Published May 01, 2000For Winnipeg¡¦s Karl Thomsen, art comes first, so doing a wordless issue of his comic anthology Sunburn came easily. ¡§For me, the artwork is often the most important part to comics,¡¨ he explains. ¡§I find mainstream North American comics often depend too heavily on narrative text.¡¨ For last summer's Beyond Words issue, Thomsen received work from all over the world: Finland, Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil. ¡§I ended up with a lot from Yugoslavia. Their stuff tends to be dark; it¡¦s understandable because of everything going on there. I enjoy the European comics because they approach comics as more of an art form. They feel comfortable doing anything; wherever the artists want to take it, they take it.¡¨
Given the importance he places on the art, it should come as no surprise to find many distinctive styles among Thomsen¡¦s rotating stable of domestic talent. Sunburn regular Greg Oakes, for instance, contributed the cover for the most recent issue: a doodle-art phantasmagoria in which Santa¡¦s mutant dwarves play cupid for a lusty robot trying to get a millennial kiss from a pox-y, anorexic demon. Oakes¡¦s densely hatched rendering of a Vulcan housewife enjoying a cup of coffee after sending the kids off to school (on the back of Sunburn # 10) is worth the cover price alone.
Thomsen came up with Sunburn in 1996 after collaborating with some other comic artists on a one-shot. "Thinking about the other talented cartoonists and artists around town, the idea for Sunburn developed. A number of the artists were open to the idea, and I was fortunate to find enough of them to help get it off the ground... many of these self-publishing plans never get off the ground. Oddly enough, Sunburn did."
Among the other Manitobans contributing to Sunburn¡¦s visual mix are Robert Halstead, whose relaxed minimalism (and sophisticated page layouts) contrasts nicely with the delicate, new age doodles of Robert Pasternak. But Thomsen also has the benefit of ongoing contributions from all over Canada. Vancouver¡¦s Brad Yung is one; his strip, Stay As You Are, has been collected in five of his own self-published zines, some of which also appear in Sunburn. The ones I¡¦ve seen there, or at Yung¡¦s web site (i.am/ignoringyou) feature two unnamed protagonists who discuss weighty matters in coffee shops or in front of the TV. ¡§When I started doing the strip,¡¨ said Yung, ¡§I thought I¡¦d make a statement: every strip would be exactly the same, with them sitting at the table drinking coffee. That lasted maybe two or three weeks.¡¨ Yung¡¦s art, like his wit, is fairly dry, and sometimes almost skeletal. His drawing certainly doesn¡¦t draw much attention to itself, but it¡¦s clear that there is a very sharp and idiosyncratic imagination guiding the development of the pieces, and a social conscience as well.
Like Yung, Nova Scotia¡¦s Cat Sullivan once studied to be an engineer and is entirely self-taught. But where Yung¡¦s drawing is spacious, clean, and rather static, Sullivan¡¦s is dense, busy, and very tight, sporting an expressive balance of thick and thin line work to emphasise near and far, action and stillness. Sullivan¡¦s greatest success in comics actually came in the UK, in VIZ. ¡§It was sort of an adult parody of children¡¦s comics in England,¡¨ he explains. ¡§It burst onto the scene in the early ¡¥90s and became very popular, very successful, and in its wake, it spawned a proliferation of imitations. For a while, there was a fairly decent market for the kind of work I was doing o a number of magazines were eager to fill space with relatively low standards.¡¨ Sullivan is remarkably self-deprecating about his work. ¡§ If you look at the stuff I¡¦m drawing, it¡¦s not exactly highly skilled.¡¨ One look at any one of his strips would convince most people of the precise opposite, and if you read British comics like COR when you were young, you¡¦ll appreciate the nasty levity with which Sullivan skewers their conventions.
With 13 issues published, and a recent mention in The Comics Journal, Thomsen may be well on his way to establishing Sunburn as a recognisable brand. It probably helps that he pays close attention to his production values; Sunburn may be cheap, but it's not cheap looking. But he's taken his knocks. "Believe me, being the ¡¥editor¡¦ of Sunburn has left me on the hate list for a number of local comic artists. But what can you do? You can't please everyone. You just have to do the best you can, and hope that others will respect it."