Col­lege taps into comics ex­plo­sion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - CAREERS - By Darah Hansen

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.

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