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As Peter Birkenmoe, owner of the beguiling comic book store in Toronto, waxes lyrical about the city’s comics culture, a smattering of patrons – some high school age, others who seem like they could be professors at the nearby University of Toronto – talk quietly but enthusiastically among themselves as they thumb through the bookshop’s collection. One lets out a lingering “Yessssss!” when he learns the book he’s been waiting for is finally in stock. Birkemoe pauses mid-sentence and offers to move the interview to the back of the shop where the ambient chatter is less intrusive.
Bookish and bespectacled, yet quietly confident, Birkmoe motions for me to follow. We cross dense aisles of books – covers and spines in a riot of vibrant colors, but neatly stacked and organized. While The Beguiling’s digs may be modest, its immense contributions are anything but. The comic bookstore has been described by local media as one of the best in Canada – and even North America – for its sheer range of titles. It’s also the fountainhead of the now-iconic Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) and is in no small part responsible for Toronto’s growth into a hotbed of comics culture. The Beguiling turns 30 this summer, and Birkenmoe has over the years enjoyed a front row seat as the city’s comic book scene stepped out onto the global cultural stage.
In the mid-1980s, Toronto was home to a small cadre of significant underground cartoonists like Chester Brown, Seth and Joe Matt. Their work on long-running confessional, meditative and at times gloomy titles like Yummy Fur, Palookaville and Peepshow respectively raised the bar for what comics could achieve as an art form. Since then, what used to be a handful of names has slowly grown into a vast talent pool, with big stars and emerging artists filling the pages of both esoteric indie tomes and of massive superhero titles published by juggernauts DC and Marvel in both in Canada and in America.
That’s one of the great things about Toronto… we have just about every type of creator possible working in this city
There’s Ryan North, who’s drawn on his offbeat experimental roots for Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; Jeff Lemire, whose diverse output runs the gamut from the unconventional graphic novel Essex County – part of Canada Reads’ Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade – to mainstream titles like X-Men; and cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, whose critically acclaimed study of depression, female friendship and sexuality at a Catholic school, Skim, set them on a course for solo careers and Mariko’s work on DC’s Supergirl and Marvel’s Hulk. “That’s one of the great things about Toronto,” Birkemoe says. “We have just about every type of creator possible working in this city.”
Birkenmoe visited the Beguiling as a teenager in 1992 to meet American counterculture icon Robert Crumb, creator of the anthropomorphic and adult-themed comic strip Fritz the Cat. “I was one of the first kids in line and was very excited,” he recalls. Opened in 1987 by Steve Solomos and Sean Scoffield, the store was then known for promoting alternative artists like Crumb and Chester Brown, whose confessional work often dealing with teenage sexuality was new, controversial and hard to find in mainstream bookstores.
When Birkemoe assumed ownership of The Beguiling in 1998 after spending some time working behind the counter, he wanted to expand on its history of championing the writers and artists responsible for creating the narratives behind popular characters. He was particularly inspired by the European shops and festivals he visited on overseas travels, where comics were presented with the aim of engaging with the public instead of merely catering to the existing fandom, and began bringing in talent for signings and meet-and-greets.
Pretty soon, The Beguiling was holding 50 events a year, to the point when things became “a little ridiculous” for the small shop to juggle. In response, Birkemoe rolled these small operations into one big event called the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), held each May at the five-floor Toronto Reference Library and surrounding neighborhood venues. What started with 6,000 visitors in 2005 has matured into one of the most important comics events in North America, attracting hundreds of exhibitors from across the world and over 20,000 guests a year.
TCAF is just one of several major comics events in Toronto. Fan Expo Canada – which celebrates the subcultures of pop culture fandom – packs hundreds of thousands in a downtown Toronto convention center at the end of each summer, offering spectacle, costume play, artist tables and celebrity worship. There’s also Toronto’s Anime North convention, held each May with around 30,000 attendees, making it one of North America’s largest gatherings for fans of Japanese animation and comics.
Cameron Stewart, a Toronto native and creator known for his work on Batgirl and Fight Club 2, compares these events to the Toronto International Film Festival, which also helped boost the city’s visibility and reputation. “Fan Expo and TCAF in particular are world-class festivals now,” he explains. “When a city becomes known for hosting a major event, one that’s both popular and sanctioned by artists all over the world, it becomes identified with that industry.”
When a city becomes known for hosting a major event, one that’s both popular and sanctioned by artists all over the world, it becomes identified with that industry
Indeed, while comics remain an outlier in print media, the recent mainstreaming of comic book culture – largely thanks to the internet, blockbuster Hollywood adaptations and Netflix’s wildly popular shows based on Marvel heroes Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Daredevil – has had positive effects on comic book sales. According to industry resources Comichron and ICV2, North American print sales in 2015 were estimated at $940 million, an increase of over $100 million from the previous year.
This has had positive ripple effects on local artists. For instance, Stewart found himself in the spotlight when he and collaborator Babs Tarr redesigned Batgirl’s costume in 2014, favoring fashion-forward functionality over superhero cheesecake. Both nerd news and mainstream media outlets came calling for quotes and published positive reviews.
“I’m not famous in any meaningful way,” Stewart laughs when asked what the spotlight feels like. “I can eat in a restaurant and nobody wants my autograph. But at the same time, I do get flown all over the world and have people lining up to get my autograph at certain events. I continually reflect on how strange this is, and I’m super grateful to have the work that I do be well-received and meaningful to people.”