Dear Gary Groth et al,
As members of the Montreal comics scene, the bowdlerization of Quebecs cultural history is not something we wish to find in the pages of The Comics Journal. Unfortunately, this has occurred with "The Montreal Comix Scene" as published in your Special Edition 2005. Although we are in favor of attention being paid to local talent and comics-related activities, considering the inflation, excision and disinformation in Marc Tessiers piece, we must respond and point out the following.
Barely into the first paragraph, a first hint of bizarre revisionism surfaces. Tessier refers to "the slim loss of separatists in the 1980 referendum." Actually, the sovereign option then lost by a wide margin. The "slim loss" occurred in the 1995 referendum.
Tessier states that "Nothing truly groundbreaking would come from local publishers until Croc magazine was launched in 1979." Yet some of Quebecs finest experimental comics, such as Oror 70 and Linfecticide, predate 1979. Refer to Georges Rabys landmark article in Culture vivante #22 (Ministère des affaires culturelles du Québec, 1971). Before 1979 lies a rich history that stretches from thousands of strips, magazines and books to audacious underground collectives. The first use of adult-oriented comics, complete with word balloons, has been traced to a political poster dated 1792, as detailed by Michel Viau in MensuHell #45 (August 2003).
Tessier identifies Titanic as "the first magazine entirely devoted to Québécois BD." Quebec comics historian Jacques Samson in his Mémoire sur la situation de la bande dessinée au Québec et au Canada (ACIBD, 1991) estimates the predecessors of Titanic at about forty. The Quebec comics repertory BDQ (Mille-îles, 1999) describes an earlier publication, Lécran, as the "first professional magazine entirely devoted to Quebec comics." (Please note that this last quote and all future French quotes in the present text are translated into English.)
Even The Comics Journal has previously described Titanic not as a "first" but in terms of its ambition as a comics periodical "to rival those coming from Europe." That news item from issue 181 also offers a clear view of Valiums notorious Iceberg cover, free of the disfigurement to which it is subjected in "The Montreal Comix Scene." For 12 pages, the luxurious paper and printing lavished upon the Special Edition uncharacteristically provide only cropped, distorted and altered visuals, a subtle warning that the text contains similar manipulations.
Concerning Montreals alternative weekly The Mirror, it does not have "a print run of about 300,000." One brief phone call to their offices would have provided the correct figure: 70,000.
Were told, in bold type yet, that The Photocopy Revolution occurred in 1990-1995. "In the early 90s (...) Photocopying technology became affordable" and how fast did the prices come down to a "viable" level? "Suddenly"! This revelation brings up some interesting questions. What did a photocopy cost prior to 1990? What did Jay Kennedy really mean by "newave comix" in his 1982 Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide? And how to explain the small press and mini-comix showcase in the entrance hall of Montreals Fifth International Festival of Comics in 1989, meaning in effect that an exhibition and some related events occurred before the revolution which spawned them?
Looking beyond the photocopy revolution, Tessier spots a new revolution in its infancy. Comics in art galleries! Were told that "the comix scene began to attract attention in art circles" and that events "incorporated comics because of its growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with." Apparently, he wasnt around for the exhibition La bande dessinée québécoise at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art in 1976, a show which also traveled to the Canadian Cultural Center in Paris and to the third edition of the Angoulême Festival. Or how about the 1996 retrospective in Quebecs premier museological institution, the Musée du Québec, twice held over for a 46-week duration, complete with Valiums giant serigraph masterwork laid open in a transparent case like some pre-Columbian artifact, his page entitled "Comicks?" (see Zero Zero #10) on an adjacent wall, framed with chemically inert board behind shatterproof plexiglass and further protected by constant temperature and humidity. It was worth attending the opening cocktail to witness esteemed museum director John R. Porters miraculous transformation into erudite comics scholar brilliantly ad-libbing on the astounding artistic merits of comics. Perhaps the time will even come when Quebecs oldest and most prestigious arts magazine, Vie des Arts, will greet comics as le neuvième art unless of course they already did so: in their Fall 1972 issue.
To explain briefly. Thanks to intellectual influence from France, the recognition of comics as art has been the easiest of all the struggles within Quebec. Media coverage has been mixed but increasingly forthcoming since the mid-70s. Nowadays, the quantity and variety of comics criticism produced locally can only be envied in the rest of North America. The most difficult hurdle has been the general publics lack of curiosity, herd mentality and conformist taste. On May 1, 2005, Quebecs leading newsmagazine, Lactualité, published the results of its readers poll for the top 100 books of all time. The lists (50 from Quebec, 50 foreign) contained only a single work of comic art: Garfield. To woo the art world is to tackle the easy end of the spectrum, an ego trip unlikely to yield concrete results since there are more public art shows in Quebec than private art collectors.
Talking comics in a trendy bar or art gallery may be novel to some, but before presenting it as an unprecedented event in The Comics Journal, envision people waiting in line to see a cartoonists one-man show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which is what Robert Lapalme achieved in the early sixties. Lapalme capitalized on this success to create the International Salon of Cartoons, a Montreal event that lasted several months every year for 25 years, produced massive catalogs that peaked at over 1,000 pages, attracted astonishing numbers of visitors (over one million a year in its heyday) and ceaselessly promoted comics as art (Quebecs Albert Chartier was honored with a special exhibition in 1985 and Cartoonist of the Year titleholders include Hogarth, Schultz, Quino, Pratt and Eisner). So when Tessier waxes ecstatic over "a giant three-day extravaganza" or informs us that "In 1995 the Montreal scene peaked with its biggest event/book launch ever" which "created a buzz that has yet to be duplicated," theres a problem of perspective. And please define buzz. Second man on the moon, former Kitchen Sink title or paradis artificiel?
Regarding Montreals Seventh International Festival of Comics, were told that during this 1992 event, "the media buzzed about Julie and the local comix community." Heres our chance to figure out what buzz really means. In the big daily La Presse, as elsewhere, Julie Doucet provided the main commentary on our beloved community. Heres what she had to say (Oct. 22 1992): "When I was in Montreal and told people about what was happening to me, nobody had a clue what I was talking about and so I left." More buzzing awaits the buzz researcher in Montreals intellectual newspaper Le Devoir (Oct. 24): "I moved to New York. An old dream. The opportunities here are zero, everybody knows that. Over there, I received so much encouragement whereas here, next to nothing, that it all seemed so natural." Not buzzing yet? One more major article appeared in the cultural weekly Voir (Oct. 22): "the market is so limited here, you have no idea! (...) I love comic books but Quebec seems allergic to that format. I think that explains in part the lack of interest for the new comics." For more straightforward observations about the Montreal scene, forget Special Edition obfuscation and check out Doucets candid comments on local collaborators, booksellers and publishers ("Hes someone Id like to see under the wheels of a truck") in her interview for The Comics Journal #141.
Tessier also informs Journal readers that "In its previous incarnations, the Festival had rolled out the red carpet for Europeans while local artists were relegated to the back room." Au contraire. In his summary of Quebec comics history published in Panorama de la littérature québécoise contemporaine (Guérin, 1997), Jacques Samson highlights the key role that the earlier Festivals played in the evolution of the Quebec comics scene. Historian Mira Falardeau makes a similar assessment in La bande dessinée au Québec (Boréal, 1994) and points out that for the fourth Festival, the European role was virtually nil. An examination of the catalogs for the first four Festivals, which peaked at 100 pages, will instantly convince anyone that these events were, first and foremost, a Quebec showcase. The fifth Festival produced no catalog but a 16-page program in which Europeans occupy two-thirds of one interior page and the bottom half of another. Finally, for the sixth Festival, the Guest of honor was Quebecs Pierre Fournier who was awarded the Albert Chartier trophy, a $750 cash prize and a retrospective exhibition at the University of Montreal. Next to that, Julie Doucet got crumbs: an improvised exhibition in a bar, regarding which the aforementioned feature in La Presse quipped, "bring your lighters if you want to see something."
Concerning this 1992 Festival, Tessier declares that "the organizers made a groundbreaking decision to feature Québécois artists." Having just maligned the organizers of the six previous Festivals by misrepresenting their work, wouldnt it be nice if he named the organizers of the seventh one, since he thinks so highly of them? It would also be more ethical, since one of those organizers was Marc Tessier. In fact, the Voir article quoted above refers to him as organizer (singular) and as the one who chose Doucet to be Guest of honor. Amusingly, when Tessier writes "she was invited to be president of honor," his fantasies of Angoulême betray him. Montreal named a guest of honor. Angoulême votes a president.
To Tessiers credit, he did expend considerable efforts to generate the "buzz" on Julie Doucet quoted above, and to do so prior to Festival activities featuring her. An examination of the two-color ledger program of the Festival (widely distributed and inserted as an Iceberg centerfold) illustrates his devotion. Out of the nine events scheduled, two feature Doucet and by an amazing coincidence, both are paired up with another event, the launch of Tessiers Mac Tin Tac. Which may explain why some people mistakenly believed he was the sole organizer.
The minutes for the May 10, 1993, General Assembly of the ACIBD, the association responsible for the Festival, contradict Tessiers claim that a "groundbreaking decision" was taken to feature homegrown talent rather than rolling out "the red carpet for Europeans." President Jean Lacombe opens the proceedings with a statement devoid of ambiguity: "due to the modest budget, we could not invite European artists." Tessier was one of the 13 voting members present and voiced no objection to the Presidents assessment. Granted The Comics Journal is a much better forum for some clever post-Festival spin.
Beyond the mainstream press, a McGill University student newspaper noted that the Festival having reached its seventh edition is a sign of vitality, henceforth promising to become a yearly event. Which begs the question, if the seventh Festival was the groundbreaking buzz Tessier describes, then why was it the last hurrah? Because: Montreals Seventh International Festival of Comics was a Gordian knot of metastatic malfeasance which not only sabotaged its own future but plunged the ACIBD into disgraceful agony, its funding severed by outraged government officials. Michael Deans article on past associations of comics professionals in The Comics Journal #262 would have been enriched by a sidebar on the ACIBD, since its accomplishments between 1986 and 1992 were enviable next to American efforts. For over a decade now, Montreal artists have had to do without the spotlight and opportunities provided by its founding artist-run Festival and without the lobbying and services of the ACIBD. This twin loss, much like the disappearance of Lapalmes Salon, is a tragic dilapidation of heritage, next to which Tessiers metaphor about "recharged (...) batteries" is not very electrifying.
Given Tessier praises as seminal an event in which he had a hand, one may suspect that the art happenings which he is so fond of may also bear his fingerprints. Doesnt mentioning an event was "Planned months in advance" suggest possible involvement? A little connect-the-dots process reveals that, in this case at least, Tessier is hiding in plain sight. After identifying himself as co-founder of Gogo Guy Publications, two sentences later he attributes "successful book launch/art events" to "members of the Gogo Guy Collective." Its like a prose version of Wheres Waldo?
This is followed by some self-congratulations over the Mac Tin Tac series. If The Comics Journal is field-testing a policy of hiring writers to pen reviews of their own work, this may explain the growing page count. We read that the "overall quality of the Gogo Guy books raised the bar and forced everybody in Montreal to stand up and take notice." Such an assessment borders on delusional. Many fine productions preceded Mac Tin Tac and there is no new minimal standard for local comics publishing. What kind of "bar" is he talking about and would "everybody in Montreal" agree to having witnessed its elevation? If instead of standing and noticing, everybody in Montreal had bought the book, then whoopee.
Upon scrutiny, it appears the raised bar served to batten down the hatches. "At the end of 1995, Gogo Guy unofficially disbanded." Just a minute, werent we told that in 1995, "the Montreal scene peaked with its biggest event/book launch ever" that "created a buzz that has yet to be duplicated" and "generated over two thousand dollars in profit"? Since connecting the dots points to Gogo Guy behind that event, why follow success with harakiri? And why does the repertory BDQ (p. 27) list a Gogo Guy publication as dated 1997? Are we being served the authentic lowdown or some doctored hype?
The longest of three sentences devoted to Howard Chackowicz reads as follows: "In 1991, he was the first Montrealer to be published by Fantagraphics, illustrating scripts by Dennis P. Eichhorn for Real Stuff and Real Smut." In fact, his first contribution to these books was in Real Smut #3 dated December 1992 (not 1991). Even within the confines of Eichhorns books, Chackowicz was preceded by Julie Doucet in Real Stuff #6 (April 1992). And thanks to a Fantagraphics indicia error, both were preceded by Éric Thériault in Real Stuff #11, dated February 1992 (but no, that should read February 1993). The first Montrealer published by Fantagraphics may possibly be Jacques Boivin, whose Melody illustrations for the Swimsuit Specials began in Amazing Heroes #164 dated May 1, 1989. For more accuracy, we could query the publisher but it looks like Fantagraphics private historian is on vacation.
We are informed that "Mille Putois was the undergrounds second big hit after Julie Doucets minis." Now if a teenage fanboy wrote in his zine that Spawn was a "big hit," that would be awesome. Unfortunately, this is The Comics Journal. Doucets success was due to plugs and reviews in publications such as Factsheet Five, which allowed her to sell much of her 150-copy print runs through the mails, trade with cartoonists worldwide and contact alternative publishers. Locally, only a handful of sharp-eyed afficionados followed her work. Given that the term "big hit" is problematic, we may nevertheless wonder: where there any successful or significant minis by Montrealers before Dirty Plotte or Mille Putois?
Dale Lucianos "Newave Comics Survey" in The Comics Journal #96 refers to one of the undersigned as a "talented Canadian artist" whose second mini-comic is quoted as "possibly the most successful selling mini of all time." So it appears a Montrealer held the world record for best-selling mini during a few years, at least until eclipsed by Scott McCloud and Matt Feazells lightning bolt, Zot! #10½. A few years later, Hal Hargits "Small Press World" survey of Montreal in Amazing Heroes #177 (March 1990) is one of numerous articles which mention Sylvie Rancourts self-published comics. Two 500-copy editions of her first photocopied zine and 500 copies of her second one, almost entirely sold in Montreal bars, were followed by six 5000-copy offset editions for Quebec newsstand distribution. After a 1987 mini-comic, Rancourt and Boivin became the only Québécois to ever create a series for one of the original underground comix publishers.
By 1992, Robert Boyd encapsulated the Montreal comics scene with a five-sentence description in The Comics Journal #154 that is more compelling than twelve pages in the Special Edition 2005. Boyds cogent assessment frames a laudatory 900-word review of "One of the most prolific young Montreal cartoonists" who is absent from said twelve pages. Theres a reason why Tessiers article contains no references or footnotes. Facts are irrelevant to his purpose, which shines most brightly through the next item.
And so Hélène Brosseau is credited for having "co-edited the last two Cyclopes anthologies." This anthology is the only title in the text to receive three mentions. Tessier fails to disclose his role as the other co-editor on these two books, as well as that of editor for the first anthology (cannily described as "quality contemporary adult comics"). In order to discover his central role, one must turn to the Conundrum Press advertisement in the back pages of the Comics Journal Special Edition, where Tessier gets top billing. This ad is also revealing in another fashion: the list of contributors to Cyclops is almost a roll call of the cartoonists featured in "The Montreal Comix Scene." The few discrepancies are easily explained. The pattern is rather obvious: the main criterion for being part of the "Montreal Comix Scene" is to have been successfully courted for a Tessier project.
In the critics corner, dozens of locals have written about comics and some of those with the most notable accomplishments arent mentioned by Tessier. The three who have found their way into his article (Jetté, Lord, Bottenberg) form a diverse group with few traits in common. Except all three have written at length promoting Tessiers work and collaborated on his projects.
Regarding Montreal publisher La Pastèque, we learn that "High quality design and content" launched their "meteoric rise." O brave new world that has such publishers in it, whose refined judgment rapidly translates into sales. The missing key information here is that within Quebec, La Pastèques sales were next to nil until its co-publisher Martin Brault was hired as chief comics buyer for Quebecs largest bookstore chain, Renaud-Bray, whose 26 stores control over 25% of the market. Nowadays it is not uncommon to be greeted at Renaud-Bray by colossal pyramids of books majestically crowned by La Pastèques fine offerings, first as you step into the store, again as you round a strategic corner such as the cash register, then towards the center of the store and finally, on top of a table in front of the graphic novel bins. Its quite heartwarming to finally see homegrown comics get the exposure so long yearned for. Renaud-Brays main sales and promotion tool is their attribution of "Coup de coeur," an in-house seal of approval with which La Pastèques books get stickered at a rate which would make any small publisher stop bellyaching about not getting on the shelves. Amazing what dividends may be reaped from attention to editorial (and other) details.
Imagine a Fantagraphics editor being hired as main graphic novel buyer for the largest bookstore chain in North America. Wait for results then add a journalist to report that Fantagraphics increasing sales are due to their fine paper quality. Beautiful. But that would be doing things the Canadian way.
Tessier estimates that "the Montreal scene exists because of the selflessness of generous souls." Due to lack of financial reward, Montrealers who "have a real love and passion for the possibilities of narrative art (...) have kept the scene alive." This paints a very romantic picture but is it on the level? Since the ACIBD lobbied the government to obtain the recognition of comics as a separate art form with specific requirements, the amount of financial aid provided to comics has increased considerably in the past 15 years. Various branches at each level of government provide a wide variety of financial aid for the creation of comics, travel expenses, publishing, etc. In this area, Tessier is an established master, having obtained no less than three grants just for the first two Cyclope anthologies and having participated in numerous government-funded activities such as trips to Belgium and France ("armed with a fistful of government dosh" as Rupert Bottenberg put it in the Mirror, Feb. 10th 2000) or the 1992 Festival previously discussed, which was made possible by over $50,000 from government programs.
It is hypocritical to pose as a pioneer bringing comics to the art world and to prophesy about some future era in which "the contemporary art world in Quebec finally comes to recognize comics as a medium of merit and depth" when it is precisely that contemporary art worlds funding establishment which has provided for his costliest undertakings. Once the Olivier/Tessier Mac Tin Tac series generated a grant, Tessier learned from the experience: "I always thought that if I had done Mac Tin Tac in French it would be easier to get grants from the Quebec government" he explained in the 25th anniversary issue of Matrix, a local literary magazine which has itself survived thanks to a combination of municipal, provincial and federal generosity. This is not a taboo subject. When projects are tailored to seduce the purses of power, isnt the integrity of the artist in danger of compromise? With anthology projects, an additional level of power relationships further complicates matters, requiring political skills and tactics (such as getting a vanitous article published in a prestigious magazine of criticism).
A successful grant application typically suggests many more that failed. Line Gamache has produced a lovely mini-comic about the artists life as a ceaseless pursuit of grants and the inevitable refusals (Peut-être à la Saint-Glin-Glin, 1996). Whats a struggling artist to do? "Everybodys on welfare. I know some people who have stayed on it for 15 years," as Julie Doucet tactfully put it in Juno Books Dangerous Drawings (1997). "I received an arts grant from the government, and thats how I got off welfare." None of this is acknowledged in Tessiers Montreal: "Its easy to find part-time jobs," he writes. "To make ends meet, comic book artists work as musicians, makeup artists, graphic designers, booksellers, teachers or photographers." This detailed list smacks of public relations. The reader is being distracted with a trivial enumeration that expels marginality and cloaks sycophancy. Behold, a respectable group has recuperated the creation of subversive art.
Tessiers platitudinous conclusion that "Montreal is a school still thriving" (huh?) "because it celebrates diversity and unites solitudes" reads like crafty formula recycled from grant applications, where a politically correct posture is preferable to undisguised ignorance and arrogance.
Outsiders may question how it is that Marc Tessier has been able to avoid strong critical opposition for over 15 years. Too easygoing and preoccupied with fun, eh? Partly. The Montreal comics scene is a discontinuous scattering of individualized idiosyncracies, associating capriciously according to temporarily pooled resources. Within this context, Tessiers activities have touched relatively small groups. But on March 4, 2002, he accessed a larger audience than usual when the site bdquebec.qc.ca hosted one of his opinion pieces. Bookseller François Mayeux then undertook the debunking of Tessiers intellectual smoke and mirrors with his own opinion piece entitled "One viewpoint may hide another." As the message boards began to entertain speculation about Tessiers past shenanigans, Mayeux altered his focus midstream to quell the rumors. He bemoaned the fact that Montreal has seen too many hustlers seeking to exploit the scene for their own purposes and suggested that Tessier seize the opportunity to come clean. Tessier failed to respond. Or so it seemed... At about this time, he started work on his Comics Journal Special Edition piece which does contain two (indirect) responses. The first is that François Mayeux is quite absent from "The Montreal Comix Scene," despite his unparalleled contribution to the promotion of comics in Quebec over the past 20 years. The second is that rather than owning up to his past, Tessier used the hospitality of the Journal to rewrite history.
Nevertheless, there are no vendettas against Marc Tessier. His graphic novel The Theatre of Cruelty, as illustrated by Alexandre Lafleur, is a rich visionary journey deserving wider recognition than it has garnered to date. Tessiers photojournalistic report in The Comics Journal #251 is an original and entertaining take on the Angoulême Festival. Nor are there outstanding gripes against any of the individuals selected by Tessier for "The Montreal Comix Scene." Given the forum and the circumstances, being included or excluded is equivalently honorable.
As recently as The Comics Journal #265, Michael Dean described (p. 21) the amateurish lower end of comics journalism, "the fans uncritical celebration of his or her subject." Tessiers stream of imprecise formulation, inappropriate metaphors and unwarranted hyperbole should not even have satisfied an Eros proofreader. The few occasions when the text leaves cliched exuberance to attempt expressing fact or idea, it is difficult to believe that no frowns crossed editorial brows.
Instead, Fantagraphics has promoted this article as "a major survey of the Montreal comics scene, with profiles of all the major participants" and the only clue give to the revisionism and nepotism that pervade it comes from the subtitle "When solitudes unite, A personal history." Is this a "personal" version of "history"? If so, the narrator is strangely absent from the text. First person singular appears a total of eight times and only once as it relates to involvement in the comics scene (the defunct Gogo Guy Publications). The word "we" appears exactly once out of nearly 4300 words. By comparison, Tessiers photo-report on Angoulême, at only 1400 words, uses first person singular 24 times, a tenfold greater frequency. Which may explain why that report on France is more credible: Tessier explains his choices and takes responsibility for his opinions.
Tessier is not incapable of being candid. His introduction to the first Cyclope anthology (Zone convective, 2000) begins with the admission: "ever since my first publication I have yearned for recognition, that magical word whose utterance would support the act of creation by untying the purse strings of the State and of publishers." He goes on to name his other yearnings, the "ivory towers" of the art establishment and the desire to produce freely "without money and ego at the center of my creation." Now that qualifies as "personal history." The Comics Journal Special Edition deserved better than the concoction it ended up with.
Hopefully we are correct in assuming that Fantagraphics agreed to publish a 12-page feature on Montreal based upon the evaluation that our city harbors a notable variety of worthwhile talents. The five additional color pages by local cartoonists delivered a fine but too small sampling of the reservoir of sensibilities Montreal offers. In keeping with Valiums intricate labyrinths of visceral tubing, may we have demonstrated that Montreal is even more convoluted and fertile than previously imagined.