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Breaking convention

Toronto comic book artist Cameron Stewart knows no exile in mainstream

BY PAUL ISAACS

It's 4pm at the Metro Convention Centre, and Margot Kidder is talking to a man dressed as a bottle of Listerine. This is nothing unusual. The 50-something actress, who played Lois Lane in the original Superman movie, is a guest at the 2005 Canadian National Comic Book Expo -- although she hasn't drawn much of a crowd yet. When I arrive, the focus of attention is on another, much younger Lois Lane: Erica Durance, who plays the character in the TV show Smallville. Kidder, conversely, seems more interested in the guy in the Listerine costume. "C'mere," she beckons to him. "You're looking pretty swell."

Even for comics fans, comics cons can be weird places. This year, the Expo is sharing space with several other conventions: a sci-fi convention, a gaming convention, an anime convention and the "Festival of Fear," a horror con. It's geek nirvana, Narnia and hell all rolled into one. Across the hall, about 100 guys are competing to win a card game called World of Darkness: Dark Chronicles, with a first prize of $10,000. Downstairs, the Supergirl cover illustrator Michael Turner is giving an arts and crafts lecture titled "Drawing Babes." The room is a sea of black t-shirts, PVC and man-sweat. Approximately one in seven people is dressed as an elf.

Cameron Stewart, meanwhile, seated at a signing table in the middle of the room, is looking incongruously dapper. Dressed in a striped black jacket, the 29-year-old Toronto native and comic book illustrator is frenetically signing books and drawing sketches for fans. He does one of Batman. He does one of Catwoman. He does one of Dr. Doom. When I creep up to say hello, he's drawing a picture of a blood-stained shark holding a sneaker in its mouth. A single round speech-balloon emanates from the shark: "WOOF!"

"Conventions kill me," Stewart sighs, when we meet for coffee the following day. "Everybody comes up to you to talk, or for a sketch, or to show you their portfolio, and you have to give them all the same level of enthusiasm. It's great that I don't have to spend the whole day twiddling my thumbs, but by the evening, it's exhausting. And it's kind of disheartening to see your Batman sketches sold on eBay the next day."

Stewart is something of an anomaly in Toronto's comics scene, which is defiantly indie and zine-centric. Most of his work is done for DC Comics, the huge New York company owned by Warner Bros. that runs megalithic, zillion-dollar earning franchises such as Superman and Batman. The superhero books that Stewart has illustrated, such as Catwoman and The Manhattan Guardian, sell in the tens of thousands of copies -- pretty good for an industry still recovering from a dire slump during the 1990s.

Oddly enough, it was at a comics convention in San Diego that Stewart got his big break. "I was in line to have my comics signed by [noted Scottish writer] Grant Morrison and I showed him some of my fan art," Stewart says. "I had this comic I self-published called Red Nose Blues. Actually, it wasn't even self-published. It was just photocopied and stapled."

Morrison -- one of the medium's great innovators, and about as close to a rock star as you can get in the otherwise painfully shy world of comics -- asked Stewart to do some work on one of his regular DC books, The Invisibles.

"I freaked out," Stewart says. "When I was 14, I would queue up in the snow outside the Silver Snail to get this guy's autograph. Now, here was my favourite writer telling me I had a chance to work on my favourite comic. It was very strange."

The reality, however, proved disappointing at first. "After the convention, there was two of months of nothing, and I basically gave up," Stewart says. "I thought Grant had been nice to me just to get me the hell away from him. Then I got a phone call from a DC editor who wanted to hire me on another book."

The other book, however, wasn't exactly the hottest property in town.

"It was Scooby-Doo," Stewart says. "I was crushed. Scooby-Doo is my secret shame. It was an eight-page story about a witch haunting a baseball diamond. And I really hate baseball."

Still, that was 1999, and Stewart's been in the business ever since -- finally getting his wish to collaborate with Morrison on The Invisibles, and later on two terrific mini series, Seaguy and The Manhattan Guardian. It was on Catwoman, however -- a non-Morrison title -- that Stewart really made a name for himself, perfecting his innovative, hip and densely compacted art style, equal parts Dick Tracy and Love and Rockets.

"We got a lot of attention for that book, because Catwoman had been this typical sex-bomb-bimbo character for a while, and they modernized all that," Stewart says. "What I've always wanted to do is work that's appropriate for all ages, for men and women. Superhero stuff tends to be so male-oriented, written by men for men, so it's nice to balance that out a bit. Comics need to steer away from being this unfortunate boys' club."

In 2002, Stewart and five similarly inclined artists and designers (Steve Murray Ben Shannon, Roberta Carraro, Chip Zdarksy and Kagan McLeod) set up a studio on College Street, tentatively assembling themselves as a collective with a faux-pompous title, The Royal Academy of Illustration and Design. (The group's crest logo features a shark and a birthday cake.) Excluding a project for DC which Stewart is "very excited about" but can't really mention ("I've gotten into trouble shooting my mouth off before"), he and Toronto comic writer Ray Fawkes -- "an honorary Academy member" -- are currently working on a book for the indie publisher Oni Press.

"It's based on a group of characters we originated, the Apocalipstix, a kind a post-nuclear Josie and the Pussycats," Stewart says. "I'd much rather get away from the superhero stuff and be doing my own, creator-owned material like this."

Stewart and his studio mate, Ben Shannon, don't see any conflict between working in the comics mainstream and the independent field, with its tendency towards memoiristic, autobiographical books.

"Comics is such a small industry," says Shannon. "It's not like in music, where you routinely get accused of selling out if you pick up a larger audience. In general, comics people are genuinely happy for the success of their friends."

"I don't think there's any tension there," Stewart says. "You can have the capacity to read and enjoy both indie autobiographical and mainstream superhero comics. I just don't think I'd want to write autobiography. My life's really not that interesting."

Seaguy (DC Comics, $15.25) is available at comic stores. The final issue of The Manhattan Guardian (DC Comics, $4.25) is out on Wed, Sep 7.

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