The Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa
The one thing that stuck firmly with me from art school was internalizing the Canada Council definition of a professional artist: an education in art, a record of exhibitions, peer recognition, and three years post-graduate before you can apply. I felt reassured in the knowledge that whatever I did later, I’d always be—officially—an artist.
But my art primarily gets turned into books, and thus I am a professional writer, not visual artist, and I’m no longer clear on which criteria I meet.
When it comes to getting grants, comics creators are generally obliged to apply through the literary division of arts councils in Canada, where they’re subject to the same requirements as someone writing short stories or poetry. As many creators have a background, and frequently a career, in animation, painting, illustration, or other visual fields, it can be difficult navigating or meeting publishing requirements.
Getting a grant for creative writing presupposes a publication record of your writing. But grant bodies are looking for a certain kind of publication—one that isn’t likely to be looking for you as a comics creator. Few Canadian literary publications consider comics on par with other fiction submissions. Most accept written fiction or poetry or essays; comics get considered with visual arts submissions, or they don’t get considered at all—a policy that in some cases is only clear after the submission is rejected.
To build up a literary publication record, comics creators are limited to a handful of Canadian journals that accept comics. It’s hard getting published, but it sure is harder when most journals won’t publish any work in your entire medium.
Because I am told I need to have more of the book I am working on drawn before it can be looked at, and because working five freelance jobs has been limiting my ability to work on this book, I applied for a Canada Council grant last fall. I received a mystifying letter two months later that my application had been denied on the basis of not meeting the criteria for being an emerging writer.
My comics were first published in a magazine in 2006. Probably 20 percent of my income last year came from publishing and selling my comics. I’ve been exhibiting in galleries and at comics festivals for years. Other people routinely ask me for publishing advice or to be involved with comics events, and yet, I’m not a professional according to Canada Council.
It took me a month of trying to track down a program officer to get some feedback on what, specifically, was ineligible on my application. According to them, the last eligible thing I published was in 2009, leading to only three publications of the two dozen I’ve listed being deemed eligible (less than the required four). Other comics publications are too foreign, too promotional, too journalistic, too printed on newsprint—although every publication I listed is the kind of work that should, theoretically, contribute to establishing professional status; I was invited by an editor or my work selected by editorial committee, I got paid, strangers read it.
Going through the submission requirements of nearly 70 Canadian journals, only about five or six have an open submission process inclusive of comics. Many have policies that are clear in their refusal to publish anything visual except for black and white cover photographs, others have policies on content or length that don’t leave room for comics, several do take comics but have limitations on the demographics they accept submissions from. (It’s worth noting that I was invited to be a guest editor for The Town Crier after unsuccessfully lobbying to submit comics work to its sibling journal The Puritan).
There are of course more comics-friendly options internationally, and personally I’ve found more success publishing work here, but I’m told these weren’t eligible because the program officers weren’t familiar with the editorial process, suggesting that the stalwart Canadian journals need to provide an air of legitimacy.
Alongside this, more and more small presses straddle the line between book publishers and zine or art book publishers, gaining increasing respect within the comics community in the space of a couple of years—while comics publishers like Drawn & Quarterly still release some titles that clock in at under 50 pages. What’s the precise print run, page count, or cover stock weight that determines what’s a book and what isn’t? When does a compilation of artists stop being a zine and start being an anthology or journal of comics literature?
For the past decade, Canada Council has had a separate jury for graphic novel projects, comprised of comics professionals, but the program officers are the ones to first determine if your work ever makes it before that jury. Judging by the names of comics creators on the list of people who’ve received grants for creative writing over the past eight years, you need to have a book out to receive a grant. In most years, I count two or three comics creators on that list, to a maximum of four.
Even mid-career creators aren’t clear on the divisions: if you’re making the book, apply as a writer, but if you’re travelling to a comics festival promoting that book, is it writing or visual art? What about if you’re exhibiting pages from the book you got a writing grant to make? What if you’re doing a reading and an exhibition at the festival? Is a comics residency a writing or art residency? Every artist I talk to seems to have a different answer.
Canada Council’s writing and publishing program officer Marion Vitrac explains that many graphic novelists appreciate placing comics under the writing division, as opposed to, for example, visual arts, as Quebec did, to many bande-desinée creators’ frustration.
For those who hoped the new Canada Council guidelines coming into place next year might better accommodate work that transverses disciplines, I learned that the evaluation process isn’t likely to mean any changes here. While artists of every sort applying for creative grants will apply to the same grant program, within that program, work will be evaluated with the existing criteria by juries for the existing disciplines.
There is, however, a better option than trying to fit work into boxes it stubbornly refuses to go into, or forcing comics creators to build up publication credits in poetry journals.
Quebec still evaluates comics artists through the visual arts programme, but now states separate eligibility criteria as: “The comic book artist must have published one or more albums in a context recognized by his peers or have disseminated works in one or more cultural periodicals.”
Comics creators straddle the line between writing and visual arts grants, meaning they are often not considered eligible for either
Ontario is leading the way with a new program aimed specifically at comics professionals, and with eligibility guidelines that take into account the range of professional activity comics creators may be involved in. The Comic Arts program had its first deadline this past fall. Program officer Helen Floros tells me that comic artists were always accepted under the writing program, but while many people were applying, those creators weren’t being awarded grants, while being assessed by juries of people whose specialties were fiction or poetry.
Ontario’s new eligibility criteria have a wider scope: a published book (at least 48 pages in length, with a publishing contract and royalties) or three published comics or other short works for which the author has been compensated (including contests), or three years of professional presentation of work, including editorial cartooning, creation for commercial comics franchises, sales at curated comics festivals, or gallery exhibitions. The jury for the new grant is comprised of comics professionals, but the expanded definition is key as well for making sure this work can get in front of the jury in the first place.
How do we learn to accommodate comics within literary culture? The options are that we don’t, that we force them to be more like something they’re not, or we develop parallel programs or guidelines that better accommodate this work.
Assessing the viability of grants at all assumes that creators who could use the support are even applying; many comics artists don’t see a place for themselves in existing programs and don’t consider it an option, while others may get confused by the media divisions early in the process and decide not to bother. Judging by the excitement online, the Ontario Arts Council’s announcement of the new grant program last year suggested to many comics creators that their works were now welcome—regardless of whether they were already eligible.
Peer recognition is a key part of the definition of a professional in the arts: how else can you navigate the amorphous criteria of what makes an artist? It doesn’t make sense to expect a comic to meet the criteria of a poem, and it doesn’t make any more sense to expect the judge of that poem to evaluate a comic if they don’t read comics. New guidelines like Ontario’s consider the various contexts under which comics creators achieve peer recognition, combined with having the work evaluated by these creators’ actual peers. It’s time for the rest of the country to follow suit.
Laura Kenins is a writer, editor and comic artist currently based in Halifax, NS. Her comics and writing have appeared in kuš! comics, Truthout, The Coast, Quill and Quire, THIS Magazine and elsewhere. Find Laura’s work online at laurakenins.com or follow her at birchcontrol.tumblr.com