Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's teen outsider tale Skim, a coming-of-age story set in a Toronto all-girls school in the 1990s, won the coveted best book prize at the 2009 Doug Wright Awards Saturday evening.
The Tamaki cousins, Mariko (a Toronto writer) and Jillian (a New York-based illustrator who also contributes to CBCNews.ca Arts), said they had no idea that what they'd initially envisioned as a mini-comic "experiment" would find such success.
"It's this small story that kind of took us for a ride in a weird, weird way. It was not any sort of ambitious project to conquer the comics world at all. It was literally an experiment between Mariko and myself," Jillian Tamaki told CBC News following Saturday's awards ceremony at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario.
"'Here's a small project that we can do and … maybe we'll get a nice printed copy of it.' There was no big plan or scheme," she said.
Their mini-comic found early fans in people like noted cartoonist Chester Brown and earned an honourable mention at a past edition of the Wright Awards, before the complete graphic novel made its debut in 2008. The book's further accolades included, in October, a Governor General's Literary Award nomination — which ultimately sparked controversy because of Jillian Tamaki's exclusion from the official nomination.
Despite protest from prominent cartooning and arts world figures — who argued that in the graphic novel form, both words and images equally share the weight of storytelling — the nomination was not changed by the Canada Council, which administers the venerable literary honours.
"I think that we were part of a growing process … of the literary world and the graphic novel world coming together," said Mariko Tamaki. "It takes a long time for any big ship to turn in any one direction."
"It was purely a growing pain, [that's] what I like to call it, and it was a step for the book to be nominated," added Jillian Tamaki. "We were talking about comics in the national media for about a week, which was totally significant, and maybe it was a bit of a good thing."
Newcomer delights with funny take on history
Toronto-based newcomer Kate Beaton nabbed the Doug Wright Award for best emerging talent for History Comics, in which she re-imagines both historical figures and fictional characters in a comedic new light.
"There isn't a historical subject [Beaton] isn't willing to weigh in to with a fearless disregard for readers' hazy recollections of history class," said jurist and political commentator Andrew Coyne.
"With storylines and dialogue full of Norse warriors talking like Valley Girls at the Galleria and foul-mouthed pre-historians, [History Comics has] an amiable, offhanded lunacy that reminds me of the comedian Eddie Izzard, with same ability to make nonsense of history and yet make sense of it at the same time."
Montreal's Matthew Forsythe was honoured with the Pigskin Peters Award, a recent addition to the annual proceedings that celebrates avant-garde and non-traditional comic works.
Hailing Forsythe's dream-like Ojingogo as "elliptical and mysterious," juror Chester Brown also compared it to Alice in Wonderland, calling it "a work of delightful nonsense."
Tributes to Frise, Oliveros
Hosted by actor, filmmaker and writer Don McKellar, the Wright Awards gala also included several tributes: to Chris Oliveros, to mark the 20th anniversary of his founding of the influential indie comics publishing house Drawn & Quarterly, and CBC broadcaster Stuart McLean's ode to and posthumous induction of cartoonist Jimmy Frise into the Giants of the North Canadian cartooning Hall of Fame.
First awarded in 2004, the Doug Wright Awards celebrate excellence in Canadian artistic or alternative comics. Their namesake is the British-born, Canadian illustrator and cartoonist best known for creating the internationally syndicated comic strip Nipper, later called Doug Wright's Family. Wright died in 1983.
Saturday's event also included the announcement that the city of Burlington, Ont. — where Wright lived with his family and where several members continue to reside — will honour the cartoonist's memory with a street and a park named after him.