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10 Mind-Bending Canadian Comics You Should Read, and Why

A recommended reading list by Shea Proulx, whose new book is the gorgeously captivating Alice at Naptime

Book Cover Alice at Naptime

New motherhood is a kaleidoscopic wonderland in Shea Proulx's Alice at Naptime, a dreamy exploration of art and inspiration—and a truly "psychedelic" work of literature, like the other other books that Proulx includes in this recommended reading list.  


Comedy, erotica and horror have been written off historically for being "low" art-forms, because of the hierarchy human beings place on all things "bodily" in nature, as opposed to acting solely on the "mind." Certain genres act on our bodies when we laugh, are aroused, or experience repulsion or fear. Comics could also could be considered a body-genre. When we look at drawings, we are able to trace the path of a person's action in our mind's eye, using the same sense we utilize to track our own body's movement through space, a sense called "proprioception." 

Drawings not only make clear the path of the body, but also the path of the mind, as text does, but differently from text. The world "psychedelic" is most associated with mind-altering substances, but the word breaks down from the Greek to mean "the mind...made clear." Works of art that show clearly the mental processes involved in thinking through a subject might also be described as psychedelic, especially when the subject is inexpressible in words—and yet this description might, yet again, cause works of genius to be considered "low" or somehow, too easy, for all their clarity.

Drawings not only make clear the path of the body, but also the path of the mind, as text does, but differently from text.

Explorations in vibrant colour; narratives of pattern and line; experiences in which time is variable; fictions set in environments with vastly different physical properties from the one we inhabit; stories told from the perspective of characters whose mental function differs from others; altered histories; characters who represent ideas more than bodies; stories told using a syntax of memory and impression with a level of detail that even Marcel Proust might be loathe to describe but which a gifted comics artist is able to employ with pictures, rather than words—all these are journeys in which illustration better enables us to follow the mind of the author in new direction. No drugs are required to appreciate psychedelic art. Books that affect our way of seeing are much less risky substitutes for chemical methods of clearing away the clutter.

These are journeys in which illustration better enables us to follow the mind of the author in new direction.

No one would argue that it is to our benefit to have our minds altered, to stretch our capacity for complex thought. What is revolutionary is the understanding that empathy, not just logic, changes the world, enabling communication, and creating the foundation for peaceful discourse. When we feel a story through our bodies—when we laugh, cringe, are aroused—our minds bend. In comics, you can see that the artist's hand was right there, and then there, and then here again. When we are touched by a graphic novel, moved by it, we can sometimes identity the very spot on the page that touched us, a movement, a moment in time, that brought consciousnesses into contact. Our viewpoint changes, and we come around to another person's way of seeing the world, of feeling it even, as though we have climbed inside a different human being, and looked out at the world. 


Book Cover Crawl Space

Crawl Space, by Jesse Jacobs 

Bright rainbow patterns and creatures represent the psychological states brought on when a teenage girl introduces her friend to the strange world that exists inside her family's home dryer. The friend does not respect the spiritual implications of what they are experiencing, but she also does not seem to be as much in danger of losing herself to the world of the dryer.


Book Cover Hark a Vagrant

Hark, A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton

A history major, Beaton wrote comics for her University paper, bringing humour to stories from centuries past in a way that is anything but dry or dusty. Her scribbles and scrawls bring an immediacy to her characters, while her jokes come from an uncanny ability to mine for the ridiculous elements of oft-told tales. 


Book Cover Paying for It

Paying For It, by Chester Brown

The author tells his own story of how following his pragmatic nature led him to a comfortable existence as a man who pays for the company of women. He explores his inner ethical journey, urging the reader to rethink commonly held taboos, as well as making a case for legal reforms that could make "paying for it" safer for sex workers.


Book Cove Lake Jehovah

Lake Jehovah, by Jillian Fleck

Jay, a genderqueer individual is living on the edge of a bottomless lake in Northern Alberta during a period of time characterized by a series of apocalypses, in a place where demons live in the woods, some wounds talk, the wolves chain-smoke, and some of the people choose to live as animals, for ethical reasons. Lake Jehovah is a vibrant background for conversations which plumb the depths of our need for connection, in art and in love, and the betrayals that are par for the course.


Book Cover Frank

Frank, by Ben Rankel

A perfect fusion of contemporary style with fascinating historical content, Frank is an acid toned murder mystery set in a rural Alberta mining town on the brink of disaster.


Book Cover Sticks Angelica

Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero, by Micheal DeForge

A heroine who lives in the woods, Sticks Angelica cares for the creatures who inhabit it with her, while also carrying on a vibrant public life. Heavily stylized drawings waver between the adorable and the grotesque, with snappy dialogue in which Canadiana is used to enhance the bizarre specificity of the narrative.  


Book Cover this One Summer

This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

An adolescent girl loses her innocence over the course of a summer through experiences that she mostly observes, though she sometimes finds herself amplifying the pain that others around her are going through. Gorgeous illustrations of simple lake-life contrast with a tense emotional atmosphere. The narrative is perfectly balanced, at once tragic and typical, exploring how the intersection of biology, culture and relationships might seem to conspire against the happiness of women in different stages of life. 


Book Cover Ark Land

Ark Land, by Scott A. Ford

A young woman survives in an agrarian society by collecting and selling wreckage from the ancient alien spaceships that periodically tumble out of the stratosphere. The story-line and colour palate have the feeling of a retro Zelda-esque video game, with characters that come to life as vibrantly as a glowing game of space invaders. 


Book Cover Hostage

Hostage, by Guy DeLijsle

This is the true story of how Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André was kidnapped in the middle of the night and held for three months with little contact with the outside world. Almost twenty years later, it's hard to imagine how Christophe's ordeal could be better communicated than through DeLisle's vocabulary of silence and stress, told in panel after panel   of muted tones, minimal line, and captivating inner monologue.  


Book Cover Pass Me By

Pass Me By: Gone Fishing, by Kyle Simmers and Ryan Danny Owen

Our protagonist is suffering from dementia, but all is not lost, and his faithful friends offer glimpses into a colourful earlier life. Rural Alberta comes alive in jewel tones, with hot pink highlights that flood the page when we get our first glimpse of this man's vibrant past in the gay scene in the 1970s. 


Book Cover Alice at Naptime

About Alice at Naptime

A beautifully poetic exploration of being both a new mother and an artist, told using her own unique graphic novel and fine art approach.

When Alice was born her mother only found time to draw her while she napped. Gradually Alice is multiplied in a tapestry of selves, both large and small, while an overarching narrative whispers through the pages, musing on the meeting of former and future selves. At its core, Alice at Naptime tells a universal story, of a parent pining for past freedoms, while simultaneously descending down a rabbit hole of all-encompassing maternal love.

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