Published Feb 01, 2000There are countless stories swirling around David Collier's head. Spend an hour talking to the 38-year-old cartoonist and you'll find yourself in a torrent of loosely related anecdotes, witty and immaculately detailed, delivered with the verve of a teenager. Just don't mistake the youthfulness for immaturity. Collier is one of the brightest and most respected comic artists around. If his work betrays something of the distracted spirit the occasional misspelled word or ill-proportioned figure it is also some of the most insightful in the field. "Comics are very unpretentious, very unguarded, coming from the id," Collier says. "I'm just struggling to do it, to get it done."
He grew up in Toronto, spending his teenage years as a bohemian in the city's then-punkest district of Queen and Spadina. He was a busboy at a local rock club, working the spotlight and chatting up acts such as Echo and the Bunnymen and John Lydon. With his closest friend a budding anarchist named Brad X ("He had all this punk energy," Collier recalls, "had a shaved head and was kind of freaky") Collier would stay up nights working on comics. In 1987, inspired by Brad X's passion for military service, Collier joined the Canadian Armed Forces, which at the time, as he recounts in the introduction to his recent collection of comics essays Just the Facts, was the world's highest paid. He began drawing comics for the army newspaper.
His panels, loaded with prodigiously crosshatched detail, recall the work of comics legend Robert Crumb; appropriately it was Crumb who published Collier's first strip in his Weirdo magazine in 1986, and became a mentor to Collier while the younger artist was in the army. "Crumb really helped me so much, man," says Collier. "He wrote me when I was in the army and sent me pages from his sketchbook. He really encouraged me to keep drawing, to study it as a discipline. He'd say, If you tighten up your inking and learn to spell your words right, you'll do okay.'"
Unlike Crumb's sexual zeal, Collier's work is a blend of carefully researched journalism and biography, closer to illustrated essays than traditional cartooning, even in the independent vein. He cites T.C. Boyle, author of The Road to Wellville, as an influence, work where "you couldn't tell where the fact started and the fiction ended." Like some manic reporter, Collier says he's crossed the country 20 times, often chasing stories or people, various obsessions. "I go by stealth," he says. "I learned in the army to camouflage a car in a parking lot and sleep on a ground sheet. You can get away with things like that at night." He skied 30 miles in northern Saskatchewan to draw the cabin of famous Native impostor Grey Owl for the Globe and Mail (before the Pierce Brosnan film), and spent a year drawing the story for his new Portraits from Life collection, a book which also includes an investigative profile of David Milgaard for which Collier even conducted his own interviews. He'll draw panels everywhere he can: On a trip to a comics convention in Switzerland, Collier drew in the hotel bathroom while his wife and young son (who often travel with him on his excursions) slept. Fellow cartoonist and longtime friend Chris Ware the two have regularly exchanged sketchbook pages reflects, "[Collier] seems to have pared down his life to the absolute essentials of art-making, with an outrageous self-sufficiency that shames we other practitioners of the craft." Says Collier, "I don't even have a TV. I haven't had one since 1983. I'm keeping my visual world uncluttered, being, like, a vegan for my eyes."
Tell him his latest collection of comics stories (Collier's Volume 2) is being released this fall, and he stammers with surprise. "Oh! It is? Oh, great!" Collier admits he's been poor/broke most of his professional life, taking odd jobs like delivering Chinese food when he couldn't find other work. "Six months after having a kid, I wasn't getting many jobs. I was going to [garbage] dumps for food. I'm still struggling to earn an income. Only this year have I been able to make something from it." This despite cartooning prolifically and illustrating for publications such as The Globe and Mail and Saturday Night. Echoing Rodney Dangerfield's famous line, Collier gripes, "It's like you don't get any respect if you just want to do comics. I was telling these two friends I was doing this story on [American comics innovator] Harvey Pekar and I could see their eyes glass over. But when I told them HBO was making a movie about him, suddenly they were interested. Like it was legitimate.'"
One need only read a story by Collier to see the legitimacy of his craft. Says Ware, "[His work] seems to come from such a pure source that one cannot help but question some of the fundamental principles by which one is living. His art makes me feel a bit better and clearer about what it is to be alive."