“The first time I got a handle on a Hunt #102 Crowquill pen was on a sunny day in February 1984, after a howling, 48-hour winter storm…”
Review by BK Munn
Since the late 1980s, cartoonist David Collier has built up quite a substantial body of work, in the process transforming himself into one of this country’s most original, fascinatingly idiosyncratic, and funny artistic voices. Emerging from the Toronto punk music and mini-comic scene, Collier progressed to a larger audience first through the graphic platform of Robert Crumb’s seminal Weirdo magazine and then on to his own comic book series Collier’s, four issues of which were published by Fantagraphics between 1992 and 1998. Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly began publishing Collier’s work with Just the Facts, a collection of comic strip style essays, in 1998, ushering in the “David Collier, graphic memoirist” era of his career. This phase has been continued under the good graces of his latest publisher Conundrum, the midwife to 2010’s well-received Chimo, the account of Collier’s return to his time as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, this time as part of their War Artist program.
Through all these venues, Collier has painstakingly developed his gift for longer, anecdote-laden reflections on life and aspects of Canadian history, as seen through the bifurcated lens of the author’s macho/milquetoast, craftsman/curmudgeon persona. Chimo, which drew praise from no less a comics authority than Chris Ware, can be read as the apotheosis of Collier’s obsessions and stylistic attacks; the ultimate example of his trademark long-haul, marathon-style approach to storytelling, chock-full of minute detail, cross-hatching, quotidian observation, and historical research.
But Collier, the epic cartoonist of endless digression and explication, has another, smaller aspect to his art. Beginning in 1992, Collier develops a parallel career in the world of newspaper illustration, eventually creating a plethora of shorter pieces, mostly in the form of single drawings and comic strips done for a variety of magazine and newspaper clients, including two longer runs producing a weekly panel for papers in Saskatoon and Toronto. It is this large body of work that is the focus of his latest collection from Conundrum, Collier’s Popular Press, subtitled “30 Years on the Newsstand.”
Comprised of everything he has published outside of his own comic book series, anthologies and book collections, including comics, illos, and a handful of very readable prose articles, the heart and soul of Popular Press are the cartoons Collier began drawing for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in 1995, the weekly “Saskatoon Sketches.” As Collier tells it, he “walked into the newspaper’s offices one morning after watching some tour boats on the South Saskatchewan River get destroyed at the city weir.” Based on some sketches Collier had published in the Globe and Mail, the city editor hires him to do a weekly “local interest” panel, giving him the spot recently vacated by Gary Larson’s “Far Side” (!). Over the next 11 months, Collier develops a unique approach to the observational slice of life cartoon, alternating between actual observances and overheard conversations, imagined responses to seasonal signposts, and personal reflections on his own real life experiences as a resident of Saskatchewan’s largest city. When the paper is bought by Conrad Black at the end of the year the Sketches come to an end but ironically the idea is reborn when Collier transfers the strip concept to a new home at Black’s fledgling National Post in 2002, retitling the strip “24 Simcoe Street” after his new home in Hamilton, and switching to a more explicitly autobiographical format with a focus on the day-to-day experiences of Collier, his wife Jennifer, son James, and canine companion Large.
The Post years of the feature (2002-2003) are where Collier the newspaper cartoonist really comes into his own, using an unusual horizontal panel shape and cramming his panels with tons of landscape-style sketches, portraits, and comic moments, all rendered in a wide range of pen-and-ink styles vaguely reminiscent of stylists like Elder, Crumb, and Herriman but with Collier’s own unique approach to figures, composition, and storytelling. Bundled together with a treasure trove of other fugitive pieces and with new text introductions by Jeet Heer and the artist himself, Collier’s Popular Press is a dense, immersive comics reading experience, full of sense-of-place, that also serves as something of a biographical sketch of this entertaining creator.