Uncle Upton’s Neighbourhood
By Colin Upton
Main Street around Kingsway/Broadway used to be a “dark zone” in Vancouver. I remember nervously walking through the area in the 1980’s on my way home in South Van with the shops shut and the streets eerily deserted at night.
By the 2000’s I had moved into the area. Mostly because so many people I knew already lived in the neighbourhood, it was well on its way to becoming a lively hipster district with trendy restaurants, skate shops, tattoo parlous, clothing boutiques and enough “Bohemian” coffee hang outs that poseurs were spoiled for choice. By now the inevitable process of gentrification is well under way, the cities own “circle of life”.
The 2400 block is a special place for members of the Vancouver comics community. A curious wedge-shaped block squeezed between Main, Kingsway and Broadway, a cluster of low-rent (for Vancouver) old buildings pressed together in a charming, ramshackle sort of way in the shadow of encroaching condos. On the Main street side is a large pool hall, the inevitable coffee shop, the local NDP MP Libby Davies’s constituency office, a Greek Restaurant, check cashing store and for our purposes, the important bits for the Vancouver comics community.
Rath Arts is a small store with quality art supplies. Since the Main Street DeSerres moved to the outer realms (almost Burnaby) Rath is the only art store in an area full of artist’s studios and artists live/work buildings. Much of the stores business is stretching canvas to order so if you go into the shop and you don’t see anyone at first the owner, Stan, is probably in the back room building frames. Stan is supportive of the comics community and counts many cartoonists as his customers. While not specifically geared towards cartoonists Stan sells useful pens and markers and he will bring in materials on request, such as favourite Bristol pads for James Lloyd. Stan’s also knowledgeable and willing to go the extra mile. When I ordered a large case of Bainbridge 172 illustration Board (impossible to buy in Vancouver) he not only ordered it in from Montreal but he hand delivered it to my home as well. Unusually for this day and age Rath does not have a website.
A few doors down from Rath are a trio of comic centric institutions right next door to each other. Owner Aaron Birkenhead opened R/X Comics in 2002 after gaining experience working at ABC Book & Comic Emporium. For over a decade r/X Comics has been supplying the comic book community with its comics fix… okay, I promise to stop that now. What R/X Comics is a full service comic shop crammed into a tiny space, selling everything from the latest “artsy” graphic novels and classic comics reprints to the usual superhero dreck, action figures, vinyl collectibles and Tardis bongs. okay, I don’t know if the last exists but it wouldn’t surprise me.
The staff, Kelly (a talented cartoonist himself) and Nick (who maintains the store’s Facebook & Twitter) are knowledgeable and helpful and if you can’t find what you’re looking for in the chaos around you be sure to ask as it might be buried behind a box, in the mysterious room “upstairs” or they can order it in if possible. The store also encourages local small press comics and zines, selling them on the top shelf of the new comics rack. While there’s no room inside the store for art shows or large launch parties (although there has been the occasional signing by local comic creators like Ed Brisson) R/X does provide a section of their window to display work by local artists such as James Stokoe, Brandon Graham and Don King (Don is a remarkable multi-media artist who also painted the outside R/X mural, all the more remarkable because he is colour blind).
R/X is a meeting place for the comics community, entering you has a very good chance of meeting a cartoonist or two or three. Brandon Graham practicably lives there! If you want to arrange to meet someone from the comics community chances are you’ll wind up at R/X Comics.
Next door is the Wallflower Modern Dinner, a moderately priced hip diner. It hosts the Vancouver Comics Jam organised by Ed Brisson (cartoonist, letterer and writer for Image Comics Sheltered) usually the last Saturday of the month starting around 8PM. The turnout can vary from around a dozen to 2 or 3 dozens cartoonists from pros and small pressers to dabblers and visitors from out of town. We even allow the occasional animator. Comics jams of course are where one person takes a piece of paper, draws a panel and hands it to the next person to draw a panel who passes it on to the next etc etc etc until you have a finished page that adds up to amusing or at least coherent narrative. Or not. Jam pages from other cities I’ve seen are real works of art but in Vancouver our jams tend to be rough and quickly drawn, where the point is the gag and it’s on to the next one. It’s also an opportunity to watch some of the finest cartoonists in the city getting progressively drunker and the jams get naughtier… although there is a strict ‘no exploding penis’s rule’.
Thanks Robin! All are welcome but bring your own pens and a backing board (so as to not mark up the tables with ink) and please don’t begrudge the waiter/waitresses gratuity as the Wallflower is a busy place on a Saturday night. The Wallflower also has monthly art shows by local artists on the walls, everything from a host of small pieces by Don King (with three Wallflower shows under his belt) or Robin Thompson to Sean Karemakers mural /scroll and a group show by the Vancouver Comic Jam regulars. As a bonus the Wallflower doesn’t charge the artists a commission. To see the art it’s best to come in during the day (when the light is better) and when it’s not so busy (it’s awkward when you’re leaning over the diners to get a closer look at the art).
Next door is Pulp Fiction, the best used bookstore in town! Owner Chris Brayshaw opened Pulp Fiction in 2000, at time when other bookstores were closing in droves and now with three branches prospering Pulp fiction is defying the accepted wisdom that books and bookstores are dead. Chris is knowledgeable about comics (his favorite cartoonists are Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizinga, Chris Ware, Shary Flenniken, Joe Sacco, Josh Simmons (esp. “House”), Rebecca Dart, Al Wiseman (ghost artist on Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace comic books) and Christophe Blain’s cookbook/biography of French chef Alain Passard) and has a couple of book cases of used graphic novels and a small selection of new graphic novels in the store.
Because of its openness and floor space it is also the venue of choice for graphic novel launch parties that a small store like R/X simply has no room for. Recently Ed Brisson and John Christmas premiered the first graphic novel collection of their successful series ‘Sheltered”. Pulp Fiction has also hosted zine/comic/graphic novels/artbook launches by Rebecca Dart (Battle Kittens), a reading/launch for Sarah Leavitt (Tangles), Laura Eveleigh and numerous Robin Bougie (Cinema Sewer, Sleazy Slice) launches, one as recently as February 15th.
While some people find the staff elitist (Chris once gave me a copy of Frank Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns’ graphic novel in order to ‘Get this out of my store’. He was right, it was dreadful) they are knowledgeable and there is no denying their love of books and in no way do they look down on “funny books”. Please note Pulp Fiction does not carry much in the way of small press publications but sometimes will sometimes will take items on commission.
Chris Brayshaw also co-curates The CSA Gallery on the floor above Pulp Fiction, if you want to see the art inquire at Pulp Fiction.
As a critic and curator I asked Chris for his thoughts on comics as art:
“Comics is a hybrid artform that manipulates space and time simultaneously. At its peak, it is the equal of the best literature, visual art, film, music or dance. Criticism of comics, or of any other artform, consists of trying to rigorously distinguish the better from the less good, & of combining love with judgement.”
Next time we’ll be going upstairs to visit some of the cartoonists studios in the building!
:: Colin Upton is a cartoonist, history buff, sometimes performance artist, member of Cloudscape, regular participant in the Vancouver Comic Jam, and general gad about town in Vancouver BC. He posts comics and other curiosities on tumbler here and you can stalk him on Facebook here! ::