The Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) is a volunteer-run library and community space for comics in Toronto. It also hosts comics artist residencies, workshops and other comics-related events. The CCOL is not associated with any public institution, nor has it received any operational funding from any level of government (a situation they hope to change soon). I thought that this independent, grassroots and community-focused space for comics would be a great addition to the interview/anthropology portion of my long-term project,1 a critical histor(iograph)y of contemporary independent comics in Toronto.
I interviewed Rotem Anna Diamant, a CCOL founder, and Jordan Reg. Aelick, the library manager, both of whom are also comics artists. I met Jordan at the CCOL's new location at at 986 Bathurst Street in late March, while Rotem's interview was done via Google Docs in May. The interviews have been edited for readability and brevity.
WHAT IT IS
KIM JOOHA: The first question is a very basic one. What is CCOL?
JORDAN REG. AELICK: The Canada Comics Open Library is a collection of comic books and graphic novels that we've been building over the past several years, if not over a decade, because of the way that the collection ended up being donated to us, as well as continuously being donated to us.
We're a completely catalogued and lendable library. All of the books on the shelves are all able to be lent out and borrowed to the public for up to two weeks, and they're all catalogued on our website using a few different topics and genres-- maybe genres is not the best word, but different topics that we've decided to catalogue the books under, such as speculative fiction and everyday fiction.
In particular, we like to focus on books [from] people's voices who are not generally heard in mainstream media. So although there is a decent amount of superhero stuff in our collection, we try to focus the majority of it on works by BIPOC creators and people who are LGBTQ+ community members (across all subject areas), or works that discuss mental health issues and physical health issues, things like that.
We're just a bunch of people who love comics and graphic novels and want to share them with the world. They've impacted my life in particular and I think a lot about other people's lives.
We want to keep the spirit of cartooning alive as long as possible and showcase these books that are so wonderful. That's what CCOL does.
Why do we need CCOL? For example, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) has a lot of comics and graphic novels. TPL is one of the busiest library systems in the world, and is one of the best things about Toronto.
Yeah, TPL is amazing.
When I first moved to Toronto, a big draw was it being a comics city. I thought Toronto was home of all of these cartoonists because of reading books by the likes of Seth and Chester Brown, and then the younger artists like Michael DeForge, Ginette Lapalme and Patrick Kyle. There's so much stuff going on in the city. Before moving to Toronto, I knew one other person drawing comic books who lived in Guelph, and that was about it. And then Toronto, it seemed like everyone was making comics.
When I first moved here, I would go to the TPL a lot, especially the reference library, and I would just sit in their comic book section and try to read as many books as possible there. I was hoping to meet other cartoonists through that. So: go to the TPL a whole bunch, read a whole bunch of comic books. Still, I [didn't] know how to meet anyone who makes these books. Later I volunteered at the Toronto Zine Library for several years, and that's where I ended up finding a community of cartoonists as well as zine makers.
Then in 2018, Rotem Diamant, the founder of the Canada Comic Open Library, approached me and asked if I would be interested in talking about what a comic book library would look like. This immediately piqued my interest. I wanted a comic book library because I want a hub for comic books, not just it being a small section in a much bigger library dedicated to comic books.
In particular, the way that the TPL deals with cataloguing comics, they're catalogued as comics and graphic novels. They're a genre unto itself, which in my opinion is not true. Not a genre, they're very much like a work unto itself. They're a whole language.
Just its own medium.
Exactly, it’s its own medium. So we needed to focus on the medium of comics in its own space and be able to categorize and catalogue these books the way that other books are treated, instead of "This is our comic book section."
Are you from Guelph?
I'm from Northern Ontario. I'm from Sudbury. I was born in Calgary and then moved to Sudbury when I was like 3 or 4. Then, as soon as I could, I moved to the city when I was 19.
Its name is Canada Comics Open Library and-- I’m not sure if I can call it affiliated, but one of its resources is a Canadian Cartoonists Database. Why is there this focus on Canada?
Honestly, better to ask Rotem. [Laughter] I personally hate how much we're associated with Canada.
Because I consider Canada a very large business. I don't think of it as a country. I don’t like the idea of countries at all. It's just very much in line with capitalism. I wish the world would become borderless. I have always had slight qualms with having the word Canada in our title, but this is where we are. This is where it all started, and this is in the current lineage of history that the world describes this set of land as it is Canada. I don't really know what a "Canadian" is at all, other than somebody who has a citizenship to the government of Canada and-- I’m gonna just stop. [Laughs]
I love your answer because I agree with you as an immigrant. Or maybe I shouldn't have said that because Immigrant Canada will come for me. [Laughs]
I love the land. I love Toronto more than anything. I wish it was the Toronto Comics Open Library almost more so because I find what Toronto stands for is very different from what the rest of Canada stands for. I come from Northern Ontario, and I experienced a lot of more people being fucking assholes up there than in Toronto. Like people in Toronto leave me alone. They don't heckle me walking down the street and call me faggot and stuff. That happened to me all the time in Sudbury.
Even in Sudbury! It's a city.
It's a city, but still the vast majority is white people. And they all look very similar. So if somebody has long hair, people would go, like, "Oh, that guy is gay, I'm gonna make fun of him." Toronto is just not like that at all, because we have every culture in the world here.
I think that's also why I love Toronto and I feel so weird going to other cities whose majorities are white.
(founder and interim president)
I remember you talking to me after my TCAF presentation, “A Critical History of Canadian Alternative Comics” in ‘19!
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: I wondered if you remembered! I remember chatting with you a bit after that talk. In that talk, you were pointing out really important barriers within Canadian comics awards, talking about problems with gatekeeping and tastemakers within colonial systems. You were sharing important work by '90s creators that were often overlooked, many women. I talked about your talk in a presentation I gave last year at the Canadian Comics Symposium.
I remember you saying then that you would like to interview me or someone on the board about the comics library. I don't feel confident following up on these conversations, but I remember you said some encouraging things, and I’m glad Jordan and I are doing this now. I hope I’m not misremembering!
What is the CCOL?
I think the acronym and name is confusing for people, and they might think we’re different and larger than what we are.
I’m constantly in awe at what comics have been, what they are now, and the potential of the medium. I’m so excited to see what comics will be created in my lifetime. For me, it’s another reason to keep getting out of bed in the morning. I think making the medium more accessible will lead to a broader depth of stories being told and more unique directions being taken. That’s some of my personal motivation for the CCOL.
More officially, CCOL is a volunteer-run library and space for comics, also dedicated to increasing representation of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and marginalized communities online and through our library space; people who are underrepresented in other spaces. It’s for people who already read and love comics, and for people who have not had the opportunity to read many comics or engage with the scope of the medium.
The goal of the library was always to help make comics more accessible, by showing how accessible they innately can be and the scope of narratives out there. Also to encourage more people to make and read comics, and help alleviate some of the barriers to the medium.
As of March 2023, the library is located at 986 Bathurst Street, sharing space with Alien Art Market and Story Planet. We are currently open in our new location on Thursdays and Fridays, 12:00PM - 6:00PM.
CCOL’s website is meant to be a resource for Canadian comics community engagement, education and research. It features a searchable online library catalogue, our blog, and aggregated resources for comics and zines. The library collection includes over 1,500 fully catalogued graphic novels, comics, and zines (with many more to be catalogued). Our blog focuses on highlighting marginalized creators and linking through to resources in the comics community.
I’ve also worked on a Canadian Cartoonists Database to help support Canada’s comics community and its representation globally, which features BIPOC creators, LGBTQ+ creators and women. There are currently over 1,040 cartoonist entries, with a huge list of creators to add, but I haven’t been able to work on this much lately. For me, a big incentive for this project was to enable creators in small towns and large cities to connect with other creators. I know several publishers, researchers and educators have used this database as well.
Why the emphasis on Canada specifically?
It’s the place where a lot of the comics, and especially the minicomics, zines and small press I knew most about, existed. I didn’t see a lot of resources out there for comics creators who live and work in Canada. Growing up in Winnipeg, I also saw an oversaturation of creators from elsewhere in public spaces and collections. In contrast, Canadian comics seemed fragmented - particularly independent and self-published works were inaccessible, especially to people who couldn’t afford to buy them.
I also thought that focusing on Canada could help us apply for government grants to meet our goals, since so much funding available is through the Canadian government.
We share on our website that we define Canadian creators as those who have lived or worked within the boundary of the land referred to as Canada. This is to acknowledge that not all creators in Canada necessarily identify as being Canadian. This is imperfect, because just by showcasing creators who don’t identify as being Canadian, and because of our name, we are including them in a colonial system they do not necessarily want or choose to exist within.
To compensate for this, we try to be transparent about our goals and limitations, including sharing work that is anti-colonial. I do personally have regrets about our name, including how long it is, but I don’t mind our acronym and often think of it as “seek all” - maybe that’s weird?
Why is the CCOL in Toronto?
Toronto was the place where I was living, and it’s had a really vibrant comics community for many years. There are so many self-published works there, zines, small press, and really great comics shops and festivals and fairs to purchase them at. But it felt like these narratives were missing from other library systems - through no fault of librarians, just the limitations of historical cataloguing and acquisitions practices.
Toronto was the only place it could have been financially possible at the time. I sometimes fantasize about moving back to Winnipeg where I grew up to open a comics and curiosity shop combined with another comics library branch. A weird, queer, cozy and welcoming space. My partner found his dream job in Victoria during the pandemic, so here I am now. It’s a weird, isolating city, but very beautiful. I’m just starting to get to know other artists here.
The Toronto Public Library’s support for comics is amazing, and I got into comics thanks to the University of Toronto’s library system. Why do we need a separate space for comics?
I also took home a new pile of comics from Robarts [the John P. Robarts Research Library] almost every few weeks, or hid reading them in the library when I was a student at U of T Faculty of Information: giant-format Little Nemo and experimental hardcover stuff that I could never afford then had a big influence on my own work.
This is mostly from CCOL’s website, but I think it answers this question better than I can now:
Because CCOL is an independent library, we can use a different approach to shelve, organize and purchase comics as a medium for storytelling. We are independent of any standard library system of classification, and we are focused solely on comics and graphic novels, so there is a lot more flexibility in terms of what we can include in the collection and the types of changes we can implement.
We are able to organize comics as a medium for telling diverse stories with genres, rather than one genre as in traditional library catalogues. Within each genre, we use stickers to highlight marginalized communities (BIPOC + queer creators) and intersectional categories (physical health, disability and mental health narratives). Additionally, when purchasing, we prioritize comics made by marginalized creators, including zines. We hold to open principles by using community input as a driver for changes within our practices, including: metadata creation; acquisition; and cataloguing practices. That’s why we wanted to include the word "open" in CCOL.
We are trying to create a system where you can look at the shelves and see many comics subjects, such as autobio, biography, history, everyday fiction, speculative fiction, horror - and more, within comics.
We want to contribute to the cultural conversation about how comics are currently being catalogued, organized and understood in other collections and spaces in order to help bring about positive changes to current systems.
We intended to create a malleable library system, so we can implement changes based on community feedback.
We’ve done a lot, but it hasn’t been easy, us being all volunteers and lacking proper funding. We had big goals, but of course there is a huge limit to what we can accomplish without money.
(founder and interim president)
Why comics? How did you get into comics?
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: Comics feel like magic to me, like the mysterious books you come across in dreams. A mix of all the ingredients that show how strange and ridiculous and horrific and wonderful life can be, and they make life feel more meaningful to me. They have given me hope, inspired curiosity, and they have helped me better understand myself and other people. Something about how intimate and visceral they can be, and maybe something about how undefinable they are.
The idiosyncrasies of comics have always really fascinated me from a young age - that there are styles, symbols, creatures, patterns, habits that people develop, are drawn to, or that just appear from somewhere mysterious, and are reproduced over and over by artists. I think many cartoonists can’t help it, and it’s a secret meaning that can’t fully be decoded or explained.
I think many cartoonists can turn their impulse to draw very particular things in a very particular way into something very beautiful and emotionally affecting. There is something oddly universal in many of these works, like they get to the core of something very human and vulnerable. I’m a huge fan of Jim Woodring for this reason and other artists who play with dark, surreal, or fantasy themes that are sometimes grotesque and psychological, like Tobias Tak, Richard Sala, Nicole Claveloux, Lala Albert, Fiona Smyth, Inés Estrada, Emelie Östergren, Vehlmann & Kerascoët, Jillian Tamaki, Daryl Seitchik, Mark Beyer, Lilli Carré, Rumi Hara, Tove Jansson, Dame Darcy, Disa Wallander and many more. I’m not sure they would think of their work in that way, but it’s the way I felt. Reading all of those comics made me dive deeper into the medium and want to draw more. They are really funny and beautiful. I get obsessed with certain things, ideas or imagery, and [I've drawn] the same type of things over and over since childhood, and maybe that’s also why I started drawing comics.
I think it is a medium rooted in passion and not capitalism, because mostly it’s not done for money, although cartoonists should be able to survive from their labor, rather than work two or more jobs to survive and be able to keep creating. I know it’s even worse in the U.S. where everyone has to worry about paying for healthcare, so we are lucky in many ways in Canada, including grant funding for comics projects.
In my childhood, our apartment when I was a kid was stressful and tense. My mom was a sole-support parent with three kids, who went back to school in her 40s to support us. My brother took care of my sister and I a lot, and my sister and I would stay with my dad on the weekends. My mom slept on a futon in the living room until I was 13, and I shared a room with my sister and we had a big walk-in closet (at least it was big in my memory) with a small oval nook in the back of it. I would read books and comics there and play on my own a lot in our room. There were a lot of shouting matches and bad communication. Comics and books were so comforting and reliable. I read a lot of Archie, Peanuts, MAD magazine, Dennis the Menace, Wee Pals and other classic paperbacks that my mom’s ex-boyfriend gave me.
When I was around 14 or 15 I watched the movies Ghost World and Crumb, after which I fell down a rabbit hole of comics for adults, and I read everything I could find by Clowes. I was so shaken by the criticism of social expectations, norms and cynicism depicted in those films. I could also painfully relate to the romanticization of the past. So there was also Terry Zwigoff to blame for getting me into comics.
When I was in my late teens into adulthood, dealing with illness and some difficult life experiences, reading open and vulnerable narratives like Leela Corman’s We All Wish for Deadly Force and Geneviève Castrée’s Susceptible, and the autobio work of artists like Gabrielle Belle, Julie Doucet, Lynda Barry, Whit Taylor, Dominique Goblet, Power Paola, Teva Harrison, Jason Bradshaw, Liz Prince, Debbie Drechsler, John Porcellino and many more, made life feel less lonely and hopeless. There is a lot of humor and hope in autobio comics.
To start a whole library is a huge step. It’s never been done before for comics, and it’s obvious that it needed a lot of work. Why did you start despite that? (I admire it!)
I still don’t know where that drive to see the library through came from. I had just graduated when I really started working on CCOL, taking those first steps to actually doing something rather than talking about it with friends and my partner.
My student library jobs were rapidly coming to an end. I was looking for library or archives work in Toronto, unsuccessfully, and feeling a lot of self-loathing. I wanted to do something good and hopeful while I could in that place of waiting and worrying and submitting job application after job application, and this idea grew in my mind and felt worthwhile and right to me.
I started talking to my partner, unsure of a lot of things, struggling with depression, anxiety and some bad experiences since having moved to Toronto, feeling alienated and unsure of the future. I started volunteering at the Toronto Zine Library, and that was a huge changing point. I helped them out with a few projects and came in once a week to help run staffed hours. That place and the people there gave me the confidence to take the first few steps. I met people there who were really encouraging me, including a few who became board members at CCOL.
Jordan, I quickly learned, was another cartoonist volunteering at the TZL, and they told me soon after we met that they actually had a similar hope for a community library for comics in the city. We talked about how making comics is often a solitary process, and shared what we liked about the medium and how important spaces are - where comics creators can connect, share knowledge and talk about their work. I think Jordan had even created an Instagram a few weeks before I met them to lend out their personal comics collection to acquaintances. Jordan was very generous with their knowledge of creating comics and self-publishing with me; just one of those open people always happy to share tips and encouragement with creators at all levels.
The other thing that happened around that time was my grandmother died and really unexpectedly left me some money. I knew my time was really limited to get a project started and spend time working on it, and I knew that it could be a really valuable space for people, so I just went for it. Growing up without money, I never thought I would have the opportunity to try something like this, so it meant a lot to me to be able to just try. That’s why I really put everything into it and worked hard on it for as long as I could. Now I mostly help with admin things, like nonprofit requirements, grant writing and website resources.
It’s really annoying when people say this, because when they do they’re usually in a stable place, but “if I had known how much work it would be,” and psychologically what it would be like, I would have never started. Just thinking of the bureaucracy, having to do so much public speaking (I’m shy and an introvert), interviews, the way I was worried about people’s perception of me, the way we were pitted against the public library, or just feeling very vulnerable and visible and judged. Maybe a lot of it was in my head. It was unhealthy for me.
After graduating, I incorporated CCOL because I thought strategically it would be good to be a nonprofit to be able to apply for grants and funding and make the intent of the project clear and be transparent about our structure and goals. I made a website with resources, formed our board, worked on the bylaws, began planning library procedures and guides, started the cartoonists database, bought our insurance, hosted meetings, and the project grew from there with other board members’ and advisors’ feedback and suggestions. I started cataloguing hundreds of comics from home. My supportive partner (maybe to a fault), who is a computer scientist, answered my many questions while I created a website for the first time, helped me with setting up our Open Source Library software, and with other board members’ input we edited the code to meet our collection’s requirements.
I donated most of my comics collection to CCOL, and other people involved on the board donated comics as well. So the initial collection was our pooled collections. After that, I found and bought them where I could, at used bookstores, thrift shops, a couple comic shops - and other libraries donated. Once, someone posted on Instagram that they were selling some really beautiful stuff for like $5-$10, and I went to meet them downtown during their lunch break to pick up two to five comics, haha. Lots of kind strangers.
CCOL has grown a lot. How was it possible? You and your staff are amazing!!
Nothing would have been possible without Jordan’s help and support, especially since I moved to Victoria. The support of other board members and people in the Toronto comics community offering to volunteer and help out has also been so important - a lot of people who really believe in what the library could be.
I worked full-time on CCOL for one year, and then more often than I should have after that, and it did lead to burnout. But the library exists, and we’ve done a lot. That’s a really beautiful and important thing to me. I know a lot of people care about it now, and it can exist without me in the future. I think we’ve grown because we care about the library so much and have put a lot of ourselves into it. We’ve had community support through donations and word of mouth, and we are extremely lucky to still exist after the pandemic, not to mention to have an affordable and supportive shared space in downtown Toronto.
CCOL must have been a lot of work. WHY was that important for you to do that much work?
When CCOL first launched, we had a nice launch event with our full collection as a pop-up library, a panel conversation on storytelling, and mini workshops. It was a good feeling and I think people who attended could understand what we were trying to do. Our first crowdfunding failed, but we ended up raising enough money to allow us to continue operating in a different capacity than we originally planned. I think this failure was because we asked for too much money, not anticipating the possibility of existing spaces that would want to partner with us for less than Toronto’s inflated renting rates - and more importantly, not enough people knew us. I don’t blame anyone at all for being skeptical.
I also had terrible social anxiety during my first year in Toronto and only knew the comics community through the zines I read, artists I followed online, visiting comics shops very stealthily, and festivals like TCAF. I had no courage to speak with people in the way I wanted to. I still have bad imposter syndrome that often gets in the way of making those connections. I am very grateful for the relationships I have now, and I hope to continue getting to know more people in the comics community.
I took that first failure personally and thought it was all because of me, like people thought my intentions were somehow evil or greedy; that mixed in with depression, which tells you that you are the worst person in the world, and taking on the title of “President” (which I hated) - it was tough for a while. And the bureaucratic nightmare of running a nonprofit, feeling watched and vulnerable, especially as a person perceived as a woman in a labor-intensive volunteer job in a capitalist society. Lots of snarky remarks and a lack of understanding from some family, strangers and some people in the comics community (although many people were supportive). This role was not something I was comfortable with, but I really wanted the project to exist. I also knew I had a chance that most people don’t have.
Sometimes I feel that I shouldn’t have kept going after that initial crowdfunding failure, that it set a bad precedent, but I felt like I owed people and other board members so much and I just desperately wanted the library to exist and for people to see what I knew it could be. Maybe, on a personal level, I also had something to prove to myself, and other people who didn’t think that someone like me could do something like this. I was also very privileged to be able to work full-time unpaid on a project for as much as I did that first year, with support from my partner, or I couldn’t have done it. For a long time my family thought I was making a mistake, and maybe I was. None of them read comics, no matter what I do, haha, aside from my niece. But we did it, and a comics library now exists in Toronto!
If it’s ok to ask, why did you step down as president of the CCOL?
I maybe too impulsively shared my plan to step down via a post on social media and my blog over a year ago, and was pretty open about the situation there. I was very burnt out and discouraged at the time. But I’m still in this role interim until we can find someone who wants to take over as president - it’s a lot of work to take on, and we haven’t had anyone interested enough, so I’m helping out as much as I can for as long as I can from over here across the country. I’m still happy to help with admin and website work, but I just can’t continue in that role long-term. It’s been over five years now, and I think it would be really good for CCOL if someone else with more energy and resources takes over.
At heart, I think we are more of a collective, and taking on these board roles and official titles hasn’t come naturally to many of us.
How did you get into comics? Were you always into art and drawing?
JORDAN REG. AELICK: Comics were definitely always a part of my life in the sense that newspaper strips were always appearing on my refrigerator, like For Better or For Worse. My mom is a huge For Better or For Worse fan. I remember she went to a signing of [Lynn Johnston's] at a Kohl's bookstore in the New Sudbury shopping center when I was 10. She was so excited to meet her favorite cartoonist and get her book signed. She’s got the whole collection of For Better or For Worse.
Even superhero comics have always been in my life. My uncles were avid collectors of Marvel and DC. The collection they were creating was more interesting to me than the content of the books. I would go to their houses and see all of these longboxes stuffed with comics. I remember finding the issue that Superman dies in. It's got a unique cover - all white with just the logo on it. I was like, "Oh, Superman dies in this one, this must be good," and started reading. It was just so confusing and made no sense at all. I was like, "What is going on, why are these people fighting, this is so irrelevant to me." This is supposed to be an important part of the story of Superman, but it was just confusing. That was my introduction to comics.
Then I started buying [the Marvel crossover] Civil War comics in high school, and they sucked again. It's the same thing: this story was pointless and meaningless, and there’s no substance to these stories. It's just about beefy humans just being beefy. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's uninteresting to me and confusing. I'm trying to understand these and trying to gain enjoyment from them, and all my friends seem to be really enjoying them.
Yeah, a few of my buddies were like, "Civil War's starting, we gotta collect them. I'll collect the Spider-Man one, I'll collect the Captain America one, we'll trade." This was the second time in my life that capitalism’s greedy face was really clearly shown. Because they were telling the same story over and over again, crossing paths between all of these books. It was really crapitalistic-- how have I never heard crapitalistic before?!
It's an amazing word!
Thank you! I think it's crazy that nobody has ever said it! Anyway, just to mention, the first time I was really jaded by capitalism was Pokémon. After the first Pokémon game came out, I loved it. Then the second one came out and it was just the same thing, then the third one came out and it was the same thing again.
So you realized how bad capitalism is when you were young.
Yeah. My parents really made sure, like, you have to know the value of these games. You can't just go out, we don't have the money to spend on every new game. You get one a year. Like I'm stoked for the sequel, and this is the same game. They’re only doing this to make money.
What made me be super passionate about comics was webcomics. When I was in grade nine, I came across the webcomics Questionable Content and Overcompensating. They changed my life for sure. I don't read any of them anymore, I have no interest in the continuous story of Questionable Content. It's pretty amazing that he's still doing it after a decade. But seeing those works, they made me laugh and feel stuff, and I was able to enjoy them on my own.
Then, in the summer that year, I started copying Questionable Content and got a lot of positive energy just from copying these characters. A couple months later I was like, "Oh, I gotta start writing comics."
On your own?
Yeah. And I started making comics very much similar to Questionable Content for me - indie white boys just talking about their lives and complaining about their privileges and stuff. Just navigating different scenes. It was really bad, but still really coming-of-age. When I started reading comics online, I didn't know these existed. This is finally [where] the subject matter and the medium are coinciding to interest me.
Then I went to the local comic book store in Sudbury called Comics North, and that’s where I picked up my first Chester Brown book. I think the first one I got was I Never Liked You or The Little Man. I read that and was just like, "This is totally bonkers." This autobiographical work is even further down the appeal of comics to me than the other fictional stuff.
And then I found zines, and that changed my life. People self-publishing their comics instead of putting them online. It was like "This feels right."
You and Rotem worked from the beginning for the CCOL, right?
As early as 2017, Rotem was thinking and gaining ideas, then starting to pitch it to a few friends. They formed a board, or just a committee. Because boards came later. Anyways, like eight to ten friends. We would just go to Rotem's house after work and talk, like, "What is this going to look like?" for three to six months. Then Rotem was like, "Hey, I’ve got my collection of books. I'm going to start cataloguing them, and then we'll try to book pop-up library events and try to get some energy rolling." So we did a couple of pop-up library events, where we brought like four bookshelves to locations and set our books up just for a day. That was really pleasant.
Again, it's all very much inspired by the Toronto Zine Library. Rotem and I were both volunteering there back in pre-2018. That's where we met, and we had very similar ideas on what we want out of life and what we want out of the city. So it felt very natural to discuss this with a group of people very passionate about comics as well.
And there were struggles along the way. A couple of the original people who were really fascinated with the idea ended up leaving and being, "No, I’m not getting paid for this so I'm not a part of this anymore." At the beginning some people were expecting this to be a paid job, and maybe [people were expecting] they can make a career out of this library. It's just never been a thing. So we lost a few people really early on because, I think, they started to realize how much work they needed to put into this. I hope they're doing well.
(founder and interim president)
I know that you are a professional librarian, with a degree in library science. Did you always have the idea for a comics library - for example, when you studied for your degree? Also, why library science?
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: “Why library science” is a tough question for me. Maybe capitalism and pressure to find a 9-5 that wouldn’t feel completely soul-crushing, coupled with the fantasy of what being a librarian could be, haha. Libraries meant a lot to me growing up, and contributed a lot to my well-being throughout my life. I would spend so much time there, I could picture that being a big part of my adult life.
When I lived in Winnipeg, I had a difficult time meeting people who were into comics, and so maybe this project was a way for me to make a space that I wish I had found earlier in life, especially coming into my queerness and dealing with mental and physical health stuff. In my first year of library sciences, I made as many course assignments as I possibly could about comics and zines, and then in my second year of my degree I began to think about what this library could be, and talked about it out loud with a few people. It helped get me through the final year of library sciences.
In the back of my mind is always the feeling that the world is a really scary place right now, going in a really bad direction with regards to environmental degradation, the politicization of human rights, late stage capitalism and a lot of people feeling pretty hopeless and alienated from each other. I think that community spaces that support marginalized people by sharing a wide scope of stories, information and experiences, are really important to fight against these systems that insidiously and purposefully push us to feel so alienated and alone or turn against each other. Spaces that try to show kindness and hope to people, that let people stay there and just exist as they are, are desperately needed. Libraries are one of the only places I can think of that do this.
To me, they are very worthwhile spaces to fight for and work for, despite their many flaws and their roots in unhealthy systems.
I totally agree with your criticism about the PN6700 system of shelving comics, too many of them are lumped together.
Yeah, it’s tricky. Librarians are forever fighting to try to find ways to work against some of these very outdated modes of classifying things based on popular ideologies and Eurocentric thinking from decades ago. Having things searchable online is one thing, but in the physical library space, properly representing the scope of such a complex medium might seem like magical thinking - but we are trying!
I also agree with this: “Sometimes, at the cataloguers discretion, non-fiction comics may be shelved outside of the comics section in the broader subject area with other books... it segregates these narratives from the comics section and may create (or encourage) a hierarchy of what comics 'deserve' to be outside of the comics section.” It was weird to find Joe Sacco books in different areas from other comics at Robarts Library.
Yeah, I think for people who love comics already, it can be disappointing to be in the comics area and not see everything there. I think with duplicates, it’s a great idea to stick comics in their parallel subject area outside of the comics section - a good way to assist people to stumble into a comic and be pleasantly surprised, or maybe trick them into picking something up that will actually be more insightful and critical than a “non-fiction” history book for example.
What would be the best way to shelf zines?
Zine libraries all do this a bit differently, with some really neat creative displays and cataloguing systems. Some even arrange by zine size first before the subject.
In my fantasy of a comics library, we would have entire walls where we could display zines cover out, and they could still be in their subject sections, along with curated display areas that change every month. The Toronto Zine Library recently got some nice large wood shelves in their new space, and I'm glad they can do that more now.
I wish we could display many more books and comics cover out, but running out of shelf space is also a good problem to have because it means more comics to lend out! I remember the OCAD [University] Zine Library also had some great displays when I visited several years ago.
You've mentioned it a little bit, but the amazing part of this library that I just discovered as I looked around is how all of these books are professionally catalogued. You can actually search the database online like a real library, which is just amazing.
JORDAN REG. AELICK: Rotem is a graduate in library sciences, so they are a professional librarian. I always call myself a "lie-brarian" because I didn't go through the formal training but have been volunteering at libraries for a decade now. Toronto Zine Library, I started doing that in my early 20s. They’re one of my biggest influences in life.
So Rotem, being a true librarian, enjoys the cataloguing process. They started the Canadian Cartoonists Database as well. I think that project and the CCOL started at the same time.
As soon as we opened our doors back in 2019 and we had volunteers in the space there was always a box of comics to be catalogued, and they were just constantly cataloguing it.
One of the major things that I've worked on over the past two years since lockdown happened was to take that catalogue and then translate it into stickers that we can place on the books for easier lending opportunities and easier reshelving opportunities. We had to put three stickers on the backs of the books, one being a call number sticker, underneath that is the category which the book falls under.
So you guys have your unique call number that's different from other common libraries.
Yeah, I think it's copied to a certain extent, but then also our own. Let me just pull a book off my shelf. It goes to the country of origin, and then the category. So, for instance, kids' everyday fiction, and then underneath that is the first three characters of the author's last name as well as the year of publication. Then a barcode that we've gotten made on top of that, then a clear archival sticker goes on top of that.
Each of those books have these stickers now. We put over 4,000 stickers on in the last couple of years. It was myself and three other volunteers, and it took way longer than I ever expected. It was such a large amount of work. My respect for libraries and librarians continues to grow as I work on this project. It's pretty amazing how much work goes into cataloguing and organizing.
Could you say a little bit about this new space? You guys share/rent the space.
Story Planet is an organization that has existed in Toronto for quite some time. They're an organization which aligns itself with a lot of similar goals as CCOL has. They do programming for children about how to tell stories, they go into different schools and teach young people how to express themselves through several different mediums, be it cartooning or writing or puppetry, etc.
Within the last year they have opened this retail space called the Alien Art Market which is where we are now renting and living in. The Alien Art Market features a lot of goods from local creators and cartoonists and artists and writers. They’re trying to promote as many local artists as possible so they reached out to us to see if we were interested in collaborating. It was about a month of talking and figuring out what it would look like. We are now inside the Alien Art Market. We have our kids and teens shelf up on the main floor, then as you're walking downstairs you'll see our anthology and reference section. Then when you make it downstairs, there is the adult section in its entirety.
One thing I absolutely love is that you guys have zines and minicomics, which would be hard to shelf.
You're totally right, that's something that we've been thinking about since the beginning. Like floppy comics, how do we display these things? I still think we have more conversation to be had on that.
The first idea, which is still in use, is to put them in plastic sleeves with those plastic spines that we label. I don't find it to be a very good way to display zines because the plastic falls and zines are all sized very oddly. But if you don't have a spine, it's easy to lose amongst other much thicker books. That's one thing that I've been thinking about a lot. I managed to find a spinning rack. That is a temporary solution to something that I'm still not sure what to do about.
Some zines and floppy comics are very long series. In that case we could put a block on the shelf that says, "We have these books." But some zines, they're just one zine that's very small and thin. How do we put this on the shelf to make it easily accessible? I think the spines is a good way to do it, but there has to be a better way. I'm sure we'll figure something out in the future.
Like, just putting all of the floppies in a longbox and organizing the floppies together - then we’re segregating the zines and from the graphic novels. I don't like that idea. They should be all together, because some of the thickest books are just as impactful as some of the thinnest books. They should belong on the same shelf together.
Zines are so important to me. I love zines. They're so wonderful for so many different reasons. If you self-publish something, you're casting a spell onto the world. Who knows how far the conjuration can be cast. In a very pure, individualistic, "I did this" sort of way.
(founder and interim president)
Where did the idea about events come from? And why does the CCOL hold events?
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: When we were in Regent Park, events were the best way to get more people to visit our space, since it wasn’t right downtown, and not all local community members in Regent Park knew of that community lounge in the building we were located in.
Now, events are part of our project grants. I think they build a better sense of community and provide good opportunities for comics creators to meet each other and connect with comics readers. And it feels good to be able to pay creators for their work. I hope it encourages them to keep going.
According to the CCOL website, you guys want to create Open Libraries in other provinces. That sounds amazing!
We are still hoping other comics libraries will open up across the provinces, even ones not affiliated with CCOL, and especially in smaller communities.
One day, when it’s ready, we plan to release the code for our open source ILS [Integrated Library Systems] (we use OpenBiblio), so other people can use the changes we made to the software and create comics libraries, whether they are in smaller communities or even if they just want to start something up with their friends. Or maybe other people can use our library as an example and find another open source software or systems with similar or better capabilities.
Why hasn’t the CCOL received any operation grants so far?
We have received many project grants, thankfully, from the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council. Unfortunately, though, we don’t make enough money and our operating budget isn’t high enough to qualify for any operating grant out there that I know of.
We don’t have any corporate sponsorships or anything like that, [we] exist through community partnerships, yearly membership fees ($5), our crowdfunding campaigns, project grants and other revenues like our online store... and we’d like all our events to stay free to the public.
If anyone out there thinks there is an operating grant that might be a good fit for us, please let us know!
If there is an organization with similar goals to ours that would like to sponsor us, we would really appreciate your support. We acknowledge sponsorships on our website and at events.
None of us were business people, and learning how to apply for grants and run an organization was a huge curve. I’ve made mistakes, and I’m still learning, but I’m really proud of the projects and events we’ve run, and everything that we’ve done so far.
We somehow still exist after a pandemic, and in a city like Toronto. I feel very lucky.
Have program grants helped the CCOL?
Yeah, the project grants have been great for us and for the creators we’ve worked with (based on feedback we’ve heard and my own experiences as an admin). I’ve been keeping a document about grants, so I am just sharing the following from there:
-We’ve run two rounds of writing residencies, 10 altogether, prioritizing creators of marginalized genders, 2SLGBTQIA+ comics creators at our CSI Regent Park/downtown location through support from the Toronto Arts Council.
-From August 2020 to March 2021, we hosted five comics read-out-loud events, prioritizing comics creators of marginalized genders and BIPOC and disabled creators. Artists read, followed by a short talk, which was then published to our YouTube with captions added. This was an Arts Presenters Project supported through the Ontario Arts Council.
-From November 1, 2020 to December 31st, 2021, we ran 14 artist-led comics creator development workshops (working with 12 creators who facilitated the workshops and 20 participants), prioritizing comics creators of marginalized genders and Black, indigenous and BIPOC creators.
It’s tough because we want to keep running these projects, but we need to be operating comfortably to do that, and not have to worry so much about finances every year. Eventually, we would like to have a paid staff member.
CCOL is volunteer-run and you've devoted so much time and energy. But you pay artists who do residencies or run workshops. I emphasize this because I don’t want anyone to think that CCOL doesn't pay artists. [Laughs] I think it’s great that you guys want artists to be paid correctly. When people think of libraries, they think of books and spaces where you study. But for CCOL, it’s more like a community space and you have a lot of participatory programs.
JORDAN REG. AELICK: Being able to pay artists and not being able to pay staff is because of the grants. We've been able to receive grants for events like residencies that we're able to pay cartoonists with. We're still unable to qualify for, or we've yet to receive, any sort of grant to help with operation. We haven't gotten any operating grants.
I want this library to exist so badly and time is the most precious resource in the world. So it's like, "Okay, well, if I want this to work, I’m gonna have to put my time into it and I can't expect anything out of it other than personal gratification." And just knowing that we're lending books out and feeling good about that. I still have energy because I'm in my early to mid 30s and I have to use this energy somewhere. What else am I doing? I need to do this kind of thing. I can only speak for myself. I feel very lucky to have the body and mind that I have and I'm able to use it for community driven things because it feels like a lot sometimes, but I can't think of doing anything else. What am I going to do? Go home and play video games otherwise? It comes down to being jaded with capitalism too. I need to do things that I love not for money because if I do the things that I love for money, then I'm going to start not loving them anymore. It's always been a huge fear of mine. It's a big reason why I've never fully pursued becoming a "professional cartoonist" and relying on cartooning and making comic books as an income, because my fear of not enjoying drawing and making art is a lot stronger than my desire to become a full-time cartoonist and a career cartoonist. Again, everyone's really different when it comes to making content and making comics, and what they want out of it all.
I make comics because I want to express myself and meet people who are able to understand me and to create community and to try to push for that as much as I can. It just feels way more natural than trying to make comics a business, even though this is a bit of a business.
As soon as I came into CCOL, I was so surprised by how many books you guys have. How did you guys build this collection? Was it a lot of people donating books or was it more of you guys purchasing books?
It's a little bit of both. The way it started, again, was Rotem's collection. They probably had around 400 books. They catalogued and worked on 400 books. Then we received lots of donations over time. I've donated a bunch of my books too.
We still buy books here and there. We don't have a lot of money to do that at this moment in time. That's something we're always wanting to spend money on.
Even at the moment, I have three cardboard boxes and three plastic boxes of uncatalogued books that are waiting to go on the shelves. People are always asking us if we're accepting donations. I just stopped accepting donations in the last month when we moved here, just because our space is a lot more limited than before and I realized just how many books we still need to catalogue. I feel like people who love comics generally become collectors at some point and we all only have so much space. We've got a couple volunteers who are just eager to dump some more books into our labs.
Do you guys still accept volunteers?
Yep, we’re still accepting volunteers. Since we just opened [at the new address] a week ago, I managed to hear from a few people interested in volunteering. It's just a matter of setting up dates and coordinating with them so we can have more open hours.
I'm in the works of finding a new volunteer coordinator because that is a whole job unto itself. It takes so much time to coordinate volunteers and make sure there is somebody here to staff the hours. That's going to be my next several weeks. Just getting the library open for more hours and figuring out people's schedules and acting as volunteer coordinator until we find a proper one. Because I want this place to be open as much as it can as soon as possible. The last couple years I've just been itching to reopen.
I love that it's an open library, because I strongly believe that information should be open. I hate big major publishers and academic journals which are trying to kill libraries. It’s not related to any question, I just wanted to put this in the article. [Laughter]
So because it's open, what if somebody borrows a book and then doesn't bring it back?
There are certain books that we have considered non-circulating. Those books are like the more expensive, more rare ones.
I think we're just counting on people being good-spirited individuals, but we're not charging late fees at this point in time. We're just gonna have to send them emails like, "Hey, you still have our book."
You never know, like somebody could borrow a book, then something tragic can occur and they're no longer able to make it to the space. Why should they be punished for that? It's all gonna be in Toronto, so I don't mind going to people's houses and picking books up. That is kind of to be determined.
It all comes down to trust. Trust is why and how this kind of place could exist.
Like trusting volunteers.
Yeah. It's like, "Hey, I don't know if you're gonna show up, but I'm posting online that we're open now, Thursdays from 12:00 to 6:00. I trust you." It is a trust-based system. That's all it comes down to.
In a similar spirit, I like this part of the membership: usually you pay $5, but if you are short of money, you can pay it later when you have enough money.
Not even, you don't even need to pay it later.
The way that it's set up is pay-what-you-can model with the $5 base fee and $5 suggested donation. So if somebody pays a $10 suggested donation, that one donation goes into the pool. If somebody wants a year membership and they don't have money, they can get a year membership, they never have to worry about paying it back.
And if they want to renew it and they're still in the same situation financially as they were in the past, by all means take one from the pool. It's nothing that I can foresee being short of, and we do keep track of how much money is in this pool, and it's never shrunk.
A lot of people seem to be like, "Yeah, I like your cause. I'll pay it forward." It's very rare we get somebody who needs to take it from the pool. I'm hoping more people want to access that pool. It's very nice and reassuring to hear that the public are just like, "No, $5 for a yearly membership is fine. My Netflix account costs twice as much as that per month."
Although I love that [the CCOL is] in Toronto, I also like the long-term goal from the website saying that to build comics libraries across Ontario and Canada, that's really beautiful.
Having different branches is such a long-term goal. And I think it is doable in decades. It takes more contacts in different places and showing how well we've done. And inspiring people.
You're inspiring it just by existing.
I was really bummed when Rotem moved out west. It was pretty heartbreaking to me because of what an impact they have made on my life and the city. It was really a loss for Toronto. As well as their partner Brandon who does all of our website stuff, just a total genius. But now they're there and now we're still open. So maybe they'll stay there. Who knows?
But going through this once, I don't know if they'll ever want to go through the whole process of starting it again because it's so much work. But I don't know. It's going to happen. There will be more eventually.
It's such an amazing space, and I wish a place like this would exist in every kind of community.
WHAT IS NEEDED
What are the things that are most needed at the library right now?
For sure. We have some money in our bank account. The thought of rent is always on my mind.
And volunteers. I want to be open for more hours. But I'm at this point where I'm so excited that we're open and here and I'm willing to do anything.
Boy, do I ever want to have more money so I can feel comfortable and nothing comes out of my bank account anymore, or [that of] whoever else is on the board.
And more community, more people coming into the space, more people lending books - I just would love more people.
It's just the first week [as of March 2023], so it's so funny to be talking about this - but even a bigger space. It's really sweet here, but having more space would be even better because then we can set up more tables for people to draw at and stuff.
Why do you have events?
It’s a community thing, meeting more people. The idea of paying cartoonists for talking about comics is so satisfying. Like Eric Kostiuk Williams did a history of queer comics, and it was such an amazing talk. It’s so good to learn about that. I wish we could do more of that kind of thing. It's so much insights from all the perspectives.
Cartooning is so impactful to me because it gives an individual perspective really clearly, because they're developing their own language through symbols that are very deeply personal and using interpretations of life and other forms of art.
That’s amazing. It’s one of of my big projects to connect comics with similar visual symbolic systems, like pictograms, diagrams or collage. Comics people are attracted to collage and a lot of artists whose focus is collage have been interested in comics. I believe the comics are kind of this mode of communication.
Totally. And the sheer breadth of communications that you can get from comics has always been very fascinating to me. I remember going to a Chris Ware talk when I was younger, and he compared comics to graphic design and poetry. And it fits Chris Ware's style perfectly. Everything is in its place.
When I approach comics, I love the idea of cartoons, like the thing before the painting. It’s not a very refined drawing. A quick representation of something that you're trying to project. It's just a symbol. I just love that.
It's more than a style.
Yeah. It's a language. Style is shallow. Style is just like how we are vain as humans.
(founder and interim president)
What does the CCOL need most? Jordan said money.
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: Yes, sadly, money is the biggest barrier. Also, people sharing the project, supporting us in this way, including cartoonists and comics readers who are more well known.
Our operating costs are very modest right now since we are all volunteers and have limited hours. We are very thankful for our space partnership with the lovely Story Planet, and having that streetfront access.
Since we are a registered nonprofit, every year there are costs like insurance, filing fees, and then we have things like rent, utilities and library supplies - and we’d love to purchase more books and zines. For our crowdfunding campaign this year, our goal to cover the next year is $6,500, and we’re at 85% right now [the campaign was ultimately successful]. We need around $1,000 more to pay all of our operating costs.
We hope to continue offering events, workshops and memberships to the community to borrow comics for years to come, and want to be able to continue to pay artists for their work.
Once people visit our space and browse our collection and our website, I think they’ll see what we’re trying to do.
If you would like to support us:
-We have a monthly Patreon
-Visit our library to sign up for a $5 yearly membership for yourself or a stranger (memberships are free or PWYC suggested $5)
-We also have an online store
-Lastly, if you want to give us one-time financial support, you can send us money through Paypal directly on our website!
(founder and interim president)
Now to turn to your own art practice, I loooove your Toronto Renting Adventures. I love its texture: the feeling your lines as a whole are creating out of the page. I love the cockroaches on the first page (of course NOT in real life). I used to live in a $600 windowless room that was the size of a bunk bed and was right next to the washroom in the Annex. Then I lived in a $450 living room around Finch station. I could hear and smell what people cook everyday. I love the juxtaposition of different fonts of handwriting and your drawing, which create that feeling of “texture” I mentioned. I love the slightly irregular panels. I love that it changes to four panels all of sudden. I totally agree with Austin English: “Truly brilliant mini comic making… the work here feels like the ultra aesthetic approach to comics as a stage where anything can happen that you might see in early newspaper strips...but all of that is filtered through inky classic zine making aesthetics.” How do you achieve such “inky classic zine making aesthetics”? Is it intentional?
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: Thanks so much Kim! I’m sorry to hear about your terrible renting experiences. I think there could be a comics anthology (or several of them) about bad renting in Toronto if there isn’t one. It’s a way too common experience all over. Since making that comic, I’ve had so many people share their terrible housing stories with me. I felt like I had to make it just to get that out of my head like exorcising a demon. If I want to be reminded, I can always read the comic.
It’s so nice to read what you liked about that comic. At the time, I felt like an imposter sharing it because of how rough it was. I frantically made that zine over a few days, swimming around those memories - I think that’s why it has that feel. I always liked the writing though, even though some people told me they needed a magnifying glass to read the lettering, haha. Now, because I know the feeling of creating and sharing comics, and realize what zines have meant to me, I don’t put that weird pressure on myself anymore. Comics are a storytelling tool or medium that anyone should feel welcome to use to express and share their thoughts, experiences and stories.
For a long time, I was scared to make and share comics, so when I worked up the nerve, I would make them during one long drawing session (or as few as possible). If I had to worry about them being perfect, I would never have started making them. Around that time I also stayed up all night finishing another comic about a bad relationship. I was scared I'd never be able to come back and finish the comic another time. I had a feeling that if I didn’t finish the comic in one session the memories of this relationship would haunt me forever, and I’d skew and romanticize it further in my mind. Once I finished that comic, I wasn’t haunted as much by that relationship. I could go back and read the comic like a ghost haunting or investigating the past when I choose to. I don’t trust my memories, but I think comics are a good way to investigate our memories and experiences - even though our memories may shift as we create. I’m still learning how to slow down with my current project. For my brain, hyperfocusing on something for hours comes naturally.
Your comics have a variety of styles (for example, how detailed vs. simplified the drawings are for different zines, or how you manipulate and/or lay out panels), although they all are idiosyncratic and very your own. In the above-mentioned zine, the style even changes in the zine. Do you change/adapt your style for every work? Why are they in different styles?
I saw Lynda Barry posted a quote not too long ago on Tumblr: “Drawing cannot match the picture you have in your mind, because the picture you have in your mind is not a drawing.” I love that, and it’s helped me feel less pressure while making comics. There’s a constant ebb and flow of feelings, memories, thoughts, stories, and I try to capture them in a way that feels right for me in the art, letting that process of drawing lead me somewhere, shaping the images intuitively along the way, including the level of detail, feeling and style. I feel lucky to have found that process, but have felt embarrassed about it in the past. I’m always learning, and trying to take it easy on myself for doing the best I could do at the time.
Do you have a plan to collect your minicomics/zines?
I would like to work with a publisher to publish a collection of Cute Nose one day. I don’t have the means to self-publish that collection any time soon.
I heard that you have got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Congrats! Is it for comics? (Because I know that you also create 3D objects - or should I say sculptures?) What’s the project about?
Haha, I call the clay objects "golems," but sculptures would work. Thank you, the grant is for comics! I’m working on a graphic novel that explores my Jewish identity, diving into family history, narratives and experiences from my upbringing, feelings of alienation, and using themes of Jewish folklore, mythology and magic.
It picks up on themes I started using in Cute Nose, like surrealism and themes of cuteness and the physicality of the body, used to depict mental illness and explore gender identity and my Jewish identity.
I wanted to work on a larger, more cohesive narrative that would enable me to further develop and reflect on these themes as well as on my own queer Jewish identity in relation to my family, ancestors and Jewish mythologies.
What’s your goal as an artist?
I’ve often had a difficult time liking myself, but I’ve always felt most like myself when making art, like something true to me seeps through. I can communicate something inside of me through comics that I am not able to in real-time life, maybe because of illness, things pushed down that I can’t deal with, social expectations of family and culture. I feel that I can capture these deep true parts of myself in art, and maybe try to piece myself together through that. Maybe that is an illusion, but it helps me.
Art has always been a comfort, even if it’s not the healthiest way to deal with things. I don’t trust my memories, but I’ve learned to trust my feelings, because they always try to tell me something. I can sometimes access more of those layers of truth through reading and creating comics. Creating is still a way of playing and understanding myself and the world.
I deal with depression and anxiety and chronic physical health stuff, and drawing and creating often feels like meditation or spellcasting, in that I don’t feel the anxiety or discomfort as much and can hyperfocus on the work. It’s something that grounds me and yet energizes me at the same time, and I don’t know how that can be possible.
Five hours can go by when drawing or making something, and then I’ll just look up, like waking up from a dream, with a sore back, and all the problems reappear again, but maybe less sharply for a while - and I’ve made this thing that wasn’t there before! It’s a little less romantic, now that I’m working on this project full-time, and I might feel differently at the end of it, haha.
I think making things for hours is also a comfort or coping skill I picked up in childhood. When I was a kid, I would stay with my dad on the weekends sometimes in his apartment, and he didn’t have a television or anything. He had a big drafting table, two foldable card tables stuck together I think, and he’d work on his wax jewelry, carvings by hand on his side, and I’d recopy Archie, Peanuts, Saturday morning newspaper comics, make cardstock paper houses, little miniature books and place settings for members of my family glue-gunned together - mornings and afternoons would fly by, making things and listening to the radio.
One of the biggest goals I can think of right now is that I want to communicate something true to myself and connect with people in a way that I might not be able to do in person. I don’t want other people to feel lonely and alienated.
Creating comics, including Cute Nose and my recent project, has been a way for me to continue to understand my experiences, find strength in my queerness, and reconnect to my culture and heritage.
I believe comics are a vital way for people to speak loudly and without censorship in their own voice, at their own pace, to share their experiences and stories.
I want to shift the focus a little bit on your Sabrina fan comic. It's such an interesting object and comic. I don't know much about Sabrina and the culture around Sabrina, but it just looked really beautiful for me. How did you come up with a form of a scroll?
JORDAN REG. AELICK: I started posting daily panel comics ("Fret" comics) on Instagram in 2017 and I was just drawing one panel a day straight to the pen with no plan, no pencils and no script for two and a half years. I just had vague notions of the themes that I wanted to explore in a long-form comic. One of them being dreams and then others being capitalism and environmentalism.
From the first chapter I was printing them in vertical zines that open up like a calendar rather than a traditional book. It was just to mimic the Instagram scrolling formula because that's how I imagine them in my brain.
When I finished that, I was watching a lot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. So I was like, "I’m just gonna make Sabrina the Teenage Witch fan comics." I've always wanted to do a fanzine. It’s very traditional zine making. It is just talking about the things you like. I had so much fun writing some Sabrina stuff and these were very different. I was actually penciling them and writing little scripts, little 10-panel gag comics.
When I went to publish those for the first time, I wanted to do something new. I was like, "Oh, witches, I play a lot of D&D. You read scrolls to cast spells a lot of the time. I should just make this thing a scroll. I'm already doing the vertical thing." Instagram is literally a scroll. All of the content that we consume these days is generally in this vertical scroll-y thing.
Yeah. So it felt really natural and right.
I'm always thinking about what the "zine" is. Especially working at the Toronto Zine Library, people would always come in and be like "What’s a zine?" and the first response is: it’s a self-published magazine. It's a magazine without the MAGA. Which is really funny to me now. I haven't said that in like six years.
So, do zines need staples? Do they need to be a certain size? Do they need to be under a certain quantity of publication?
I wanted to make high art zines because I was working at this art supply store. How can I push the limits of zines? Scrolls, that's something that I've never seen. I was talking to Rotem yesterday and they said that CF did it.
The receipt paper zines.
Yeah, receipt paper zines. I think we've all done that. If you've worked in retail or anywhere where receipt paper is available to you, a lot of people have hit the receipt paper button to pull a huge strand off and start drawing on that paper. CF’s receipt paper zines made me excited - it’s like "yes, more scrolls."
I like CF’s receipt paper scroll zines. The materiality of a receipt paper is super capitalistic - the quality of paper sucks and it will fade right away.
It also marks easily. If you take your thumbnail and just scratch it, it'll create a black line.
Yeah, it’s highly ephemeral, a real zine. Your scroll zine is still quite different from CF’s receipt paper zines, though. For example, your zine’s paper is coated and has color, which is also different from your usual Fret comics.
Yeah, I printed it on this eight-point poster paper, and there's wooden dowels in it too.
For the color, it mostly has to do with the cost of color printing. For the Fret series [when printed], I put color covers on them, and just to do the cover alone cost the same amount as the whole contents.
I just want to sell my zines for like three dollars. I never want to sell them for a lot of money for black & white stuff. There's no way I can print in color. So I had to give myself an excuse to print in color. If I'm gonna print in color it's gotta be something that I think is special and worth the money, and also different.
Why did you make several different sizes of the zine?
I made four different sizes of the scroll, and it mostly has to do with accessibility. Again, I printed things in black & white because I wanted to keep it cheap, so I can give my work out to anyone. Even if somebody didn't have the three dollars, I would have no problem, just, "No, please read my zine. I want you to have it. I made this for you, and for me." Then with the scrolls, the most recent cost me $140 to make six of them. So to sell them for $50 each makes me feel bad. I don't want to make comics this inaccessible. I'm lucky enough to work at a print shop, so I can print smaller ones for a lot less and then sell them for a lot less and they'll still have the same effect. I think the largest one is like 12 inches and then it goes 6 inches and then 4 inches and like 1 inch or 2 - really little tiny things.
It's also just fun to play with size. Everyone is attracted to different things. When I was tabling last weekend with these scrolls for the first time, some people found the big ones just intimidating. They didn't even want to touch it. I was like going, "Here, play with my zine," and they're just like "No, no," but with this little one, "Oh, I'm not gonna hurt this one."
One person bought one of the really tiny ones just to mail out. "I'm going to just mail this to a friend without any description and they're going to be so confused because they can't even read it."
Eventually I want to make tiny scrolls in little boxes with magnifying glasses on the front. It looks like a TV or a phone. Reproducing phones for scrolls. I want to do that so badly.
Thanks. This is the first time in my life where I'm not publishing my comics to Instagram anymore. I've finally grown tired of the medium of Instagram. I hate Instagram so much. I like using it for socializing. I like using the messenger aspect of it, but I don't want to contribute my comics as content anymore. I'll just use this as a stupid advertising platform. I feel like it's just cheapening my art. I don't even own these digital images anymore.
Totally agree. To wrap it up, what's your goal as an artist?
Art has always been a way for me to understand myself and the world around me better, and dreams. Because I find those things to be very all intertwined, but for whatever reason we don't consider dreams reality, they're very separate from it. Also to connect with people, just trying to figure things out.
I love that, "just trying to figure things out."
Yeah, That’s all I want to do with my comics. It also makes me feel better and not like a piece of shit, like I'm a contributing member to something. If I'm not drawing for extended periods of time, it just all becomes very strange and different trains of thought start appearing. As soon as I start drawing, endorphins are flying off. I'm just moving my arm around and feeling like, "Oh, I'm discovering something." I started drawing because I was sad and I wanted to copy the things that made me happy in hopes that it would make me feel something different than what I currently was feeling or thinking. That's what it's always come back to. If I'm thinking or feeling a certain way, I want to go to the paper and start moving things around so I can manipulate the page a little bit more.
And the practice of being able to translate the images and words in my head to gestures, just some movements. It's always fascinated me. And to get better and better at art and better and better at drawing. To be able to translate those thoughts into the muscle movements, which then produce images. It's really interesting.
I make comics for myself. And if other people end up liking them, that's the best bonus. And if I can meet like-minded people that like my work, well that's even better. That's the best thing.
(founder and interim president)
Any more comments regarding CCOL?
ROTEM ANNA DIAMANT: Just thank you. I really appreciate you asking us about all these things, and giving us the opportunity to share more about ourselves and the comics library.
What's the best part about working at the CCOL?
JORDAN REG. AELICK: Meeting other cartoonists. I love it so much. I'm meeting total strangers and they're coming up to me and being like, "I love what you do." Then I see their work and it's like, "Holy moly, I love what you do. I’m so thankful to have met you and to see your words and your drawings and now you as a person." Feeling the resonance of being in the presence of someone who chooses to spend time making these things. Why do we choose time to make these comics? I want to talk to people about that.
The three volunteers that I mentioned earlier are from the manga book club. Meeting those three people over the last year has been so wonderful. Hanging out, putting stickers on these books and talking about comics and expressing our emotions. It's just the best. When we're putting these barcodes on the book, we just pull out a book that either none of us know or one of us knows. And we get excited about the cover or the interiors or what we've already read. And one of them is like, "You guys don't know this book, you have to read this book, I'm so glad you have this in the collection." Just seeing that reaction is all worth it. It’s like, "We all get each other."
That's so beautiful.
It's a haven to me in this age of capitalism to come to a place where we're not talking about money or anything like that. We're just talking about feelings.
Do you have any other stuff you want to talk about?
All I want to mention is just how heavy books are.
That’s so true! [Laughs]
I moved the whole collection twice now from our Regent Park (original) location to the Spadina CSI (previous) location, then to our current home.
Books are so heavy. But that speaks to the weight of the material. It's a burden, but it's a really good burden.
I love these things because of how impactful they are. They’re very different from reading on a screen. What got me into comics was webcomics, but then as soon as I read a paper comic, I liked it. It's the same subject matter, but for whatever reason it is very different when you're holding the physical matter. I think it also has to do with where I love watching my work in particular get beaten up or worn out. I like seeing them get ripped or dirty and stuff like that. With a webcomic that's just not a thing. You see like a fresh copy and you see a beaten-up copy, and they feel totally different. Then there's different publications that are changing. You see the same book but printed in like 10-year spans and they look completely different from their outward appearance, and even their print quality and all that stuff.
It comes back to time being the most valuable resource. I'm stuck in capitalism. I cannot escape it, I'm here in it as a human in a human body. I’m in a fucking capitalist nightmare. But time like this is way more valuable. No matter how much money, I will value my time at CCOL more because I cannot buy this. Even if I have all the money in the world, and I can pay people to do this kind of thing, I don't think they would do it the way that we're doing it.
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