TCAF :: The Toronto Comic Arts Festival :: My Report, Part 2 :: The Doug Wright Awards


[included in this post at no additional charge are some quick sketches of some of my favorite Canadian cartoonists that were in the room at the Doug Wright Awards]

So. The Doug Wright Awards. If you’re not aware of them, it’s a small group of awards established in 2004 “to honour the legacy of the late, great Doug Wright by recongizing the best in Canadian comics and graphic novels.” Note the “Canadian” part; call me petty, but it’s always stuck in my craw somewhat, the exclusivity thing. I have the same reaction to other things like this; for instance the Glyph Comics Awards only go to “people of color.” Ditto for pretty much ANYthing that’s exclusive–on some level my first reaction is to suspect a kind of incestuous and stagnating snobbery, a defined group congratulating each other for being the best of that group, not of the larger society they’re a part of.

Before you start freaking out, relax. First of all, I’m not a particularly educated person, and I’m just talking out of my head here. I’m thinking; I like to think; it’s a valuable pursuit that most of us could probably do more of. And this is a rough approximation of what I was thinking about the Doug Wright Awards leading up to this year’s TCAF. Also I should say, by way of further painting myself as an ignorant hick, that I’m suspicious of pretty much all these awards–be they Eisners, Harveys, Ignatz, whatever–insofar as they add anything of value to their relevant communities.

On the other hand, I love Canada. Kate Beaton had an extra ticket, and I thought it would be fun, if nothing else, just to go see the ceremony and hang out with Kate. Fun people can make anything interesting. So Saturday at TCAF itself, somewhere in my hangover haze I was mulling all this over when Salgood Sam came up to my table to deliver a stack of the new Sequential, a Canadian comics news and culture magazine. Salgood had kindly included one of my diary strips from last year in there; “you’re kind of our ‘token’ American,” he told me. I had never met him in person before, and in true Dharbin fashion immediately complicated this meeting by asking about the Doug Wrights, pointing out that I was going to the awards but why should I be interested in them as a non-Canadian?

Sam pointed out, maybe a trifle defensively (but in good humor), that Canada did a lot of subsidizing of its various media so that they were not competitively overwhelmed by the immense onslaught of AMERICAN media. “You have to realize that if it weren’t for the Canadian government, a lot of Canadian media would simply go out of business.” A fair point, but to my free-market ears it sounded almost apologist–in an increasingly global marketplace, where a person in Malaysia can stream video content from Great Britain with barely a hiccup, market protectionism seems more and more like a last stand against inevitability. Media is no longer competing against other media within its local broadcast signal–in a sense you’re competing against the entire world. Bummer for most media, yes, but from a competition angle it means better content for consumers ultimately (I think).

Example: my local public radio station (WFAE) stinks. I mean, it’s not terrible, it’s just mediocre, it doesn’t have much original programming, and what it does have is pretty so-so. They’re in the middle of Pledge Week right now, which to me is increasingly useless. I can stream nearly any radio station in the US, probably much wider than that, to my PHONE. If I had money to give, why wouldn’t I give it to WFMU, whose Best Show podcast I’m a regular listener of? Or WNYC, whose mighty RadioLab podcast is so good I try to wait to listen to new episodes as long as I can hold out? In a global economy, there are choices everywhere and it no longer makes sense to favor my local choices just because they’re ADJACENT to me–I get much better value out of favoring the most superior content, because that means that content will continue and even improve, rather than subsidizing the same weak dishwater from year to year.

Wait what was I talking about? Oh yes the Doug Wright Awards. To be clear, I don’t entirely disagree with Sam–but his point was essentially an economic… BUSINESS-focused point, and on those grounds it was shaky, or at least unconvincing to me.

Not long after this, Seth, one of the original founders of the Doug Wright Awards, as well as a cartoonist probably most identified with Canada, not only through his persona but his very work, came up to my table. “Hi are you Dustin? James Sturm had your newspaper and I really liked it, I want to buy one.” What-what-what?? While I’ve never been entirely sure what to make of Seth, in terms of his super-olde-timey persona, I’m definitely a fan of his, so I immediately freaked out and started trying to give him whatever I could reach on my table. Which he very graciously accepted. I mention this only on the off-chance that meeting Seth and being so royally flattered by him may have been part of where my mind went later on regarding the Doug Wright Awards. Hey I’m a Southerner–we are suckers for sweetness down here.

But really I think it was Kate Beaton herself. We got to the awards, which were small and reserved but elegant. In the room were a lot of the Canadian comics intelligentsia, including Chester Brown, Seth, John Martz and Matt Forsythe of fame, etc., etc. And me, sitting there in the second row in one of Kate’s fancy reserved seats. People made speeches, there was a Canadian actor to lend his mellotone to things, and there was a lot of longwinded praising of each of the nominees. But when Kate got up to present an award, she made a short little speech that really got me thinking:

The point Kate made, a sort of prettier cousin to Salgood Sam’s earlier point, was that the value of the Doug Wright Awards was CULTURAL. The awards were not there to exclude non-Canadians, they were there to promote and buttress Canadians themselves, to preserve and propagate Canadian comics and the larger Canadian comics culture. I know that the smarter of you reading this will be thinking, “No duh,” but to me it was sort of revelatory.

Canada is like America’s twin brother in a way; here we both are located in our New World continent, established years ago by a bunch of white people, with our adjacent but divergent histories. Except unlike most pairs of twins, America never gets mistaken for Canada, you know? It’s always “oh hey America what’s up?” “Er, I’m actually Canada.” Which Canada handles politely, for sure, but after a while it must rankle. If American culture is the loud, outgoing, good-looking but occasionally prickish twin, Canadian culture is the polite one, the responsible one, the one with socialized health care.

From the point of Kate’s speech onward, this was on my mind, this idea of an exclusive award existing to further a certain segment of a culture. It’s probably the American in me that is suspicious of being excluded from anything. “But I’m an American! How can this be viable without me there??” I know, I know. But Kate put it eloquently, succintly, and with passion, which is how dummies like me need things put.

The coda came from Seth himself, who at the end of the evening–after some truly epicly long descriptions of books; I was nodding off most of the time despite all this thinking–won Best Book for his (excellent) George Sprott: (1894-1975). The book itself is like a love song (of sorts) to the last hundred years of Canadian culture, and Seth’s speech underlined the importance of same. I was already convinced at this point, but somehow having Seth up there talking about it was the perfect bookend to a day of thinking about it. Actually the lion’s share of his speech was even more interesting, centering on the idea of remaining an artist rather than a commodity, in an increasingly large and occasionally lucrative comics industry. But that’s a problem I won’t have to worry about for a little while.

Okay the last piece of my report tomorrow–I think this is PLENTY for today, no? #longwinded Also, this guy below wasn’t at the Doug Wright Awards I don’t think, but then again he’s small and may have been hiding behind something.