Toronto’s Comic Book Empire Writes Back
Manfred J. von Vulte is the National Director of the Comic Book Project and Comics Go Global in Canada.
Whether it was D.C. Comics’ Secret Origins (1961, 1973-74, 1986-90)1 or the thorough anthology of Marvel Comics, entitled The Marvel Universe (1989 – 90),2 the desire to learn the back story of the dynamic and larger-than-life characters these works fostered in so many young minds, and with so many generations, made these books very popular. There exists a parallel fascination and element to the culture of the graphic novel and comic book, which many have not chosen to include as part of their research, or if they have, it has been addressed as trivial at worst, and at best, a tertiary component of their construction of the paradigm surrounding these hybrids of art and narrative. Most scholarship focuses upon the reader, the content of the text, and the circumstances and development of its creators, in a trinity of meaning. However, there is a fourth dimension that perhaps has been forgotten. It is the experience and observation of purchasing comics and the environments that foster and maintain a fluid community of memory amongst their patrons, which demands an inclusion into the understanding of the genre of comic books and their popularity. The remarkable insights of the stalwarts of these specialized books and unique literacies offer a new dimension to the understanding of a medium that features harmonized text with spectacular illustrative power. As much as their knowledge frames a new understanding for the student of the comic book era, so, too, does their collective framing of an environment, a “scene”, and most importantly a community, to make it a total encounter for the mind, the body, and soul of those who are growing up, have grown up, and who live by the mantra, “Geek is sheik.”
The Comic Book Lounge and Gallery (587A College St.) is, by its owners’ words, “a store and a community space”3. However, that’s really not quite it by a long shot. The business acumen of its owner Kevin A. Boyd, coupled with the store’s secret weapon and its manager, Mr. Joe Kilmartin, whose gregarious nature, affable and kind personality, and above all, thorough knowledge of all things comic and cultural, adds a unique dimension to the climate of literacy, which exists there. If the experience of reading and collecting transcends the two-dimensional world of the animated page into a live human exchange of ideas, friendship, and mutual appreciation of talents, then that physical space of the literary world fuels not only its existence, but its long-term success. Insights into the success of this form of literacy provide a dual evolution of the importance of a retail space and the uniqueness of its product. Kilmartin posits, “Comic books are more than a genre, they are in fact a type of universal medium which can be applied to other contexts besides the familiar graphic novel.”4 This wide appeal and conscious understanding of the text features and arrangements transcend what many people would believe is their natural audience: young males between the ages of 10 to 30, and in excess of that range. An understanding of the client base and what he demands and perceives from his retail experience are everything to the financial viability of a store like The Comic Book Lounge and Gallery. It has under its ownership, management, and core community defined its literary environment. One clearly ascertains that there is a community of persons who are participatory through media literacy, a highly literate mindset, and media awareness that act as foil and mirror for the professionals of the comic book industry in Toronto. There is a genuine symbiosis between the fan, the reader, the creator, and the visual artist, taking place on the literal, virtual, and physical plane of what can be defined as community in this digital age.
Examining the need for community, literacy, and belonging to this hybrid space of physical and virtual pop culture rests a question regarding its future: Toronto’s cultural mosaic continues to expand how the world of comic book works and how its peripheral environments might adjust. Kilmartin ingeniously ties the thread together with the following:
“There exists an ebb and flow to the medium that perhaps can be marked by time. 19th Century English literature had been serialized in story arcs, like the works of Charles Dickens. Globally, comic books arose out of the same source material as political cartoons, yet North American literature rested on the escapades of the super hero in a soap opera or Disney comedic operetta, while those of Europe and Asia were grounded in long-form text and had an adventure/mystery tone. Early to mid-Twentieth Century comparisons cite the North American comic book directed to adolescent audience, while those in Europe favoured an adult readership.”5
Fascinatingly, the rise of the comic book retail environment seemed to coincide with a new literary and demographic turn. This reconstituted revolution evolved the comic book from its place in the local convenience store to a more specially defined retail space, attracting its dedicated base, as well as a more discerning and informed reader and collector. The industry would experience a strange schism of sorts when the comic book had been reduced to a twenty-two page collector’s card, devoid of much literacy and heavy on illustrations. Joe Kilmartin continued, “The 1990’s were in some ways a restoration of an industry devoid of much literacy and heavy on illustrations. Marvel and DC brought in British writers to turn the tide during this decade. The writers who come to mind are Grant Morrison (although he had been there a while already at that point) Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, and John Wagner, to name a few.”6 Out of the dark 1990’s ascended a more balanced periodical with fascinating (positive) stories matched with the artwork of a new generation. So, too, did the further attraction of persons who were new to the country of comic books. When asked about this phenomenon, Kilmartin had a fascinating observation, “With the world becoming very media/visually literate, someone who is learning English could use the comic book engaging a sense of prediction and revision at the same time, by following sequential design, yet being able to visually flip back and restore the immediate visual hit again and again.”7 This informed memory access (I.M.A.) and renewal is at the heart of the means to learn English in its colloquial and contextual element, while discerning the culture from which it had been derived in a parallel process to the native English speaker, defining the world of the comic book, which for the ESL/ELL learner includes the new world of his country. Much was learned that day at the foot of the master. An understanding of this literacy in historical and modern construct fosters a further segment to the Comic Book Lounge and Gallery’s pool of clients; the nostalgia of the familiar and reintroduction of popular culture to the next generation is the other.
Aside from events grounded in the calendar year (Fan Expo, Comic Con etc.), every emerging and successful literary culture needs an epicentre, a cathedral of sorts. Just as the religious buildings of the past millennium have inspired the faithful, so too, does the mere mention of the name: The Silver Snail. Being a kid from suburbia in the 1980’s, my friends and I did have our beloved local comic store, Ron’s Comic Room, which out of respect, loyalty, and nostalgia we still frequent. However, it was serious business when we made the trek downtown to go to The Silver Snail. As I sat down with one of the owners, George Zotti (who, with all due respect, looks like a combination of Francis Ford Coppola or George Lucas – it doesn’t help that there is a life-size R2D2 at The Snail) defined the atmosphere perfectly through his own experience. “Nothing like it existed in my mind, it (Silver Snail) was tailor made for a boy who was nine; it was a utopia for boys.”8 He continued, “Visitors are assaulted by colour, and the overwhelming smell of the printed paper.”9 He’s right. The boy inside this forty-two year-old father and vice-principal quickly came out as I ascended the stairs of The Silver Snail’s new location on a second floor building north of Yonge and Dundas and saw a life-size, hanging Spider-man! With a gaping mouth, all I could muster was WOW! Zotti called The Silver Snail, ‘’a destination shop.’’10 ‘’People come from all over to visit us.’’11 He, too, will talk of the new literary turn which encompasses all of the building blocks of media literacy, which at its core remains the written word. When asked about the literacy of the comic book, Zotti posits, ‘’They are the gateway to books, the ability to bequeath the gift of wanting to read and continuing to do so is a tremendous present; comics are just as good as any novel.’’12 If that gateway is decorated with life-size heroes, an R2D2, and a hanging Spider Man, which in turn, stokes the power of that gift, then this is the inspirational environment from which it has its origin.
Much can be noted about the power of the lexicon found in comic books. Zotti harkened back to his youth and related an account of how Iron Man had led him to the dictionary. I found this observation to be remarkably fascinating as Iron Man was one of the highest rated comic books in a 2012 study I conducted on high frequency and high lexicon words in over one thousand comic books per title. Mr. Zotti stated, ‘’When I was in Grade 5 or 6, I read a lot of Iron Man. He was identified as the Chairman of the Avengers. I didn’t know what the word ‘Chairman’ meant and like many other words in Iron Man, I needed to know. So I went to the dictionary. From looking up words to become a better reader, George Zotti cited that process.”13 He continued, “The ability to read is often linked to the ability to remember; while you can retain better aspects from a tablet, the instant gratification of that memory function does affect deficiencies in memory, spelling, and contextual meaning. The framing of these competencies is subverted by the technology of the tablet.’’14 While digital comics might be a part of the future, the nostalgia and resonance of the print editions remain virtually sacrosanct with readers and collectors alike. Zotti cited the example of a woman from India who purchases stacks of Batman for her brother in India.15 He suggests that the genre’s ability to couple a narrative within a journey and then create a parallel journey for the reader drives the genre forward.16 While he may cite the resurrection of the record store and its vinyl product being akin to the survival and success of the comic book store, his business model has one unique advantage. Nostalgia is created at a break- neck speed, as the peripherals to the literacy break through the bonds of time and has extraordinary relevance in the past, present and future. The timelessness of the characters and their narratives are reinvented with every generation sparking fandom in the present and a gold mine of discovery for the past.
Travelling uptown, north of Yonge and Lawrence resides Paradise Comics. It specializes in the classics. A treasure trove of Gold, Silver, and Bronze Age Comic Books (modern up-to-date, titles too), as well as a fabulous selection of graphic novels await the visitor. Sometimes people might be hesitant to enter comic book stores if they are new to collecting. The welcoming nature of Doug Simpson and his staff put all those concerns to rest. The approach here seems to be tailored to the level of experience of the customer. Simpson credits the success of his store, in terms of increasing literacy, to the specialities of the store being for both older and younger readers, and the atmosphere that fosters this literacy. ‘’The strength of our store is predicated on the variety of product, the knowledge we have of the titles, and the added feature of discerning the appropriateness of books for children.’’17
Our intrepid Northmount Comic Book Club first ventured into Paradise Comics some three years ago where Simpson and his staff were extremely knowledgeable, and most impressively pointed out selections that boys would enjoy reading, and those they should place back on the shelves because of some content not fit for young readers. This was terrific especially for someone in education who is attempting to hook students into reading some of the fine literature that can be found in comic books and graphic novels.
Simpson’s take on the attractiveness of literacy in comic books comes from an understanding of the draw of what he called the Stan Lee method of Six Panel Story Production. He postulated that, ‘’Readers enjoyed the familiarity of the six panel approach because of their conduciveness to the language arts skill sets of Prediction and Identification through Empathy.’’18 These two factors have allowed literature to become extremely accessible and, in the language of the special needs educator, ‘’chunked’’ for cohesive and short comprehension. Simpson has a unique feel for this reverse engineering of literature. He recognizes an inherent barrier appears to exist for those readers less adept to reading heavy text treatments, who might avoid their introduction or acquisition for decades, were it not for the transference of novels and long-form stories into the ‘’Stan Lee Method”. Simpson stated that, ‘’There is a desire for many young readers to read these classics, but their reanimation in the graphic novel brings these barriers down, especially for male readers.’’19
Simpson, too, cites nostalgia as a reason for his life-long interest in comic books and in Paradise Comics’ accomplishments. Their understanding of nostalgia is translated into a measure of the sustainment of literacy and community surrounding Paradise Comics. Simpson adds, ‘’Parents identify with a book or character they may have read as children. We can point them in the way of that same character or suggest titles with a similar take.’’20 He recommended that, ‘’Perhaps at one time the gender breakdown of customers was 90% male and 10% female, but this has shifted to 65% male and 35% female.’’21 A statistic he attributes to the wider nature of appeal from some peripherals as video games and other media. The male reader is still in the majority, as he enjoys stories of contextual language, word and image synthesis, street jargon intertwined with proper English, and questions which his own persona might venture to ask, that begin with ‘’What if?’’ and ‘’What would it be like if I….?’’ Simpson believes that even as we traverse our future, the graphic novel, using its arch-story-telling structure, taps back into history and society, allowing the reader to remember where he came from.22 At Paradise Comics, the knowledge of the pantheon of titles and stories offers an atmosphere the collector can savour, and the parent can trust. This store, too, has signings, and that is very attractive for all interested parties in the genre, as it opens the world behind the book, where the creator can shake hands with the reader!
There is an appreciable intangible to the atmosphere of the comic book store: that is the sense of community and belonging. This social mechanism at the micro level, is connecting with one’s fellow enthusiasts or the professional who knows all about the genre or at the macro level a connection to society in general and a sense that the individual, no matter who they are, become a relevant piece of the equation. Sean Clement, the weekend manager of my community comic book store, The Comic Room, suggested that, “There has been an evolution in the development of the audience of these books that, while at the elementary level, the superheroes, and titles like Ink Heart and Bone remain supreme, but then an adolescent hiatus takes place, with the return of the male reader in his twenties perhaps led by nostalgia and a sense that comic books can be cool again.”23 Mr. Clement who, like myself, is also a teacher, noted that, “At his Board (T.D.S.B.) many librarians are becoming in tune with the reading styles of boys and ESL/ELL students, lauding such titles as the aforementioned Bone, plus books like Scott Pilgrim, The Wizard of Oz, and Amulet.”24 Stores like the Comic Room bridge that gap between home and school. The voice of the creators also lends itself to an understanding of the significance of community in this form of literacy.
The weavers of image and prose, the comic book artists, also concur with the notion that it is as much as the genre itself, that the context of their purchase delivers that fourth dimension of meaning to the literacy experience. Artist Marvin Law stated that, “The modern draw for children to comic books is their link to the peripheral media and communities in which they reside.”25 He continued, “Reading comic books is as much a physical as a behavioural one, where a less imposing, heavy text treatment is supplanted by a captions-based approach which ultimately leads to a love of writing, and therein, a method and means which establishes a mindset that desires to make external connections with more of an accelerated pace than traditional text-based novella.”26 These very connections to external media, text, and experience represent a critical paradigm, which feeds the continued operation of the comic book store. It is entirely possible that one location ensures that these connections continue to accelerate the connectedness of this genre and its inextricable purveyance into all facets of memory and experience. Artist Kurt Lehner (Disney, Dream Works, Warner Brothers, and Marvel Comics) commented that, “The cool factor goes far beyond that of an appreciation of the images of the comic book, but evolves with a sense of self-identification or deep personification of the narrative and how the characters are in many respects extensions of children’s imaginations and even laudable moral goals.”27 While the publishing and media houses may weave the dream, the comic book store casts the spell, taking the dream and transforming it into the fabric which the written word is vaulted into the mind and experience of the reader. Shane Kirschenblatt (Dorothy Gale Journey to Oz, Star Wars art) remarked that, “The appreciation and power of pure fantasy cannot be denied when such works are the literary sparks of the imagination and the passions, as aggressive heroism coins an age where text and media are fairly free flowing, the aspirations of youth find much in the confidence and possibilities of the heroic triumph in their own lives.”28 Thus, the literary atmosphere stokes that hopeful and youthful sense of possibilities and newness to the universe that certainly draws out the enthusiasm of the would-be reader. What is ultimately powerful is that some of those aspirations and realities have come off the written page into the real physical plane of existence.
The fascinating relationship between the promotion of literacy, media content, virtual community space, and physical geographic social space continues to shape the multi-paradigm-driven world of the comic book store. Given the dynamic of the virtual-spatial-temporal community, have comic book stores become the fulcrum driving the new media literacy mind and community space of the 21st Century? Arguably, yes, if the premise resides with the notion that one’s sense of community and connectedness can reside in virtual, physical, and self-defined temporal time and space. These evolving building blocks of the new literacy everything from the printed word to the interpretive image, to the Hollywood film are drawn to the nexus of the comic book store, rife for plucking by the discerning reader to take and frame their own meanings and sense of community around them. These stores weave their magic and continue to prosper from an inherent and explicit knowledge of the virtual-spatial-temporal community of media and modern literacy. The new literary turn has indeed occurred, beguilingly as it might be, it began some eighty years ago, but through innovation, reinvention, and alternate framing by successive generations and media, it has evolved from a text-to-human perspective (planet to moon) to one which is more akin to a galaxy and all of its stars. No longer is the connectedness merely between the text and reader, but between the reader and inputs that exist in the realm of time, space, virtual space, and in their defined sense of community and modern media literacy. Were we to find a bright spot at the center of this new literary universe, it would be with the fantastic world of the comic book store and its respective owners, who hold the keys to their literacy realms in hand.
About the Author: Manfred J. von Vulte is the Director of Development and Vice Principal of Northmount Independent Boys Catholic Elementary School in Toronto. He is the published author of two books (history and children's) and numerous articles in various publications. His interests include writing about education as it pertains to students, family life, and improving their experience with learning. He has been teaching for 17 years and resides in Toronto. He is a graduate of Francis Libermann Catholic High and York University. Visit his website at www.northmount.com.