Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Designs on a dystopian future

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 19, 2008


A heavy submarine door, streaks of rust running from every bolt, bars the entrance to Ken Steacy's basement studio.

You brace and flex as you prepare to shoulder it open, only to stumble through the passageway. The door, it turns out, is covered in Styrofoam carved and painted to look like a relic from a watery war movie.

Cartoonists create worlds of their own imagination. Sometimes, they like to play in three dimensions instead of two.

Inside the studio, the flotsam of an illustrator's life – pens and inks and computers – shares space with the jetsam of boyish delights: toys and kit models and chrome automobile nameplates.

An ejection seat from a T-33 jet trainer rests on the floor. A plastic skeleton occupying the seat wears a flight helmet, as though scavenged from some long-ago disaster.

Beside the seat is a blown-up colour image of the June 16, 1962, cover of the Star Weekly magazine. The cover line reads: “Nine Miles High In The RCAF's New Fighter.” The pilot in the foreground, his face hidden by the shield of his helmet, is Mr. Steacy's father.

The 53-year-old artist is an air force brat born on the German front line of the Cold War. He does not recall meeting any civilian children until high school. He wanted to be a cartoonist from age 11, having graduated from Rupert the Bear to Tintin to the wonders of the Marvel universe of conflicted superheroes.

He has drawn characters from Astro Boy to the X-Men; written and illustrated adventures of such legendary comic-book figures as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man; painted a stack of Harry Potter trading cards; done computer-rendered illustrations for a Lucasfilms series of Star Wars books for children.

“The only comic company I haven't worked for,” he said, “is Archie.”

(Hmmm. Maybe Jughead could bite into a radioactive hamburger, giving him special strengths in the battle against evil-doers wishing to close Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe. Nah.)

Mr. Steacy's long list of credits also includes magazine illustration.

He has had several fruitful collaborations with novelist Douglas Coupland. These are on display at a show titled “Doug and Ken,” which opened last week at Place function + design in Victoria.

In 1997, Mr. Coupland was invited to be guest editor of Vancouver Magazine.

He assigned the cartoonist to envision a future for the Lions Gate Bridge. The result was a hilarious image detailed in the busy style of a Popular Mechanics illustration. The concrete lions flanking the entrance to the bridge have been replaced by chrome lions with laser-beam eyes. The venerable bridge is lined with businesses. A supermom is shown multitasking while jogging with a baby in her arms.

In the original sketch, the mom can be seen nursing the baby. When the magazine balked at showing an illustrated breast, Mr. Steacy redrew the image. However, he did sneak into the background a bus filled with nudists. The destination sign reads Wreck Beach.

He also included Mr. Coupland and himself as figures in a taxi fuelled by a Ballard fuel cell.

The collaborations are filled with plenty of inside jokes that Mr. Coupland refers to as secret handshakes.

The illustration originally appeared in the October, 1997, issue of the magazine as a four-page foldout.

Some of their other joint works include a dystopian scenario set at the corner of Yew and Cornwall in Kitsilano, where corporate mercenaries destroy towering marijuana plants cross-bred with Douglas firs, while rooting out the remnants of civilian resisters discovered squatting inside a ruined Starbucks; a portrait of the novelist loosening his collar as he nervously contemplates the future; an ecological fable titled “The Vanishees” that appeared in Adbusters magazine, Mr. Steacy's digitally rendered colour scheme exchanged for Mr. Coupland's childlike crayon scrawls; and a disturbing image of Toronto as a ruined landscape in 2504 AD, which appeared in the book Souvenir of Canada 2.

“Working with Ken was like working with myself,” Mr. Coupland said, “except I suddenly had an incredible capacity to draw anything out of the blue with no references.”

The pair share much in common. Both were born at Canadian air force bases in Germany (Mr. Steacy at Zweibr├╝cken in 1955, Mr. Coupland near Baden-Baden in 1961); both insist on an all-encompassing approach (“specialization is for insects, not artists,” Mr. Steacy says); both have a penchant for collecting and curating, perhaps a reflection of a desire for order after the geographical rootlessness of a military childhood.

As a boy, Mr. Steacy moved from Sidney, B.C., to Cold Lake, Alta., to Ottawa to Toronto to Chatham, N.B., to Comox, B.C., to Saint-Hubert, Que., to Baden-Baden. (His father was based at the air base at Saint-Hubert during the 1970 October Crisis. His office looked onto the site where the body of Pierre Laporte was discovered in the trunk of a car.) Unlike some of his peers, the boy enjoyed getting a new set of friends every few months.

The idea of being a cartoonist seemed even cooler than his father's job of flying fighter jets.

He entertained a fantasy of how he'd break into the comic-book world. He imagined making a pilgrimage to the office of Marvel comics honcho Stan Lee. The visit would be interrupted by a telephone call.

“What?” Mr. Lee would bark into the telephone like hot-head editor J. Jonah Jameson. “Jack Kirby's sick?!”

After hanging up, he'd turn his attention to young Ken.

“Okay, kid, here's your shot. Go draw the next issue of Fantastic Four.”

If only life were like a comic book.

Mr. Steacy's introduction to the business was a job offer to join the Marvel production line as a lowly inker. At 19, that seemed to be a direct path to hackdom. He turned the offer down, choosing instead to attend art college in Toronto.

On the first day of classes, while engaged in a running interior monologue about whether he had sabotaged his cartooning career before it had started, he spotted a classmate in the distance.

“Here's this absolute vision of loveliness with spun gold hair,” he reminisced. “Even her bum was sparkling.”

Upon closer examination, he realized she had sewn sequins to the rear pockets of her jeans.

His mental conversation turned to seeking a good opening line. With the savoir faire one associates with a comic-book geek, he managed to stutter a question about whether this was such-and-such a class.

“Fortunately, she didn't say, ‘Beat it, creep,' ” he said. A friendship became a romance became a marriage, and two adult sons.

Joan Thornborrow Steacy is a visual artist who teaches art classes.

Her sculpture, titled Ballerina, though known as the fertility goddess, is on display in downtown Hamilton. In 2006, she published an illustrated biography of her father, a scrapyard dealer known as Junky Jack, on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

The go-it-yourself route worked out. Mr. Steacy co-created a graphic novel, The Sacred and the Profane, which was picked up by marvel's upscale Epic Illustrated line. In 1986, he was asked to illustrate an Alpha Flight comic. He agreed, insisting the episode featuring the Canadian superhero team be set in Toronto. It is believed to be the city's first appearance in a major comic book. He has worked in Victoria for more than 20 years. He has yet to stage a superhero showdown at, say, the legislature, which does not want for reprehensible characters.

Like many artists, Mr. Steacy went through a starving stage. This he did not like, so he made good coin in the summer as a street cartoonist in Toronto, drawing goofy cartoons of Canadian National Exhibition patrons. Since he had to sit for hours in one location, he remembers ending the summer with the right side of his face burned to a crisp from the sun, while the left side was “pasty-white like a fish.” Two-face, the angry caricaturist, could make a dandy villain.

“Doug and Ken” runs until Sept. 23 at the p.s. gallery at Place function + design, 3690 Shelbourne St. in Victoria.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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