So I’ve just finished my first “complete” long form book, Lost Dogs, been awarded a grant to self-publish it and gone back to school for a one-year post-grad illustration program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.
This would prove to be one of the most important and formative years of my life and career. Looking back on it now, it’s easy to see why. If you’ve read the previous “From The Vault” entries you will have seen that up until this point I was working completely alone and in a total vacuum. I had self-published a few mini-comics and attended a few local conventions in artist’s alley, but I was still pretty much on an island with only Lesley-Anne, my wife, to bounce my work off of. So going to Sheridan, being around other people, and sharing my work each day with them really opened me up to new ideas.
There were about a dozen or so students in this illustration program and they were a mix of students who had just completed the regular 4-year Sheridan program and wanted to come back for one more year, and people from other walks of life who had an interest in learning more about the freelance editorial illustration business. Only a handful of students in my program were into comics, but I felt not as passionately as I was.
The two most important people that I encountered at Sheridan were not students, but rather two of the instructors. The first was Joe Morse who still works as the head of illustration at Sheridan, and who is an incredible illustrator himself (some of Joe’s work here…)
Joe ran the program I was in and also, more importantly, taught a twice weekly life drawing class to us. This class was a total revelation. I started out drawing in my really chunky brush and ink style and Joe pushed me to try other drawing tools. He had me drawing with all sorts of weird things sticks, pieces of celery etc. Literally anything you could dip in ink and make marks with. The idea was to really experiment with mark making and see how all these different objects gave you different qualities of lines. I really embraced this and went nuts drawing in some pretty crazy styles.
One day I was drawing with a regular steel-point crow quill pen and Joe stopped me and told me to turn the pen around and try drawing with the back of the pen rather than the intended tip. I instantly fell in love with the unpredictable lines this gave me and started drawing almost everything with this jagged “back of the pen” style. It totally opened me up as an artist and actually accentuated the natural awkwardness of my drawing style in a way that made it seem like part of my artistic flavor rather than a “mistake”.
At the same time Joe was blowing my mind in life drawing class, I was also introduced to one of the greatest inspirations of my life, Maurice Vellakoop. The idea of the program was that we would be split up into much smaller groups and each of these groups would get a different professional illustrator to act as their mentor. Based on my interest in comics I was paired with Maurice because he too had a background in comics. It was a match made in heaven and Maurice’s guidance would be instrumental in everything I did afterwards.
Maurice was, and still is, a Toronto based cartoonist and illustrator who had worked extensively in editorial illustration as well as publishing a bunch of his comics through the great publisher, Drawn and Quarterly. Maurice’s work couldn’t be more different from mine. But it wasn’t the content of Maurice’s actual work that directly influenced me (though his watercolour lessons were very important and I still use daily and think back to them often), it was also his way of thinking. Maurice really taught me to think conceptually about illustration the way that he had to when doing editorial illustration. Up until that point I had only used drawings in sequential art to literally tell a story. With Maurice I learned to create single illustrations that could clearly convey a concept, idea, and a story all by themselves. This more conceptual approach to illustration opened my mind completely and I would end up taking it back and incorporating it into my comic book storytelling with much success in Essex County.
In fact, the work I was doing for my assignments at Sheridan for both Joe and Maurice would be important and lead me right to Essex County.
In Maurice’s lessons we were given a weekly illustration assignment and I often found ways of including my rekindled love of hockey into these. I especially became interested in drawing a lot of old-timey hockey players from some books on hockey in the 50’s and 60’s I had found. Looking at these now you can see the seeds of Lou’s story in Essex County. I mean it’s all right there waiting for me to build the rest of the story around it.
You can also see that angular “back of the pen” drawing style in full effect in these assignments.
In Joe’s class I decided to do a comic as my “thesis” project and began work on my follow-up to Lost Dogs. Around this time I had gotten really into Joe Kubert’s art, especially all his old war comics. I was also not feeling super inspired yet in terms of what story to do after Lost Dogs. There was definitely a longing to do something more personal and linked to my love of old time hockey but I hadn’t quite found it yet. So, instead I embarked on a silly satire of all those old war comics called THE ADVENTURES OF HAWKER HURRICANE.
Hawker Hurricane was an earnest British war hero and pilot stranded in Antarctica. The book was done in a style that made it seem like a bunch of shorter comic strips all strung together. Hawker Hurricane is an outlier in my body of work in that it is pretty silly and an attempt at comedy. How successful was the book? Well, it’s never been published and never will, so I guess that says enough. I’ll include a bunch of pics of pages and art here, but I won’t ever publish the whole book. It’s too stupid and frankly a little embarrassing. Though I remember having fun doing it at the time. For those paying attention you will notice that Hawker Hurricane is mostly drawn in my chunky brush style, despite all the new pen work I had been doing in my assignments.
Seeing this again now it’s a bit ironic that the comic assignment I did at this time was so far from the comics I would end up doing in my career and the illustration work is actually much closer to where I would go.
While I was at Sheridan I also published Lost Dogs. The grant had come through and I had the book printed and distributed through Diamond. I printed 1000 copies and I think I sold about 700 copies through Diamond, the company who exclusively distributed to comic book stores up until last year. This was huge for me. To get my book out in comic shops all over North America and in the UK was incredibly exciting, even if it didn’t really make any waves at the time.
The original edition of Lost Dogs was oversized and I only have a couple copies myself. Top Shelf would later re-publish it in a smaller edition with a new cover design. Also here are some recent international editions of the book. If I could have seen these in 2005 it would have blown my mind.
I graduated from the Sheridan program and started applying what I had learned about the business of being a freelancer to seek out my first paying jobs. The first paying comics job I got was with an upstart comics company based in Toronto called Speakeasy Comics. You can Google them. They published a few indie books of note back in the day before folding. Anyway, I met them at a convention and showed them Lost Dogs and Hawker Hurricane and ended up landing a 5-page story in their Beowulf title. I illustrated and colored this story and it was published and Speakeasy even agreed to publish Hawker Hurricane as a graphic novel. But then they immediately went out of business and I never got paid the $1000 they owed me for Beowulf and never heard from them again. Not an auspicious start to my professional comics career.
Soon after this I landed my next paying gig. This one would go a little better. A new magazine about technology and culture called UR Magazine wanted to include some comics and the art directors had seen Lost Dogs in the “local creators” section as well as this little flyer that I left at the Silver Snail comic shop in Toronto and contacted me.
I ended up doing 3 chapters of a comic called JERICHO for the magazine. And this time I was paid!
Things were really going well, but I sort of looked at Hawker Hurricane as this stop gap book that I wasn’t really proud of and was looking hard for what I wanted to do next. I knew that the baby steps of Lost Dogs and the paid freelance work needed to be followed up with something big. I needed to take the momentum I was feeling and everything I had learned at Sheridan and do the best thing I had ever done.
That would be Essex County. Maybe still the best thing I have ever done. The book I was born to make and the book that would truly launch my career.
Would love to see a series of illustrations of old time hockey players in the style of hockey cards. Thanks for sharing these insights into your older work.
That Mbappe and Neymar piece by Joe is brilliant! I don't believe you are a football fan, Jeff (I could be wrong) but if you were to be commissioned by an athlete/their club to draw them who would you pick?