When I was in high school in the 1980s in Cornwall, Ontario Canada, my friend Tom introduced me to our local comic book store called Fantasy Realm. I had always had a secret longing to be part of the comic book crowd but before that day I was too intimidated to venture into that store. Tom introduced me to the storeowner, Randy, and before I knew what was happening I found myself embraced into a community to which I had always wanted to belong.
On that fateful day, Tom put a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 309 in my hands and—with much enthusiasm—gushed about the artist that was helming it, a young Canadian talent named Todd McFarlane. As I leafed through the comic, I was captivated by the images within its pages and astonished to see the classic character, who I had loved from the 1970s animated cartoon, transformed into a sophisticated, stylish, modern day, assault on the senses. Bringing the book home with me I studied its pages and, wanting to unlock the artist’s genius, laboured to recreate what I had discovered. It was that evening, after completing a fair facsimile of one of the comic’s panels, that I promised myself that I would become a comic book artist just like Todd McFarlane.
As the months passed, I continued to purchase The Amazing Spider-Man every month and when my parents went away on vacation that year, I even used the money that they left me for food to purchase all of the McFarlane back catalog. I remember thinking at the time that this was an investment in my future and in reality those books really were the reason that I began to draw comics.
After graduating from high school, I submitted my work to DC, Marvel and Image Comics. I entered every contest for submissions that these publishers offered and, though my work improved with every submission, it was never quite good enough to garner any interest.
In September 1995, I enrolled in the Illustration program at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, Canada with the full intention of pursuing a career as a comic book penciller. During my four years of study at OCAD, my understanding of the illustration market began to broaden and my career goals shifted from comic book penciller to freelance illustrator.
As a freelance Illustrator for the better part of a decade, I was a contributing artist for Genre, Men’s Exercise, and Exercise for Men Only magazines. I illustrated a series of children’s books - The Twins, New Bikes, and The Twins’ Halloween - and a Grade 7 science textbook – Sci Tech - for a company called Curriculum Plus. I also created greeting cards for Village Lighthouse and helped to design murals for a Toronto-based mural company called Brushworks.
In 2007, the year after I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s disease, I decided to come back to comics and work for myself. Stories have always been the driving force of my illustrative work and telling other people’s stories, though challenging, was not fulfilling the need I had to tell my own. As a gay man I had been able to come out to everyone in my family except my father. Regretting my inability to confide in my dad, I decided to try and reach him in another way. Dedicating it to my father I began to write a graphic novel that would explain to him, and other fathers like him, what the experience of living in the closet is like. The name of my graphic novel is Justin Case and the Closet Monster and I like to think of it as the conversation that I should have been able to have with my dad.
I have worked on this graphic novel off-and-on for nine years, and have both loved and hated my time creating it. There were periods when I doubted the relevance of such a project, even giving it up for four years to pursue a career as a high school art teacher.
I had convinced myself that because of T.V. shows like “Will & Grace”, and “Glee” that it was easier for youths to come out as gay. Four years in the public school system quickly taught me that my story was still indeed important and worth telling. All of the stuff that I had to deal with when I was a teenager was still the same and though there were strategies in place to prevent bullying, vulnerable students were still victimized behind the teachers’ backs. I thought the days of being taunted in the locker room were over, that the days of being called a “faggot” in the schoolyard were dead, but unfortunately those days are still thriving and very much alive.
I don’t doubt the relevance of my story anymore and though my days as a high school teacher are behind me, I feel my days as an educator are just beginning. Justin Case and the Closet Monster is finally finished and is ready to be released upon the world. Like any creator, I long for my story to be experienced and its message received by as many people as possible but if I could just facilitate one transformative conversation between a father and son all of my hard work will have been worth it.