by BK Munn
Last night I shook the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and caught the last train to Hogtown for the Toronto launch of Jay Stephens’ new Dejects collection. The book is an immaculate collection of fugitive pieces from Stephens’ 30-year career as a cartoonist and comic book artist and represents never-before-reprinted work from newspapers, magazines, comic books, and online series. Included in this very sharp looking volume, many beautifully-coloured for the first time by the artist (“It turns out I love working with colour,” Stephens told the appreciative crowd at the signing), are such long-lost works as the complete Nod strips from Toronto’s Exclaim! Magazine, previously uncollected Captain Rightful (and the hapless Victim) strips, The Nature Show webcomic, Icky Animal, the horribly depressing Twerp strips, and the sublime Jungle Shi-Tzu, among many other gems from the pen of this legendary cartoon genius.
The tome is the second publication from the newly-relaunched Black Eye Books, the Michel Vrana-run press that published Stephens’ Nod comic book back in the 1990s. Vrana jumped back into the publishing game earlier this year with the 20-years-late final issue of Dylan Horrocks’s Pickle comic, using the crowd-funding model to get these labours of love by cult favourite cartoonists back out into the world. (An added bonus at the signing was a reprint of the extremely rare The Land of Nod #3, pulped due to a printing error back in 1997, but newly re-pressed by Black Eye for the Dejects tour.)
After signing some books, Jay regaled his roomful of fans for several hours with tales from his long career in comics, providing humourous backstories for many of the strips in the collections. Aside from one less-than-scintillating discussion of the use of brush pens, Stephens had the crowd in the palm of his ink-stained hand, sharing sardonic anecdotes of his time in the animation trenches producing three different tv shows, dealing with network executives, toy marketers, development hell, union drives, pugnacious conspiracy-theory-spouting prop designers, and many more tribulations. He also shared delightful stories of his brushes with comics greatness, including marquee names like Darwyn Cooke, Alan Moore, and Matt Groening. Many of Stephens’ peers and former studio-mates were in the audience and peppered him with questions and reminders of amusing and embarassing episodes from his past to keep things lively and in many ways the launch was like sitting in on an old bullpen gab session, listening to comics pros tease, kibitz and complain about the biz. All in all, it was a great way to spend an autumnal Monday evening in Toronto. Stephens was at the forefront of the wave of indy cartoonists who came up in the late-80s/early-90s, and you can see his influence in the generations of cute-sick cartooning that have come since, in both comics and animation, and his work from that time still has a satiric, nihilistic bite that is worth revisiting in the pages of this wonderful new book.