10 Amazing Comics and Graphic Novels by Canadians
I've read 398 comics and graphic novels.
I've been making up for lost time. I only fully discovered them a few years ago as curator of Hart House Library, a Harry Potter-esque reading room on University of Toronto's campus. I decided to triple that library's graphic novel collection. To build my knowledge of Canadian comics, I read and read and read. Three years later, I'm still reading.
Toronto Public Library's new TD Gallery exhibit, Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity runs May 12 - July 29, 2018. It got me thinking about my favourite Canadian comics and graphic novels.
I limited myself to ten. Each one is written or illustrated — sometimes both — by a Canadian. (This list is for older teens and adults. Amazing all-ages comics by Canadians also exist, like Alex A.'s Super Agent Jon le Bon, John Martz's Burt's Way Home and Ashley Spire's Binky the Space Cat.)
And sorry, I didn't have the heart to rank them...
Descender by Jeff Lemire (writer) and Dustin Nguyen (illustrator)
Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Underwater Welder, Essex County, Roughneck) co-created this smart, fast-paced science fiction series. Some of Lemire's other works evoke the wilderness of his Canadian homeland, but this space opera jumps from planet to planet. After a calamitous attack by mysterious robots, the United Galactic Council outlaws all androids. The key to unlocking the mystery of the attack seems to be held by a companion robot, TIM-21, who (which?) survived the "robot genocide." There are a bunch of plot twists, making the comic feel like a binge-worthy TV series. It hooked me, and I love it for that. Full disclosure: I'm a sci-fi fan. (See six books Lemire recommends.)
This contemplative, semi-autobiographical graphic novel follows Seth (Palookaville, Lemony Snicket collaborations) in his search for an obscure cartoonist. It's partially a comic about comics, a love letter to them. Set in Southern Ontario, its broader theme of nostalgia saturates each page, literally... the pages are a faded-newspaper colour. Even after I finished it, I was still under its spell. (It didn't hurt that it features the glorious Toronto Reference Library, where I'm typing these very words.) If you fall under the same spell, I'd recommend this lecture about the book on YouTube by a University of Toronto professor.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (illustrator)
Pride of Baghdad is inspired by a true story. Four lions roamed Baghdad's streets after their zoo was destroyed in the Iraq War in 2003. Canadian illustrator Niko Henrichon spent a full year producing the graphic novel — and it paid off, especially in the jaw-dropping two-page spreads like the one below. The lions' confinement and then new-found "freedom" is a devastating allegory of life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and then America's invasion. It's on par with other great animal-based allegories like George Orwell's Animal Farm.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (writer and illustrator) and Helge Dascher (translator)
Québécois comics artist Guy Delisle is best known for his humorous travelogues: Pyongyang (2004), Shenzhen (2006), Burma Chronicles (2008) and Jerusalem (2012). He has also written pure comedies (User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting) and even a psychological thriller (Hostage). But Pyongyang is the book you absolutely must read. It documents Delisle's two-month trip to North Korea as part of his work for a French animation company. The comics medium offers rare visual access to a country that blocks almost anything that isn't propaganda. Delisle's storytelling is funny and approachable — but also chilling and daring. Over a decade later it is still a revelation.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (illustrator)
This series is a phenomenon in the comics world. It's about a clandestine interspecies couple who become galactic refugees to protect their newborn daughter. You'll see this Star Wars-inspired epic in many "best of" lists. Thanks to Canadian co-creator and illustrator Fiona Staples, it's on this list too. Staples is the only illustrator whose work I seek out regardless of collaborator. So when the Archie reboot debuted with Staples' artwork, I placed a hold at the library. Didn't even blink. She's that good. Both the art and story are stunning in Saga. Even if you don't like science fiction or Star Wars, you may still love this series. More than anything, it's a story about family. Read more about it and why it's amazing in The Alantic's "The Sprawling, Empathetic Adventure of Saga."
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction (writer) and Chip Zdarsky (illustrator)
Canadian illustrator Chip Zdarsky (Kaptara, Jughead) is one of the two creative — and yes, "dirty" — minds behind this erotic romantic thriller comedy. Its basic premise: a couple can freeze time after having sex, allowing them to rob banks. Hence, Sex Criminals. I did not expect to like this. But then I read it. The storytelling is relentlessly inventive, the art is gorgeous and the love story is heartfelt. What makes the series essential reading is how it foregrounds sex. For prudish readers, it is no less than exposure therapy. Sexuality is dealt with puerility and maturity, irony and sincerity.
Shoplifter by Michael Cho
Toronto-based illustrator Michael Cho (Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes) wrote this short but sweet graphic novel. Its anti-heroine struggles to find fulfillment working at a downtown advertising agency. (Her sarcastic pitch for marketing a perfume to tweens — "Daddy says I smell special" — is not well received.) Some naysayers argue that the book's premise of a writer who feels like she is selling her soul for Corporate Canada is cliche. I disagree. First, it's refreshing to see a young woman of colour in this kind of story. Second, graduates struggling with their identity as they enter the work force still resonates. It bears repeating. And Shoplifter is certainly worth reading.
Snotgirl by Bryan Lee O'Malley (writer) and Leslie Hung (illustrator)
Bryan Lee O'Malley is famous for the Scott Pilgrim series. Set in Toronto, that cult-classic is unquestionably more influential than O'Malley's newer series about a Hollywood fashion blogger with severe allergies (which he writes but does not illustrate). Perhaps it's the contrarian in me, but I love Snotgirl. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Its satire of social media influencers sometimes gets lost in the wonderfully addictive tabloid-drama of those characters — not to mention a scandalous murder. Side note: the comic's integration of text messages is sublime. (This book was also recommend by a teen via Toronto Public Library's The List!)
The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson (writer) and Kelly Mellings (illustrator)
Patti Laboucan-Benson (Ph.D.) is a Métis woman who works as Director of Research, Training, Communication at Native Counselling Services of Alberta. This book is an eye-opening story based on her first-hand research of historic trauma healing programs for incarcerated Indigenous men. The fictional story follows Pete, a young Indigenous man caught up in gang violence. He ends up imprisoned, where he engages in a rehabilitation process based on traditional healing practices. Pete's transformative journey is also transformative for the reader. It's a necessary education and a punch in the heart. If you only read one book from this list, make it this one.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (Skim) are the Canadian power cousins behind this coming-of-age tale set in Ontario's cottage country. The setting's innocent beauty belies the complications of the adult world that the story's young characters must confront. In an article about this book being challenged in libraries, Jillian writes that the graphic novel “aims to depict that time between childhood and adulthood very realistically, viscerally. It's a messy, confusing, sometimes scary time.” Though much smaller in scale — it's just one summer — this story is reminiscent of Richard Linklater's modern masterpiece, Boyhood.
Check out TD Gallery's Alter Ego exhibit, which features — from this list — Guy Delisle's Pyongyang and Seth's It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. It's located across from the elevators on the main floor of the Toronto Reference Libary (789 Yonge Street). Free admission.
P.S. What are your top Canadian comics? Let us know in the comments!
P.P.S. Public libraries and comics/graphic novels are a heavenly pairing. I've borrowed about 300 from Toronto Public Library. Let's say each one is $15 — that's a $4,500 value!