Interview with Brad Mackay, Doug Wright Awards Co-Founder

Interview with Brad Mackay, Doug Wright Awards Co-Founder

(On the left is Brad Mackay at Toronto Word on The Street last year; in the centre is the Doug Wright Award; and on the right are celebrated cartoonists Chester Brown and Seth at the 2009 Doug Wright Awards after-party. Photos courtesy Brad Mackay,)

Brad Mackay is a freelance journalist who, along with Canadian cartoonist Seth, is the co-founder of the Doug Wright Awards, which recognize and celebrate English-language comics and graphic novels in Canada. I spoke to Mr. Mackay earlier this week about the origins of the awards, about who Doug Wright was, and the inspiration behind their creation.

Dave Howard: Can you tell me about the Doug Wright Awards? What exactly are the Doug Wright Awards trying to celebrate?

Brad Mackay: The Doug Wright Awards are an annual event that recognizes the best in English-language comics. Essentially, we’re trying to give the community its own recognition platform above and beyond the larger awards organizations that currently exist for comics, such as the Eisners.

Howard: The Eisners are American.

Mackay: They’re based in America and have been around for years — they’re often referred to as the Oscars of comics. But  I always thought that even when you would get Canadians in there, like say a Seth or a Chester Brown book, they would typically lose out to other books, other competing interests. Or they’d be nominated for say Best Penciller but wouldn’t get a nod in the Best Graphic Novel category, which is kind of a back-handed compliment.

It was actually Seth and I who started talking about it. We were saying it seems like there was a need for something there to help promote and celebrate Canadian comic outside of the dominant American culture. And outside of the standard industry approach to awards and recognition.

Howard: What year would this have been?

Mackay: The idea began in Spring 2004. I think it was right after the first TCAF (Toronto Comics Arts Festival) and about the same time that Seth and I worked on a book about Doug Wright, which came out last May. It all kind of tied into that.

Howard: You mean your interest in Doug Wright?

Mackay: In about 2000 I was writing about comics at the National Post and various places, and after one of these interviews with Seth he proposed that we work together on a book about the history of Canadian cartooning. Doug Wright was one of the artists, and Seth started showing me all this work that he had collected of Wright’s.

Of the seven guys Seth envisioned for the book, Wright was the one that I remembered best. Just seeing his old strips, it really sparked a load of memories; of my youth, my family, Canada in the 1970s. He just seemed so quintessentially Canadian, in all the right ways, that I found myself kind of inspired. Because here was a guy whose work speaks for itself and I had forgotten about him. That just wasn’t right. It was culturally irresponsible that his legacy was not being maintained – that he was not getting his due.

Howard: Looking through the book – just the artwork alone is amazing.

Mackay: They just don’t make cartoonists like that anymore. He was a hard-working, no-nonsense professional cartoonist, you know? At one point he was writing and drawing five strips a week, and that’s not including his ad work. I mean Seth is a hard-worker – so is Chris Ware – but I think even they would get the shakes if they were faced with his work load. That this man could fall so quickly out of public favour was a big revelation to me. So that kind of sparked the idea that we needed something to celebrate and trumpet this art form inside our own borders; no one else is going to do it, right?

I mean, I’m of two minds about awards. A lot of people think it’s just absurd to kind of compare works of any art, that one is better than the other.

Howard: Right – they often can be different, but not necessarily better.

Mackay: I agree. But I do think that awards are valid in a situation like this where work could use an extra little push. I know a lot of cartoonists, and their working lives can be a thankless task. Initially we wanted to promote these comics, and TCAF is a perfect place to do that because of the crowd it attracts.

Howard: When you say “these” comics, do you mean current Canadian comics or older ones?

Mackay: Both. Out mandate is to promote Canadian comics past and present, and foster up-and-comers.

Howard: Is there a kind of canon-building going on?

Mackay: Definitely. We have a Hall of Fame, called The Giants of the North. We used to induct three or four people at a time, but now we induct one person a year, which helps to  showcase what I like to think of as the stars of Canadian comics.

Howard: These are the people who laid the groundwork?

Mackay: Yes, a good example of that is Kate Beaton, who came out of the blue to nab the Best Emerging Talent award last year. She recently recounted a story about an elderly survey taker who knocked on her door. When he asked what her profession was she said “I’m a cartoonist.” Then he said “Oh, I love comics, especially this one called Birdseye Centre by Jimmy Frise — I just loved that.” This sparked up a conversation, because she’d heard of Frise at last year’s Wright Awards where we had inducted him into our hall of fame. We had [CBC Radio’s] Stuart McClean there, and it was just amazing. Anyways, that was a really heartening thing for me, because I felt like we had done our job; you know, in terms of spreading the word about this community and its history.

Howard: There’s a lot of wonderful comics that have come out of Canada. I think the ratio of good to bad comics is quite high.

Mackay: Yes, I think so too, and I think it’s been that way for a while. I mean, look at Drawn and Quarterly – and I’m somewhat prejudiced because they published our book – but can you get a better comics publisher? I would say no. And it’s always been that way, there’s always been a high-percentage of quality cartoonists, for more than a hundred years. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. And I think it’s curious in that comics and cartoons have traditionally been viewed as disposable culture. Add to that our maddingly Canadian tendency to ignore certain segments of our culture and the result is that this work gets overlooked.

Howard: I think I would agree with you that there’s not really an appreciation of the work that goes into creating a comic page.

Mackay: Oh, I agree. But you can get that with anything; I used to get that in journalism. People don’t quite understand it because people tear through comics as a kid in about five minutes, so they don’t think about it. But if the comics artist does his or her work well you don’t notice the craft that’s gone into constructing the strip. You and I notice that because we have read comics throughout our lives, and have thought about the form, have deconstructed it. But if you see a comic that’s poorly done, you really notice it – the flow, or the horrible drawing or the bad writing or whatever it may be.

Howard: Have there been any great finds that have come out that surprised you? Anybody whom you particularly lit upon?

Mackay: Oh yeah! Kate Beaton was the big one from last year. Kate’s just great. Really smart and funny and she just sprang up almost fully firmed from the web-comics community, which is huge, obviously, right now. Jesse Jacobs is another refreshing talent we nominated in 2009; he’s out of Guelph. Then there’s Ray Fenwick, who is a Halifax native, who is is totally brilliant. Who else? I think Pascal Girard is a great guy coming out of Montreal and the artist who did the book about Kaspar Houser. And Caitlin Black, whose Maids of the Mist is just so endearing and readable.

I mean, as someone who loves comics and passionately believes in the art form, the past five or six years have been fantastic. It’s been a comic nerd’s dream. It’s a lot of work, I don’t really get paid for it but you’re privy to so many great things. I mean, look at Skim and the Tamakis.

Howard: I’m such a huge fan of that book.

Mackay: Yes, I mean, what a wonderful book. If I can pat ourselves on the back for a second, we recognized Skim with an Honourable Mention when it debuted as a 24-page comic back in 2006. So, it feel sgood to be giving them a Best Book award years later. You also forge some great friendships with people as well. I mean, Joe Ollmann is a top-rate fellow, and I only would have met him via the awards,

Howard: How is the award chosen?

Mackay: We have a nominating committee, which we’re in the process of putting together now. We have usually five people – an odd number – made up of people from across the spectrum. So we have Jeet Heer, Chester Brown Jerry Ciccoritti, we have Sean Rogers who writes a comics blog for The Walrus, and then Bryan Munn, a retailer and critic from Guelph. So we have those guys on it for this year on the nominating committee. And we have regional advisors, who we ask every year, right across the country, to give us their picks. We get copies of the comis, throw them in a big bin, everybody reads them, and then they get together in Guelph or Toronto or Ottawa and have this really engaging, combative dinner where we draw up a short list of three categories. And then from that point we choose our prize jury from a wider cross section of society and  we throw them in “The Thunderdome” as we like to call it. We have another dinner with those people and they pick the winners. We tend to have two or three comics-based people on that jury and then the rest are kind of balanced off. Last year we had Bob Rae on the jury and Andrew Coyne. It’s pretty eclectic.

Howard: So you don’t ghettoize your jurors.

Mackay: Nope. We try and reach out to the wider culture as much as possible in everything we do. This also extends to our ceremony, which we insist is “jeans-free” – at least for the organizers and presenters. So it’s a costume-free zone.  As a result, we’ve had some nice things said about us. Peggy Burns from Drawn and Quarterly told us it was the best awards ceremony she’d ever been to — hands-down. And she’s been to plenty. Usually the Eisner Awards in San Diego drag on for hours, and it’s the kind of thing where everybody gets an award, you know. We have three awards; it’s a pretty tight ceremony; it’s entertaining; and there’s a real collegiality about it, a sense of community that’s grown out of it. It’s become a bit of an event, everybody goes for drinks afterwards. I don’t get the feeling that the people who were just nominated and didn’t win get any feeling of sour grapes. I see people talking and joking around.

You know, we could get the same comics people every year to head stuff up. But to me, if your goal is trying to expand the reach of these books, and treat them with a degree of seriousness, then you should get people like Andrew Coyne. I mean I spent hours drinking with him at the after-party last year, and his knowledge of comics would just knock you over. And you’d never guess that – it’s extremely heartening. Those type of things. Don McKellar, our host last year, was another great example. He loves comics, you know? Bruce MacDonald was there one year, Adam Egoyan, and I’m pretty sure we had David Cronenberg there one year. These people are open to these things; all you have to do is ask.

Howard: That’s fantastic. I know the awards are just for English comics, and there’s a huge history and industry and a huge love around French-language comics in Quebec: is there any future for French Language comics for the Doug Wright Awards?

Mackay: We’ve dealt with this seriously, especially last year. There’s francophone French-language comic awards out there that do a pretty damn good job recognizing French-language comics. We approached it by saying “Is the job being done? Are we duplicating someone else’s efforts?” After asking around the French-language comics world we decided this market was being met. That’s where we stand now. I mean we always have a tip of the hat, we’ve inducted French cartoonists into the hall of fame and such.

Howard: Right – it’s Canadian.

Mackay: Yes, it’s also logistics as well.  If we lived in a perfect world where everybody on our jury was bilingual then – but the reality is that it isn’t. So the French language comics would be forced into their own category, and that seems … distasteful somehow.  And the other reality is the fact that, if you start analyzing the French language comic scene, it exists in it’s own right, and I don’t want to be seen as an outside force.

Howard: Telling them what’s good and bad?

Mackay: Yeah, that’s my personal take on it–being a comics award coming in and saying, “This is good, and that’s bad.” I can understand why that leaves us open to criticism by some people, but we’re not alone in this. Look at other awards, The Scotiabank Giller Awards, for instance is for English-language books — but no one would challenge their right to cal themselves Canadian.

Howard: There’s a precedent and place for it?

Mackay: Of course. In fact, Quebec awards like the Bédélys are not only just for French comics but are restricted to Quebec residents only. But I’d never claim that they weren’t Canadian. So, that’s the reality of that, but it’s always a conversation we have, every year.

Howard: In the landscape of English awards, there are other English comic awards, like the Joe Shuster Awards. How does the Doug Wright Awards differ from the Joe Shuster Awards – or do they? Or maybe they don’t need to – my goodness, there can be no shortage of appreciation for the hard work that Canadian cartoonists do.

Mackay: I think the work the Shuster guys do complements our work nicely. We both look at the same pool of talent and  I think Kevin [Boyd] and his whole team try and cast a wide net, as do we. I think the difference comes in the execution. We both look at the same pool, we both have noble goals, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of Canadian cartooning that we can sustain two awards. The Shusters have a jury now – they used to have a fan-based, they changed that to a jury thing a year or two ago.

Howard: I think they look more at the – if I may speak for them – that they look more at the industry. They’ll have an inker award, a writer award…

Mackay: I think their model is a more traditional industry award, like the Eisners. Ours is built on a literary model.

Howard: You’re not looking at art as a craft, but at the work as a whole, as a work of art?

Mackay: We look at the work, or the body of work, as a whole, and we’re not going to discriminate if there’s a work that has been based on that kind of assembly line – you know, like Marvel or DC comics, because of their turnaround, they do kind of have to work on an assembly-line process.

Howard: There’s a long history of that.

Mackay: Exactly. God, some of my favourite comics of all time – the Fantastic Four, Spiderman – were made this way, that forced assembly line process. We tend to look at the work as a whole, and the work in a lot of cases ends up being a single writer-cartoonist. In other cases it’s not – it could be an anthology, or, like Skim, which is the result of two people working together. In the end, it’s a book thing. We have an award for best book, for emerging talent – it can be for a body of work in the year, but it tends to focus on some sort of book. And then there’s the Pigskin Peters Award for more  experimental work. We try and cover as much as we can. We lose some things, I suppose, but for an awards organization that has three awards I think we do rather well.

Howard: I don’t think you’d have many people disagree with you.

Mackay: I’m sure there are people who would. God knows there’s been enough written about it and said about it, which is bizarre. I think it comes down to a community thing. All the books being nominated is the thing.

Howard: And being around people who appreciate the hard work that you do. It’s kind of a new-ish thing for the general public to understand the work that’s needed to create a graphic novel. I think it’s only been about eight years now that comics have entered the mainstream as a legitimate art form.

Mackay: Or one that’s lucrative in any sort of way. I think the last couple of years it’s been the only sector in the book industry that’s shown consistent growth, which is why you get books like Skim popping up.

Howard: I started becoming interested in comics when I noticed new writers expressing themselves in a primarily visual way. I began to theorize that graphic novels might replace the current novel because the new writers wanted to express their ideas graphically.

Mackay: You certainly hope so, but then you also have this other generation of people in the past ten or five years who are creating web comics who know none of that. You’ve got people doing web comics that are very DIY, in a punk way, writing comics and posting them online, and it’s all about this very supportive community. It’s very interesting; this group comes at it from neither of those camps. They have no knowledge of superhero comics, period. And they have no knowledge of graphic novels, of a Seth or a Chris Ware or a Dan Clowes. They have none of that. It’s entirely an online-based community making these comics for each other. And I think that scared me at first. But its very compelling to me that the language of comics can transfer to a new medium.

I mean, it doesn’t matter who you are, to me. If you talk to a comics person, you can talk about Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s run on Spiderman, and people will still have an opinion about it. But then I bumped into people at TCAF who had no idea what I was talking about. They were like “You mean the movie?” They had no clue at all about it. So, yeah, it exists regardless. It’s a written visual language medium that people identify with regardless.

Howard: It’s very adaptable to the Net.

Mackay: Oh, without a doubt, I think it is for sure.

Howard: Do you think the Doug Wright Awards would ever move in that direction?

Mackay: To honour web comics? It’d be great to honour everything every year, including web comics, but I’m not sure they need our help. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating universe. I mean Kate Beaton came from a web-comics world, but she had a book that we based her nomination on. So, never rule anything out, it could definitely happen. Not this year, but maybe in future years. Maybe when people stop reading actual books!

Howard: Well – I don’t know. How do you feel about that transition? Do you think there’s going to be that day? I think of the music industry as a cautionary tale, as people trying to shore up as opposed to try and accept.

Mackay: I’ve done a lot of thinking about this because I love books, and I write. I think the conception that one technology takes over another technology and consumes it is just a convenient fiction. Music’s a great example. Vinyl records? They’re making vinyl records again. I mean the market may kind of fall a bit for traditional books, but books are never going to go away. You know what I mean? It’s a convenient thing. Will the Kindle and the Apple iPad make people buy more e-books? Sure. But it’s not going to slay the print form.

Movies are a great example. Television was going to kill movies. Didn’t do it. Video games were going to kill movies. They put a dent it in the market, but certainly did not kill it. Television shows certainly don’t have the same market share they did in the 1950s and the 60’s, but I guess there weren’t as many other kinds of popular media out there. I’m not of the belief that things die out. They may get less of the market share, but there’ll always be a market for books and for magazines. Arguably, something will come along one day and “replace” the web as well. I don’t know what that will be, but, it’s not going to kill the web, you know? It’s a remarkable invention.

So, no, I think web comics will rise, and things will be great, but they’re not going to kill traditional comics. As a bit of an experiment, I’ve started visiting a comic book shop in Ottawa, just to kind of soak in it a bit. Which is hard, because I used to live in the same city as The Beguiling, so it’s like going from dating the head cheerleader to holding hands with the head A/V nerd. But I’m always surprised to still see superhero comics on the racks, you know? I mean, you have to run a gauntlet of action figures and role-playing games before you get to them, but there they are, and people still buy spending their rent money on them. And it’s a bizarre format – this floppy, monthly format that costs, like, four or five bucks. But – there they are, every Wednesday, guys lining up at the register for their weekly fix. God love each and every one!