Ron Kasman, an author and artist, has followed the evolution of comic books from a corner store commodity to an art form that now attracts thousands of people.
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) drew 25,000 people in 2016 and the same number of people had been expected to attend this year’s festival, which ran from May 13 to 14.
Kasman, who was a presenter at the event, helped organize its precursor, CosmiCon – Canada’s first major comic book convention, which ran from 1972 to 1974 and attracted 2,000 people each year.
He pointed out that the 1970s conventions took place at a pivotal time, when comic books were evolving into a new art form. His graphic novel, The Tower of Comic Book Freaks, is set in that era.
The book is a coming-of-age story about five Toronto teens who go to a comic book convention in New York City in 1971.
The convention draws fans of both comic book characters, as well as the illustrators. Kasman explained that The Tower of Comic Book Freaks depicts the transitional years of the comic book industry, which encompassed the fan scene.
The young men from Toronto get to meet important players in the comic book world.
The book’s protagonist is Harold Friedman, a recent high school graduate. He has just won a scholarship for engineering school, but he’s more interested in becoming a comic book artist.
He also has a love interest, June Erickson, the daughter of comic book publishers.
Of course, the entire story is illustrated.
Kasman, 63, who is also a retired art teacher, has been a fan of the comic book medium for most of his life. “I didn’t stop reading them when I was 12. I tried to do my own drawings,” he said.
At the time, comic books were a mass media product. “People had them in their houses. But comics don’t sell nearly as well now as they did when I was a kid,” Kasman explains.
He said you could buy them at corner stores, but now comics are mainly sold at speciality shops, like the Silver Snail and Beguiling Books & Art in downtown Toronto.
The Tower of Comic Book Freaks can be purchased at these stores, or on Amazon. “The book is 16th in its category on Amazon and that category has thousands of books. I’ve been very happy with sales,” he said.
Kasman said he’s been involved with the industry, working as a letterer for DC, publisher of Superman, and as a writer and illustrator for Image Comics, which is best known for Spawn. “I’ve been published 85 to 90 times as a comic book artist.”
Getting The Tower of Comic Book Freaks published was a challenge, he said. “I was very happy when I found a publisher. Caliber is a very respectable company.… I had five stories written. We had to look at which would have the broadest appeal.”
In 1979, Kasman completed a graphic novel about the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon McKenzie.
The Market Gallery later gave him an exhibition of full-page images of the comic. “Mayor Art Eggleton attended the opening. The show got a review in the Toronto Star. It was a big thing for me,” said Kasman.
The Mackenzie Printery, which is dedicated to Mackenzie’s memory, printed a comic book-style, leather-bound edition, Kasman recounted. “Thousands of copies were printed and distributed (between 2004 to 2005) during (Ontario) Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman’s crusade to promote literacy” among First Nations children.
Kasman counts himself among a group of young men who kept comics alive.
“People didn’t know if comic books would exist after 1970. There were about 500 young men who continued to buy comics – the good and the bad,” he said. “I think of myself as someone who helped turn comic books into an art form, at a time when the industry was losing readership and dying.”