Barry Blair,
Controversial Canadian Comics Publisher

by BK Munn

Cartoonist and publisher Barry Blair, best known for founding Ottawa-based Aircel Publishing, died January 3 of a brain aneurysm, according to several online sources.

Born in Ottawa, Blair worked as an animator and commercial artist before founding Aircel Publishing in 1985. Blair had begun self-publishing the manga-influenced comic book series Elflord in 1980 under his own imprint, Nightwynd Productions. A black-and-white fantasy adventure, the book went through two separate series with Blair later adding a separate adventure title, Samurai. In 1985 Blair co-founded Aircel, transforming his friend Ken Campbell’s moribund insulation company into a platform for Elflord and a slew of new titles.

The company met with moderate success, cracking the North American direct market and finding distribution to comic book shops across the continent. Aircel, with Blair as editor, produced a slew of comics titles and was responsible for giving several Canadian artists their first professional comics work. These included Dave Cooper, who is credited as an inker on several early Aircel titles and who illustrated stories written by Blair.

Another early success for Blair was Warlock 5, a title co-created with illustrator Denis Beauvais. As written by Blair, Warlock 5 became a cult hit, collected for its slick airbrushed artwork and sometimes-sexual subject matter. 

For the most part, the rapid growth and expansion of Aircel was predicated on the explosion in comics publishing begun with the phenomenon of Eastman and Laird’s self-published Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1982), which spawned a large number of copy-cats, parodies, and small publishers desperate to mimic their success, in part a result of the ordering practices of comic shop owners who saw black-and-white genre comics as something of a cash-cow during this period. The product published by Aircel exhibited above average artistic and professional standards and the company was able to thrive temporarily. 

With the downturn/implosion in this alternative comics market, followed by a period of consolidation, Aircel stumbled and was rescued by upstart U.S. comics publisher Malibu, effectively merging with Malibu imprint Eternity in exchange for financial stability. Under Malibu, Blair published the Men in Black comic book series by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers (1990), setting the stage for a successful film franchise.

As well, many other Aircel series were abandoned in favour of a line of sex-themed comics, including the Blair-penned Leather and Lace. During this time Blair was embroiled in controversy over some of his books’ content, notably that of the series Ripper, which included sexual violence and alleged racist imagery. Blair was to be haunted by allegations about the sexual content of his comics, most notably sexualized images of youth in many of his series and drawings.

In 1991 Blair left Aircel/Malibu, which later was purchased by Marvel. Blair started a new company and began producing work for WaRP Graphics. Along with several collaborators, Blair produced erotic comics for publishers such as NBM and made a secondary career selling erotic art and doing illustration work for online gaming clients. Along with Colin Chan and Santos Aleman, Blair formed Studio RealmWalkers in 2009.

There’s an excellent in depth profile here on Indie Creator Explosion.