Sean Ward is a renaissance man. His self published comics nestle side by side on the shelves of Toronto’s Silver Snail with the Marvel and DC titles. His work has been the subject of award winning documentaries and he can often be found teaing down the stage at T-Dot’s fabled Hip-Hop Karaoke. Beginning his career as a comic book writer/illustrator in the early 2000’s, Sean has gone on to make a name for himself beyond Ontario with his own brand of hip-hop slang inflected surrealism. Ever the dapper, he is known to take to the stage for his live shows in natty fitted suits and hardbottom shoes. On top of all that he has served as a writer, producer and co-star on the Ed & Red’s Night Party comedy show.
Fresh off a holiday around some of the world’s sunnier climes, Sean took some time to walk Format through some of his favourite graphic novels, the state of the Toronto comic book scene and his own musical ambitions….
“I’ve gotta see something and it’s gotta fill me with that ‘Holy-shit-I-have-to-have-that’ and not just any old thing with The Beatles or Spiderman is gonna do that. Same thing with comic books.”
Format: What were your earliest influences when it came to comic books and music?
Sean Ward: I’ll answer that for you two ways; as separate entities and then together. One of my earliest influences in terms of comic books was a copy of The Adventures of Superboy where he was fighting a villain called Firestar – he was some Japanese movie villain, who had come to life and Superboy had to beat him. My father got me this comic book, because I was big into Superman as a child, and nothing my dad was going to tell me was going to convince me that this was Superboy in this comic book. No, this was a Superman comic!
In music, one of my earliest influences was like anybody of a certain age, Michael Jackson. The Thriller video is the one that everyone remembers fondly now, but for me the Beat It video is the one that takes the cake. As far as music and comics together, y’see that’s part of my theory of comics – I mean -people treat comics like the unknowing little cousin of movies, or at best that it’s a research and development department for cinema. I think that’s a very superficial way to look at it. My theory of comics is that they have a lot more in common with music; what music does to your ears, comics do to your eyes. It’s just this bizarre, abstract thing that makes sense to me but it probably won’t make any sense to anyone else. The notes and the chords, the movements and whatnot…Take a classical symphony and that’s very much to me, what a really great graphic novel is. Any random issue of Detective Comics that could be from any old month, that’s maybe the equivalent of a one hit wonder pop song. So for me it feels like comics and music have a lot more in common than comics and movies do, so on that level, the first idea I had of them going together was watching cartoons on TV and a lot of them being based on bands or having music be a strong part of it. The Jackson 5 had a cartoon show, [so did] Josie and The Pussycats. And I realise they’re not comics, but it’s something about the cartoon form. That’s where I got this idea.
Format: Do you remember the first comic book you bought yourself?
Sean Ward: Yeah – that was a copy of….It’s an issue of The Incredible Hulk that Todd McFarlane drew, I couldn’t tell you the issue number but it’s a very famous one. On the cover it has Wolverine and the Hulk’s coming at him and he’s reflected in Wolverine’s blades. I had that comic book, and when I was a little kid, our family had a yard sale, and me and a couple of guys from the neighborhood were really into wrestling and we used to buy the trading cards, so I sold so many of my good comics and good toys to be able to go buy more wrestling cards and y’know, silly me, but it what it is. But that was the first comic book I bought, but I no longer have it because when I was a kid I sold it…The one that actually got me going though was when I was in Grade 7, I got it into my head that I hadn’t bought a comic book in a long time. There was a used paperback store that had a comic book rack in the back, and funny enough they had a really good selection of comics, but the one I gravitated towards was a copy of The Amazing Spiderman. It was one from Erik Larsen’s run on it and it was the finale – he was having a three issue fight with three chicks, I forget their names – but they were in it and The Tarantula was in it and it had this awesome cover. Erik Larsen is still one of my favourite Spiderman artists, so I bought that, and that set me on the path to being a comic book nerd, because I bought that and then bought every issue of The Amazing Spiderman for the next eight years. Then that got me into all kinds of other series as well, but that was the gateway into that deep passion, that love affair with comics was that particular book.
Format: So how big is your collection now, then?
Sean Ward: My collection is very, very small now. At one point it would have been up in the thousands, but I paired down, because right before I decided I was a ‘capital ‘A’ artist’ and that’s how I was going to live, one of the things I did before was to get rid of a lot of my belongings – I had a lot of clutter – when I went through my comic book collection, I realised that there were a number of comic books I bought because I thought that they were the ones you were supposed to buy so I could keep my rep as ‘Mr. Comic Book Collector Guy’, but the comic books that I actually bought because they looked interesting to me or I had some connection to it – that was a much smaller number. So I kept maybe four milkcrates full of comic books and those were the ones I actually had some attachment [and] had some emotional investment in and then all of the other stuff I bought because I thought it was the thing to do, I put them all in a bunch of boxes, took them over to a grade school across the way and while the kids were inside scattered them all over the schoolyard, so that they would have come out for recess and it literally would have looked like it rained comic books and people ask me all the time: “Did you take pictures of it? Did you stick around and watch their faces?” Didn’t even occur to me. I just went over there, threw the comic books all over the schoolyard, went home. In fact, when I had them bundled up and people were seeing me with them because I had them down by the front door of the house,Â so people were asking me “Hey, what are you gonna do with those?” When I told them what my plan was they would say “Oh, don’t do that, because I know somebody, who might know somebody, who might know somebody who might wanna buy them.” And I told them that they were missing the whole point, that’s just stacking extra headaches on top of the whole thing, besides that it’s completely contrary to the point of it. This is something I want to do. So I did it. I collect Spiderman stuff and I collect Beatles stuff, but I don’t just indiscriminately collect like a lot of collectors do; only key stuff that really knocks me sideways. I’ve gotta see something and it’s gotta fill me with that ‘Holy-shit-I-have-to-have-that’ and not just any old thing with The Beatles or Spiderman is gonna do that. Same thing with comic books.
Format: Have you seen Watchmen yet?
Sean Ward: I have not. I just got back from four months abroad and I have not yet had the opportunity, but I’m thinking I’m gonna go and do it this weekend and after I do, I’ll blog about it, so anybody that’s reading this interview can go look it up and enter the discussion that I’m sure by that point will be going on.
Format: How long have you been working on your own comic books? You do everything yourself, don’t you?
Sean Ward: Oh yeah. From blank page to printed in your hand, it’s me – all the way along. How long? Since 2002 but with a hiatus in the middle of about two and a half years. I put out the Benny Bunny book last year. I dashed that one off, and put it out really lowkey and didn’t really make a big deal about it. In fact, I only printed 200 copies of it and then called it a day, on that one. But I took a long hiatus from it and followed up some other things I was interested in. But yeah, since 2002. Now, I’ve got a wonderful feelling of starting all over again. I’ve got a new concept and a bunch of new shit going on.
Format: Do you have any plans for a Yellow Submarine-type cartoon version of Benny Bunny at some point?
Sean Ward: There’s always plans – I’ve had this idea for a movie, based on my characters which would be this total mindfuck, looping in on itselfÂ like a combination of Yellow Submarine, Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch. That’s just one of those situations where I go off on these bizarre, non-sequitur, abstract thought processes and I’m completely oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world is not following me down the same thought process, and nobody else is in my head. Sometimes that’s caused me problems and created difficulties, so hopefully by the time we do get to the point where there are movies or cartoons or whatever being made about this stuff, I would have calmed down and decided to make something that people would be able to relate to. But at the same time, I do strive to make sure that whatever I do, no matter how silly, surreal, off the wall, psychedelic or whatever, I try very, very hard to make sure it has something of the truth in it. I won’t ever put something in it gratutitously. I won’t put in ‘gross out’ for the sake of ‘gross out’. There’s gotta be a sweetness, there’s gotta be a heart to it, and that’s something I strive for, because that’s kinda my mission – I kinda look at myself the same way. Trying to be like The Beatles or Charlie Chaplin were – they were very conscious of what they were doing. They kinda had an idea about ‘What It’s All About’ and you just try and do the best you can to communicate what you can with the tools that are available to you. People seem to be getting something out of it on that kinda level so I’ll just keep going with it and try and do some more.
Format: You’ve been known to rap at your signings…
Sean Ward: Aw, hell yeah..
Format: And you’ve been known to pop up at Toronto’s Hip-Hop karaoke every once in a while…
Sean Ward: Hell yeah! [Laughs] I’m one of the mainstays.
Format: First off, what’s your favourite song to perform at Hip-Hop Karaoke?
Sean Ward: I do all kinds. In fact, I’ve just registered a new website called seanwardraps.com, and that’s gonna go nicely with seanwarddraws.com as well as seanwardsuperparty.com, but I do ol’ skool classics [and], I do 90’s Golden Era songs. There’s two types of people that go to Hip-Hop Karaoke; you get the people that go because it’s party time and they do the party tracks and they’re typically the people that don’t study it, they don’t know the words and they go up and have to use the lyric paper. A lot of the time all they know is the chorus and they stumble through the verse as best they can and wait for the chorus to come back around, which is usually the case for anybody who sings Just A Friend by Biz Markie, none of them ever perform the verses, but then you get the other half of the audience which is real hip-hop maniacs who know all of the words to all of the popular and classic songs, and for them it’s a chance to show off how dextrous they are on the microphone. So I try to ride that line. I’ll go up and I’ll do Bust A Move, but I do it undeniably brilliantly. I wanna go up and do the party jams with that level of skill and precision. So I’ve done Bust A Move, some Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G, for the second anniversary party Maestro Fresh Wes is going to be the guest, I’m going up in a tuxedo, velvet jacket, bowtie and me and my buddy are doing California Love….
Format: When did you start rapping yourself?
Sean Ward: With hip-hop, Maestro Fresh Wes was ‘The Guy’. Let Your Backbone Slide was probably the first song that I ever heard that was my music and there is now this break between us and them – that is to say us, young people and my parents as members of a whole other generation which has nothing to do with what we’re about. Let Your Backbone Slide was probably the first song that gave me that feeling; that teenage rebellion feeling, it felt like I was moving into my own world. That was the song that did that to me. That was the first tape I bought, that’s the first song I knew the words to. [Raps] 89 is mine, you can’t stop it…
Format: What have been your top 3 comic events of the past few years?
Sean Ward: That’s very difficult for me to say because I don’t follow the month to month continuity of comics. I love the artform, but at the same time…I came across a quote recently, while I was reading a biography of Hunter S. Thompson it was done the same way The Beatles Anthology was done, where it wasn’t like one person writing the story. It was interviews conducted with everybody that knew him and those interviews were cut together and assembled into a coherent narrative. So the author, Tom Wolfe was talking about how he loved Thompson’s writing but made a point to not read vey much of it, because he found that if he started reading it too much he’d see his thought process start going to that place where he’s like ‘What can I do that would be more like Hunter Thompson does?’ and that’s the difficulty I’ve always had with comics. If I get too deep in it, I kinda lose myself and I start trying to be that or do that. So, if I read a lot of superhero comics, I get too far away from my vision and I start thinking about that. It was the same when I was first discoveing that wave of alternative comics in the early 00’s. I have to maintain a certain amount of distance from it and that’s why, I can only let the select things in…Some of the comic books I’ve discovered in the last few years, that knocked me on my ass. The one that really knocked me out – and I go in a different direction from a lot of people – Fantastic Four & Iron Man: Big In Japan. Some people will dismiss it and say it’s just trying to capitalise on the Japanese fad, they’ll dismiss it and say it’s too cartoony and I think that those people are completely missing the point. They had stuff going on where the monster’s claw was slicing through the comic book page and so Reed Richards is doing his best to try and figure out why the third dimension itself seems to be torn and they’re in this spot where these people only exist in two dimensions, so to look square at them they can see them, but when they look at them from the side they don’t exist, anymore. And there’s one guy who’s talking about ‘Blah, blah, blah on the next page…’
Format: So they’re breaking the fourth wall?
Sean Ward: Shattering the fourth wall. Love the shit out of that book. I love pretty much anything Paul Pope does, I find his stuff very hard to read and very hard to follow so I’m surprised that he’s become as popular as he is, only because his stuff is very challenging that way. I own Batman: Year 100 and I’ve still not finished it, because his style is very challenging, but it looks so bloody gorgeous that it’s undeniable. So, I’ll just sit and stare at his stuff all day long. The other one I want to put in there is Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Kim Deitch. Which is another one where there is a real heavy experimentation with form. It’s a hardcover. Those are a few choice selections…But when it comes to the big Marvel and DC titles, I absolutely love the shit out of those characters, like anybody else that loves comics does and the general public do, but they don’t buy comics month to month, so I think the success of those characters are when they let somebody with a singular creative vision, tell their story with them. That’s why someone can come out and do a Batman graphic novel that works well as a singular work and then put it aside, but then someone else can do another graphic novel, that completely contradicts that one, but they can both be awesome and exist on a bookshelf side by side, that’s when I think those characters are most succesful.
People talk all the time about how the superheroes are our mythology; they’re our society’s Greek gods and I think that that statement is most true in those circumstances; when people are doing those graphic novels that are a singular creative vision, as opposed to this ‘cranking-the-wrench-and-turning-the-product-out’ that goes on month to month. I have no connection to it, I have no interest in it. I have too much going on in my own head that I’ve got to keep up with let alone what’s happening in fucking Moon Knight, this month…I don’t know why Spiderman, being as popular a character as he is doesn’t have classic graphic novels to his name. Can you name one Spiderman graphic novel that is anywhere near as important or vital as Dark Knight Returns? You can’t, because there isn’t one…
Format: For me, personally? I would say Spiderman: Reign – which is essentially the Spiderman version of Dark Knight Returns. As far as I remember, Kaare Andrews worked on it….
Sean Ward: The last thing I wanna say about superheroes is that, when I was saying about these individual stories, that have a closure to them and get the story told, I think that’s part of the reason why movies with superheroes in them are doing so well. Those characters are better suited to the medium of cinema than they are to the medium of comic books. It’s more impressive to watch Spiderman swinging through the skyscrapers than it is to have the static images and so at the time, in the 1960’s when Spiderman was first coming out, that was the medium that was best suited to it, because the technology wasn’t there yet to pull it off succesfully in movies. But it is now…
I mean, I still think that the time is right for people to do really cool stuff. So when I’m at a convention and I’m walking along the Artist’s Alley, the cream really will rise to the top, because you can usually tell, at a glance, when someone is doing something really unique and different. Most of the people at these things – if they’re even selling comic books now – because most of the people in the Artist’s Alley seem to be selling art prints now – it’s either some kinda rehash on the superhero genre in the style of DC and Marvel or it’s some kinda Tarantino-movie kinda thing, in comic form. So I’m walking around and looking for someone who’s got something that’s nothing like any of that. That’s how I ended up meeting the dudes who did Patrick The Wolf Boy and shit like that. So when I see someone who I came across years ago and they were just doing something unique and original and years go by and I see them doing stuff for DC, I take a little bit of – I don’t want to say pride, because I don’t want to sound like I had anything to do with it – but I definitely get a very warm feeling when I see that kinda thing because that’s what I want to see succeed, the people who have got that originality and the people who bring something new to it.
Format: If you could collaborate with any artist – both rapper and comic book – who would you choose and why?
Sean Ward: Well, rappers – it’s hard to say because my absolute dream collaboration would be with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, rest his soul, my favourite rapper and favourite musician of all time. He had a singularly unique creative vision. We did not get to see him bloom to full fruition, which was unfortunate. Let that be a cautionary tale. That fucker owed us! The brilliant albums he would have done in his late 30’s and early 40’s, when he’d grown up and he’s got that level of wisdom to share. Those would have been spectacular albums and we’ll never get to hear them. Out of anybody that’s living now, I would love to do a track with Jay-Z. On comics who would I collaborate with? That’s a good question…I’d probably want to do something with Frank Miller. I’d like to see someone like Frank Miller write a story set in my world…
Format: Like a Benny Bunny story?
Sean Ward: Yeah! Because you’ve got the Queen who lives in a hot-air balloon and Benny Bunny who she hangs out with and you’ve got the villain of the piece who’s the Bill Gates/ Lex Luthor/ Ted Turner kinda guy. I think Frank Miller could do something really cool with that, so I’ll say Frank Miller because he’s the first one that popped into my head.
Format: Toronto has a very active comic book community. Do you find yourselves all linking up and hanging out, or is it quite a solitary existence where you occasionally cross paths?
Sean Ward: We tend to cross paths. We all know of each other, so the best that I can figure is that they all meet up at events, but for the most part it’s broken up into little pockets. So there’s one group of guys over here and another group over there, but there definitely is some cross-pollination and I’d like to think that we’re all enjoying seeing each other succeed. So anytime I see any of those guys, I’ll raise a glass with them.
Like Cameron Stewart, it’s been a lot of fun watching his career trajectory and he’s not in Toronto anymore, so what does that tell you? I sometimes wonder if that thing that was going to happen in Toronto comics has reached it’s apex and now dissolved. People have grown up and moved onto other things and got married and had kids and moved away…I mean a very quintesentially Toronto work was (Brian Lee O’Malley’s) Scott Pilgrim, right? Now the guy who made Scott Pilgrim (Bryan Lee O’ Malley) lives in North Carolina. It will be interesting to see what kinda Toronto flavor those books have got…
Format: There’s a film of it in development with Michael Cera in the title role…
Sean Ward: It will be fun to see that come out and I hope they’re shooting it in Toronto and I hope they keep it Toronto-centric in the movie, but the guy who made it moved away. In the early 00’s, you had the Triumvirate. Seth, Joe Matt and Chester Brown – to my knowledge, none of them actually live in Toronto, anymore. Cameron Stewart moved to Montreal. I’m going to LA….
Format: So what does La-La Land and the future hold for Sean Ward?
Sean Ward: Well, I’m launching a new series this year. It’s called Super Party. It’s gonna have the Queen, Benny Bunny and it will be about the weird shit they get into. Over the years, I’ve tried to be various different things and work with various different styles, but what has risen to the top and has been made clear to me is that my place in the comics world is to be – for the comics themselves, we’re not talking about the image or the persona or how I sell it, that’s a whole conversation, but for the comics themselves – is that my stuff is the brightest, silliest, the most surreal over the top, mindfuck silly cartoon shit – that’s my thing. So what I’m trying to do with that is do that and take it to the utmost. I mean in the first issue one of the supporting characters is a guy with a giant banana for a head, one minute he’s hiding in a bunch of bananas at a fruit market and the next minute he’s got a body and he’s six feet tall and the villain of the piece is a gorilla in a suit. Take it way, way out there.
Format: And just let people make of it what they will…
Sean Ward: But always out there, funky, upbeat, spirited – that’s the goal. At the end of the day, there has to be some life affirming thing to it, because this is what has been revealed to me; the only stuff that stands the test of time is the stuff that no matter how dark things look, no matter how bad things get in the work, there needs to be some sort of life affirming message to it at the end. All the other stuff gets forgotten. The only stuff that stands the test of time is the stuff that has positive and constructive to add to the conversation.
Format: Can you finish the following statement: Sean Ward is…
Sean Ward: [Pauses and picks up dictophone] Let me think about that for a second…Sean Ward is – what’s happenin’ Jackson/ bringin’ his shit all up in yo’ town / Dig the dollar straight out of your pocket when you see him comin’ around/ The comics he’s bringing, will leave your heart singing, he won’t play your for a fool/ He’ll leave you with a book, you’ll be glad you took, looking at it saying ‘Damn, that’s cool…’