From Hell, Ghost World and the upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Like film, comics are both an entertainment medium and an art form. In the eyes of critics, the existence of an unpretentious entertainment film like American Pie doesn’t detract from the raw artistic force of a film like Requiem For A Dream. They’re both in the same medium but each serves a different purpose. That kind of variety is healthy.
Name three reasons why I should start reading more comic art?
Good question. It’s a vast untapped entertainment resource for a lot of people. I have read comics that made me laugh out loud, that made me cry and that made me question things about the world. A comic can give you everything a good novel or film does. It’s also the cheapest art collection you’ll ever acquire.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have several diverse projects on the drawing board: a couple of darker contemporary pieces, a series of myth adaptations, a May/December romance and, on the completely light side, I’m working with a friend on developing a very funny series of books.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue comic art as a career?
Do it for love. Do it because you have stories to tell and this is the medium you want to use to tell them in. Don’t give up your day job. Expect to live the life of an actor/waiter. Do whatever you need to do to keep making art without sacrificing your integrity.
How do you divide your time?
I do freelance art and design projects throughout the year. During the school year I teach high school part-time. When I’m not doing that, or squeezing in quality time with friends and loved ones, I’m writing, drawing and dreaming up new stories.
The "Barbara Walters" Questions...
What books have you read recently?
I read The Hours a while back, just before I saw the film. I just re-read Larry Young’s non-fiction book True Facts: Comics’ Righteous Anger, and I’m part way through Vancouver At The Dawn, a fictionalized memoir of Sara McLagan, a pioneer journalist and newspaper publisher in turn-of-the-century Vancouver.
Name your two or three all-time favourite books...
Wow! That’s hard. Hands down, Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. Also, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and Tracks. As a kid, outside of anything Arthurian, I was a sucker for Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Anything with illustrations by Howard Pyle or Walter Crane.
What person, place or thing influenced you most as a child and why?
My mom was brilliant about letting me explore artistically. In a mini-comic published last year, I thanked her for all the pens, pencils, crayons, markers, glue, paint, construction paper, freedom, patience and love. I also grew up at Grandma’s knee being inundated with hours of daytime drama and family stories.
Current role model?
I have many. I look up to a lot of people for very different reasons.
What five items could you not live without?
Not counting books, comics or otherwise? The Zebra M-301 metal mechanical pencil that I inherited from a student I used to tutor (I plan to draw with it until I die), an endless supply of paper, a white eraser, my toothbrush and, I hate to admit it, but my computer.
Most humbling moment?
Not counting my six-week stint working at the Gap? I once slipped on a banana peel. I kid you not. How humbling is that?
I remember riding in the car with my parents when I was less than a year old. I kept my foot on the gear shift the whole way because I liked the vibration. Turns out we were headed from Quesnel to Vancouver. The vibration was telling. I love big cities.
What are three things that are different from when you were a child?
I’ve lost several beloved family members. I’m more self-assured. The price of a comic book is about 14 times higher!
Name three things that haven’t changed since you were a child?
I still feel a constant urge to create. I still hate injustice. I can still go to Mom when the going gets tough.
Name three unusual things in your bedroom?
A piece of assemblage art that I created which represents a window into dream. A concrete horse sculpture. A small stuffed rabbit.
Why should someone get to know you?
Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me…just like Stuart Smalley.
What male and female celebrity do you resemble most?
Eric McCormack and Sally Field, with occasional lapses into Tom Cruise’s evasiveness and Dolly Parton’s humorous self-deprecation.
Best or worst lie you ever told?
I once got an A- on an English exam part of which was for an essay about a book I never read. Does that count?
If you could be anywhere at the moment, where would you be and what would you be wearing?
I’d be in my Auntie Weanty and Uncle Bill’s house in Vancouver circa the late 1970s. I’d probably be wearing denim bell-bottoms and a powder blue T-shirt with a rainbow glitter Superman logo. Ahhh, the 70s.