To look back at the last ten years of comics in Canada, Sequential asked a special panel of critics and retailers to come up with a list of ten memorable comics. We were not necessarily looking for a “Best of List” but rather a list of important comics, overlooked comics, or just comics the panelists wanted to talk about, made by Canadians between 2010-2019. What we got were four very eclectic lists that we think illustrate the depth and breadth of the Canadian comics world.
Today’s contribution comes from Candida Rifkind. Prof Rifkind teaches comics at the University of Winnipeg and is the co-editor of Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives (WLU Press). She is current president of the Comics Studies Society and is co-editor of the series Crossing Lines: Transcultural/Transnational Comics Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
What follows is a completely subjective list of comics/graphic narratives made by Canadian artists/writers over the last decade, in order of publication. These are books I happily recommend, re-read, teach, and write about.
Two Generals by Scott Chantler. Penguin Random House, 2010.
I have recommended this book to Canadian history buffs as well as the mom of a teen obsessed with all things military. Two Generals is based on Chantler’s grandfather’s WWII diary of army training, crossing the Atlantic, and participating in the Allied invasion of Normandy. Based on extensive research and using photographs as reference images, Two Generals is a well-drawn clear line comic that tells a larger story through the experiences of two ordinary young men. Chantler doesn’t shy away from the brutal physical and psychological effects of the war, but he also illustrates some of the absurdly humorous moments of army life too. Framed by sequences set in the present, this graphic history is a valuable entry into Canadian war stories that are also always, at least to some degree, anti-war stories.
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton. Drawn & Quarterly, 2011.
The first of two collections of Kate Beaton’s comic strips to come out in the decade (Step Aside Pops! was published in 2015), this fan favourite is full of funny jokes about literature, history, and Canada. Beaton’s jokes may reach those with similar tastes to hers first, but there is enough context in most of them for readers to get the gag without necessarily being familiar with the source material she’s satirizing. Deft pacing, witty scratchy caricatures, and modern slang placed in the mouths of eminent historical and fictional characters add to the irreverence and playfulness. Beaton was one of the first webcomics artists to break into print comics publishing and her success paved the way for others working online.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator). First Second, 2014.
Given Jillian Tamaki’s huge talent and prolific output over the decade, it’s hard to choose just one of her books. But This One Summer, created with her cousin Mariko Tamaki, stands out for its glorious illustrations and multi-layered storytelling. Focusing on two pre-teen friends, Rose and Windy, over the course of a summer spent in their Ontario lakefront cottage community, the Tamakis touch on expected themes (ups and downs of adolescent friendship, emerging sexualities, unrequited crushes) but also veer into less predictable territory as the narrative ripples out to older teens and parents (and their experiences of unwanted pregnancy, slut-shaming, infertility, miscarriage, depression). As well, a sub-plot about a nearby historical re-enactment Huron Village introduces questions about cottage country’s role in settler colonialism and the treatment of Indigenous girls and women by white boys and men. Most memorable are Jillian Tamaki’s lush drawings of Windy, one of the most lovable characters in contemporary indie Canadian comics, relishing her time on the beach and in the water.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. Simon & Shuster, 2014.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love Emily Carroll. Her smart, chilling, gothic feminist takes on fairy and folk tales are at once creepy and delightful. Some of the short comics in this collection were posted first on her website, and she was able to keep the vibrant colours and adapt the scrolling script to the print page very effectively. Revisionist versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Bluebeard”, and other well-known tales remind us that the woods are both magical and macabre, and people are rarely what they seem (sometimes they even pull off their faces to reveal worms underneath). Carroll leaves some of the most terrifying moments to the imagination and this restraint combines with her expressive lettering to add to the chills.
Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac. Jonathan Cape, 2014.
There is no other graphic memoir like Fatherland, at least in Canada. First, there’s the story: in 1975. Nina’s mother fled her marriage in Canada and returned to her native Yugoslavia with Nina in tow. Her father, who remained in Canada, was a militant Serbian ultra-nationalist forced to leave Yugoslavia at the end of WWII. No spoilers, but his militancy leads to a terrorist plot on Canadian soil that ultimately backfires. Bunjevac shows the multi-generational effects of political oppression and occupation, from Nazi occupation to Soviet takeover, and this primer on 20th century Balkan history is also a very personal and intriguing memoir of a fraught immigrant childhood (hence the double meaning of the title). Then there’s the style: using black-and-white cross-hatching, shading, and stippling, Fatherland echoes grainy newspaper articles, old photographs, and classic illustration in a sequential comic book. A memoir of almost unbelievable political intrigue that challenges a lot of the stereotypes of Canada as bland and boring.
I’m Not Here by GG. Koyama, 2017.
This ethereal, moving comic was published to critical acclaim in the comics press by an artist who remains relatively elusive (her bio at the publisher’s site simply says she “lives and works in the small Canadian prairie city where she grew up during the 1980s”). GG has a signature style utterly unique, at least in Canadian indie comics: highly cinematic and influenced by graphic design’s attention to the placement of shapes and use of negative space and shadows within each frame, such that the images become at once minimal and hyper-realistic. The story itself is a bit surreal, as a presumably Asian-Canadian young woman who is obligated to taking care of her elderly parents becomes voyeuristically obsessed with her doppelganger, whom she ultimately discovers is living a much more adventurous life, but at the expense of her family duties. The protagonist is a photographer and her milieu is generic North American suburbia. Both of these factors give GG a lot of scope to draw the literal and metaphoric windows that frame and illuminate her characters’ lives.
On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin. Translated by Helge Dascher. Drawn & Quarterly, 2014.
Despite being available in translation, Diane Obomsawin is under-appreciated in anglophone Canadian comics circles, perhaps because she divides her time between comics and animation, or perhaps because her minimal style and charming anthropomorphic characters (animal heads on elongated human bodies) can be misread as naïve or simplistic. On Loving Women is a collection of 11 lesbian coming out stories, narrated by adult women looking back at their early crushes and romantic catastrophes. They are at once individual and unique experiences and, collected together, they form a confessional archive of queer experiences marked, at least visually, as specifically Quebecois. Helge Dascher’s idiomatic translations add to the intimate tone of the comics, but we are always aware the drawings depict the narrating women’s memories of their early lives and loves, not necessarily their actualities. Honourable mention to Obomsawin’s Kaspar, a deceptively simple retelling of the Kaspar Hauser story.
Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong. Arsenal Pulp, 2019.
Subtitled “The Story of My Postpartum Depression,” this graphic memoir has a lot to say, even to readers who have experienced neither pregnancy nor depression. Although it is Wong’s first comic book, her spare black-and-white style is highly expressive and assured. It also challenges idealized myths of motherhood and womanhood in an honest, funny, and insightful representation of Wong’s physical and psychological experiences of birthing and postpartum depression. Since its publication, the book has been commended by others for allowing them to recognize their experiences in her story. But the intimate narrative persona and well-crafted storytelling will draw in any reader interested in women’s life experiences and/or graphic medicine.
Clyde Fans by Seth. Drawn & Quarterly, 2019.
This one’s a bit of a cheat because Seth has been publishing Clyde Fans serially since 1998. But, right at the end of the decade, the majestic and beautifully presented complete edition came out to the satisfaction of long-time fans and the intrigue of new readers. Those familiar with Seth’s oeuvre will recognize his cluster of obsessions: the early to mid 20th century; Southern Ontario small towns; dysfunctional families; melancholy middle-aged men; and a loving attention to the visual details of pre-digital graphic design, advertising, and architecture. The story of two quite different brothers who inherit the family’s electric fan business and have to contend with their difficult relationship as well as major shifts in Canadian manufacturing (the rise of air conditioning; unionization), Clyde Fans is the apex of Canadian masculine melodrama, rivalled only by Jeff Lemire’s Essex County published in the previous decade. The longevity of gestation is visible as the style changes from beginning to end, and so this is also a retrospective of one of Canada’s most important cartoonist’s style evolutions.
Dakwäkãda Warriors by Cole Pauls. Conundrum, 2019.
If Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s Red: A Haida Manga launched a new kind of Indigenous comics storytelling in the previous decade, this is the book that came in right at the end of the 2010s to push the field even further. Beautifully drawn in a red/black/white formline style, Cole Pauls (Tahltan) uses space battles as allegories for settler colonialism: the heroes are based on figures from traditional Tahltan and Southern Tutchone, legends and the villains are evil pioneers and cyborg Sasquatches. But the real innovation here is that this is an Indigenous language revival comic. In this collected edition of the original three zines, Pauls includes words in both Southern Tutchone and English, and credits Elders with helping him to complete the translations (all Southern Tutchone words in the speech balloons/dialogue boxes appear in small English print on the same page). A genre story that speaks to Canadian-Indigenous history in a stunning and original style, readers with no exposure to Southern Tutchone will find the comic book itself teaches them words as they go along. Moreover, through learning the language we learn a little bit of cultural knowledge too.