The atmosphere is unmistakable. The scratchy scrivening of a dozen people hunched over drawing boards. The acrid fumes of Staedtler nibs rubbed raw, of wet ink, sweat and concentration. A comic jam is in progress.
Like a guest saxophone squonking over a band’s backbeat, the practice of “jamming” has long pervaded the funny-book business. Some of the earliest underground comics, beginning with issue No. 2 of Zap in 1968, were collaborations among different artists completing each other’s panels or stories in their own unique style. The results of these conjugations are spontaneous and surprising, sometimes revelatory.
Sharing that experience with the public at large is a kind of calling for Toronto’s Dave Howard. Inspired by Rupert Bottenberg — a Montreal cartoonist and journalist who started that city’s popular jams a few years ago — Howard founded the Toronto Comic Jam in 1996, a modest happening that runs the last Tuesday of every month in the smoky hollow at the back of the Cameron House. “It’s free and open, non-competitive, not a place to be seen,” Howard says of the jams, which lure as many as 50 cartoonists a pop. “There’s a sense of communication that happens. People can talk about things maybe they feel safer talking about in a medium they’re comfortable with.”
Howard’s latest venture is even more inclusive: a month-long public jam/art exhibit at offthemapgallery on Spadina Avenue. The goal is to give anyone with the inkling a chance to pick up a pen or pencil (or crayon) and dip a phalange into a comic collaboration. Since the show opened in late January, dozens of people have dropped by the rustic space every week (Wednesday to Saturday, 11am-5pm), and most of them have grabbed an implement and joined the action. “I try to coerce them into doing something,” Howard admits. “I’ll say, ‘Just do the word balloons,’ or I’ll do the narration on top and let them finish. People have been really good about it. They participate, even if they can’t draw.”
“I came with the intention of reading and watching,” says Nicola Luksic, a producer for CBC Radio who soon found herself channelling Charles Shulz at one of the open tables. “It seemed really easy to pick up a pen and draw. I doodle on my own, but I’ve never done anything like this,” and she points to her freshly rendered 12-panel strip. It had begun as a page of empty panels that Howard had drawn and given the title A Fine Point. In Luksic’s hands, it became a stick-figure tragedy: the first six panels show two figures twirling each other in a frivolous ronde. “I guess I have a discomfort with happy resolutions,” Luksic says of the next six panels, in which Fig. 2 pulls a knife from its minimally rendered torso and slaughters Fig. 1 with a few grisly strokes. “I’m really happy with the comic,” Luksic smiles mischievously. “I wanted to take it home.”
Instead, the comic is up on the gallery’s white walls, which are tacked end to end with partial or finished comic pages. Their creators are local cartoonists (like Jason Turner and Dave Lapp), artists from other streams (like local painter Gideon Tomaschoff), or, like Luksic, anyone curious enough to give it a go. Artist Antonia Lancaster owns offthemap. She says running a public comic jam at an art gallery is not just a barrel of laffs — it’s also a challenge to established concepts of art, artist and audience. “There are not many galleries where the viewer can take the art off the wall and complete the idea,” she explains. “It presses the edges a bit; toys with the preciousness of art.” An art form like comics, already kicking inside a cloud of prejudice, is the perfect foil. “There’s this notion with comics that because the ideas aren’t put through a ‘higher’ medium that they aren’t as cogent or don’t have the same quality,” she says. “It’s interesting to run a show like this; it gives the gallery goer respect for the medium, and lets them express an idea through a popular form that’s less threatening than fine art.”
“It’s the garage rock of drawing,” says Nadia Halim, who is helping Howard and Lancaster run the event. “If you know three chords and can yell real loud, you can draw comics.”
The Toronto Comic Jam exhibit at offthemapgallery, 80 Spadina Ave., Room 506, continues until Feb. 28.