Betting on a dark horse

Where I should have been all along

Published: May 19 2017, 01:01:am

Thursday, July 31, 1975 .

“LAST AUGUST, I MADE A solemn vow to myself. I decided that within a year I would be making  my living drawing comics."
    Arn Saba is keeping his promise. Despite the daunting assortment of problems involved in marketing and distributing a Canadian comic strip, Saba’s Neil the Horse will have its debut the first week of September [1975] in several B.C. weeklies.
 Neil, Saba's first attempt at a commercial newspaper strip, is in the classic “funny animal” tradition.
     Cast in the central role is Neil, an ingenuous black stallion with wide eyes and an infectious grin. Together with his scheming partner Soapy, a street-wise white cat, he’s on the road, “out to seek my fortune.”
    Riding with him are Saba's own fortunes. At 28, the Vancouver-born artist has enjoyed moderate success as a filmmaker, composer, performer, poet, illustrator and magazine art director. “But the basic thing is that I’m a storyteller,” he says.
     “Life comes to me in plots.”
    Comic art “is not something that I’ve just discovered,” Saba adds, glancing around a workroom overflowing with books, posters, magazines, paperbacks, Sunday supplements and file folders filled with four-colour memorabilia.
    “Actually, I’ve just come back to where I should have been all along,” he says. “I’ve always had a passionate interest in comics.”
    When he was 10,  he started a strip that he worked on faithfully — daily and Sunday coloured section — for two years. An adventure strip, it was set in the Orient and was, he admits, “derivative of Terry and the Pirates.”
    At the University of British Columbia, where he went on a creative writing scholarship, Saba contributed a regular strip to the thrice-weekly Ubyssey. Called Moralman, it was “a fantasy-humour strip” in which he attempted to work out entertaining allegories of current events.
    “I’m good at being either funny or serious,” he says. “In my comics I’m struggling to bring them together and make both things happen at the same moment.”
    In high school, Saba formed a creative partnership with schoolmate Gordon Fidler. As college students, the two were picked for the National Film Board’s 1968 summer student program and packed off to Montreal to make movies.
    It was there that he directed Euphoria,  a short, cheerful mood piece that has been theatrically distributed, and met Peter Bryant, another Vancouverite. Returning to the West Coast, Saba wrote the theme music and performed in Bryant’s Felix, a comedy short produced by the Simon Fraser University Film Workshop.
    In the years since, Saba has been involved in a variety of creative projects. For a while, he divided his time between writing book reviews for The Province newspaper and selling hand-made candles to the tourists in Gastown.
    Together with Fidler he produced two editions of The Magenta Frog, whimsical, magazine-sized compendia of nonsense that were designed as “psychedelic  funbooks.” True underground publications,  they were  sold on the street and in beer parlours, one copy at a time, by Saba himself.
    The two then became involved in making  a short movie. Called Birdland, it was shot with the financial assistance of the Canadian Film Development Corporation. During the final editing stages Saba and Fidler had serious differences over artistic directions, and their 10-year partnership ended with the film project in limbo.
    While attempting to establish his own priorities, Saba did magazine illustrations and then became art director for Pacific Yachting Magazine. At the same time he developed the concept for a weekly comic strip, a “hippie soap opera” he called Grand Hotel.
    "I did it strictly for my own amusement,” he says. “It was at that time that I decided that comic strips really were the perfect combination of both writing and drawing. Comics were where it was at for me.”
    A long-time comics fan, Saba was well aware of how the business worked. Newspapers buy their strips not from individual artists, but in economically-priced packages from features syndicates. Virtually all of the syndicates are American, and they haven't much call for, nor interest in, Canadian material.
    Looking at the market, Saba could also see that the syndicates weren’t interested in the same things that he was. Gag strips were in, story strips were out.
    The answer was self-syndication. In June, Saba began the task of personally contacting the editors of almost every weekly newspaper in the province. Prior to his visit, each one received a 14-page booklet introducing Neil the Horse and containing the first 10 weeks of his comic-art adventures.
    Neil was originally drawn as a one-shot comic for the now-defunct Montreal underground newspaper Logos. It failed to appear, and the artwork was lost.
    “I liked the name. It was totally uneuphonious. It had no ring to it at all. I always  wanted  to re-do that strip,” Saba recalls.
    He redid it in the eighth week of his unpublished Grand Hotel. One of the characters opens up the coloured funnies. Inside she meets the redrawn opening episode of Neil the Horse.
    “I’ve used a lot of tried-and-true elements in it,” Saba says. “There’s a big, dumb idealist and a small, smart cynic. They’re on the road together and they play off one another.”
    Artistically, Saba says, his major influence has been Carl Barks, a comic artist who remained anonymous for most of his working life. Although his  work always went out under the corporate signature of Walt Disney, Barks wrote and illustrated the comic book adventures of Donald Duck, creating the world of Duckburg and such memorable characters as Uncle Scrooge and the Beagle Boys.
    Neil’s physical format, which can vary dramatically within an 8¼ x 6⅛-inch box, was inspired by such creative newspaper strip artists as Will (The Spirit) Eisner and Hal (Prince Valiant) Foster. In general, says Saba, “I think that newspaper comics were always much better than comic books.”
    Saba grimaces at the mention of Captain Canuck, a recent [July 1975], highly publicized attempt to start a Canadian comic book. “That,” he says, “is the kind of crap that gives comics a bad name.
    “It reinforces the idea that all comics are about superheros. The superheroes are the worst, most simple-minded kind of comics. They’re garish, violent and have nothing to them.”
    Captain Canuck, he says, “is the worst level of the worst kind of strip. It’s actually a setback for Canadian comics.”
    Nor does it make marketing a gentler concept like Neil the Horse any easier. “I don’t like being a salesman,” Saba says, “but it’s a job that has to be done. And I come from a long line of businessmen.”
    He recalls that his grandfather, co-founder of Vancouver’s prestigious Saba Brothers clothiers, got his start selling silks door-to-door in Nanaimo. “I can handle the business end,” he says, “but I don’t like it because it brings me down to earth. I prefer exploring the fantasy world of the comic itself.”
    At the moment, Saba has Neil's adventures blocked out for the next two years. In the fall, he will be teaching an extension course at UBC in “The History and Anatomy of the Comics.”
    Among his more modest personal fantasies is one in which he is able to operate a small comic studio, producing three to five different strips. Right now, though, it’s all up to Neil.
    Drawn on a child-sized, blue-painted desk — “I’ve had this desk since I was six years old,” Saba says — the cartoon steed is going down a road little-travelled by Canadians. With luck and pluck, he could finish in the money.

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In the 42 years since the above conversation, Katherine Collins has experienced much. Her story is brought up to date by reporter Conan Tobias in an interview profile featured on the cover of the current (May, 2017) issue of Quill & Quire magazine. Saturday (May 20) at the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, Collins will join Seattle-based comic artist Brandon Graham for a 45-minute conversation  “on her life in comics, and where the heck she’s been since 1993.”
    In all, there are 14 special presentations scheduled to take place in the Roundhouse’s Performance Centre during the two-day VanCAF. On Sunday (May 21), Hope Nicholson will contribute her publisher’s expertise to a discussion called “Hash Out Your Cash! Understanding Freelance Finances,” and join a second panel on “How to Kickstart Your Comic Like a Pro.”