Up until recently, I wasn’t aware that a Canadian comic industry still existed. For some reason, I thought it had all gone south after the latest incarnation of Alpha Flight was cancelled.
Of course, I knew there were Canadian editorial cartoonists out there working for newspapers, or assumed as much, though it doesn’t seem very plausible in this economy. And I was aware that there was a patchwork of “scenes” throughout the country where hard-working artists laboured away to create ‘zines and graphic novels and other necessary, if not somewhat obtuse, cultural products. Mostly to languish in obscurity, but some of which hit the big time. Like that one about Louis Riel, or that one that got turned into a Hollywood film.
But I never found myself thinking: “You know what, comics are integral to our understanding of the dilemmas and conflicts that saturate contemporary Canadian politics and culture. Like a crowbarred maple syrup metaphor, they put a shiny coat on our national pancake, making it that much sweeter and digestible.”
Now, I still don’t find myself thinking such things, but I’m one step closer thanks to Edmonton-turned-Toronto cartoonist Mike Winters, whose work has appeared in Vice, among other places. I recently talked with Winters to see if I could be converted further.
Douglas Haddow: Do you think Edmonton deserves a bigger place within Canadian consciousness?
Mike Winters: Not really. If Edmonton is known for a big mall and the fact that Wayne Gretzky used to live there, that’s to be expected.
How did you get started writing comics?
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Edmonton had a strong print culture with two decent weeklies and a university student paper, the Gateway, which is where I started doing cartoons. There were already great cartoons being published while I was in still in high school, like Space Moose, Bob the Angry Flower and Space Cat, which is what inspired me to do a strip. From those titles alone, you can tell that the tiny scene was very much joke-driven and somewhat artless. Nothing like the stuff in, say, Montreal, at the time.
You left Edmonton for Toronto. How’s that going? Do you miss Edmonton?
I still fly home once or twice a year, so I get my Big Mall visits in and see friends. When I’m not complaining about it, I like Toronto a lot.
What do you like about it?
It’s not -30!
So, you have a reoccuring comic that is based on Back to the Future. Are you a big fan of the trilogy?
Naturally. I used to skateboard around as a kid with an idiotic red vest in emulation of Marty McFly.
But other than that, I just like to borrow from popular Sci-Fi movies as easy visual shorthand in the strip. The real question is: why is some high school kid doing the bidding of some older man that everyone thinks is crazy? Where were Mart McFly’s parents in this? What if Doc Brown wasn’t even a good person?
Yeah, the comic really resonated with me because I subscribe to the theory that Doc is some form of nihilist who just wants to fuck around with the space-time continuum for his own entertainment.
For example, the entire premise of BTTF 2: Doc knows very well that Marty will grow up to repeat the mistakes of his father and end up a subservient lacky who hates his life, but he refuses inform Marty of his fate, only to demand that Marty go “back to the future” with him so that they can stop Marty’s son from going to jail. It’s absurd. Why couldn’t Doc just tell Marty what he should avoid, thus fixing the future in the present?
Yeah, also: If you know what’s going to happen to Marty McFly’s kid, just take care of it! Why is the younger McFly even needed to solve this non-problem? That’s kind of a jumping off point for humour in the comic, too. Every mission is IMPERATIVE yet POORLY EXPLAINED. That said, I try to have a good reason in my back pocket for each “mission” in the strip.
What was your inspiration for Edmonton: The Game?
I grew up in the suburbs, and aside from the churn in the strip malls and expansion, I never felt any sense of history of the place where I was raised. Edmonton in general is a later 20th-century oil boom town with very few historical buildings, which heightens that sense of timelessness, making its history seem more muddled and vague.
Part of the reason I like Edmonton as subject matter is that I can sort of glorify it as a sense of place, maybe with my tongue planted in cheek, but not entirely ironic either. The video game strips tap into that as well — I’m making fun of the idea of a game developer rendering each street with dogged authenticity, but I would also drop everything to play it if it existed in real life.
Have you ever considered doing a Kickstarter and turning it into a real game?
Nice idea. But too much work! If I ever get the time, I want to do an actual comic book based on a few strips I’ve done. Basically, it’s a confused history of Edmonton, as if it were Stalingrad. I like the idea of Edmontonians fighting to the death to save West Edmonton Mall.
Yeah, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a post-apocalyptic film shot in West Ed yet. How does the mall factor into the Edmontionan psyche? Is it like Greeks and the Parthenon?
Haha, not so much. I think I personally exaggerate its prominence because I grew up nearby. Although it has some notoriety since it was known as the largest mall in the world for a long time.
PS: A segment of Police Academy was shot at the Mall.
Speaking of a “sense of place,” one of your characters, Wonderdick, seems to have a passion for alternative urban cartography, and the like. What’s he all about?
In a word: urbanists. Even though I’m interested in government transparency, sustainability, city planning and civic history, I find that within the chattering classes of Toronto there’s a type of person who embodies twee earnestness to the point of myopia. I don’t share the same enthusiasm for romanticizing things like the Toronto Transit Commission or flash mobs, so that’s where the Wonderdick parody comes in. Nevertheless, most of my ideas come from making fun of myself — whenever I have Wonderdick-y moments.