“Dear Mr. Allan,” wrote Isabella Gobel last year, who was in grade three at the time.
“Your book Stargazer. I’m reading it…. I liked the pictures at the end, this book was amazing. I wish I could keep it and read it again, again and again, but I have to return it in five days so I probably can’t but I just love Stargazer.”
Von Allan has been peering over his glasses at me during most of our interview about his first three comic books. Yet as he describes this letter, he looks down at the table and shakes his head, grinning. He says reading letters like this is “amazing,” and says he hopes it means he has succeeded in his self-imposed challenge of using girls as protagonists – “characters that are not like me,” he says.
Apparently, Isobel isn’t the only comic book fan who thinks he’s doing well. In September 2010, Allan was nominated for four Lulu Awards – awards that celebrate women and women-friendly comics – for The Road to God Knows…, his first graphic novel. This and his two subsequent graphic novels, last year’s Stargazer and Stargazer Volume 2, out Oct. 12, feature strong-willed girls or teenagers facing self-discovery, written using a mix of introspection, humour, and compassion.
On one hand, Allan looks like he is right about the contrast between him and his characters. The tall 30-something artist has a goatee with an overgrown beard reaching past his neck and a shaved head. Over his black t-shirt he wears a black leather jacket, which he takes off so his hand gestures can keep up with his animated speech.
At the same time, Allan injects himself into his art. The Road to God Knows… is a semi-autobiographical snapshot of his childhood and its challenges. In the slice-of-life graphic novel, Marie is a teenager growing up among poverty and loneliness who is struggling to learn how to cope with her mother’s schizophrenia. Though the book doesn’t end with what he calls a “happy ending,” eventually Marie realizes the need to let go. Similarly, the fantasy/adventure Stargazer opens after the recent death of Marni’s grandmother, and as she and her friends embark on a quest for a magical artefact her grandmother left behind, by Volume 2 Marni learns to move on from her grief over her grandmother. (Allan says the similarity between the names “Marie” and “Marni” is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the books’ analogous themes.)
Allan himself grew up on welfare in Ottawa. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother battled schizophrenia until she died when he was 20.
“I was a poor kid, I was a fat kid, and I had no self-esteem,” he says. “And because of that, the little money I could cobble together I spent getting comics.”
After working at the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch in his teenage years, he started working at Perfect Books on Elgin Street as a young adult and became familiar with the publishing industry.
Without any experience, he began teaching himself how to draw at the age of 25 so he could use comics to tell stories.
More than a decade later, this artist seems to know his stuff. Before I could ask him the interview questions I prepared, he enthusiastically engaged me in a conversation about the comic book industry the moment I sat down, asking about my interests and offering analysis. Three hours later, we had covered everything and more about comic book publishing, young literature, art design, entrepreneurship, and media theory. This passion and critical reflection are what attracted him to begin The Road to God Knows…, and he says he chose to take a risk with his first book.
“At the time, nobody was talking about mental illness in comics, and I wanted to do it with compassion,” he says. “I wanted to show that somebody dealing with mental illness isn’t less of a person, isn’t less compassionate as a person, isn’t less loving as a person, and that was very important to me. And I think Road accomplished that.”
A number of publications have positively reviewed The Road to God Knows…, including the Library Journal and Booklist Online, which he says gave that story a bump in publicity that Stargazer lacked. After Stargazer Volume 2’s release, Allan says he’s considering breaking away from his first three graphic novels and perhaps experimenting with colour comics, periodicals (versus one-story graphic novels), and even free online comics. He says he might like to try a social commentary should he find the right story idea.
“What I’ve learned is it doesn’t come easy, it takes a lot of work, there are a lot of false starts, and you never stop being a student,” he says.
“But when people are passionate about something, it clicks.”