Quebec creator of popular comic strip Ben celebrated in new exhibit

More than 20 years after launching his comic strip Ben, Daniel Shelton is among the Quebec cartoonists being celebrated at the Musée québecois de culture populaire in Trois-Rivières.

Daniel Shelton among Quebec cartoonists showcased at year-long exhibit

Daniel Shelton poses with the characters from his Ben comic strip at the Musée Québécois de Culture Populaire in Trois-Rivières. The exhibition celebrating Quebec cartoonists is on until the end of January 2018. (Submitted by Daniel Shelton)

More than two decades after launching his comic strip Ben, Daniel Shelton is among the Quebec cartoonists being celebrated at the Musée québecois de culture populaire in Trois-Rivières. 

Shelton's work is part of an exhibit showcasing cartoonist icons in the province, including Réal Godbout, Michel Rabagliati, Yves Rodier and Jean-Paul Eid.

François Bourdages, the curator of L'art de la bande dessinée québécoise, said Shelton — one of the few cartoonists in Quebec whose strips are published daily — was an obvious choice.

"He's also published in newspapers in the Philippines, in western Canada, in California," said Bourdages. "He's the only one in Quebec with that kind of reach right now."

Ben made its debut in newspapers across Canada on Oct. 7, 1996. Here is the very first comic strip. (Daniel Shelton)

Shelton's comic strip follows an elderly couple as they navigate life as grandparents.

"Ben and Olivia are recently retired, so they are enjoying another part of their life," said Shelton, who was born and raised in Sherbrooke, Que., and now lives in Hudson.

"As well, they are grandparents — so lots of action in their home and lots of stories to tell."

The couple is open-minded and energetic, and the strip challenges stereotypes about aging and senior citizens.

Shelton steers away from the usual cartoon portrayal of the elderly curmudgeon with a nagging wife.
(Daniel Shelton/bencomicstrip.com)

"I try to stay away from that and portray them as much more healthy, active, contemporary seniors," Shelton told CBC's Breakaway in a recent interview.

Olivia does karate. They both ski.

"But certainly taking care of the grandkids is a big part of the strip," said Shelton. "Because of that, they have to be quite active."

Drawing on family life

When he launched the strip in 1996, Shelton created characters loosely based on his own family.

"My wife and I used to live in a neighbourhood in the West Island of Montreal where it was a bunch of townhouses and either young families on one side or seniors," he said.

"My own parents had just retired and become grandparents." 

Ben and Olivia have to stay active to keep up with the grandchildren. Here is the comic strip for Jan. 27, 2017. (Daniel Shelton/gocomics.com)

Shelton said his parents were very involved with his four kids and, in a way, he created Ben and Olivia to represent the kind of grandparents he aspired to become one day with his own wife.

Over the past 20 years, he's drawn from his experiences living in Quebec to tell Ben and Olivia's story with their kids and grandkids.

Breast is best

His comic strips don't tend towards politics, although in the first year of the comic strip, Shelton tackled the issue of breastfeeding in public — an issue that was making headlines in Quebec in 1996 and one that still resonates today.

A real-life event at a Montreal shopping mall in 1994 inspired Daniel Shelton to create a storyline where his character Patty has a similar experience. (Daniel Shelton/bencomicstrip.com)

"I think it is something that was reflective of what was going on and some of the changes in our society," said Shelton.

Ben and Olivia's last name, Hatley, is also a wink to Shelton's own upbringing in the Eastern Townships.

"My family used to have a cottage on Lake Massawippi, [and] North Hatley borders on Lake Massawippi," he explained. "It's an area that I love and still go to occasionally."

"So when I created the characters, I decided that would make a great name and pay some kind of homage to the area that I'm from."

Daniel Shelton spent his youth at a cottage on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships and named his comic strip family the Hatleys, after the village of North Hatley, which is at the northern tip of the lake. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

The Sherbrooke Record was one of the first newspapers to publish Shelton's comic strip.

He's now syndicated in English and in French more than 30 newspapers across Quebec and Canada, including the Montreal Gazette, Le Soleil, Le Nouvelliste and the Vancouver Sun, and as far away as the Philippines.

Shelton's work will also be on display at the Trois-Rivières pop culture museum for another year, until Jan. 28, 2018, alongside several of Quebec's finest cartoonists.

"I've known some of these artists for a number of years and I admire their work," said Shelton. "All in all, it's really just an honour to be up there by their side."