Illustrator Michael Cho shows a hint of shock when told that some people find Toronto a little less than beautiful.
"You don't think Toronto's a beautiful city?" he asks, albeit with a smile, looking out the restaurant window at the College Street traffic. Of course it's not "a really beautiful city like Venice, but I don't live there, so I don't have it in my pores. Whereas Toronto…"
Mr. Cho, well-known in comic-book circles for his off-beat illustrations of superheroes, has spent years drawing the lanes and jumbled backyards around Little Italy for his new book of drawings, Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes. Like the artists who painted the city before him, stretching back to the Group of Seven's Lawren Harris and Albert Franck, Mr. Cho set out to capture the beauty that's in the ordinary. It was a highly personal project for him.
"That is what I always thought was the goal of an artist, of an urban artist – to find the beauty in urban settings. Ninety per cent of the time that means looking for places where you would not find it and then adjusting your eyes to see it," he says.
Houses festooned with satellite dishes, hodge-podge restorations and lawn furniture in the snow can all be found in Mr. Cho's drawings in and around the back alleys of the city's west side. Like a visual journal, they show scenes he was familiar with and which captured his Toronto.
The 41-year-old illustrator began the collection partly as an exercise to brush up on his landscape drawing skills. He's instinctively more attuned to people and figures. But he soon found the rundown backside of the downtown speaking to him (sometimes literally, with graffiti and swear words scribbled on back fences) and wanted to turn the works into a larger project.
"I would not have been committed to draw these things unless there was something that pulled at me emotionally. That, to me, is what beauty is," Mr. Cho says.
His figurative drawing, which he is famous for, harks back to the fun side of comic-book art – a much needed antidote to all the overwrought darkness and adult gravitas in contemporary comic books and their offshoot films.
"I'm not very good at drawing ironically or making fun of superheroes, nor am I good at drawing very, very grim, dark superhero stuff. I draw with the same positive energy a superhero was supposed to have when I was a kid," he says. And his landscapes have a dollop of that same upbeat innocence. Their comic-book quality gives them a much more contemporary twist compared to the heavier feel of some of Albert Franck's paintings. Yet really their work is very similar.
"What I was keeping in mind at the forefront, throughout the whole project, was the emotional quality, rather than technical accuracy," he says.
Mr. Cho also cheated a bit. He often typically photographed the scenes and then drew from the photos. He also avoided drawing any cars in the alleyway scenes. So he'd photograph the backyard fences and other things behind the cars too to help him visualize the scene car-free.
"I didn't want cars in there because it dates [the drawings]" he adds. The sweeping, curving picture of College Street near to where he used to meet friends at the now closed Dragon Lady Comics is the exception, in stark contrast to the car-less lanes.
Since he moved to Toronto from Hamilton at 19 to study art at OCAD University (then simply the Ontario College of Art), quintessential Toronto for Mr. Cho has remained the downtown. It lends the project even more of a personal flavour.
"I always associate [it with]post-war houses, lots of different apartments crammed into one house. The backs [of the houses]reveal what's really going on, the hacked-out entrance for the basement apartment, and the second or third patio that doesn't belong there, with a container garden."
Or the six different satellite dishes. There will be three dishes, one for each of the three apartments in a house, and then a second set as each of the three upgraded to smaller dishes. "I like trying to figure out the story of the house because of the growth that has happened on its body," he says.
Just as anyone walking through Little Italy and Little Portugal can't help noticing all the idiosyncrasies of each house, Mr. Cho can't help seeing the beauty in that.
And that's what he finds a little shocking, the inability for everyone to take delight in all the details.
Michael Cho's new book, Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes , will have its launch party from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 23 at Type Books, 883 Queen St. W.