WITH A NEW COMIC, A PAIR OF LOCAL ARTISTS REVEL IN THE EAST COAST’S CREEPY SIDE
Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes have been friends a long time. They met as six-year-olds 25 years ago in their hometown of Lincoln, New Brunswick. A mutual friend paired them up because they both liked to draw.
“We met in the first grade when we were introduced by Tony Von Richter, who knew Alex from pre-school,” says Bertin. “We were told to become friends and we followed his instructions closely.”
Fast forward a few decades, and Forbes and Bertin have brought their creativity and friendship to a new project, the acclaimed graphic novel The Case of the Missing Men.
Billed as “Nancy Drew meets David Lynch,” the hefty comic has a distinct Twin Peaks vibe. It’s a mystery thriller set in a remote and eerie East Coast village. The story follows a group of young teens investigating a string of bizarre occurrences in Hobtown (population 2,006). It centres on globetrotter Sam Finch, an outsider searching for his missing father.
In his back-cover blurb for the book, Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize finalist and professor of English and Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University, raves about The Case of the Missing Men. “[It] is an amazing collaboration, unlike anything I have ever seen or read before,” he says. “Bertin and Forbes, friends for most of their lives, share a vision that is precise but uncanny, scary, yet utterly and disturbingly clear. The story is full of suspense and uncertainty—a true mystery.”
Forbes is a NSCAD University graduate, while Bertin studied writing at Saint Mary’s University. Bertin’s first book of fiction, Bad Things Happen, won the Danuta Gleed Award for best debut short story collection in Canada. The Case of the Missing Men came together slowly, with the first conversations about plot lines and characters occurring about six years ago. The tempo picked up when the book found a home with Conundrum Press.
According to Forbes, the most important thing about the story is that it’s set in Nova Scotia. You’ll find references to sailing and village parades and Price Chopper and remote local beaches. Forbes admits that while fictional Hobtown is an amalgam of Maritime locations, it might be most recognizable as Chester.
For inspiration, he and Bertin spent years poring over a large and growing collection of offbeat Maritime folklore, formal ethnography (such as the work of Helen Creighton), Mi’kmaq legends, and reports of unsolved local crimes. The two wanted Hobtown to stand in both for a Maritime anytown, but also as a small coastal community that reads as both exotic and intimately familiar.
Writer Amy Jones (We’re All In This Together), a native Haligonian now based in Toronto, says they succeeded.
“Kris and Alex do this thing where they are able to take a setting that feels very Nova Scotian and imbue it with elements of that familiar mysterious small-town feel we see in other stories emblematic of the genre,” she says. “Like Hawkins or Twin Peaks, Hobtown becomes this almost mythical setting, with its general atmospheric background of creepy burnt-out houses and run-down pizza joints and dive bars filled with old drunks—a place that could be anywhere. But Kris and Alex give just enough clues so that anyone who has grown up in Nova Scotia knows that it is definitely here, and that feels like a secret we are being let in on.”
Andy Brown noticed the artists’ talent for telling a universal tale with a local twist. The publisher of Conundrum is now excited to share The Case of the Missing Men with readers.
“Since I moved to Nova Scotia and focused my mandate to publish exclusively graphic novels I have wanted to find Nova Scotia talent,” he says. “It is important to me as an international press to introduce Nova Scotia authors to the world. Conundrum now has global distribution so readers in Melbourne and Manila will read of this small East Coast village.”
For Bertin and Forbes, the book was a labour of love. In the early days, Forbes says, it took 12 hours to draw a single page. For a 300-page book, that’s a lot of drawing. They’d tag team on the production schedule, with Bertin mapping out the story while Forbes drew and modified panels.
Knowing one another so well made the project that much easier, as their creative vision for the project was the same—setting a mystery in a small town that is both gorgeous and spooky.
“It’s an untapped setting,” says Forbes. “Maritime Gothic could be a great export. Only if you spend time here do you know how creepy it is.”
Fresh off a book tour across Nova Scotia, Bertin and Forbes will hit Brooklyn and then Montreal for ExpoZine, Canada’s largest zine fair and one of North America’s largest small-press fairs. A charismatic pair, they’re picking up admirers along the way.
“We have been on tour all this month and they have met lots of fans and are so gracious,” says Brown. “I have witnessed them working together, and their obvious delight in the process and respect for each other is palpable.”
Asked about influences for the comic, Bertin and Forbes mention inspiration and camaraderie at Bearly’s House of Blues on Barrington Street, where they both work.
In many ways, in a comic that’s about outsiders, Bearly’s is a natural audience, attracting as it does such a cross-section of the city. “Bearly’s is a place where millionaires sit next to homeless people,” Bertin says. “Everyone in Bearly’s can see people in the book they’re familiar with.”
Bertin cites the mentorship of MacLeod, an early instructor in creative writing at Saint Mary’s University and editor of Bad Things Happen, as an important early supporter. Forbes heaps praise on his instructors at NSCAD, in particular Suzanne Funnell.
Fans eager for the next instalment of the Teen Detective Club may not wait long. Plans are already in the works for a Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes sequel. The script is nearly finished and hopes are for the new book to be out by 2019.
“I have worked on many graphic novels from artists all over the world and The Case of the Missing Men is one of the most accomplished graphic novels I have ever seen,” says Brown. “Kris and Alex have made a very meaty and significant work, not just for Nova Scotia, but for the world.”