Margaret Atwood and Camosun's Ken Steacy Launch "War Bears" — an Exciting Three-Part Graphic Novel Set in Wartime Canada
A creative tour de force, Ken Steacy—instructor and co-founder with his wife Joan of Camosun's Comics & Graphic Novels program—speaks with the passion and authority of a person who's always known what he wanted to do.
"I made the decision what I was going to do with my life when I was 11," he says, when interviewed in his office at Camosun's Lansdowne campus. "By the early 1960s, I'd started reading Marvel Comics and I remember reading the credits of all the people and illustrators who worked on them. I knew that meant that working in comics was a real job and I could do that too!"
And that's exactly what he did. Starting in 1974, he's earned acclaim as a professional comic book author, illustrator, art director, editor and publisher, chronicling the stories of Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Astro Boy and the characters from the Star Wars universe. His latest project, "War Bears" is a unique collaboration with legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood.
"I got a call from the Globe and Mail last summer, and for Canada's 150th, sesquicentennial birthday, they'd asked prominent Canadian authors to write a piece about a period in Canadian history that was of interest to them," he explains. "Margaret Atwood wrote about the Second World War and I was asked to do the spot illustration that would go along with her story. I was very honoured to be asked to do so, and afterwards the story couldn't let me go; it got its hooks into me."
Atwood's short story "Oursonette" delved into a little known period of wartime Canadiana, when an Act of Parliament restricted the import of certain products from the United States, including comic books, in order to conserve currency and to support the war effort.
The result, explains Steacy was a tremendous, but ultimately temporary creative awakening of Canada's domestic comic industry. "There were a few companies that sprang up in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and they started producing these comics which became known as the Canadian whites," he says. "They were printed in black and white and for a few years until the war ended, Canada had this amazing homegrown comic book industry."
With Oursonette, Atwood created a world of strong characters and unique historical details that continued to fascinate Steacy well after he completed the illustrations. "I decided to contact Margaret through the publisher and I asked her if she would be interested in expanding this story," explains Steacy." She was intrigued and said: what do you have in mind?"
From there, Steacy pitched his concept and he and Atwood started sharing ideas on how to expand the story, which resulted in a unique three-part graphic novel called "War Bears" which launches this week.
Steacy speaks with infectious enthusiasm about how the lost "Golden Age" of Canadian comics provides the perfect dramatic context for the adventures of the Nazi-fighting heroine of the series, Oursonette, who was dreamt up by the fictional comic book artist Al Zurakowski.
"Al is a very idealistic, to the point of being this starry-eyed young man who desperately wants to do something for the war effort," notes Steacy. "His abilities are such that he does this by creating the character of Oursonette, who he hopes, through the comics and stories he creates, will boost morale and give the readers something to strive for and feel a part of." Zurakowski's tough-as-nails boss, Gloria Topper, who inherited the publishing company from her father, and garrulous studio mate Mike MacKenzie, rounds off the trio of strong characters whose dreams, choices, and ambitions in wartime Toronto create dramatic tension throughout the series.
One of Steacy's favourite parts of the creative process was the research required to bring alive the spirit of wartime Canada. "I was aiming for verisimilitude, my dad was a fighter pilot in the war and I inherited my parent's photo albums from the period," he notes. "I delved into them to look at the fashions and the styles of household objects, everything from toasters to telephones I wanted to depict in the right way."
Working with Atwood was a dream come true, says Steacy. "We started developing the back story of the characters and I did an outline," he says. "She gave me the feedback and we went back and forth and we'd move the script in that direction. At one point I thought---I'm getting character development advice from Margaret Atwood; pinch me, I'm dreaming!"
Steacy hopes that his work pays tribute to a generation who knew the sacrifices and horrors of total war. "In many ways "War Bears" is honouring a generation who experienced something that we've never experienced, that fact that everyone on the home front was focussed on winning the war and everyone was a part of that effort. That's one of the things I am trying to bring to the fore, and it runs through the whole book that everyone knew what their responsibilities were and stepped up to meet the challenge."
Steacy speaks philosophically about visual storytelling and loves teaching eager Camosun students studying for their diploma in Comics & Graphics Novels, a program unique in the Canadian post-secondary public school system, now in its seventh year. "I always tell my students that if your world-building has been sufficiently robust that your audience wants more, then I think you've succeeded really well."