Fine Art Comics of Canada: Sixties to Seventies


Heart of London, Snore & More

by Robert Dayton


Part Two: Scraptures, Snore, and more

The Canadian comic book history book Invaders From the North by archivist John Bell writes “However the first comic book of the period, Scraptures, originated not with the underground press, but rather, Toronto’s literary avant-garde.” Scraptures was by legendary innovative poet bpNichol. Admittedly, writing about this national treasure is a daunting task. If I am so much as a smidge off, people will be on me. bpNichol expanded the boundaries of poetry going into sound poetry, concrete poetry, early computer text, and beyond. Concrete poetry was very concerned with typography and the layout of words and letters on the page, utilizing design and the spaces between the words and the page, even sliding off into other disciplines. Working in sound poetry, bpNichol was part of the collaborative group The Four Horsemen who performed and released a few rare recordings.

Besides being an editor at Coach House Press, the prolific bpNichol co-founded Ganglia Press which published the long-running literary journal grOnk. It ran for 126 issues in a variety of formats, including cassettes, and used various technologies including mimeographs and rubber stamps. It was in grOnk, a publication often mailed out free of charge, that bpNichol released some of his Scraptures.

copyright on this image is held by the Estate of bpNichol, who generously allowed us to use it in this piece.

These Scraptures would turn up in various places besides grOnk and they weren’t always in comics form, the first one that appeared in the lit mag Alphabet in 1966 seems to be concrete poetry. The third one (or ‘sequence’ as he called it) featured spare typewritten text and granite looking shapes, the fifth sequence was a sound poem on a record released by Coach House Press. Later sequences, though, oh my! The eleventh sequence from grOnk 8: August 1967 depicts a frog-like character with his arm in a second panel; characters use panels as an almost peek-a-boo, turning them into a jungle gym as they stretch and contort, speech balloons containing letters from a classic typeset font. bpNichol also released a cartoon study of the frog from Scraptures: ninth sequence, appropriately printed in green ink. One issue of grOnk from 1969 called Pope Leo: El Elope, a tragedy in four letters was written by poet John Riddell with various configurations of those letters typed out, with “puerile drawings” by bp Nichol. This comic book narrative shows Pop Elo assassinating Pope Leo with a knife.

Various issues of grOnk would feature his super-hero Captain Poetry, a fusing of two of his loves, but with the head of a chicken. Captain Poetry would appear on the cover of the concrete poetry anthology The Cosmic Chef, holding up a mound of granite. Turn the page, he has collapsed under its weight.

bpNichol’s first issue of Greaseball Comics came out as series 8 of grOnk in 1970. Blank eyed characters seemingly rendered in felt marker make statements like, “all that is insubstantial and cursed by GOD who divided out tongues!!” ending with a character trapped in a comic panel floating away in multiples. Issue two came two years later, crudely stapled together on long horizontal sheets, replicating the newspaper strip format, this issue featured “Milt the Morph as Lonely Fred.” Morph is an apt name, everything feels free-wheeling and fluid in his comics. Quickly drawn and only four pages yet with immense depth, the letter H floats by (an important letter highlighted often in his oeuvre, the collection An H In The Heart has a poem where he explains that his H obsession may have begun with The Harvey Comics logo and slogan “look for the big H!”) as a bearded character devolves into a single line gently spiraling around the page. There was also the more text-based Grease Ball (note the slight title differentiation from Greaseball Comics) from 1972 with a cover image by Chester Gould of someone being choked, most likely a panel from Dick Tracy and probably used without Gould’s knowledge. This issue reads like a comics fanzine with Nichol getting into the works of Spain, Crumb, Harold Gray, and the violence in Gould’s comics.

In a grOnk mailout he promised another issue of Greaseball Comics featuring “THE TRUE TALE OF TOMMY THE TURK.” Did it ever materialise? In that same mailout he devoted a paragraph to important Canadian comic archivist Captain George’s comic fanzine Captain George Presents, making note of the E.C. Segar Thimble Theater and Frazetta issues. Some issues of grOnk were devoted to being massive full-scale reproductions of Winsor McCay’s gorgeous comics, including Little Nemo and Terror Of The Tiny Tads, printed using Coach House’s own printing press and other tools.

Milt The Morph appears in many of bpNichols’ Allegories which function as single-panel conceptual comics (or, if the word ‘comics’ causes you dismay, visual poems). Poet Donato Mancini describes it as bpNichol’s finest comic work and what he thinks of as being some of his best work overall. Though they may appear crudely drawn, they are quite complex.

Andromeda was a black and white science-fiction comic book magazine published by Silver Snail, which today exists as a much more mainstream Toronto comic shop, that bpNichol would regularly contribute his own writing to along with adapting short stories to the comic book medium. Walter M. Miller’s “The Big Hunger” about space colonization, religion, and longing was adapted in Andromeda issue 5 with art by Tony Meers rendered in a realistic style with monochromatic ink washes. bpNichol’s own “The Bellergon Version”, drawn by Tom Nesbitt in a slightly more cartoony style, uses the fairy tale influences of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Mike Borkent’s chapter Post/Avant Comics in the book Avant Canada, notes that Comic Book Confidential by Ron Mann, a comic book documentary with a focus on underground and alternative comics, is dedicated to bpNichol for helping make the movie happen.

A 320-page collection of bpNichol’s comics was released in the 2000’s by Talon. This collection’s reproductions occasionally cause me to wonder if I need bifocals. Paul Dutton, Nichol’s sound poet cohort in The Four Horseman, wrote a scathing review of the book for Books In Canada stating that they focused too much on scraps, works barely in progress and abandoned, and juvenilia; that there wasn’t material like the hard-to-find Fictive Funnies, Nichol’s comic collaboration with grOnk co-editor and poet Steve McCaffery as well as noting that the “brilliant and sophisticated” Allegories being out-of-print “…is enough to make some of us gnash our teeth.” It certainly isn’t the best introduction to this aspect of bpNichol’s work. For that it would be better to go on a quest to seek out the Allegories printed in love: a book of remembrances, also published by Talon, way back in 1974. As well as An H in the Heart: a reader (McLelland & Stewart), a dense collection put together by poet George Bowering and Michael Ondaatje in 1994 which does contain a couple of the Fictive Funnies, including one where the main character falls through a comic book panel or “…a hole in the narrative sequence…”

In the introduction Bowering wanted the collection to show as much of bpNichol’s range as possible, bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t include the work that didn’t adhere to the printed page. bpNichol wanted to convey (not capture –convey) as much of the world as possible (no, it didn’t all work but hey, it’s a risk) in his short life. One comic selected for the book asks, “What is Can Lit?” as a figure wades through a myriad of overlaid panels with the names of authors Gerry Gilbert, Sheila Watson, James Reaney, and Margaret Avison appearing. In the final panel he answers, “It’s just a question of survival.” This collection contains the playful fumetti comic NARY*A*TIFF featuring photos by Marilyn Westlake of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery with hand lettered word balloons in a bookstore arguing over semiotics and philosophy to the point of physical violence, jokes about government grants and the Western Front are included.

In 2002, some of bpNichol’s comic work was shown at Owen’s Art Gallery in Sackville with cartoonist Marc Bell delivering the opening remarks. bpNichol was a big influence on Jason Mclean’s text zines and Jason was honoured to be included in a group show with bpNichol’s work at The Vancouver Art Gallery. Further, Greg Curnoe’s collection of bpNichol art and poetry booklets were given to Jason by Sheila Curnoe.

bpNichols’ comics fit in quite easily with the rest of his enormous and diverse body of work, only becoming anomalous when compared with the works of other artists. Many of these comics are freely available on his archive, funded and run by his estate, Coach House, and Intelligent Machines. Website curator Gregory Betts sees comics as a central aspect of bpNichols’ creative writing noting that his “…concrete poems start as typewriter works (ideopomes he called them), but then become increasingly hand drawn. If you look at a book like Love: A Book of Remembrances (where his Allegories series lives) you see that drawing is major part of his writing. The comics and the concrete become indivisible at a certain point, or at least become manifestations of the same sense of play that he brought to letters, lines, words, and form. His work on cartoon and puppet TV shows (Fraggle Rock, The Raccoons, etc.) all starts to connect, too, rather than just standing as one-offs for money.”

A ‘lost’ sequence of Scraptures (#13) appeared in Snore Comix #2, a comic book anthology released by Coach House in Toronto. In this sequence bpNichol’s interlocking panels grow more and more elaborate with one character crawling its way through the gutters. In another segment, negative space cartoon figures dissolve a dense block of the repeated typeset word ‘lost.’

There were a few contributors to this little red book, perhaps even children. Snore Comix is definitely an art comic. It is so arcane, the reader is given little info, not even the issue number. Issue two’s cover shows two stamped hands pointing fingers at each other: these hands would frequently show up in other issues. The first issue of Snore Comix is from the previous year, 1969, and I am unsure who the contributors for this issue even were, to be honest. A total mystery. Three issues of Snore Comix were released in total.

The Centre For Canadian Contemporary Art website notes that the first two issues of Snore Comix were edited by Jerry Ofo. He was a frequent collaborator of bpNichol’s, having designed the covers to volumes one and two of Nichol’s life-long poem The Martyrology, released by Coach House Press. With issue 3, Michael Tims aka AA Bronson of General Idea took over.  Entitled “Bright Things” it featured a ridiculously bright, fake lofty, monarchical-themed cover. This issue channels closely with correspondence art, a movement that Bronson was quite active in.

Many mail artists contributed to this issue of Snore, including Dr. Brute who contributed an enigmatic self-portrait in a leopard print frame. The mail art movement of the 1960’s and 70’s really connected people from all across Canada, normally a large land mass of isolated pockets where East and West rarely meet. A lot of the mail art that was sent definitely had a cartoony element, stemming from the works of the original Master of mail art, Ray Johnson. Artist collective General Idea’s FILE Magazine started as listings for these mail artists to connect, but once FILE became more archly immersed in Glamour and “the global downtown”, Anna Banana took the baton with VILE Magazine. Image Bank in Vancouver (co-founded by Vincent Trasov, Gary Lee-Nova, and Michael Morris, there is an incredible Image Bank exhibit at The Belkin Gallery, Vancouver, running from June 18th to August 22nd, 2021) was literally about exchanging ideas and images through the postal system with artists’ image request lists printed in earlier issues of FILE.  These mail artists often went into deep persona embodying names that became signifiers. Anna Banana held a Bananalympics featuring all things banana; Vincent Trasov aka Mr. Peanut dressed as the mascot and ran for Mayor of Vancouver in 1974 garnering over 1,000 votes; Dr. Brute and Lady Brute wore leopard spots and distributed leopard spots through the mail art network. These mail artists from across the nation eventually all converged at the 1974 Hollywood DeccaDance, a mail art awards show done up as an Academy Awards spoof at a glorious Elks Hall in Los Angeles.

Dr. Brute aka Eric Metcalfe went to UVIC in the 1960’s where one of his profs was a part of the Bay area underground comix movement (alas, dear readers, I was unable to get the Prof’s name from him, it’s this Pandemic, I can’t even see the complete collection of Snore Comix alas alas alas). At that time Eric was doing his own Dr. Brute comix featuring much crime and fetishism. With these comix, the panels voyeuristically crop the figures, extreme close-ups of faces, hints of lingerie, odd limbless doctors. Eventually Eric started performing as the persona of Dr. Brute. Along with a few other artists, Metcalfe was a co-founder of The Western Front artist-run centre in Vancouver. For a time, important video artist Kate Craig was Lady Brute and their leopard spots became a part of their performances and installations. Like a virus, these leopard spots were turning the world into Brutopia, being painted on to such places as The Vancouver Art Gallery.  When Metcalfe made seminal early video art, his drawings were seamlessly incorporated into his videos such as Sax Island, either as stills or even as settings for the live-action characters. These videos currently reside in the MOMA and NAT gallery collections. As my instructor and mentor at Emily Carr Art College in the Nineties, Metcalfe really believed in interdisciplinary practice and collaboration. For one of my comic zines Bunyon, he encouraged the class to collaborate on a page and even drew a panel himself. My seemingly disparate influences were encouraged in his class.

Other contributors to issue 3 of Snore Comix included Greg Curnoe (who mailed a signed copy with his address on the front to Hairy Who member Art Green), Art Rat aka Gary Lee Nova, Box Arnold aka Bob Arnold, and Ace Space aka Dana Atchley. With a lack of attribution to each piece, it can be tough to parse exactly who did what in Snore, but a few pages feature shark fins swimming around waves of water. This is most probably a reference to The New York Corres Sponge Dance School Of Vancouver (a reference to Ray Johnson’s mail art New York Correspondence school). Formed by Glenn Lewis (aka Flakey Rose Hips who previously did one of the first, if not the first, performance art pieces in Vancouver), these particular mail artists, many of whom would come to form artist-run centre The Western Front, met every week at The Vancouver Aquatic Centre to do synchronized swimming.[1] Humourously, they donned shark-fin bathing caps created by Kate Craig, thus adding an element of playful danger. These caps were later worn by the tuxedo clad male chorus at The Hollywood Decca Dance.

from Snore Comix #3

A few pages feature cardboard boxes talking about art. These were a collaborative effort between Art Rat and Box Arnold, who would do performances in Vancouver using cardboard boxes, sometimes with a cardboard box covering his head. At that time, Art Rat aka Gary Lee-Nova was in regular contact with Coach House founder Stan Bevington with Bevington having printed postcards out of Lee-Nova’s collages.

from Snore Comix #3

When Gary Lee-Nova was invited to be a guest artist/artist-in-residence at The University of Minnesota he brought his colleague artist Bob Arnold along to help with the film and lighting tech. One night, they were smoking a lot of pot and sipping bourbon. Bob asked Gary a lot of questions, including, “What do you think of when you think of America?” Gary replied, “Peanut butter.” Lee-Nova elaborates, “It went on like that. And Bob was doing drawings of just funny things that were in his head, I guess and then I decided to do some drawings of his questions, my answers. And because we’re dealing with corrugated cardboard as a way to create quick, easy, inexpensive movie sets. We had some opportunities to draw about cardboard, just silly things. I might have put the drawings and sketches we made in a folder and brought them home and it’s anybody’s guess how they ended up at Coach House. I mean, I think I was smoking pot all day every day for most of five years. I quit when I decided to get married and that was ‘72 or ‘73. But all through the late 60’s and into the 70’s we were just constantly bombed.” I asked Gary, “You have no idea how they got into Snore?” and he replied, “I have no idea how they got into Snore.” Furthermore, “I got a copy. It’s just so twisted.”

       But why the name Art Rat? “When the correspondence thing, the mail art thing happened. I didn’t want to put my Gary Lee-Nova identity out into that. So, I just came up with Art Rat. I’d already experienced enough of the art world to see the impacts that institutionalism was having on the communities. And I was starting to feel like a rat in the corporate maze. And I thought, ‘Wow, a rat -that’s an anagram of art and tar, hmmm what can I do with that?’ So, I made a signature out of it- a rubber stamp signature.”

       This persona fit in well with the correspondence art world. “It was just the way that period played out. People were experimenting with identity and exploring identity, realising in some cases that artists really have no identity at all. But they can manufacture identities at will and then drop them at will. So, for me, that’s what that was all about.”

Besides contributing to Snore under his Art Rat persona, another of the many parts of artist Gary Lee-Nova’s practice for decades has been making work inspired by Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy comic strip. Both Marshall Mcluhan and William S. Burroughs inspired Lee-Nova deeply, going so far as calling them father figures, he had even corresponded with Burroughs. With the Nancy strip, Gary Lee-Nova used the cut-up technique that Burroughs mastered, a technique previously used by The Dadaists as a party game. “But with Mr. Burroughs it was no game. He was really serious.”

Uncanny Nancy by Gary Lee-Nova, courtesy of the artist

Gary started collecting Nancy strips since the 60’s but it was after being the victim of a car accident in the late 70’s that he used the time to start work on the cut-ups. He elaborates on this escape from the painful after-effects of the accident, “…I was quite content just to sit with comic strip panels and scissors and glue and explore the structure of Bushmiller’s realm at that paradigmatic and syntagmatic level where things come together on a horizontal axis, the syntagmatic. And the paradigmatic is on the vertical axis… I was experiencing, like in my face, the linguistic concept of what we call discursive language, speech and dialogue.” Discursive? “Discursive: discourse, conversation. And in linguistics, they give that a special name. It’s called syntagm.  And the other polarity -it is binary, but it describes two different realms. The other one is, is where all the signifiers are, when we’re not using them. Obviously, they’re in memory somewhere, and they’re organised in terms of things that mean the same, like, education and learning. And things that sound the same, like when I got to Italy, I was able to roam Rome. Things sounding the same, homophones. That’s also known as the paradigmatic in contrast with the syntagmatic. In other words, the linear and the mosaic. I was looking at the cut-ups of the Bushmiller panels and finding syntagmatic links that were coming out of various paradigmatic conditions. If I found anything that could be read, even if it was just silly, I acknowledged that this syntagmatic thing was real. And so was the paradigmatic. I just explored it on those terms: linguistics. Charles Schultz had a comic strip about little kids. Bushmiller had a comic strip about comic strips.”

Nancy as a character feels like an icon, a symbol. Even using this cut-up technique, Lee-Nova’s series called “Uncanny Old Gags” -an anagram of “Nancy And Sluggo”- it still seems to get to the punchline. Gary explains, “In terms of learning as much as I could about Ernie the artist, I learned that that he always drew the last panel first. And then worked backward in order to fill in ‘how do I arrive at the gag in this panel?’ It’s a very interesting way to work. I think McLuhan had a lot to say about that in terms of detective stories and all those writers in the 18th and 19th century that McLuhan studied, because they are the history of literature. And they had a particular heft in language that other periods didn’t have. But McLuhan pointed out that you start with the setup, you get into the setup and because you’re able to read, you’ll end up untangling something which comes together which should have been clear from the first page, but it isn’t clear until the last page, techniques of making use of the discursive.” Ernie Bushmiller worked with precision and clarity. Gary responds, “Absolutely minimalist clarity. They look simple, but they’re not.”

       One large silk-screened collage Uncanny Nancy is hanging in the home of underground cartoonist and publisher Denis Kitchen, whose Kitchen Sink Press published five volumes of Nancy, helping to renew interest in Bushmiller’s work. With the working title Uncanny Nancy Can’t See Chomsky, Can She?, this piece stemmed from Gary’s teaching of language and semiotics at Emily Carr. “In order to explain some of Chomsky’s ideas about surface and deep structure, I found this weekend strip of Bushmiller’s. And it was a magical strip. I actually got busted at one point, I was going out late at night to the newspaper boxes and throwing in a couple of quarters, and then dashing off with a big bundle of Vancouver Sun weekend papers into my arm. This went on for most of the weekend. But late one night, I think I was at 14th and Granville I hadn’t pulled them out and bundled them under my arm, but I had the door open. And the Sun truck drives up and said, ‘Are you the guy that’s been taking all these?’ ‘Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to take those. You put those back. And I’ll give you the address of the press place, you go down there and ask for archived material and they’ll charge a little bit for each thing that you want.’ -so I got about a hundred. What it involved was cutting out little Nancy’s from this particular strip and then exploring how Nancy’s from other strips as well as characters from other strips could be placed into very strategic locations in the basic strip and show how a surface structure in its arrangement forced the deep structure to the surface. It really blew my mind and I was able to make slides of all those and walk through it with students and explain how deep and surface structure work in language and speech. And they were pretty pleased. I had some good times with lecture courses around language and semiotics. Most of it was new to them.”

I had heard rumours that Gary Lee-Nova is a member of a mysterious organisation called The Secret Bushmiller Society. Intrigued, I asked him about it. He quietly revealed a pin on his lapel with their logo, Nancy’s face in the center, matching well with his silk Nancy tie. He then regaled me with how he once found an online remembrance page for someone and added to it a made-up story of how the deceased was a member of The Secret Bushmiller Society to the point that some people were playing Five Card Nancy at the memorial service. What is Five Card Nancy? “It’s cut up panels. And instead of cut up comic strips in terms of art, it’s a game like poker. And you’re each dealt about five panels. And then someone who I guess is next to the dealer puts down a panel and then someone else if they got something they think it’s a match, they put down a panel and ultimately a strip emerges and some of them are pretty funny. So, I actually fictionalised this for this place where you pay your respects to someone who’s passed on. And I said, ‘Anyway, he caught these guys playing five card Nancy and noticed that some of them were palming panels.’ I went on and on and on about what a horrendous screw up this was at this ceremony.”

       For years Gary felt alone in his love of Nancy. Believe it or not, there used to be a time where people would openly mock Nancy and its readership! Why????? “They just couldn’t read it. They could not understand how to read it. It does look simplistic. But once you dig into, oh, things like prime numbers, things like rebuses, things like anagrams. I mean, Bushmiller was saturated with all that kind of exposure he got in the newspaper industry before he started drawing. And that’s what I love about Mark and Paul’s book (How To Read Nancy).  It’s the kind of thing I’d been dreaming about for years, ‘I wish somebody would put together a really comprehensive study of this man’s life because I’m sure it’s fucking fascinating.’”

Mentioning an edition of Art News of artists inspired by Nancy, Gary says, “This little survey pointed out that these people were really touched by Bushmiller’s work and I guess I’m just another one of those artists that were touched by his work.”

A survey exhibition of Gary Lee-Nova’s work was recently held at The Burnaby Art Gallery from January-April 2021 and it included many of his “Uncanny Nancy” works. Four years in the making, this exhibition truly was something special.

Now, where were we? Oh yes. Later editions of Snore Comix went unreleased, including a flip book of drawings depicting Mr. Peanut tap dancing, which eventually came out independently of Snore. Out in the world Mr. Peanut did love to tap dance, often to the accompaniment of Dr. Brute’s leopard print kazoo sax stylings. In 2017, New Documents released a book of Vincent Trasov’s Mr. Peanut Drawings; within this peanut textured book there are over a hundred line-drawings placing Mr. Peanut as a part of ancient art history by having him become a Sphynx, as well as popping up into many wonders of the world.

General Idea’s Shoe Journal by George Saiai was eventually released by Toronto art book space Art Metropole in 2007 and is, alas, now sold out. According to Art Metropole’s website, this ‘consecutive series of drawings and images’ was already printed by Coach House back in 1971 as an issue of Snore, but did not bear Snore’s name when it was released decades later. One of the images in Shoe Journal was from Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy where she is firing a squirt gun at a leg shaped hosiery shop sign. The Centre For Canadian Contemporary Art website states that Snore Comix #6 was to be Vancouver based multimedia artist Gerry Gilbert’s Slug Book. Gilbert often wrote about slugs in his poems, including “The Slug Liberation Act” and even described himself as a slug in his poetry book From Next Spring.  As well, he made slug stickers for artist Ace Space’s (Dana Atchley) 1971 Space Atlas. Apart from the topic of slugs, it is uncertain what exactly was going to be in Snore Comix #6.

Snore Comix #7 was to be The Coach House Nose Who’s Who by Jim Lang, who later did the photos for the Coach House poetry book Incognito by David Young. According to 10 Four by Nick Drumbolis, a proof was actually made, containing a photographic print, under the name Some Have Great Nez Thrust Upon Them. A guide to the works of Gerry Gilbert entitled The Gerry Gilbert Gift Catalogue, states that this book contained “11 mounted nose shots.” Writing on an underground comix thread on the cgc comics site, someone named Reverend states that Snore Comix #8 may have supposed to have been IRATA by Arthur Cravan, which was eventually released in 1994. One found internet image of the cover even states that it is “Snore Comix 8” rubber stamped with the ever-present pointing hand telling us to continue. In a Globe and Mail feature on Nicky Drumbolis, who ran Letters, a Toronto bookshop which also functioned as a gallery and publishing house, it is revealed that he was Arthur Cravan, further in keeping with Snore mysteries and guises. Hopefully this does not fully close the door on Snore and that more will be revealed.

       Another Coach House curio is Anthropomorphiks by artist Robert Fones. This 1971 book features a whole lot of cartoon drawings and collages of mascots, including Liquorice All-Sorts humanoids purposefully playing tennis, angels surrounding a bipedal Crisco package with halo, The Michelin Man hanging out with tires like he is attending an anatomy lesson, a speech balloon exclaiming, “Mother! May I have another dish of puffed wheat- it’s swell!”, along with original poems by Fones. Featured on the cover is the red and white striped candy mascot Can-D-Man tipping his hat while walking through a collaged backdrop of Canadian nature. Fun fact: Robert Fones would dress up as Can-D-Man and hang out with Mr. Peanut and Art Rat in Queen Elizabeth Park. But, I mean, who wouldn’t? It was a nice day. Fones has done other books of collage, drawings, prose and poetry for Coach House and more.

Some of the earliest graphic novels were published by Coach House before they were even called such things, they released three by Martin Vaughn-James. His first, Elephant, published by new press in 1970, has been called the first graphic novel in Canada but was described on the back cover as ‘a boovie’, presumably a book-movie hybrid. Originally from England, he and his wife Noddy (who all his books are dedicated to), lived in Toronto from 1968 to 1977 until they returned to Europe. All of his graphic novels, along with his cartoons and comic strips for Saturday Night Magazine were from this Toronto period and they all had a very surrealist bent. In fact, the graphic novels often begin with a quote from Andre Breton, the co-founder of Surrealism and author of a couple of Surrealist Manifestos where he defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism.” These graphic novels certainly feel that way, though they are obviously elaborately planned and detailed, like vivid dream recollections. Elephant is wordless for many pages, opening with pages within pages, a container of ink enveloping everything until we drift down to a landscape of irons, the speech balloons are filled with typewritten words of what feels like eavesdropping in on conversations, eggs crack open on to lightbulbs and through all this a bald, bespectacled man works a seemingly mundane desk job until it, too, cracks open. His second graphic novel -or ‘visual-novel’ as Vaughn-James describes it, The Projector, is more refined and effective than the first. Printed on crisp, brown paper, the pen lines are thinner, more delicate, savouring every detail, making everything more life-like as a horse crashes through an elaborate geranium and plummets off a massive skyscraper, soundless yet we feel everything, hand-lettered captions seemingly describing unrelated actions. The bald-headed bespectacled desk-jobber appears again occasionally transforming into a cartoon dog as distorted Disney’s Three Little Pigs linger menacingly nearby. He seems to want escape after a projector speeds by, violet colour injects itself into the black and brown book as a mass of unearthly flowers blossom.

Tiny and more intimate, Vaughn-James’ third graphic novel The Park is more comic book-like with its soft cover. Described as a mystery with its Art Deco font and gold and rose colour scheme, it is indeed mysterious, the two sides of the brain are pushed far apart as the text seem to be disengaged from the imagery, gorgeously rendered scenic exteriors lead to tumultuous interiors -crashing armchairs- and out again as a pterodactyl flies off.

Following that was his most epic and renowned work The Cage from 1975, reprinted by Coach House in 2013. Started in Toronto, much of it was done in Paris, he also writes that, “Visits to the archeological ruins in Yucatan and central Mexico inspired sequences in The Cage.” With a slow zoom of pages peering through a chain-link fence these ruins soon become apparent, he then restores them to their former grandeur shifting back and forth until shifting focus entirely to a small apartment filling with sand. Like a neutron bomb, The Cage contains not a single living being, other than foliage growing in buildings, like Last Year At Marienbad but without characters. One can almost hear the wind howl. The text, properly typeset, is more descriptive, writerly. This truly is his most controlled and breath-taking work. Inside the cover Vaughn-James writes his own manifesto stating, “My purpose is not so much to illustrate reality (as if reality was an object and merely an aesthetic flashlight) but to re-invent it in a narrative form.” The book’s inside cover also states that Vaughn-James was working on a new visual-novel for 1976 but sadly, it seems that never transpired. Vaughn-James later switched to painting and also wrote two novels of prose. He died in 2009.

Many thanks to Jason Mclean, Marc Bell, Judith Rodger, Donato Mancini, Gregory Betts, and Jennifer Cane for their immense help with this piece.

  • Robert Dayton