TCAF event writeup in The National Post

“Tomine, Seth, and Tatsumi talk shop at TCAF” / The National Post / Lia Grainger / May 9, 2009

The 4th annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival opened with a bang last night at Harbourfront Centre, as three legends of the genre captivated a packed house with stories and art. Adrian Tomine spoke about a new edition of his collection 32 Stories, Seth told twelve tales plucked from his long career as a comic book artist, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi discussed his seminal new autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life.

It was an inspiring evening. Christopher Butcher, founder and director of TCAF, and owner of The Beguiling – one of the most valuable comic art and graphic novel resources in the country – introduced the evening’s speakers to an enthusiastic audience.

Adrian Tomine, best known for the ongoing comic series Optic Nerve and his recent graphic novel Shortcomings, humbly presented the repackaged version of his first collection 32 Stories. Tomine was painfully self-deprecating, recounting that when his publisher initially told him it was going out of print, his response was “Thank God, finally.” He quickly learned it would be reprinted, and with the aid of a slideshow, Tomine walked the audience through the story of its original creation, painstakingly pointing out what he perceived to be the many ways in which the collection was naïve and amateurish.

At one point, after agonizing over the hideousness of the book’s original dust jacket, Tomine described a dream in which Raymond Carver’s widow comes across the collection in a second-hand bookstore and is horrified. Tomine also noted that actor Keanu Reeves' band Dogstar released a song in the '90s with the unfortunate title, "32 Stories", and proceeded to play the song, accompanied by images of Keanu rocking out. The presentation was understated and hilarious, and though Tomine seemed intent on tearing down his early work, I was left with a strong desire to run to the sales table down the hall and buy a copy of the new edition. It includes several bonuses, including angry letters from now-famous cartoonists and the rejection letter he received upon his first submission of the piece to Drawn & Quarterly, way back in 1993.

Next to take the stage, dressed in an impeccable 1940s pea-green suit and looking very much like one of his characters, was Seth. With work characterized by clean, delicately tapered lines and a deep, muted palette, Seth is best known for his comic Palookaville and graphic novels (though he hates the term) like Wimbledon Green and Clyde Fans. A legend in his own right, Seth’s presentation reaffirmed the reputation he has earned over his long and groundbreaking career. With elegance and panache, Seth told twelve deliberately random stories from his life, and noted the beginning of each new tale with the ringing of a small gold bell. His points, in brief, were:

1. Comics provide a concrete link to a vivid inner reality.
2. Cartooning is a solitary pursuit.
3. Times have changed: in the beginning, it was difficult to be serious in comics.
4. Seth resists technology. When he learned he could Google himself, it was not a good thing.
5. Comics have the rhythm, and require the deliberate decision-making, of poetry.
6. Peanuts comics are haikus.
7. Seth is pretty sure someone stole his theory that “Peanuts comics are haikus.”
8. Seth’s college 3D art teacher was an angry, talented man, and Seth is glad for it.
9. No matter how hard you work, you can’t change your intelligence or your talent; Chris Ware disagrees.
10. Style in comic book art is extremely deliberate, like a pompadour.
11. Comics appear to be silent and still, but they’re not.
12. According to Crumb, “There’s nothing wrong with repeating yourself, so long as you dig a little deeper each time.”

While he spoke, images of his work flashed on the screen behind him. He assured the audience that they were entirely unrelated to what he was saying, and yet at many points the art seemed to unintentionally fit with the words, giving the speech a calming rhythmical cadence that was a pleasure to hear and observe.

The main event was Japanese manga legend Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Tatsumi is credited with inventing gekiga, a form of manga with complex mature themes designed for adult readers. In a Godzilla t-shirt, blazer and brown driver’s cap, Tatsumi looked cool and relaxed. With the help of a translator, Adrian Tomine interviewed Tatsumi about his new book, A Drifting Life. Tatsumi was animated and forthcoming about his early years, explaining that, “The country was getting rich, but for me and the people in my life, nothing was changing, and I wanted to make work about that, as a form of protest.” Tomine asked several questions about Tatsumi’s relationship with Osamu Tazuka, best known for Astroboy. Tatsumi discussed how their careers had diverged, as Tatsumi tackled darker themes and Tezuka continued with fantasy. When asked if he had any advice for artists, Tatsumi cheekily replied, “I agree with what Seth said. In fact, I really learned a lot from him.”

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival runs until Sunday. For more information visit www.torontocomics.com.

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