College taps into comics explosion
VANCOUVER — Victoria’s Ken Steacy has been telling stories through words and pictures ever since he was old enough to push a pencil.
He’s spun an early fascination with SpiderMan, the Fantastic Four, Captain America and, of course, Ironman, into a colourful and awardwinning career in the comic book industry, where he’s worked as an author, artist, art director, editor and publisher for more than 30 years.
“I always jokingly say since the time I was 11 my life was, like, dead easy because I knew exactly what I was going to do,” Steacy said of what he still describes as a “very atypical” career choice.
These days the industry is experiencing an explosion in renewed popularity, with graphic novelists and cartoonists moving out from the underground to establish a growing a mainstream presence on coffee tables, the Internet and movie screens.
According to Steacy, an average of 82 million copies of comic books and graphic novels were sold in North America over the last five years, with total annual sales ringing in at more than $420 million. In 2010, 45,000 web comics were published, ranging from traditional comic strips to graphic novels.
“There has never been a more exciting time to be working in visual storytelling,” he said.
Eager to help young artists tap into these career opportunities, Steacy has teamed up with his wife, author and graphic novel illustrator Joan Steacy, and the creative writing department at Camosun College in Victoria to offer Western Canada’s first full-time comic and graphic novels certificate program. Beginning this September, the eight-month course will welcome 16 students who will combine creative writing and graphic novel illustration courses, with an exploration of the history of the industry from superheroes and villains to groundbreaking literary works such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust survival story, Maus, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, depicting the author’s childhood in Iran following the Islamic Revolution.
The goal is give graduates the skills they need to work as freelance authors and illustrators for comic books, graphic novels and web comics, or pursue careers in gaming, motion graphics, animation, advertising and as storyboard artists for the film and television industries.
“We just want to absolutely stuff their heads with information that they can then parse and determine how best to use,” Steacy said. Stan Chung, Camosun’s dean of arts and science, said the school is thrilled to be able to offer the unique certificate program in what he called a “booming industry.”
But it was really Steacy’s international reputation and his willingness to share his real-world experience of the business that really sealed the deal.
“We know that visual communications is really interesting and important but getting someone of that particular skill set is tough because there really aren’t programs yet, there really aren’t degrees yet, there really aren’t the professionals returning to develop programs. So sometimes you just want to snag them in your net and get them to start building the kind of academic pathways that we need,” he said.
Laurie Elmquist, creative writing instructor at Camosun, said the program fits perfectly in the department.
“As storytellers, where to begin the story, the opening shot, is as much a visual consideration as it is a writing consideration,” she said, adding, “It’s really fantastic to marry those two things.”
Applications are now being accepted for the September intake. Admission requirements include a minimum C+ in Grade 12 English (or equivalent) and an electronic submission that includes an applicant statement, and a portfolio of work
Steacy said more than dozen students have already signed up, the majority of whom are young women — a gender dynamic that reflects the changing demographic of the industry.
“For many, many years comics was really a boy’s club, most comics were sort of adolescent male power fantasy, which, of course, intrinsically what superheroes are. But little by little, through mostly an outgrowth of underground comics in the 1960s, more women became involved . . . so now there is a huge proportion of creators of comics and graphic novelists are women,” Steacy said.
But anyone with a passion for visual storytelling is encouraged to apply.
“It goes right back to the guy who took a burned stick and drew the picture of that bison on the wall of the cave.”
Chung said Camosun has been approached by post-secondary schools interested in a partnership that would see certificate graduates transfer credits to a degree program.
“I can name you two universities that have expressed their admiration and jealousy about this program. They wish they had Ken Steacy. They know who he is and what he can offer.”
Ken Steacy has been in the comics business for more than 30 years and hopes to inspire a new generation.