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Vancouver cartoonist David Boswell has been named to the Canadian Cartoonists Hall of Fame. Boswell is the creator of the underground cult classic, "Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman." (Globe files/Globe files)
Vancouver cartoonist David Boswell has been named to the Canadian Cartoonists Hall of Fame. Boswell is the creator of the underground cult classic, "Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman." (Globe files/Globe files)

Cultured cartoonist a master of the uncouth Add to ...

Before he said anything, Reid Fleming said this: "I thought I told you to shut up!"

He is, after all, the World's Toughest Milkman, a misanthropic purveyor of dairy products, a rye-swilling, fist-waving, milk-truck-crashing trouble-maker who insists, "I am not bald! I get my hair cut this way!"

Fleming is the antihero of an epic series of illustrated tales written by David Boswell, a Vancouver artist who has laboured for decades in near-obscurity and near-penury.

This inky Dr. Frankenstein is in person unlike his monster, which can disappoint hard-core fans who perhaps expect to be insulted and otherwise abused when meeting him. Mr. Boswell, 58, is suave, debonair and learned in cinematography, a sober-minded writer as cultured as Reid Fleming is uncouth.

Reid Fleming made his debut in the alternative Georgia Straight newspaper in 1978, starred in his first comic book two years later, and has remained in print ever since. The misadventures of the acerbic milkman are being collected in two hard-bound volumes, the first of which was published late last year.

The character developed a cult following, among whom can be counted several Hollywood actors, many of whom have wanted to star in a Reid Fleming movie. The movie project has been ill-fated and seems destined never to reach the screen, which has kept Fleming from finding a mass audience.

The good news is that the artist's peers have noted his influence on a generation of alt-comix cartoonists.

Last week, it was announced that Mr. Boswell will be inducted into the Canadian Cartoonists Hall of Fame during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May. He will join a pantheon known by the ink-and-scratchboard set as Giants of the North.

Mr. Boswell's only other award nomination came in 1990, when he made the short list, along with Robert Crumb, for a prestigious Harvey Award for humour. Sergio Aragones of Mad magazine won the prize.

The return to Toronto will mark a homecoming, of sorts, for the artist, whose memoir of his 20s could be titled Down and Out in Toronto and Vancouver.

"In my mind, I'll be contrasting now versus then," Mr. Boswell said.

Born in London, Ont., the oldest of seven siblings, he studied filmmaking before taking a job as a darkroom technician for a commercial photographer in downtown Toronto. He lived in a $45-a-week rooming house on Collier Street, a dead-end near the intersection of Yonge and Bloor streets. His neighbours included addicts and dealers and down-and-outers.

When he learned the New Yorker magazine paid $600 for a single cartoon, he figured he would try his hand at drawing, thinking he'd need to sell only a few to live an entire year. He got rejections from all the major magazines - Playboy. Esquire, National Lampoon - but these came with encouraging notes. A friend suggested he send his work to the Georgia Straight. "I'd never heard of it," he recalled, "because I was a square." The paper published a full page featuring a character known as Laszlo, Great Slavic Lover, who, in fact, was Hungarian and not a Slav, a typically deliberate misnomer on the artist's part.

Mr. Boswell flew west on the promise of a job, only to be met at the airport by staffers who warned him the publication was on the brink of collapse.

Under the guidance of editor Bob Mercer, Mr. Boswell eventually got a $100-a-week staff position in which his responsibilities included spot cartoons and photographs (he took wondrous black-and-white portraits of Al Purdy, Leonard Cohen and Ginger Rogers), as well as a full-page weekly comic.

After 34 pages of Heart Break Comics featuring Laszlo, a demanding routine as the series was often set in the evenings, necessitating much detailed inking, Mr. Boswell decided to take a break with a one-off page featuring a pugnacious character named after the bully of his kindergarten class.

His readership, such as it was, demanded more Reid Fleming. As he did battle with the frustrating idiocies of everyday life, not to mention the plotting of his nemesis, Mr. Crabbe, his supervisor at Milk Inc., Reid Fleming became a tribune of frustrated workers, even as he also became a parody of workplace machismo.

Warner Bros. optioned the rights to a Reid Fleming movie, for which a script was written. Production seems unlikely, a disappointed Mr. Boswell said. Over the years, the project has attracted interest from Dave Thomas, Bob Hoskins, Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Billy Bob Thornton and Paul Giamatti.

Meanwhile, Mr. Boswell is completing the final two chapters of the milkman's magnum opus, bringing to an end a story that has lasted three decades. The hall-of-fame honours are a pleasant surprise.

"It's nice to think that somebody thinks your work is worthy," he said. "It's nice after all these years to realize somebody is paying attention."

He laughed.

"Does that sound too maudlin?"

A little.

"You can put in brackets (with tears in his eyes)."

Even when he's in conversation, Mr. Boswell writes his own script.

 

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