After almost two decades of toiling in the Canadian independent comics scene, Ed Brisson finally found breakthrough success in the mainstream comics industry by giving away his work.
When the inaugural Dark Horse Books-branded trade paperback collection of Ed Brisson’s Murder Book comics hits shops this Wednesday (March 25), it will represent a homecoming of a sort for the Canadian comics professional.
These days Brisson is perhaps one of the most highly-visible creators in comics, at least as far as credit boxes go. The Comic Book Database lists over 200 individual letterer credits for the Vancouver-based comics professional dating back to 2008, for publications produced by outfits ranging from small, independent operations to Marvel, Image Comics, IDW Publishing, and Dark Horse Comics—four of Diamond Comics Distributors’ top five publishers. He’s written or contributed story material to some 60 individual issues since 2010, everything from creator-owned titles, both his own (Sheltered, The Field, Cluster, Comeback) and those owned by his peers (Grim Leaper, Dia de los Muertos, Liberator); Marvel’s superhero comics (Secret Avengers); and licensed movie and TV spin-off comics (Sons of Anarchy, RoboCop: Beta, 24, X-Files: Conspiracy, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser: Bestiary). Two of those creator-owned works, Sheltered and The Field, are currently in development as feature films, the former by Circle of Confusion (the firm behind the hit TV adaptation of The Walking Dead comic), the latter by Canadian production company LaRue Entertainment.
While his rise in the industry may seem rapid, it is actually anything but. The multitalented Brisson began his comics career almost 20 years ago, working primarily in the independent Canadian comics scene in both a creative and print/production capacity. Far from being an instant success, Brisson’s current position in the industry is the result of years of struggle, hard work, and perhaps even a little luck (although as a wise man once said, the most successful people create their own luck). To the extent that we can single out an inflection point marking his transition from relative obscurity to someone who has films being made based on his comics, however, it is probably the 2010 release of Murder Book.
A crime anthology comic featuring stories set in and around Vancouver written by Brisson and illustrated by a platoon of collaborators that includes Johnnie Christmas, Simon Roy, Michael Walsh, Jason Copland, Declan Shalvey, and Vic Malhotra, Murder Book started out as a comic freely available on the web in 2010. The decision to offer the comic for free turned out to be a pivotal one. As Brisson recounted in a writers’ panel at last year’s Vancouver Comic Arts Festival:
… if you put your stuff out there for free, people can find it. You have no control over who finds it and anything can happen. I got linked on Reddit one time and Murder Book got 100,000 hits in one day. It cost me a lot of money with my service provider, but all of a sudden the editors were there and reading it just because it was there. I put the entire story out there for free, not just a page a week or anything like that. As crass as it sounds, you’re selling yourself, you’re not just trying to get an audience. You’re selling yourself as a writer and part of that is making your work as accessible as possible. If your stuff is available only through comiXology or $2 PDFs or something like that, you’re actually cutting out 99% of your potential readership.
In short order, representatives from Skybound, the Image Comics imprint founded by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, started talking to Brisson about releasing his creator-owned material through the publisher.
While Brisson has had some of his biggest critical and commercial hits as a writer come out under the Image Comics banner (the recently concluded 15-issue maxiseries Sheltered, co-created by Murder Book artist Johnnie Christmas, is especially notable in this regard), it was always a little curious that the comic that did so much to initially bring him to the attention of the larger comics community stayed a free webcomic (with the option for a print copy to be purchased directly from Brisson’s site) for so long, although if I’m to speculate, it may be that Brisson was only waiting for the best opportunity to bring the collected Murder Book to the bookstore market: Dark Horse’s multiyear bookstore distribution deal with the industry-leading Random House Publishing Services, first announced in 2013, didn’t kick in until last year.
Vancouver may sound like a strange setting for a crime comic—the city, after all, was recently ranked in the 2015 Mercer Quality of Living Survey as the fifth “most liveable city” in the world (behind only Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, and Munich), based on criteria that include personal safety. It is that contrast, though, that is one of Murder Book‘s strengths. Brisson paints a tonally authentic picture of “the other Vancouver” those of us who actually live in the area know firsthand: The troubled Downtown Eastside, the suburban neighborhoods notorious for the drug and flesh trade, and everywhere, tense locals staring at the very real prospect of a future where they can no longer afford to live in the increasingly expensive region. Murder Book gives vent to that growing apprehension through its character-driven vignettes of everyday people caught in circumstances beyond their control and pushed to extreme, violent measures; carving out a desperate existence in a deprived, parallel reality the outside world rarely sees, but is nonetheless all too real.
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