Writers-in-residence can come and go from a university with almost no notice. In Canada, name recognition is the preserve of a few decorated authors, and writing is—well—a quiet discipline. But members of the committee that awards one such position at the University of Windsor knew their latest choice would garner interest—and not just because he’s an award winner with a wide following. This time, the successful “writer” was a cartoonist.
Scott Chantler took the four-month post last September amid university announcements heralding what was believed to be a Canadian first. While several post-secondary institutions offer courses that examine the graphic novel, whose artistry and thematic depth are thought by some academics to rival the work of top novelists, no cartoonist had yet scored one of the coveted university residencies known to have nudged along the careers of established authors like David Adams Richards and Jane Urquhart. “There was a lot of stuff in the air about the study of comics and graphic novels,” recalls Dale Jacobs, an English professor who sits on the selection committee and supported Chantler’s candidacy. “So we put the call out, and more than 30 people applied. It was a difficult choice. We had a lot of people who would have been great.”
Chantler’s work made Windsor’s break with tradition easy, because it’s instructive and definitively Canadian. His 2010 graphic novel Two Generals is based on the wartime experiences of his grandfather Law Chantler, who participated in the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. The story’s combination of poignancy, taut pacing and attention to historical detail drew a string of honours, including a place on Chapters-Indigo’s annual best-books list and a nomination for an Eisner Award, the Oscars of comics. The book made a convincing follow-up to Chantler’s acclaimed debut, Northwest Passage, a fictional tale of a British adventurer’s vendetta against a French mercenary who led a raid on a fur-trading post in 18th-century Rupert’s Land. That, too, got an Eisner nod.
Still, he felt the gravity of holding a post occupied in the past by such luminaries as Morley Callaghan and Nino Ricci. “I knew this was the first time it had happened in the country, and I felt it was important that it go well,” says Chantler, a 44-year-old father of two from Waterloo, Ont. “I thought, ‘If I can go there and nail it, it’s going to open opportunities for other people.’ ” So, while working on the latest instalment of his popular children’s comic series Three Thieves, Chantler made an extra effort to share his insights with students and faculty: guest-starring in literature classes; making appearances at the Windsor Public Library; leaving his office door open on afternoons for students who cared to drop by.
The reception was overwhelmingly positive. Students sought him out on everything from story structure to how to get published, while professors seemed to appreciate the novelty of the appointment. Time was, says Jacobs, some members of the academic establishment might have denied the value of studying comic forms as literature. Now, four decades after the term “graphic novel” came into use, he notes, the naysayers have gone silent. “The [university] president’s office was very supportive, and so was the alumni office,” says Jacobs, who has taught English courses on comics for the past six years. “We got good feedback all way around.”
Chantler was gratified, if not entirely surprised. Anyone who takes a close look at graphic novels, he says, can see their merit as objects of study. Regardless of his illustrations, he knows that his work lives or dies on the quality of its narrative composition. “I’m a writer,” he says. “The fact that I’m working in a visual medium is no different than someone who writes a screenplay for film, or a play. It’s all just stories, and story structure, which I love.”
In short, it’s an art in the strictest sense, and in some eyes an unmined academic vein. Irene Velentzas, a 31-year-old master’s student, came to Windsor to study under Jacobs in hopes of applying comic literature to education. She got Chantler as a bonus, she says, “and having him here opened the floodgates to what’s possible in the field.” More than theorizing about how comics might be used in schools, Velentzas was drawn to the creation process itself, consulting Chantler on the structure of a novel she’s been working on. She wound up basing her final research project on his work, and plans to pursue doctoral studies with a focus on comic literature. “It’s something I always loved,” she says. “I just never knew it was a viable avenue of academic study.”