Flipping through the pages of the history of indie comics in Newfoundland and Labrador

Comic books and graphic novels are the bedrock of several recent Hollywood blockbusters and long-running television series.

But while many may know the names of titles like DC’s Batman and Marvel’s avengersNewfoundland and Labrador has its own comic book history, one that goes back decades.

Wallace Ryan, the godfather of Newfoundland comics, has been publishing them since the 1970s and is now seeing a new generation pick up the pen to tell stories.

He says the first independent comic made in Newfoundland and Labrador was 1979’s Zeitgeista fantasy story he created with the late Gerry Porter.

Ryan met his friend and future collaborator Porter when they were teenagers attending an arts camp in the summer of 1976 at what is now the College of the North Atlantic — but even in that course, there was nothing about comics, he said.

“Basically, we had to learn everything ourselves, from the ground up,” said Ryan.

They ended up learning a lot from each other by pooling their knowledge. The pair also found a magazine with an article containing a section on how to letter comics, he said, “which was great because there was nowhere you could do a comic book course back then.”

This is some of Ryan’s early work. (Submitted by Elizabeth Whitten)

Around the same time Ryan and Porter made their first comic book, St. John’s businessman Geoff Stirling unveiled Captain Canada, which he created with his son Scott Stirling with art by Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi. The superhero made his debut in a comic strip in Stirling’s Sunday Herald, now the Newfoundland Herald. The character lives on through promos on NTV, co-founded by Geoff Stirling.

In the early ’80s Tim Peckam joined the provincial comics scene, Ryan said.

“Suddenly there were three of us there. He was more of a cartoonist gag and all that. A fabulous cartoonist gag too,” recalled Ryan.

In the early ’90s Ryan released a superhero satire called Toxic! with Fox Lidstone. Their first issue had a color cover — a first in NL comic book history, according to Ryan.

Lidstone later moved to the United States and worked for Continuum Comics on a series called TheDark. Ryan said he was set to contribute to it but the company went under before it went to print.

To start building a community for comic book creators, Ryan and Darrell Edwards launched the Hundred Proof Comic Jam, a monthly get-together for comic artists at the Ship Pub in downtown St. John’s.

Paul Tucker works in his downtown St. John’s studio. (Submitted by Elizabeth Whitten)

Launching a career in comics

Paul Tucker became a full-time comic book artist in August but he has been making comics for decades, with his work has been published by Viper Comics and IDW Publishing, among others.

He took Ryan’s comic book class at Memorial University in 1994. He and his brother were young, he says, their mother had to give permission for them to attend.

“At that time it was so mysterious to me. It was so far-fetched to think that you could make comics from Newfoundland at that time. There seemed to be this thing where you had to live in New York to make comics because that’s where all the publishers were,” Tucker said.

“It was cool to find some like-minded folks who loved comics.”

Among his early inspirations was the first local comic book he read: infil-traitor by Blair Foote, published by Alibi Comics.

Throughout Tucker’s career, he’s seen the comic book industry evolve. He said an increase in art stores and the ability to order items online makes it easier to get supplies. Technology has also had an effect, with artists using tools like the Apple Pencil and turning to YouTube tutorials, while he himself was mostly self-taught.

After going to a few comic book jams at the Ship Pub and finding them dark and smoke-filled, he started his own gathering at the coffee shop Hava Java. When he reconnected with his old teacher Ryan, they moved it to the Anna Templeton Center.

“That way we could open up for kids too, because the Ship Pub was great but it was over the age of 19. And we wanted to get at ’em when they were young and convert them then,” Ryan chuckled.

The jam is a lot of things, Tucker explained: a place to quietly work, talk about comics, or get comments from your peers. There are snacks too. But after celebrating 10 years in March 2020, the comic jam was closed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But one was held last month, said Tucker, and he wants to build it back up.

Kelly Bastow is the artist behind the graphic novel Manfried the Man, published by Quirk Books, and also the self-published Wax & Wane and Year Long Summer. (Submitted by Elizabeth Whitten)

Online publishing opens up but print is still king

Kelly Bastow is making her career in comics in her hometown of Conception Bay South.

“I really like it. It’s kind of a way to be a storyteller and feel like you’re creating something and putting something into the world. Connecting with people who could be anywhere in the world,” she said.

She started making comics in her early 20s, when she saw works by Newfoundland and Labrador comic book artists featured in the now-defunct newspaper the Scope.

Bastow lived for a few years in Toronto, which has an active comic book scene, but moved back home around the time the pandemic started. It doesn’t really matter where you are based, she said; it’s better to live somewhere inexpensive and then travel to comic conventions.

“Because you’re online, your work can be seen anywhere. So you don’t need to be in LA You don’t need to be in Toronto to be a big part of the comics community.”

Traditional publishing isn’t the only way to release comics either, she said, noting there are many sites where people can pay to read web comics, like Gumroad.

Some of Bastow’s work. (Submitted by Elizabeth Whitten)

She said if you go online you don’t need to find a publisher or put up money for a print, which is a boost for independent artists. Bastow is also a traditional artist, so it’s rewarding to hold her book de ella physically, knowing she made it.

Despite the proliferation of online platforms, “print is still king,” said Ryan, who is working on an anthology comic that will be initially sold digitally and later go into print.

“The comic book is an art object. It’s more than just a periodical or a story.… It’s ironic that commerce plays such a role in the art form but it’s a package and that’s our art gallery,” he laughed.

Today, there are a number of NL artists making comic books. There’s Mike Feehan, known for his work on the Eisner-nominated Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles from DC Comics, which also won a GLAAD award, as well as Leon Chung, Scott Keating and Jennifer Barrett. CBC reporter Andrew Hawthorn has also written comics, including for the iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Tucker is optimistic that there’s a bright future for new local comic book artists coming up.

“My hope is that I’m going to meet a new generation where they’re empowered and talented and want to make the commitment.”

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