COMICS: Art mart’s smart start

Jay Bardyla on a horse, in his store.

Jay Bardyla on a horse, in his store.

If the average Chapters bookstore had been built for the demographic that worships The Big Bang Theory, it probably would have looked something like the inside of Happy Harbor Comics, a strangely tasteful esthetic of functional display, enough pop culture to make you think you’re in Tokyo and a real-life, real-time comic artist in one corner, turning flights of fantasy into dreams of bigger things.

The Edmonton shop on 104 Avenue is the only comic store owner Jay Bardyla knows of that has an illustrator on staff, actually being paid to draw all day. And Bardyla knows the marketplace; the store is a six-time nominee for the Eisner Award as the top comic retailer in North America.

“One of the things we discovered as we were growing the business was that the more involved in the community we got, the more it came back to the store in terms of traffic. And it just made sense, to try to provide some sort of outlet for local talent to practice their craft while actually making some money.”

He’s had three artists on staff so far and plans to keep the program going in 2013. Dan Schneider, Kyle Sams and Paul Lavallee (video below) have each shown a distinctly different creative flair and style, he said. In exchange for being paid to draw, Bardyla had them demonstrate technique to the store’s shoppers. He also helps arrange visits by local artists to area schools, and is part of an online collective to promote Edmonton artists.

An example of Kyle Sams' art.

An example of Kyle Sams’ art.

“They really each had different strengths and were each exceptional for their own reasons. Dan has that very clean, traditional comic style. Paul was very efficient and project-oriented in his approach; Kyle just generated this continual stream of new ideas.”

They’ve found freelance work since the residency program because all three learned a separate lesson from Bardyla: social networking is huge.

“It’s something I try to pound into guys, that you need to be networked, you need to be on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be in groups and you need to be willing to approach the people you admire and say, here’s my work, please visit my page and rip it to shreds, tell me everything I’m doing wrong. Start out humble, start out quiet, don’t ever think you’re better than anyone else. Just sit back and take your lumps, get your criticism; meet people; stay in people’s thoughts.”

He’s particularly pleased by the change in Schneider’s approach. The rural Albertan went from being uncertain of his artistic abilities to working regularly after his residency. “Dan is a cowboy, so when you go to a comic book convention, he stands out pretty noticeably. And I pushed him to use that, to keep in touch with people, not to wait three or four weeks before contacting them back. But it took a while.”

Dan Schneider's work features traditional, clean comic book lines and lots of western themes.

Dan Schneider’s work features traditional, clean comic book lines and lots of western themes.

Schneider calls it the best education he could have had. “Any artist interested in comics needs to do their best to get into this position. What you’ll learn and gain from this program is far greater than you can imagine.”

Bardyla is about to begin the search for a fourth resident artist, and is working with partners on a new radio show. In the meantime, moving his store to 104 Avenue across from Grant MacEwan College has tripled his business, he says. “Twice a year you get a new crop of really big readers, which certainly helps.”