Was collaboration natural to you? Because that’s such a huge part of your work. It’s unusual.
Yeah, I guess it is. It started in the early nineties when I just started drawing with Pete and Scott and later started drawing with Jason. It seemed like a pretty natural thing to do. I can’t remember if this was an influence but I went on a class trip to New York while at Beal and I went to see a giant Exquisite Corpse show at the Drawing Center. There was two parts to it, a more informal half that wasn’t curated (nobody was turned away) and a curated part where you would have these old surrealist Exquisite Corpses mixed in with ones by contemporary artists and even contemporary cartoonists, which really knocked me out at the time. I know Panter was in the mix and I am sure Beyer was in there. In the informal part it was a totally mixed bag, “Oh, there’s Captain Beefheart” next to some other people you hadn’t heard of. And on the collaboration front, it was interesting to me to see the Royal Art Lodge come up in Winnipeg later on, because it was kind of a similar…
Are they a little younger than you, or the same age?
I think they were generally around the same age except for Hollie Dzama who was younger. All I mean to say is that they were probably doing a similar thing independently as was Fort Thunder/Paper Rad. So you know, it was kind of interesting at that time it just seemed like there was a few pockets. I mean using those three as an example, but I think they’re pretty good ones.
So I think that for some reason it was something that was in the air. Right?
Yeah. Which is interesting in itself. It really begins with drawing in your work. Whether it’s comics or gallery-based work, image based work, it seems always drawing-based. Did you ever encounter resistance from people because of that?
Well yeah, when I was doing it it wasn’t in vogue, right?
But you could look at what was going on, I could look at what was going on in comics.
And sort of appreciate it on that level that, or wait what am I trying to say?
Well in comics drawing was flourishing, in a sense.
‘Twas a great time I mean with Chester Brown and Julie Doucet and Clowes and Peter Bagge. I mean that was really… something was happening there.
Right? I think Jason, for example he saw I was looking at that stuff. He was out West in Vancouver and he was near Seattle so he could see this thing sort of happening, right?
Cause it was in the water or something.
So he sort of was like “Whoa”; actually I don’t want to put words in his mouth but maybe he was like, “Whoa Marc’s on to something here. People are actually starting to pay attention to this stuff.”
Canada can be really academic as far as art school goes and it just felt like that crazy drawing was not what was happening in art school at the time.
So did you publish in high school?
When I was in high school there was a pretty interesting punk rock scene in London in the eighties. And a bit of zine activity, there was this magazine called What Wave, which was a garage rock magazine. I’m maybe more interested in garage rock now, or more aware of it, but at the time I wasn’t that aware of that stuff, but anyway, Mike Niederman, who did comic/zine reviews in What Wave, and he would hand letter them, was the first guy to review my stuff. I was putting out these mini-comics, but they were magazine sized and offset. The first ones I did with a classmate of mine and later I was doing them on my own. I would do 200 copies, offset. Mike Niederman worked at this print place, M & T Publishing and they somehow had this low offset price point where you could actually do it. And I saw him recently and he’s kept all that stuff he used to review. He’s got all the old Yummy Fur minis and other zines Chester had been submitting to, he was reviewing and collecting all that stuff, he’s got all these old Richard Kern zines and all that ’80s stuff. He brought a stack of things to show me at this recent London zine fair, and he keeps all this stuff in great shape, he’s a bit of an archivist of that era.
Yeah, but I asked him, I said, “I don’t want to see my old publications, please do not bring them.” [Laughs]
And did he bring them?
I think maybe he did, actually, but I did not want to see them. But come to think of it, the very first comic I did on my very own, before I did the offset at M & T, was one I had printed at the high school I was going to because I found out there was a printing course there. So it was printed offset and it looked terrible—some students did it—and it just looked awful.
And this was Beal Art?
This was when I was going to Beal Art.
And while you’re in Beal Art somehow you get your first comic book published by Calber – Boof.
Yes. Or I guess it was a little after Beal Art. I think I drew in the basement at my mom’s place. You know? I drew the cover in blue line pencil first and then colored it. And, whoops, well you can still see the blue lines cause it’s in color. [Laughter]
You thought you were being pro.
Well yeah I thought I was being pro. I was being stupid. [Laughter] He put that out and it was a flop, right?
Yeah. Of course.
Caliber had this line of comics called Iconographix. Remember that? I think it would have been around ’91. And then I moved to Sackville and I think I received the copies there. And then he didn’t even want to do another one. I had to beg him to do Hep and I said, “look if it loses money I’ll pay for it.” And I paid to have an ad in The Comics Journal for Hep. I put a little ad in there.
So you were really going for it?
Kind of, yeah. I was trying…
And how did he even find your stuff in the first place?
Well I think I found him probably.
You submitted something.
I don’t even know. To tell you the truth I don’t even remember. I probably had some of those books he was doing and by that time I was ordering stuff from Fantagraphics and I probably submitted to them as well around that time.
And maybe because, what was the thing that he put out that was popular, Skin Graft?
Well he put out Dead World, which was popular at the time, by this guy Vincent Locke who was also pretty popular. It was a zombie comic. But that was maybe in his regular line.
But then he had his Iconografix line and he put out Dave Cooper. I think he was publishing people like Jason Lutes a little bit. And Lowlife by Ed Brubaker I think?
And he was publishing Brian Sendelbach and Dame Darcy.
Where was he?
Gary Reed was in Michigan and he would print at this printing place in Windsor: Preney Print and Litho. I think I must have talked to him on the phone a couple times but I don’t remember. And he was busy. He was putting out a lot of stuff. He just started this blog where he goes through a bit of the history. I didn’t know what was going on cause it was pre-internet and you didn’t know what’s going on anywhere. It was all guesswork.
I remember thinking that it was a cool company.
It was kind of cool. I was over the moon to get a comic book published.
So at some point, whether you knew it or not, you were like, “I’m gonna be a cartoonist guy.”
Yeah. For sure, definitely. I just loved Peter Bagge and Chester Brown, and I was like, “I’m just gonna try and do that.”
The funny thing is, at the time, it was not an unreasonable goal. There are these guys, they live in some place, they put out their comic books, there are letters in the back, you see an ad for it somewhere. That’s what it is.
I was working on Hep and I was working for the school paper, and I printed a few pages from Hep as the centerspread for the paper.
Yeah, that’s good. Good advertising.
What I did another time was I did this little comics primer for people in the paper. I put a little Julie Dirty Plotte panel, and I’d write a little blurb on Julie, and I’d do Lloyd Dangle, and Peter Bagge, and plugged a bunch of stuff.
In the school paper?
In the school paper, as part of the comics pages. So I just got free rein, I could do whatever I wanted with it. So I begged Gary to do another one, and he did it, and then I think that was it. He was just like, “No, no.”
[Laughs.] No more Marc Bell.
And then I was kind of discouraged a little bit after that.
And then twenty years later, Pure Pajamas. [Laughter]
End of the line, my friend. So Hep flops.
Someone just sent me an email recently saying, “Man, Hep is fucking awesome.” [Laugher.]
Somebody finally things you’re a hot, young cartoonist.
Exactly. [Laughs.] I tore up a lot of that stuff.
I don’t like when any artist tells me that kind of story.
I kept examples, though.
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] So what happens after Hep? Then in the ’90s it seems like you’re doing a weekly strip off and on, or…
You know, what I did then was I went back to self-publishing and thought, “Okay, I guess I’m going to start self-publishing.” A friend of mine was partners in this printing business, it was Charles, the same guy I went in on the swish barrel with, and he printed The Mojo Action Companion Unit #1 mini. Around that time I visited the press. It was not a super slick operation. It was a bit scattered around there. Anyway, I put a cigarette butt down this grate. I was sure I asked first, but I could be creating that as an excuse to feel better. So this huge mushroom cloud of smoke came up out of the grate…it turns out my friend’s sister had been sweeping up and swept all this sawdust down there or something, I don’t know. But it was a mess and it wrecked their mid ’90s computers. I was so mortified about it all that my friend and I lost touch after that. I think I was too freaked out to even go get the originals back.
An auspicious beginning. So that became a mini-comic series?
It did, yeah. I kind of modeled the cover colors for the first one after Zap #1 as a joke — yellow and blue. It was a bit of an anthology. It had Jay Stephens in it. So I just started putting it out, and the second one was photocopied. I don’t know how many of those I did over the years. But I think it maybe went up to number seven. And then Exclaim! at some point did a comic book style “collection” of some of that stuff.…
Exclaim! was a Canadian music magazine.
Yeah, I ended up drawing a strip for them. I think my strip started in ’95 or so. They asked me, and at first I was kind of resistant to it, and I can’t even remember why. For some reason I didn’t think it was a good idea but then when I started doing it and I was like, “No, this is a good idea. This stuff gets printed thousands of times.” It went all over Canada and it was free. So it was kind of perfect in a way.
Right. So if this is ’95 that you hook up with Exclaim!, that’s also the perfect time for indie rock going mainstream. So that magazine was probably a pretty big deal.
Yeah, I guess you could say it was, people would pick it up. Mark Connery was in there before I was in there, I think. Fiona Smyth, Joe Ollman, Alan Hunt. And it started off kind of almost zine-like, and then it got slowly slicker and slicker, and now its very slick. There’s no comics in there anymore; it’s pretty straight.
So your stuff was in there. Is it weekly or monthly?
So it’s being seen nationally. It’s a big deal.
Yeah, because people saw it. And people would respond to it.
So at some point, when did they decide to put out a comic book of Mojo Action Companion Unit?
They had this other strip in there called He is Just a Rat by Tony Walsh. I don’t know whose idea it was, but Exclaim! started publishing this He is Just a Rat comic, so I think at one point I just asked them, “Would you print just a little flimsy comic book of my stuff?” So I just loaded it with a bunch of stuff that was in the minis. There was just one, and it was tough for them to sell comic books, you know, if they weren’t concentrating on it. So that’s how that happened.
So it was another false start in terms of publishing.
Kind of, yeah. Pretty much.
When did the weekly strip start up?
The weekly strip started when I moved to Halifax. This is like ’97. Probably just after I went down to see Ron. So I ended up in Halifax, and I started doing a weekly for The Coast, the Halifax Coast. This was a time when I was just so broke. I was DJ-ing once a week, and I think the day I received my first welfare check, I was evicted. I finally got my rent together…you know what I mean? [Laughter.]
I was living in this place for free for a while, and we were supposed to do some work around there, but we didn’t really get around to it. The landlord would come over and yell “four sills!”, meaning he wanted us to put sills in the doorways. I was really broke, and I was doing this weekly strip, and it was really scattered. Like a lot of the stuff in Pure Pajamas, where it’s really like me going, “Uhhhh.” I think that some of the earlier stuff in Pure Pajamas is that stuff.
There were some what I would call classics from that time.
And I was probably doing stuff for Vice at this time, too. I was doing a monthly Vice strip, and the Exclaim! strip, and the weekly.
And you were still broke?
Yeah, I was still broke. Totally, completely broke. For Vice—I wasn’t using a computer at this time, I didn’t know how to—I would photocopy the strip and then hand-color it with marker and mail it in. And when I asked for them back later I’d only get part of them, and one of them would have a footprint on it. And I’d get, like, fifteen bucks a strip or so. When I first started at Exclaim!, they were paying me fifteen dollars, and it ended (years later) at forty.
Pay rates probably aren’t much better now.
I know, probably not. Though, at the end of my run with Vice they were paying me a decent page rate, 200 bucks. What was my point here…I quit the weekly but then I started the weekly up again later in 2000 with the idea that—because the Montreal Mirror said they would take it, and then the Halifax paper said they would take it. So that meant…I think I was making maybe 700 bucks a month from the weekly and the monthlies. And with that I could pay a cheap rent with that and have some leftover. So that’s when I decided, “I’m gonna do my graphic novel.” And that’s when I started doing that Wilder Hobson’s Theatre Abusurd-o stuff, was around 2000. And then I moved to Vancouver and I was pretty steady in Vancouver, working, doing that, and that transitioned into doing the artwork. But it was a pretty steady situation. I didn’t finish that graphic novel. I have all that material but I just haven’t been able to get back to it.
Part of it was in Worn Tuff Elbow.
That’s right. I ran through a lot of info there.