Kevin Boyd talks Joe Shuster Awards

[Originally published May 29, 2010 for books.torontoist.com. I’ve posted this interview here today (Dec 21 2022) and backdated the post to the same date as the interview. Here’s Kevin’s Bio in 2010:

Kevin Boyd is a cancer researcher and a long-standing comics promoter. Between 1986 and 1989 he was a founding member of Black Light Comics, an independent company of black and white comics sold at Toronto area conventions. In 2003 he co-founded the 3-day Paradise Toronto Comicon, an event that he left in 2007. In 2005, he was a co-founder of the Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards Association which exists to hand out the annual Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards. Boyd was the Associate Director between 2005 and 2008, and became the Executive Director in 2008. In 2007 Boyd went to work for Hobbystar Marketing to work as the Canadian guest and programming co-ordinator on Fan Expo Canada and the smaller Toronto ComiCONs. He has also worked with other comics industry organizations such as the comic book grading company (CGC) and The Hero Initiative charity. Finally, Boyd has been an Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide Advisor since 2005.]

U of T’s Innis Hall plays host this Saturday to the sixth annual Joe Shuster Awards for Canadian Comic Book Creators, a series of awards that recognize and promote Canadians who make, publish, and sell comic books, web comics, and graphic novels. Kevin Boyd, Executive Director of The Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards Association, sat down for a chat with Torontoist’s Dave Howard.

Dave Howard: What is the Joe Shuster Awards is trying to celebrate?

Kevin Boyd: Well we’re trying to celebrate the fact that Canada has a large and diverse collection of creators that live here, and we’re trying to encourage more interest and activity in Canada among our creators. This will be our sixth year, as we started organizing it in the fall of 2004. The first ceremony was in late April 2005.

Since Canada has a rich tradition of supporting our national arts communities with awards that recognize the achievements of our citizens (such as the Genies and the Junos), we felt that it was important to do something similar for comic books. 

Howard: Can you tell me about their creation? 

Boyd: The initial pitch for a Canadian comic book award came from former Orb Publisher James Waley. I had been working on the Paradise Toronto Comicon and James suggested we do comic book awards there. I liked the idea it was too late in the convention season, something like that would require a lot of coordinating to do correctly and I was too busy with the convention. But it was in the back of my mind, and I mentioned the idea to others -Tyrone Biljan, former Canadian Liberty Legion self-publisher was brought in for design and Dave Darrigo, writer of Wordsmith and who used to work at Dragon Lady for many years, came in as a sort of sober second-thought guy to keep things grounded and practical. 

Howard: The calming influence?

Boyd: Yeah he was the guy who came in and said “well, you can’t do that, that costs money and we don’t have any.” He was our “Doubting Thomas” which was a good thing to have for our first years. He retired to Muskoka in 2006.

Howard: I had an opportunity to talk to James Waley about it a little bit back then, while he was getting that going. It sounded like quite an exciting prospect, that the Shuster family was willing to put their name behind the award.

Boyd: Oh yes, they have very strong ties to Canada. Joe moved down to the U.S. and so did his sister, but his cousin Frank lived up here and a bunch of his other relatives. They would visit for family vacations and weddings here, and there are many Shuster family descendants in Canada. Joe talked of how important Canada and Toronto were to him before he passed in the early 1990’s. 

Howard: Would you mind giving a bit of a summation of Mr. Joe Shuster, and why he’s so special, and why this award is in his honour?

Boyd: Joe Shuster is well known as the co-creator of Superman, and Superman is one of a select group of characters that everybody knows around the world. He was born here in Toronto, delivered the Star here and developed his love for comics reading the paper. For business reasons his father moved the family to Cleveland, and it was there in Cleveland he met into Jerry Siegel, who lived just a street and a half over from his house – they went to school together and shared their love for pulps and comics and started writing fantasy stories, like many boys did at the time. They started writing science fiction stories and Joe used to do the covers and illustrations that accompanied them and they tried to sell them to various pulp publishers with little success. When they started adapting their stories as comic strips they had better success selling their work (like Slam Bradley) to publishers like National. And from there they were able to sell the first batch of Superman newspaper strips to National as a single story for publication in Action Comics 1 in 1938. 

Now, there were a whole bunch of things that came into play as far as their role with National (later known as DC). Unfortunately it was not unusual at that time period for creators to sell stories as work-for-hire (a practice still prevalent in mainstream comics). The creators were paid a flat fee for the character rights, for which they had no control. In some cases it’s a reasonable gamble to get published, but in the case of Jerry and Joe, it meant that they had signed away the rights to the most profitable character the fledgling comic book industry had seen – Superman created so many knock-offs that he spawned an entire genre of comics that still dominates the Direct Market today. They did get some compensation as the character moved into other media – radio, cartoons, television. But they tried to sue for the rights back in the late 1940’s and lost the case, which was devastating to the men, emotionally and financially.

Howard: And how long did it take for them to win it back?

Boyd: Well it’s been a long fight and I think it’s still one that’s ongoing – one that their families have picked up, as they have both passed on. The Siegel family is in the position to – because Jerry has living heirs – they’re in the position to sue DC comics for the rights of that character back. And there’s been some back and forth over the rights of some other characters like Superboy that were developed at a later time and sold as separate concepts. The DC lawyers argue that it’s an extension of the initial contract and that they should still continue to own the rights of those ancillary characters.

I believe 2012-13 is an important time, as that’s when the Shuster family can get involved in the legal action as well, and these cases are important in defining the roles of the creator and the publisher. Right now I think they still receive a certain amount of money from DC comics annually as thanks for creating Superman. A pension, in a sense, that’s carried over to their heirs.

Howard: Is that something they won legally, or just as a kind of gift?

Boyd: That was something that the DC lawyers brought in, in the mid to late 70’s when the Superman movies were coming out. There were stories coming out that Jerry and Joe were living in poverty, and a lot people like Neil Adams, Jerry Robinson sort of stepped forward to say that was not right; and DC and Warner Brothers stood to make millions of dollars from the motion picture, and it’s not right that the men who created the character are forgotten and not getting anything out of it. So, someone actually agreed with them at the upper levels, and started issuing an annual payment cheque to them as thanks, and the amount has increased, as time went on. 

Howard: Today, what are the protections in place for creative people who are involved in the comic book industry?

Boyd: I still think it depends on the contract that you sign and the agreement that you’ve made with your publisher. Generally most writers and artists working in mainstream comics are given royalty rights for the stories they create when they are reprinted, but few receive the character rights back or payment for their usage. If you create a character for Marvel or DC, you don’t own the copyright on it. But there are a lot more deals coming through where creators are asking for and receiving more rights — say if I came up with a character, I can sell that to the publisher, but if I want to retain the rights to that character, they’re often allowing it, they’re not worrying so much about it. These creator-owned lines have been around since the 1980’s in one form or another. 

Howard: For the Joe Shuster awards, there’s component where someone is inducted into the Canadian Comic-Book Creator Hall of Fame. Who’s getting inducted this year?

Boyd: Six people, normally we do three to four. 

This year, because it’s the 35th year anniversary of the publication of Captain Canuck #1, we decided we would increase the number, and honour the three gentlemen whose names are most associated with the character — including co-creator Richard Comely, who was also the publisher and writer, and artist on some of the books; George Freeman, of course, who really developed the style of Captain Canuck over the initial run as series artist – and has since gone on to do a number of great works for various publishers. He also helped to found the Digital Chameleon Studio in Winnipeg, which was one of the colouring studios went on to revolutionize colouring in comics in the 1990’s; Claude St. Aubin who was the anchor on the original series, who did some of the back up stories, and has since gone on to have a very long and varied career as an inker, an artist and a colourist. He currently draws a series called R.E.B.E.L.S. for DC Comics.

The other three people we’re inducting the year are Deni Loubert formally Deni Sim, the originally publisher of Aardvark-Vanaheim. She and Dave [Sim, creator of Cerebus] formed the company back in 1977 and launched Cerebus, the best known independent comic of the 1970’s and 1980’s. She went on to encourage a lot of Canadian talent, and started publishing titles under the Aardvark-Vanaheim print, initially, and when she and Dave split up she started Renegade Press, and the non-Cerebus titles from Aardvark-Vanaheim moved under that umbrella. Creators like Dave Derrigo, Arn Saba, Bill Messner-Loebs, Bob Burden and Jim Valentino all came out of the A-V/Renegade Press group of titles. Finally, Quebecois cartoonist and animator Serge Gaboury, one of the great creators that got his start cartooning for Croc magazine.

Howard: These kinds of people are key.

Boyd: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the reasons we do the Hall of Fame. We want to draw attention to these people and the work they’ve done. You know, we have a long history and tradition in Canada with comics. We have a number of people in our hall of fame from the Golden Age of Canadian comics which was essentially when World War Two was on, and there was an embargo on paper and American imports – and so we made our own comics which were printed on cheap paper. We came up with some great characters like Johnny Canuck, Nirvana Freelance and Mr. Monster (which was picked up later by Michael T. Gilbert). Canadians had fun with it, and unfortunately a lot of those people sort of faded back into advertising and marketing after the embargo had ended, and we started getting American comics again. We try to honour some of the best writers and artists from that era. I think there’s still quite a few more we will address with time.

Then there’s what we call the Silver Age of Canadian comics, which is essentially the late sixties to the 1970’s, through to the early 1980’s (a time period that parallels the Bronze Age of American Comics). This is when we started seeing people like Rand Holmes, Gene Day, Dave Sim and the Captain Canuck comic team. At the same time, in Quebec there was a revolution in cartooning which would spawn the strong BD community that exists in Quebec today.

Howard: Dave Sim pretty much… defined the direct market.

Boyd: Yes. I think Gene Day was another person who took advantage of that, self-publishing Dark Fantasy and giving a start to a number of Canadian writers and artists. 

Howard: And you have the Gene Day Award, there.

Boyd: Yes, we’re really excited about the Gene Day Award. We give $500 to the winner, and try to encourage people to go out and self-publish and follow that path, like Gene Day and Dave Sim did. There’s so much amazing work that’s being done, just going around TCAF a few weeks ago, you can just see a lot of the same creative spirit is flourishing right now.

Howard: There’s a huge scene in Toronto – and all over Canada.  I’m always shocked to see how much we have.

Boyd: Yes, it’s amazing; organizations like TCAF and stores like The Beguiling, and to a lesser extent what we do at Fan Expo, we’re encouraging people to come out and get their work into the eyes of the public and getting interest from publishers to distribute that work or hire them for new projects. I think we’ve got maybe five or six creative hot spots in Canada – Toronto definitely, but also Vancouver, Halifax, Calgary and Montreal. I think that’s the great thing about Canada is that we have that sense of community, and I just don’t get that sense of that in the US at cons. 

Howard: You and I spoke a little bit at the Doug Wright Awards about French comics. You’d said some interesting things I thought. We know that Quebec comics are not really seen for the most part in Anglophone Canada, and they’re more seen in Europe – but they’re starting to come out more, and there are publishers who are trying to translate and bring these Francophone artists to English Canada. Tell me about the French?

Boyd: I think now that we have some great English language publishers (Drawn and Quarterly, Conundrum Press) based in Montreal — they are seeing the work of the amazing Quebecois scene (published by companies like La Pasteque, les 400 Coups, Glenat Quebec, et al.) and realize that these great comics deserve to be seen by other parts of Canada. 

Howard: Yes – they’re also French publishers?

Boyd: Yes, there’s five or six really quality French publishers in Quebec – there’s La Pastèque, Les 400 Coups, Glénat Québec (which is a European publisher that’s set actually set up a Quebec division, which sort of encourages Canadian creators to produce works for the European market), and Boomerang (who do great kids books). It’s interesting, it’s very self-contained, those books are distributed in Quebec, France and Belgium and other French-speaking territories – trying to raise awareness of this work in Canada, is one of the reasons we got rid of the language restrictions. I think every year we’ve had French language nominees at the top of the list during the selection of the award nominees. You never know how things are going to turn out this year as far as winners go.

Michel Rabagliati with his Paul series is some of the best cartooning in the world at the moment. Francis Desharnais, Pascal Blanchet, Guy Delisle, Jean-Louis Tripp & Regis Loisel, Philip Gerard. I think Philip is really trend setting in a lot of ways. We’ve got amazing people working on adventure comics like Jacques Lamontagne and Djief Bergeron and Marc Delafontaine’s cartoony style on Les Nombrils (now being reprinted in English as The Bellybuttons). It would be great if those creators can get more exposure in the North American market as well. It was really nice to see a bit of that cross over at TCAF as well – I hope to see more in future years.

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