Monday, September 28, 2009

I'm a Shuster Booster and Doug Wright Warrior

Over at the Joe Shuster Awards blog, Kevin Boyd posted a response to my brief Joe Shuster Awards round-up and makes some good points about the Shusters and the Doug Wright awards.

Kevin had one concern stemming from my use of the term "extending an olive branch" to characterize a Word on the Street panel yesterday sponsored by The Beguiling and the Sequential website featuring members of the DW's and Kevin. I did not mean to imply a war between the two awards. I believe they are, in fact, quite complimentary.

I meant only to point it out as a refreshing signal that a spirit of cooperation is growing between the two awards. I should have chosen my words more carefully.

Both awards have a different focus and unique viewpoints but are each good, healthy additions to our industry. And it did this canuck proud to hear of them sharing insights and addressing questions together.

Hugs all around.

Beavers Up!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Shuster Awards Round Up - Canadian comic books feted in fifth annual ceremony

The fifth annual Joe Shuster Awards were handed out this weekend at the University of Toronto’s Innis Hall to coincide with Toronto’s Word on the Street Festival.

Along with the hyper-focused and classy Doug Wright Awards, the Joe Shusters are rising in profile and acceptance. The little awards that could continue to widen their categories to cover many facets of comics and include Canadians nationwide. And they can now truly boast that their advisers and judges represent pretty every region.

To top it off, The Beguiling, sponsors and creators of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, along with Canadian Comics website par excellence, Sequential, have extended an olive branch to the Shusters by inviting co-founder Kevin Boyd to join a panel at the Word on the Street Festival today in downtown Toronto. “Oh Canada, Surveying the Landscape of Canadian Comics” happens at 4:00 pm at the Comic and Graphic Novels Tent during a day filled to the brim with comic book and literary awesomesauce.

It’s no secret both awards have different approaches and styles. The Doug Wright’s center more on cartooning, independent work and honour artists from the newspaper medium as well as graphic novels. They also seek out high profile, artistic jurors to spotlight the culture behind comics creation itself.

In addition to their Giants of the North section, honouring titans of canuck comic work from the past, the Doug Wright’s currently focus on only three awards. Best Book (won last May by Jillian and Mariko Tomaki’s Skim), Best Emerging Talent (won this year by Kate Beaton’s joyous and hilarious, online History Comics), and the Pigskin Peters award, named in tribute to a character from one of cartoonist Jimmy Frise’ early comics, which honours experimental and non-narrative efforts of Canadian cartoonists including sketchbook material and single-panel works (This year’s recipient being Matthew Forsythe for Ojingogo).

The Doug Wright Awards and TCAF have aligned themselves with Toronto’s arts community and City Hall, creating a very real bridge between the comics world and the public. The Joe Shuster Awards are unabashedly fan based, determinedly mining the mainstream but casting a wide net with a sweeping array of categories that strive to honour the many levels of the current comic world.

The Shusters more fannish approach is not surprising. Founders James Waley and Kevin Boyd have extensive roots in fandom, with James being involved in the very early days of Canadian fandom and publishing his own independent books over the years while Kevin helped the Paradise Comicon develop its stellar reputation among creators and fans alike for its laid back, comic book love-in atmosphere and is currently working in a similar capacity for Fan Expo. Their awards range wide, honouring retailers, publishers, artists, writers, webcomics and self-publishers whether they be floppies, graphic novels or mini-comics.

Ultimately, these two awards compliment each other more than they compete. And I see the invitation to Boyd to join the panel as a sign of new level of acceptance between the two awards groups.

Last night’s awards was a fun, fast-paced show with a wide range of deserving creator’s honoured. The multimedia aspects added a nice variation to the presentation with photos and artwork displayed, mock drumrolls and two entertaining video acceptances from Dave Sim (in a tuxedo accepting his Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year award as he mock brags/debates which of his many awards will have to come off his living room wall to accommodate his third Shuster) and Hall of Fame inductee Ken Steacy (interviewed by host Jonathan Llyr of at the last month's Fan Expo in Toronto).

There were a nice mix of presenters including Canadian fandom pioneer Bill Paul, comic book Renaissance man Ty Templeton, artist Dave Ross (Star Wars Dark Times, Angel), sponsor of the newly minted Comics for Kids award Jennifer Stewart, hardcorenerdity's JM Frey and Mark Askwith, producer of Prisoners of Gravity and Canada's sci-fi channel, Space: The Imagination Station. The Watchtower podcast's Jeff Moss and Donnie Coultier completely missed the fact that the Webcomics Award they were charged with presenting was supposed to be about the creators and not about them but the night survived their self-indulgence.

As a former Shuster Hall of Fame committee member, I was asked to help locate the families of two honorees, last year’s inductee Ted McCall (whose award lay unclaimed for a year) and this year’s Hall of Famer, George Menendez Rae. Both families thoroughly enjoyed seeing their loved ones honoured and remembered. I will be getting in touch with them over the next few months to learn more.

This year's other inductees are worthy additions as well. Real Godbout has been a staple of the Quebec comics scene for decades. Ken Steacy has been involved with all aspects of comics since the early eighties and Diana Schutz (someone I have long supported for inclusion) started out as a well-spoken and out-spoken fan and developed into one of the finest editors in comics.

Since my videotape of the Hall of Fame presentations is not yet ready to post, I will leave you with the short speeches I read before my two presentations.


Joe Shuster Awards Hall of Famer EDWIN R. “TED” McCALL (1901-1975)

Last year, the Joe Shuster Awards Hall of Fame Committee inducted Edwin R. (Ted) McCall but we had no one to give the award to. I’m pleased to say this year we are at last able to correct that situation.

There is no doubt that Ted McCall was an instrumental figure in the rise of the Canadian Whites back in the golden age of Canadian Comics. Many of you are aware that when wartime restrictions limited the cross-border flow of materials and products including American magazines and comic books, a number of companies rose up to fill that gap. The first of those companies and the longest lived was a company spearheaded by Ted McCall.

A lifelong journalist and newsman, Ted first entered the comics field in the thirties while working for Toronto’s Evening Telegram newspaper. After reporting on many exploits of the RCMP, McCall used that intimate knowledge to create one of the first indigenous adventure strips in Canadian newspapers, Men of the Mounted, with artist Harry Hall, beating out that more famous mountie of the comic strip world, King of the Mounted by two years. McCall followed that with the strip, Robin Hood and Company with artist Charles Snelgrove.

When World War II broke and the paper restrictions began, Ted was among he first to seize an opportunity to make home-grown comics and convinced Sinnott News to create a new publishing arm called Anglo American or Double “A” comics to release reprints of his Robin Hood and Company Strip. As Ted added reprints of Men of the Mounted to their output he was already adding new characters like Pat the Air Cadet, Sooper Dooper, Deadline Dick, Don Shield, Dr. Destine, Purple Rider, Red Rover, Commander Steel, Terry Kane, the Crusaders, and his most famous creation, Freelance, a heroic freedom fighter for the Allies. Anglo rounded out their line by purchasing the scripts used in the US based Fawcett companies Captain Marvel comics and redrawing them, but even at their height Freelance outsold them all.

Freelance in action on land...

...and at sea.

It’s easy to see why, McCall drew on a wide tradition of adventure fiction and his journalist’s eye for world events to make Freelance feel like its accounts of worldwide espionage were was ripped from the day’s headlines. Lance globe-trotted to every theatre of the war. It didn’t hurt that while most comic book heroes’ tales came in spurts of six to ten pages and often continued next issue, Freelance’s adventures took the entire book, were paced like a bullet and always concluded by the back cover. You got a full reading experience for your dime! Anglo’s top artist Ed Furness, co-creator of Freelance attributed every iota of Double’s “A”s success to the writing of Ted McCall.

Ted McCall’s well-deserved Hall of Fame award finally has a home. Accepting on behalf of Ted is his great nephew, Russ McCall...

From left to right: Ted McCall's great nephew Russ Mccall, great niece

Janice McCall and great nephew Doug McCall proudy give Ted Mccall's

Joe Shuster Hall of Fame award the home it deserves.

Joe Shuster Awards Hall of Famer George Menendez Rae (1906-1992)

George M. Rae.

There were many companies that published Canadian Whites during the second world war. One of the classiest was Educational Projects whose flagship comic was Canadian Heroes A big part of the reason for that class was the artwork and storytelling of George Menedez Rae. Canadian Heroes was aimed at educating kids and honouring their contribution to Canadian Life and to the homefront war effort. Each issue featured stories of historical figures, modern politicians and tales of battlefield heroism meant to inspire young canucks. It also contained book reviews, examinations of potential careers in the growing country, celebrations of the community-building initiatives of the readership and sometimes wild predictions for the future of the country sent in by imaginative kids across the country.

It should have been boring but the artwork lifts the features off the page. Each issue reads like a large stable of artists are contributing. But though several talented artists did work on the book, a surprising number of them were actually Rae himself! George signed his work variously as Rae, R-, Dez and Geo. Each signature carried with it a variation in style, making it seem like a different person drew each item. But each style shared Rae’s supple linework, clear storytelling and elegant page layouts.

Educational Projects insisted that everything in their books be based on reality. There would be no magic words or leaping over tall buildings between the covers of Canadian Heroes. But Rae saw more potential for the book. He convinced them to add an adventure series based on true tales of the RCMP. His most famous innovation was the creation of his national superhero, Canada Jack.

Canada Jack’s adventures were designed to model an active lifestyle to kids and provide a character to inspire the reader’s to get involved. Jack made his debut in the March 1943 issue of Canadian Heroes.

Rae’s hero was not flashy. His costume consisted of tight slacks and a tank top that featured a Canada Jack crest on his chest or whatever gear was needed for the sport he was engaged during that tale. A gymnast, ju-jitsu expert, and superb horseman, he protected the Canadian home front from a variety of villains, including saboteurs, kidnappers, black marketeers, escaped Nazi POW’s and worst of all, children making bad decisions.

Canada Jack even inspired the creation of a popular children’s club that brought together fans of the strip and encouraged kids to contribute to the Canadian war effort. Their efforts were printed in the club pages and fictional versions of the club members were always deeply involved in his comic book adventures.

George Menedez Rae's niece Mary Beyers shows off his Joe Shuster

Hall of Fame award with her children (from left to right)

Chris Beyers, Diana Coen and Rick Beyers.

Rae’s comic art also appeared in the Canadian Jewish Congress title Jewish War Heroes (perhaps the first Canadian giveaway comic book) and in two Educational compilations, Action Stories of the Mounties and Thrilling Adventures of Canada Jack. Following the demise of Educational Projects in late 1945, Rae left the comics field and became increasingly active as a fine artist, serving as the president of the Arts Club of Montreal and receiving the Order of Merit for his many contributions to the arts in his home community of St. Bruno, Quebec. We are honoured to induct George Menendez Rae into the Joe Shuster Hall of Fame. Here to accept the award is George’s niece, Mary Beyers...

Beavers Up!

Monday, September 21, 2009

It was a Dark and Stormy Night - The Madeleine L'Engel Effect and Time with Dad

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."

- Madeleine L'Engle

She passed away on September 6, 2007. The New York Times obituary summed up the 88 year-old as an author “whose childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation,” joining many news agencies and journalists in pigeonholing her as a children’s author when she was so much more.

L’Engle herself disliked the label, insisting that she did not write down to children. She famously declared in a 1993 Associated Press interview, quoted here by the Washington Post:

"In my dreams, I never have an age," she said. "I never write for any age group in mind. ... When you underestimate your audience, you're cutting yourself off from your best work."

The article suggests her literary output, which included poetry, plays, books on religion and prayer and autobiographical works were all “deeply, quixotically personal” then quotes Marygail G. Parker from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, who described “a peculiar splendor” to L’Engle’s work.

Quixotic? Hardly. Though L’Engle often implied her subconscious was in control of the writing of her most successful works and she was compelled to write them, few authors had a voice so uniquely personal and such command of poetic simplicity.
Like so many, I discovered L’Engle’s work as child through her much celebrated novel, A Wrinkle in Time. Her skillful blend of fantastic adventure, family drama, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Planck’s quantum theory, and human emotion reached me on so many levels at once, the book fairly vibrated with harmonic energy. For many, she was our first introduction to such high concepts.

In her 1998 acceptance speech upon receiving the Margaret Edwards Award (The American Library Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in the Field of Young Adult Literature) L’Engle addressed some of the controversy attached to her young adult work.

It is still amazing to me that A WRINKLE IN TIME was considered too difficult for children. My children were seven, ten, and twelve while I was writing it, and they understood it. The problem is not that it's too difficult for children, but that it's too difficult for grown ups. Much of the world view of Einstein's thinking wasn't being taught when the grown ups were in school, but the children were comfortably familiar with it.

MEET THE AUSTINS (the book which preceded WRINKLE) took two years to find a publisher—largely because it begins with a family's reaction to the death of a beloved uncle, and children were not supposed to know about death. Largely, I suspect, because it upset their parents).

But again I was writing out of my own experience, and how my family accepted grief and loss and death. I think it made my children stronger than if we had gone placidly along with no traumas to work through.
Madeleine L’Engle had faith. Faith in God. Faith in humanity. She had little time for dogma and that made her difficult to live with for those who preferred using doctrine to control and shame others into conforming to their limited world view. In an interview on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, L’Engle admitted she considers religion and science to be linked.
Religion and science? One and the same. I don't have any trouble with it. A lot of people do. They have to put one here and one there. And I think they're much more like that, each one informing the other… Religion is less accepting than science. Science knows things move and change, and religion doesn't want that. So, I am more comfortable with science. At the same time, I am not throwing God out the window.

I respect that world view and the strength it sometimes takes to stand by it when under heavy criticism. As a writer for children, I have often been confronted by parents telling me what their children don’t like about a show. Inevitably, they share something that disturbs them, not their children. L’Engle never wrote down to children but rather, wrote up to their humanity and search for knowledge, posing questions that encourage them to find their own answers and seek out new questions.

Producers and broadcasters constantly instruct me to avoid big ideas and concepts, use small words rather than ”language.” It’s a constant struggle to expand the worlds of children even as we’re asked to make it smaller and smaller. Horizons aren't meant to be reached by stretching out your hands. They’re meant to instill desire and they’re meant to be harder to get to. How mundane must we make the dreams of children?

For the rest of the world, Madeleine L’engle died on September 6, 2007.

For me, Madeleine L’Engle died the following year, in July 2008.

She passed the moment I stumbled across that uninspired New York Times obituary. Though much of the world had already mourned her passing. I was experiencing the first shock of grief – an emptiness in my heart where L’Engle’s place had been. A space I didn’t realize was there.

L’Engle was the first one to teach me that time is fluid. It depends so much on perception. It flies when we’re having fun. It drags when we are scared or worried. It stops when we are at the lightning edge of new revelation. In addition to a pervading sense of loss, I experienced one of those revelations when L’Engle died the second time.. I realized that I had often measured the truth of my words against hers and found my work wanting.

I witnessed L'Engle's death again months later when I told a friend who loves sci-fi about the author's passing. For my friend, the devastating news was new and fresh. Despite the actual death occuring more than a year earlier, her grief was very much happening right now. As I watched her suffer I was carried back on the wave of her anguish to my own moment of loss.

But if our experience of death of someone meaningful to us could happen multiple times, then so too could our experience of that person’s life. Every time I pick up one of L'Engle's books I re-experience the emotions they had first stirred in me, almost as if reliving that first time. The writing touched me in a place I can reconnect with instantly, proving that time, or at least our perception of it (And aren't time and perception of time the same ting really?) is not linear.

Time is not linear. Madeleine L’Engle told me this and Madeleine L’Engle showed me this.

We generally experience time as a linear series of events so we can all communicate and feel we are going in the same direction. That shared perception of moving forward through experience is one of the things that unites us all. But at any given moment we may find ourselves out of sync, be stuck in the past or anticipating the future. Like right now, for me.

Several weeks ago I lost my father and I have been unstuck in time ever since.

I’m thankful that over the past few years my father and I have both made an effort to get to know each other better as individuals and not just as father and son. A great deal of the credit for this transformation to our relationship is due to my wife, whose love for family seems truly unlimited, despite the pain that sometimes brings.

Though Dad’s health had been declining for many months and he and his wife kept us more or less informed as to the details of his ailments, I can’t help but feel they kept the true depths of his decline to themselves as they quietly prepared. Perhaps I was not in touch enough to properly track events. Quite possibly I simply wasn't eager to know.

I now have all the more reason to cherish a surprise visit my wife and I made to my Dad and his wife, Marlene, to spend a day driving in the countryside outside of London, Ontario. Though he was unable to walk very far, he enjoyed being our chauffeur, parking the car and watching through the windshield as Marlene took us through a lavender farm and various roadside attractions. We then ate an early dinner in a lovely, nearly deserted café. My attempts to sit in the car with Dad and chat as Marlene and Jill shopped were gently refused. Dad was eager to see us all enjoying ourselves. In retrospect, is it possible he was subtly preparing us all to move on and enjoy life without him, for the day when his spirit would be watching from a greater distance?

It’s the natural order. No parent wants to outlive their children. They want to know their family will be strong and move on in life, never forgetting but never regretting. It’s part of our growth as people, a growth that will never truly be fulfilled until we experience and survive their passing, taking strength from their memory.

Upon hearing about my father’s passing, a friend pointed out another side to the experience in this way, “Now you get to start a whole new relationship with him.” I suppose that I already have started a new relationship with my father, though where it takes me will only be revealed in time. It certainly worked that way when my Mom passed away while I was in university. I stumbled along and as I learned more about my mother she became more than just a Mom. She grew into a person in my head.

It takes a long time to acclimatize yourself to losing a parent at a young age but I suppose I found it all the more difficult due to the suddenness of her departure. She simply winked out of my life. No warning. No drama. She was there and then she wasn’t. I like to imagine she tessered across the galaxies to spend eternity in the company of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, who, along with Aunt Beast, represented the many facets of familial love in A Wrinkle In Time. With time I grew accustomed to this new relationship and I know in my head that I will develop a similar new relationship with my father. Some time. Just not yet.

Because time is not linear.

We can experience an intense reverse déjà vu (vuja de?) of a future we haven’t been to yet, but we know is coming. Even now I can catch momentary glimpses of my future self, who’s already processed this so the pain is not so fresh and therefore finds everything a little bit easier. Senses can take us back in time. A smell, a song, a taste, or a touch can catapult us backward. And sometimes time holds us in two places at once. Our minds or spirits can be trapped in the past as our present selves go forward, making coffee or reading the paper or getting back to work.

I remember anticipating the premiere of Deep Space Nine after a particularly good season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I found myself surprised at the heady mixture of speculative fiction, political intrigue, the true difficulties in fostering community and the emotional turmoil of DS9’s Commander, Benjamin Sisko played by Avery Brooks. Sisko is a reluctant leader, raising his teenage son as he struggles with the loss of his beloved wife.

The Deep Space Nine space station is on the edge of a wormhole in space occupied by quantum beings that do not exist in linear time. Sisko’s inability to escape the memories of his wife’s tragic, final moments proves to be a point of communication between himself and the aliens. As they exist simultaneously in the then, the now and the future, so he exists in the past and present. Sisko's constant flashbacks to that moment belie his attempts to explain mankind’s linear existence.

I can remember being deeply moved by DS9’s two-hour premiere and Avery Brook’s charged performance. His willingness to embrace the humanity of his character made me feel less alone in dealing with my mother’s passing years earlier. My memories of Benjamin Sisko will always center on his immense sadness in the pilot and his throaty laughter in subsequent seasons, embracing two extremes of human experience.

A week after Dad's death I found myself at Toronto's Fan Expo, Canada's largest sci-fi, comicbook, anime, horror and gaming convention. I saw Avery Brooks signing autographs and greeting convention goers at Toronto’s Fan Expo and found myself remembering that Deep Space Nine pilot. Somehow, his ability to embrace the entire spectrum of humanity in his role with joy and such joie de vive helped normalize my grief. And the memories of Sisko’s passage through his own grief made me feel less alone in my time loop.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to tell him how he helped me with my mother’s passing and now with my father’s. The poor man seemed at a loss for words (not surprisingly). Then he extended both hands to grasp my own and that gentle, generous smile crossed his face. Avery looked at me with his gentle eyes and said… I have no idea what. Something, something in his whole career, something, head nod, something. Couldn’t hear a word he said. I thought he was theatrically trained for God’s sake but he wasn’t projecting at all.

But the connection was precious in that moment and I’ll never forget it.

Like Benjamin Sisko, I have been caught in time loop of my own, reliving my father’s last day as I move through the days and night that have followed. My body types away at my scripts, takes notes at meetings, and tries to sleep but my mind has, well, a mind of its own lately. It gives no warning as it takes me through that last minute call to rush out of town to Dad’s bedside. I relive the near sleepless overnight shift at his bedside, first with my sister and eventually, all alone. Returning after a few hours sleep to relieve Dad’s wife and holding his hand and talking to him after his pain moans turned to steady breathing, which soon would gradually slow to nothing.

Each time I am hijacked in this way, I feel suspended in utter stillness then I find myself right back in that room. I can look around the room and see what time of the day or night it is. I can smell the hospital’s hand disinfectant and hear the steady chug of the oxygen, emitting its gentle mist to reduce the drying effect of pure CO2 on Dad’s throat and lungs. But mostly I hear his breaths grow short and the gap between his final gasps lengthen. I wait, relieved each time a new breath comes and look in his eyes, hold his hand (Jill holds the other) and talk to him about his family, and where each loved one was at that moment, his wife, his children and his grandchildren.

And then, the space between breaths become all there is and he is gone.

A smaller percentage of the time I spend in the past takes place in the hours immediately following Dad’s death. I spent them contacting the family and waiting for my brothers and sisters to have their final time in the room with our father. I suspect they are all experiencing their own time loops. I know my oldest brother is. After a conflicted relationship with my Dad he likely has many things left unsaid. And I know to some extent, his feelings and judgments regarding those old wounds are locked in the mindset of the child who first experienced them. I hope he finds his way out.

Though I am spending extensive time in that final day, I am grateful I’m not alone in those concluding moments. Though I never take my eyes away from my father’s (these instants are too precious), I know that I have but to glance to my left and I will see my beloved wife holding Dad’s other hand as she sends her considerable reserves of love to Dad and for me. But I don’t ever look at her. If I look I may break down, overwhelmed by the unending depths of her love and support and unable to cope with the intense reality we’re facing. I look into my father’s eyes and he looks back, ready to move on and knowing his family is ready for him to go.

I look into my father’s eyes and he looks into mine until he'd no longer there to look.

His eyes see nothing anymore. And where there once were the sounds of his final breaths, now there is silence. I relive that twenty-four hour period over and over in real time. The only bright spot in the day is the knowledge that if I glance to my left I will see my wife. But thankfully, whatever force drags me back there allows me a second of pure transcendence...

Jill and I exit the hospital, the storm of the day (which brewed up a tornado north of Toronto in a masterfully timed example of pathetic fallacy) is over and the sun streams through the clouds like the climax of some widescreen, Technicolor, biblical epic. We breathe in fresh air.

I live this wonderful moment over and over too. And where every other part of the day leaves me with remarkably ambivalent feelings, this instant makes my heart soar. A smiling Jill takes my arm as we walk across the parking lot and after deep breath declares…

“There’s your Dad, shining down all around us.”

And just like that I’m back in the present. My wife is my anchor in the now. Just as Dad’s wife, Marlene, allowed him to live a longer and happier life, so too does mine. Life and death go on as always.

Eventually I will spend less time in that room and more time enjoying the memories of my Dad when he was hale and hearty, young and robust. But if I must be trapped in that final day a little while longer, I am grateful that I am not there alone.

I love you, Jill.

I love you, Dad.

Beavers Up!