Remembering Ken Mahon’s Time in Canada And Looking Forward At His Future in Ireland
By David Bragdon
There are a lot of things people in Toronto don’t know about Ken Mahon. People don’t know the proper way to pronounce his last name is “MAN” not “Mah-hone”. Most people don’t know he received an Animation Diploma from Coláiste Dhúlaigh College of Further Education in 2010 let alone that the school’s name’s pronounced Koh-losh-tuh Doo-lehg. And according to Ken, people in Toronto don’t know anything about Gaeilge. “People keep calling it Gaelic,” he explains with a smirk. “We just call it Irish.”
But the most important thing to know about Ken is that after living in Toronto these past two years, and despite many sham marriage proposals, Canadian Immigration has forced him to return to Dublin. We’re all the poorer because of it.
If you were one of the lucky Torontonians that got to know Ken Mahon, you’d know that the 26 year-old scruffy, grumpy looking Irishman doesn’t make it easy. If he speaks at all, it’s in a low, monotone brogue. One of his favourite sayings is, “I hate everybody.” Paradoxically his comics are playful, full of emotion and often tender. Like a loveable stray cat that plops down in front of you, it’s unclear whether you’re going to get soft fluffy purrs or a vicious clawing from Ken. Or both.
“He comes off as a little surly, but I think he likes that,” Krystine Hossak explains while beaming. “He’s just a really sweet guy.” As a server at the Hogtown Vegan, Krystine worked alongside Ken until his work Visa was abruptly cancelled.
“Once you sort of crack the shell, he’s the nicest guy,” adds fellow Hogtown server Steve Nilo. The vegan restaurant on Bloor Street West is so small and cozy, that it looks like the most important work skill needed there is getting along with your co-workers. And as Steve is quick to point out “We all love Ken. He’s a Hogtown staple.”
It was while working as a dishwasher at the Hogtown that Ken Mahon started drawing daily comics as a way to challenge himself. Since the staff there interacted with the cartoonist the most, they periodically ended up in his comics. Ken’s co-workers were uniquely positioned to see both the external persona and inner workings of the artist.
“I’ll read something with Krystine in it,” Steve enthuses, “and she’ll [say] it didn’t mean anything to me at the moment but obviously he saw something in it. It’s usually something really mundane that the normal person would forget but for some reason he has found some sort of jewel in it. It sort of makes you question the little things that happen.”
Scattered amongst the mundane comics about food prep, dishwashing, hours of playing video games and watching cartoons are tantalizing glimpses into Ken’s soul. Small moments of profundity and touching dramas like the saga of his pet cat Moose are all laid bare for anyone to see on his Tumblr and Instagram.
“Autobiographical cartooning really turns you into a voyeur as a reader,” confesses fellow Dublin cartoonist Philip Barrett. While Ken was in Toronto, Philip would wait for the daily strips to build up and then binge read about his friend’s life. “It makes a weird sense to have Ken’s comics so open and honest-appearing when he can project the image of being such a surly chap. It’s hard not to think of him as a bit of a softy underneath it all.”
But it’s one thing to read a comic online and click “like” and another to connect in person. Drawing comics are a solitary pursuit to begin with but the dichotomy between the inner and outer realities of Ken Mahon also illustrates just how separate and isolated people can be. While not consciously intentional, Ken’s comics show how hard it is for people to truly connect.
“Usually I hear nothing back about [my comics],” Ken admits with a shrug and a trademark smirk. “Like around the time I lost Moose I got like, two or three messages. And that was it.”
It’s now that much harder to reach out and express support and empathy with Ken Mahon. On March 16th of this year, Ken gathered up his belongings, and his equally surely pet cat Guts, and returned to Dublin. Now when Ken draws a comic about how moving back in with his parents feels like backpedalling, the people who’ve grown attached to him in Toronto aren’t able to buy him a beer to commiserate.
Moving to Toronto was the culmination of a dream he’s had since he was 12 years old and visited the city during a Scouts trip. Coupled with celebrated comic events like TCAF and the city’s varied and vibrant independent arts culture, Toronto provided an irresistible allure.
“Personally I had a sense of an appreciation of alternative comics in Canada as a whole,” Philip Barrett points out, “whereas in the US, perhaps the alternative destination, comix seems quite focused on particular cities.” Philip lived in Vancouver from 2004-2008 and was immersed in their comic scene. He was so inspired that when he returned to Ireland he formed the Dublin Comic Jam together with Katie Blackwood and Paddy Lynch. They’re just some of the artists who are helping to grow the Irish alternative arts scene.
“Although it’s a small city in global terms,” Paddy adds, “there’s a diverse set of cartoonists producing some great work independently and for international publishers. Even five years ago, though, you could have listed off a fairly definitive set of cartoonists quite quickly, but now it’s much larger.”
This has been helped by the likes of groups like the Dublin Comic Jam, and more recently The Comics Lab. It’s a regular event that gathers together industry professionals and independent artists for workshops, talks and drawing challenges. In addition to this there’s the professional organization Illustrators Ireland who have increasingly included comics and Irish comic artists in their events. The Dublin comic scene has grown significantly and isn’t the same town that Ken Mahon left two years ago.
But there’s one Toronto exile that has his own thoughts about being a cartoonist in Ireland. It wasn’t that long ago that John Cullen was living in this city and starting his own daily comics challenge that’s been making artist all over the world keel over laughing when they aren’t grinding their teeth in jealousy.
“I don’t want my being an Irish to be what defines me,” John states. “The world is, a big place, and I think pigeonholing yourself like that would be doing both you and your work a disservice.”
Sitting at home munching on Jaffa Cakes in between slaving away on his daily comics, John sometimes laments that comics in Ireland aren’t as well regarded as they are in other European countries. He’s been noticing though that the big name publishers like DC, Marvel, Image and IWD are taking notice of Irish artists like Declan Shalvey, Will Sliney, Stephen Mooney, Nick Roche, Stephen Byrne, Triona Farell…and the list goes on and on.
But if there’s one place John Cullen feels truly at home, it’s online. “I like the Internet, as it can allow even the most shy of people to get themselves and their work out there, to gain some confidence in themselves and feel like they have a place in the comic community.”
For the Torontonians that Ken’s left behind, online is the only place to stay connected with him. He’s currently moved on from daily comics to start working on larger narratives but something of Ken’s soul can still be felt in the anthology he’s currently working on: Gilbert Marlow, The World Ender. It’s the story of an immortal scruffy and grumpy looking loner (with a soft spot for cats) who wanders the world impacting the lives of people he meets before moving on. You can support Ken Mahon on Patreon and read exclusives of the story that we all hope to see in print someday.
Sadly, when Ken finally gets off his ass, starts printing his comics and making a name for himself, it most likely won’t be in Canada where his Toronto friends can personally buy him a beer and celebrate his success. Until then, artists everywhere could stand to take a page from Ken’s book.
His other favourite saying is “Goodbye Forever,” which he’ll say whether it’s uncertain you’ll see him again soon or if he’s just going out to the store. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of the uncertainty of life and to cherish each moment even if Ken seemingly says it as a joke. We can all stand to be more honest about our feelings in our art as well as in person and not take our time here for granted.
Goodbye forever Ken Mahon.
David Bragdon is an Oakville based artist best known for his work with the Toronto Comic Jam. Along with helping organize the monthly event and publishing the monthly Jam Books, David has contributed numerous articles to the Toronto Comic Jam collections, profiling various Comic Jammers, but mostly as an excuse to sneak his own drawings in.