The world is rich with comic book fare, driven by U.S. publishers such as Marvel Comics (Iron Man and the X-Men) and DC Comics (Batman and Superman), and the influential and rapidly growing Japanese manga market.
But comic book "visual storyteller" Ken Steacy aims to put more Canadian artists, writers and cartoonists on the comic book industry map – whether they follow in the footsteps of industry legends such as Toronto-born Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman, or take a more entrepreneurial route.
Mr. Steacy and his wife, graphic novelist Joan Steacy, developed and founded the Comics and Graphic Novels certificate program at Camosun College, an 18,500-student community college in Victoria.
Camosun bills the Steacys' eight-month program, which is in its third school year, as "the only one of its kind in the Canadian public postsecondary school system." Each student pays $10,500 for tuition, fees and supplies, with a focus on drawing, creative writing and publishing for visual storytelling.
Students learn about the history of comics in the United States, Canada, Britain and Japan, but also create their own "comics magic," says Mr. Steacy, 59, who has been inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Hall of Fame, which recognizes lifetime achievement in the industry.
"We teach visual storytelling as language composed of words and pictures. Camosun is the ideal home for our program, with their tradition of career-focused skills-based training," he says. "And we encourage students to tell the story that only you can tell – communicating things in your heart."
With 17 students enrolled for 2014-15, there have been 31 graduates ranging in age from 19 to late 50s, including Karen Gillmore, an inaugural-year alumnus.
An artist and musician, Ms. Gillmore, who turned 60 this summer, spent a year looking for the right course before enrolling in the Steacys' program, justifying the cost by saying it would help improve her illustration work.
"I started out not knowing a lot about Canadian comics culture because it's different than American or Japanese; it's more creator-oriented," she says from her Victoria home.
"As the course went on, I said, 'I'm going to be a comic book artist – I always wanted to tell my own stories as opposed to other people's stories,'" she adds.
Ms. Gillmore, who moved to Canada from the United States about 20 years ago to be with her husband, just released her first graphic novel. A frequent comic book convention-goer, Ms. Gillmore has also published two comic books of her own.
Besides Camosun's program, some comic book training is offered at dozens of other postsecondary schools in North America, but they're usually courses – not programs – that are content driven, Mr. Steacy says.
(Many of the schools are also privately run or don't just focus on comic books. For instance, Max the Mutt College of Animation, Art and Design in Toronto has a four-year diploma program that covers cartooning and other areas such as animating in 3-D for video games, with tuition running a total of about $45,000. ).
Interest in breaking into the comic book and graphic novel industry is partly driven by the massive potential financial rewards.
The North American market for comic books and graphic novels in 2013 was valued at $870-million (U.S.) – $780-million print and $90-million digital. That's up from $681-million – $680-million print and $1-million digital – in 2009, according to a paper titled The New Comics Customer presented by Milton Griepp, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin-based publishing and consulting company ICv2.
Those figures don't include the big box office takes from comic-book inspired movies or related sales of memorabilia.
Comic book creators, publishers and fans – who dress up as superheroes, villains and other characters – gather in droves at hundreds of Comic Con conventions around the world annually, including Comic Con expos in New York, Toronto and Medellin, Colombia, CUT and the Victoria Comic Book Expo in B.C., to name just a few.
Since his breakthrough 1974-published Super Student two-page comic strip that he wrote, pencilled, inked and lettered, Mr. Steacy has written and illustrated the adventures of characters including Astro Boy (Osamu Tezuka's 1950s-originated science fiction series), Harry Potter, Iron Man and those in Star Wars, and has produced his own major print works, including Tempus Fugitive, The Sacred and the Profane, co-authored by Dean Motter, and Night and the Enemy with acclaimed science-fiction author Harlan Ellison, due to be re-released next year.
Among his wife's works, her autobiographic graphic novel series, Aurora Borealice, deals with her struggles with literacy and how meeting media theorist Marshall McLuhan in art college changed her life.
The couple's idea for the Camosun program stems from Mr. Steacy's experience during years teaching workshops and evening courses, and while signing copies of his works at comic conventions. He was commonly asked where one could go to learn the craft – only to have no ready answer because he learned it by practical application, built on a foundation of film and illustration studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design, which is now OCAD University.
Finally, about four years ago, Mr. Steacy was teaching in part of the Change Everything program at Camosun's continuing education department, when he and his wife pitched the idea of a full comic book program – getting it under way in the 2012-13 school year.
In conjunction with creative writing instructors in the English department, the Steacys work to help students to develop skills in fiction and non-fiction writing, script writing, comic and graphic novel drawings, storytelling layout and character design. Students also gain publishing knowledge to manage their own careers – as their main project, they must each create and publish a 24-page colour comic book, which can be used in a portfolio to show publishers, and potential employers and clients.
Comics are not just as pop culture staples, Mr. Steacy says, but also can be "edutainment" in the form of entertaining and educational resources and manuals. He says that since the 1950s the U.S. Army has been using a comic-book format to train soldiers on the use of equipment. Camosun also helped the B.C. government revamp a food-safety training guide for the service industry by replacing words with cartoon images.
"Of all our students, we've had very few who wanted to do mainstream comics," Mr. Steacy says. "All the rest wanted to do Web comics, graphic novels. … They're much more interested in the kind of stories they tell and they understand the future – their intellectual property is the currency of the future, and they get that."
Superheroes, super sales
Comic books are said to have their origins in Japan in the 1700s, but they didn't gain popularity until the 1930s in the United States with the release of Famous Funnies, a 68-page periodical that sold for 10 cents and became inexpensive entertainment during the Great Depression.
Today, boosted by the widespread popularity of superhero movies and television shows, as well as conventions where fans dress up as their favourite characters and comic-book creators attend signings, the comic book industry is thriving.
September orders of comics and graphic novels by shops in North America were valued at more than $50 million for the second time in three months, according to figures by Diamond Comic Distributors, a Maryland-based distributor of English-language comic books, graphic novels and pop culture-related products.
Following are the top 10 comic book titles, their issues and publishers, cost and total sales to North American comics shops in September, based on Diamond Comic figures:
1. Death of Wolverine #1, Marvel, $4.99, 261,975.
2. Death of Wolverine #2, Marvel, $4.99, 129,999.
3. Batman Futures End #1, DC Comics, $3.99, 127,823.
4. Harley Quinn Futures End #1, DC, $3.99, 105,382.
5. Amazing Spider-Man #6, Marvel, $3.99, 93,564
6. Justice League Futures End #1, DC, $3.99, 92,615
7. Original Sin #8, Marvel, $4.99, 90,478.
8. Detective Comics Futures End #1, DC, $3.99, 85,284.
9. Justice League #33, DC, $3.99, 79,447.
10. Batman Superman Futures End #1, DC, $3.99, 77,459.
Editor's Note: The photo of Camosun College instructor Ken Steacy was taken by Raymond St Arnaud. A previous version of the story had an incorrect credit for the photo.