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A picture speaks a thousand words or more

In this Arts and Culture feature we strip things down with cartoonist Jay Stephens

The career of Jay Stephens is a cautionary tale gone right that gives hope to young artists seeking fame and fortune but more importantly to those hoping to make a living making art.

“I never did it because I want to be rich,” said Stephens. “I did it to make a living doing this. If it is drawing posters and working for a magazine out of Toronto versus working on an animated series in LA it’s all the same to me as long as I am storytelling and I can still pay my rent. I don’t need to be a big shot.”

He did, for all intent and purposes, attain big shot status in the 2000s as creator of the Emmy Award winning series Tutenstein for the Discovery Kids network followed by The Secret Saturdays for the Cartoon Network.

“There was a time when I had an animated series on the Cartoon Network,” he said. “We had a Mattel Toy line. We had Wii Games. And you know what, I am much happier now than I was then.”

Stephen’s chose the patio at the Wooly Pub to share his story with GuelphToday and illustrate how he measures success.

“The Wooly is a good place to start the convo in that I do some work for them,” he said. “They are my local and their whole mantra of getting all their supplies locally – eat local, shop local, is actually where I arrived with my career after all these years. So, it’s a nice crossover.”

Stephens was born in Toronto in 1971, the oldest of two brothers. His younger brother Matthew used to run the drum program for the Hillside Festival.

“I come from a very loving family,” he said. “I am a first generation Canadian. My mom was born in England.”

He was encouraged at a young age to indulge his passion for drawing and comic books.

“When I was a kid and I would draw, my mom would say, ‘that is great, you should try drawing the dog’,” said Stephens. “My grandparents saw I had an interest in comic books and instead of telling me it was junk and a waste of time they would buy them for me.”

Pursuing a career in art seemed a realistic objective.

“I thought I would be some kind of artist but before I had that lucky break in art school, I didn’t have any ambition to do comics for a living,” he said. “It was kind of an accidental opportunity.”

That accidental opportunity arose shortly after he began fine arts classes at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto.

“I met a couple of guys in arts school in first year,” he said. “Michel Vrana was a photography student and Nick Craine was my first official Guelphite friend. They were working on the school newspaper together and they dragged me in to do some early comic book work there. That is how it all started.”

Their ambitions went beyond the college paper.

“Nick ended up convincing Shane Kenny here in town to back us publishing our own comics,” he said. “That’s when I came to town for the aptly named Tragedy Strikes Press. Nick and I dropped out in second year because we were making money in comics. In 1991, straight out of dropping out of art school, I had my own bi-monthly comic book called SIN.”

His star continued to rise throughout the 90s and 2000s along with his body of work reaching an all-time high in 2008 with the launch of Secret Saturdays.

“It was so stressful but also so exciting,” said Stephens. “They were all saying I should move down but I wasn’t going to pack up a family of four and move to Los Angeles for a show that may or may not get renewed for a third season. No way. So, there was never a good enough reason to leave Guelph.”

The series was cancelled after two seasons but the stress on his marriage from all the time away in LA had been too much.

“There are different measures of success and I thought a lot about that after the series was cancelled and my marriage fell apart – the dark days,” said Stephens. “I do remember asking myself that question. ‘Who are you trying to impress?’ And I realised, nobody really.”

Stephens considered retiring and took a job as manager of Wyndham Art Supplies for a few years.

“I was obviously fooling myself that I could walk away from this and the passion slowly crept back in,” he said. “I’ve got too many new ideas for stories and the plan is to chip away over time at these things.”

This summer he agreed to impart some of his acquired knowledge and skills teaching kids at the Dragon Comic Camp.

“I find it really recharges me,” he said. “Those kids are full of raw ideas. It is pure excitement which, when you're my age you begin to lose a lot of that.”

He has a number of projects in the works including his ongoing Arrowhead strip for Owl Magazine and a collaboration with local writer and historian David J Knight on the second issue of the historical magazine Tales of a Guelphite.

He has also reconnected with old friend Michel Vrana who is publishing a collection of his work.

“It’s a big full-colour collection of all of my comics over a 25-year period that were either never published or never reprinted and it’s called Dejects,” said Stephens. “That will premier next month at the Dragon’s Guelph Comic Jam in Old Quebec Street Shoppes. Sep 14 and 15.”

An opportunity to look back seems fitting as Stephens looks ahead with renewed perspective.

“The closer you can get to honesty in your work, the closer you can get to just doing what you want to do and still find an audience,” he said. “That’s the goal. My new ambition, is to do only what I want to do and still get paid for it.”