Saying goodbye to a Toronto superhero
After five years, The Pitiful Human-Lizard is ending — but the city isn't the same as when it started
All this time, Toronto's had its own superhero — and just when the city could use one more than ever, the guy's signing off duty.
Granted, superheroes aren't typically effective at thwarting condo developers or re-instating funding to education, healthcare, etc. And then there's the whole problem of them being completely imaginary characters. But the final issue of the The Pitiful Human-Lizard, "Some Heart Left," arrives at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) this weekend. And given how much the city's landscape has changed over its five-year run, there's something of a little black rain cloud hanging over this last adventure.
Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the cover — a gloomy wide shot of Human-Lizard walking past the demolition pit where Mirvish Village used to be.
"I feel it's a nice callback to the first issue cover I did of Honest Ed's," says Jason Loo, the series' creator. In that particular 52-page debut, Human-Lizard even battles bad guys inside the dearly departed bonkers discount store. And that sort of "Pow! Biff!" action, set in faithfully rendered real-life locations — the Royal Ontario Museum, Sneaky Dee's, Kensington Market — has been a hallmark of the series since it launched in 2014.
At the time, Loo self-published the series thanks to a successful (and then some) Kickstarter campaign, and the title was later picked up by Canadian publisher Chapterhouse, home of more obviously flag-waving heroes such as Captain Canuck. Loo says he'd been drawing the character since high school, though it wasn't until he was studying illustration at Sheridan College that he started developing Human-Lizard in earnest.
"After the Marvel movies came out, I was reading all these old Marvel comics from the '60s, just getting back to the classics written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby," he says. Guys like Spider-Man hang out in New York City, so why not bring superheroes to Toronto — superheroes who live like real Torontonians?
The characters in PHL look more like the folks you'd meet on the Queen streetcar than, say, the cast of The Avengers. Human-Lizard, or rather his alter-ego Lucas Barrett, is a skinny, single 30-something who works an office job, plays board games, goes for weekend dim sum with his parents — and has the ability to regrow limbs, like a lizard.
I put myself in a superhero world. Like, how would I fare? And yeah, I wouldn't do that well. I'd be kind of pitiful in comparison.- Jason Loo, creator of The Pitiful Human-Lizard
"The charm of why we're all attracted to these Marvel characters is because they're all flawed. That's how we can relate to them. I wanted to use the same formula for Toronto's superhero," says Loo, though to be fair, Human-Lizard's life is mercifully free of Marvel-style melodrama, making him all the more relatable. He's a reasonably well-adjusted sort; he's close with his family. (Hell, he still has family.)
"I've put some of my dating experiences and work experiences into Lucas," says Loo — though unlike his fictional double, who's forced to focus on his crime-fighting side-hustle after losing his Bay Street job, Loo's still gainfully employed by the Mississauga Library System.
"I think it's just easy to write what you know," he says, adding that even Lucas's relationship with his parents is modelled after his own. "The likeness of his mom is actually 100 per cent inspired by my own mom — though when I first drew the comic she kind of looked more like Adrienne Clarkson," he laughs.
"I put myself in a superhero world," he says. "Like, how would I fare? And yeah, I wouldn't do that well. I'd be kind of pitiful in comparison."
But after asking that hypothetical question for 22 issues, there's one character that's developed in a way Loo couldn't have predicted.
"I feel like a lot has changed in the city in the last five years," he says.
"I get inspired by just walking or biking around the city every week — 'Oh, this would be a nice spot to do a story of the Human-Lizard' — and I take a lot of photos trying to capture all the angles so I've done the spot justice in my comic. That way it can be celebrated just like how Marvel celebrates the city of New York."
"Looking back at some of my issues — all of the stories are set in actual locations. So many of my favourite places have either changed locations or they're not there anymore."
So many of my favourite places have either changed locations or they're not there anymore.- Jason Loo, creator of The Pitiful Human-Lizard
Some examples are more extreme than others. Snakes and Lagers, the College Street board game café that featured in the comic, might not be in the same spot, but it's moved to a bigger location. "But there's also places like Kensington Comics, or Dr. Comics that was in Kensington Market, that are no longer there — and a bunch of others," says Loo. Active Surplus, a Queen Street mainstay, shuttered three years ago. (Where will Human-Lizard and Majestic Rat stock up on goggles now?) Even the corner of Richmond and John Streets, where Human-Lizard faces off with a douchebro-turned-supervillain outside the Scotiabank Theatre, was just marked for condo development.
"Either all of these places have been cursed from my book or it's just the changing times," he laughs. "Rent's just so high, it's hard to live in the city or do business there."
"And I thought doing the demolition site of Honest Ed's [on the cover] would just be a proper reflection of what Toronto is right now."
In retrospect, the series is now an accidental time capsule. "I was capturing [places] more for the love of the city, not knowing that they were going to be gone," says Loo — though the title broke through beyond Toronto. One of the more notable one-line superlatives is this one from Paste Magazine: they called it "one of Canada's finest exports" in 2017, and Loo credits Chapterhouse for distributing the title to readers worldwide.
"I thought this comic would be more of an in-joke for people who live in Toronto," he says. "It feels good to know that the book can be appreciated by anyone."
It's been a long wait since the last published issue, which arrived in August 2018. Loo began posting fresh panels on his website in March — stories which will be included in the final PHL issue on sale at TCAF. "I think I've wrapped up all the loose ends I wanted to say in the series," he says. "I decided to just part ways [with Chapterhouse] since my contract was up with them, and just take my characters and give them a proper send-off for the five-year anniversary."
Loo's not done with comics, however, and he plans to revisit a horror story called She's Always With Us that he debuted at Toronto's Fan Expo last year. "It's about this Indonesian single dad who's raising his little daughter in a small town in the 1980s. It kind of has this Stranger Things vibe — but what if it was with Asian protagonists?"
As for the Human-Lizard, he's going into hibernation. "Maybe you'll see him in a background or something, but you definitely won't see another published Pitiful Human-Lizard comic in a while."