The U of T’s Innis Hall plays host this Saturday to the sixth annual Joe Shuster Awards for Canadian Comic Book Creators, a series of awards that recognize and promote Canadians who make, publish, and sell comic books, web comics, and graphic novels. Kevin Boyd, Executive Director of The Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards Association, the organization that oversees the awards, has been involved with the Canadian comic book community for many years. Kevin recently spoke to Torontoist’s Dave Howard via phone and email about Joe Shuster, this year’s inductees into the Canadian Comic Book Creator Hall of Fame, the Gene Day Award (for self-publishing), and the French Canadian comics scene.
Dave Howard: What are the Joe Shuster Awards trying to celebrate?
Kevin Boyd: Well we’re trying to celebrate the fact that Canada has a large and diverse collection of creators that live here, and we’re trying to encourage more interest and activity in Canada among our creators. This will be our sixth year, as we started organizing in the fall of 2004. The first ceremony was in April 2005.
Because Canada has a rich tradition of supporting our national arts communities with awards that recognize the achievements of our citizens (such as the Genies and the Junos), we felt that it was important to do something similar for comic books.
Howard: Would you mind giving a bit of a summation of Mr. Joe Shuster and why this award is in his honour?
Boyd: Joe Shuster is well known as the co-creator of Superman, and Superman is one of a select group of characters that everybody around the world knows. He was born here in Toronto, delivered the Star here, and developed his love for comics reading the paper. For business reasons his father moved the family to Cleveland, and it was there that he met into Jerry Siegel, who lived just a street and a half over from his house. They went to school together and shared their love for pulps and comics and started writing fantasy stories, like many boys did at the time. They started writing science fiction stories, and Joe used to do the covers and illustrations that accompanied them. They tried to sell them to various pulp publishers with little success. When they started adapting their stories as comic strips they had better success selling their work (like Slam Bradley) to publishers like National. And from there they were able to sell the first batch of Superman newspaper strips to National as a single story for publication in Action Comics 1 in 1938.
Now, there were a whole bunch of things that came into play as far as their role with National (later known as DC). Unfortunately it was not unusual at that time period for creators to sell stories as work-for-hire (a practice still prevalent in mainstream comics). The creators were paid a flat fee for the character rights, for which they had no control. In some cases it’s a reasonable gamble to get published, but in the case of Jerry and Joe, it meant that they had signed away the rights to the most profitable character the fledgling comic book industry had seen – Superman created so many knock-offs that he spawned an entire genre of comics that still dominates the Direct Market today. They did get some compensation as the character moved into other media like radio, cartoons, television. But they tried to sue for the rights back in the late 1940s and lost the case, which was devastating to the men, emotionally and financially.
Howard: How long did it take for them to win it back?
Boyd: Well it’s been a long fight and I think it’s still one that’s ongoing, one that their families have picked up, as they have both passed on. The Siegel family is in the position to—because Jerry has living heirs—to sue DC comics for the rights of that character back. And there’s been some back and forth over the rights of some other characters like Superboy that were developed at a later time and sold as separate concepts. The DC lawyers argue that it’s an extension of the initial contract and that they should still continue to own the rights of those ancillary characters.
I believe 2012-13 is an important time, as that’s when the Shuster family can get involved in the legal action as well. These cases are important in defining the roles of the creator and the publisher. Right now I think they still receive a certain amount of money from DC comics annually as thanks for creating Superman. A pension, in a sense, that’s carried over to their heirs.
Howard: Is that something they won legally, or just as a kind of gift?
Boyd: That was something that the DC lawyers brought in, in the mid to late 1970s, when the Superman movies were coming out. There were stories that Jerry and Joe were living in poverty, and a lot people like Neil Adams and Jerry Robinson sort of stepped forward to say that with DC and Warner Brothers ready to make millions of dollars from the motion picture, it wasn’t right that the men who created the character are forgotten and not getting anything out of it. So someone actually agreed with them at the upper levels, and started issuing an annual payment cheque to them as thanks, and the amount increased as time went on.
Howard: What are the protections in place today for creative people who are involved in the comic book industry?
Boyd: I still think it depends on the contract that you sign and the agreement that you’ve made with your publisher. Generally most writers and artists working in mainstream comics are given royalty rights for the stories they create when they are reprinted, but few receive the character rights back or payment for their usage. If you create a character for Marvel or DC, you don’t own the copyright on it. But there are a lot more deals coming through where creators are asking for and receiving more rights. For instance, if I came up with a character, I can sell that to the publisher, but if I want to retain the rights to that character, they publisher is often allowing that. These creator-owned lines have been around since the 1980s in one form or another.
Howard: For the Joe Shuster awards, someone is inducted into the Canadian Comic-Book Creator Hall of Fame. Who’s getting inducted this year?
Boyd: Six people are getting in, though normally we do three to four.
This year, because it’s the 35th anniversary of the publication of Captain Canuck #1, we decided we would honour the three gentlemen whose names are most associated with the character, including co-creator Richard Comely, who was also the publisher and writer and artist on some of the books, and George Freeman, who really developed the style of Captain Canuck over the initial run as series artist, and has since gone on to do a number of great works for various publishers and also helped to found the Digital Chameleon Studio in Winnipeg, which was one of the studios that revolutionized colouring in comics in the 1990s. They’ll be joined by Claude St. Aubin, who was the anchor on the original series and who did some of the back-up stories. He has since gone on to have a very long and varied career as an inker, an artist, and a colourist, and he currently draws a series called R.E.B.E.L.S. for DC Comics.
The other three people we’re inducting this year are Deni Loubert, formally Deni Sim, the originally publisher of Aardvark-Vanaheim. She and Dave (Sim, creator of Cerebus) formed the company back in 1977 and launched Cerebus, the best known independent comic of the 1970s and 1980s. She’s encouraged a lot of Canadian talent through Aardvark-Vanaheim, and when she and Dave split up she started Renegade Press, taking the non-Cerebus titles from Aardvark-Vanaheim under that umbrella. Creators like Dave Derrigo, Arn Saba, Bill Messner-Loebs, Bob Burden, and Jim Valentino all came out of the A-V/Renegade Press group of titles. Finally, we’ll be inducting Quebecois cartoonist and animator Serge Gaboury, one of the great creators that got his start cartooning for Croc magazine.
Howard: And you have the Gene Day Award?
Boyd: Yes, we’re really excited about the Gene Day Award. We give $500 to the winner, and try to encourage people to go out and self-publish and follow that path, like Gene Day and Dave Sim did. There’s so much amazing work that’s being done now. Just walking around TCAF a few weeks ago, you can just see a lot of the same creative spirit is flourishing.
Howard: There’s a huge scene in Toronto, and all over Canada. I’m always shocked to see how much we have.
Boyd: Yes, it’s amazing. Organizations like TCAF and stores like The Beguiling, and to a lesser extent what we do at Fan Expo, we’re encouraging people to come out and get their work into the eyes of the public and getting interest from publishers to distribute that work or hire the artists for new projects. I think we’ve got maybe five or six creative hot spots in Canada: Toronto definitely, but also Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary, and Montreal. I think that’s the great thing about Canada is that we have that sense of community, and I just don’t get that sense of that in the US at conventions.
Howard: You and I spoke a little bit at the Doug Wright Awards about French comics. We know that Quebec comics are not really seen for the most part in English Canada, though they’re often read in Europe, but some publishers are starting to translate and bring Francophone artists to English Canada. Tell me about the French Canadian scene.
Boyd: I think that because we now have some great English language publishers (Drawn and Quarterly, Conundrum Press) based in Montreal, they are seeing the work of the amazing Quebecois scene (published by companies like La Pasteque, les 400 Coups, Glenat Quebec, et al.) and realize that these great comics deserve to be seen by other parts of Canada.
Howard: Can you tell me about Canada’s French-language publishers?
Boyd: Yes, there’s five or six really quality French publishers in Quebec. There’s La Pastèque, Les 400 Coups, Glénat Québec (which is a European publisher that set up a Quebec division, which encourages Canadian creators to produce works for the European market), and Boomerang (who do great kids books). It’s an interesting group, very self-contained, with the books distributed in Quebec, France, Belgium, and other French-speaking territories. One of the reasons we got rid of the language restrictions for the awards was to raise awareness of this work in English Canada. I think every year we’ve had French language nominees at the top of the nominations list. You never know how things are going to turn out this year as far as winners go.
Michel Rabagliati with his Paul series is some of the best cartooning in the world at the moment. Francis Desharnais, Pascal Blanchet, Guy Delisle, Jean-Louis Tripp and Regis Loisel, Philip Gerard. We’ve got amazing people working on adventure comics like Jacques Lamontagne and Djief Bergeron and Marc Delafontaine’s cartoony style on Les Nombrils (now being reprinted in English as The Bellybuttons). It would be great if those creators can get more exposure in the North American market as well. It was really nice to see a bit of that cross over at TCAF as well—I hope to see more in future years.