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How a Toronto studio is making the city a hub of mainstream comic talent

When Marvel was preparing to launch a new comic series last year based on its archer superhero Hawkeye, the creative team – writer Jeff Lemire, artist Ramón Pérez, and colourist Ian Herring – were asked what they wanted to call it. Their response: “The All-Canadian Hawkeye.”

The title was rejected, but the joke, and the Toronto-based team behind it, is representative of the wave of Canadian comic book creators who are increasingly being called on to bring some of the world’s most famous superheroes – including Spider-Man, Batman, and the Flash – to life. Many of these creators have made their home base in the cheekily named Royal Academy of Illustration and Design, a co-op art studio that’s home to veteran and up-and-coming comic book talent including, along with Pérez (Jim Henson’s Tales of Sand) and Herring (Ms. Marvel), Francis Manapul (The Flash), Marcus To (New Avengers), and Kalman Andrasofszk (Captain Canuck) – making the city an unintentional hub of mainstream comics’ top talent.

Founded in 2004 by Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals), Cameron Stewart (Catwoman), Kagan McLeod (Kaptara), and Ben Shannon (Moonshot), RAID’s membership has evolved over the years (not unlike the Avengers), but its goal hasn’t: to provide a studio space for like-minded professionals, where the challenges of the comic book industry are shared, and inspiration is only a chair swivel away.

“You’ve got that cross-pollination of creative head space,” says Pérez, who is the longest-serving current RAID member and the Captain America–like overseer of the group. “You have so much variety, you can get such different perspectives on process, execution, composition, or styles of storytelling. You’re constantly inspired.”

RAID also provides its members career support. When an individual succeeds, it feeds into the studio’s success. Newly gained contacts can be added to the collective Rolodex, and broader awareness of the talent available in the studio is boosted (“Exposure begets exposure,” says Pérez). As a result, RAID has increasingly become a one-stop creative shop for publishers like Marvel or DC, who know if they hire an illustrator for The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s a compatible colourist nearby.

RAID’s image is something the studio has shrewdly cultivated. It’s done so partly with a cohesive team identity, which it demonstrates at comic book conventions and events like the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, where they’ll appear May 14 and 15 as a united front, sharing table space adorned by banners featuring their logo. In an industry whose epicentres are in Los Angeles (DC) or New York (Marvel), RAID’s branding emphasizes its Canadian, and especially Torontonian, identity. “The branding is the idea of showing the industry, ‘Look at all these powerhouses here,’” says Pérez. “If there’s a way we can put the city on the map with the talent we have, it’s great.”

RAID seems to be succeeding – not just with how the studio’s talent consistently produces beautiful work, or continues to secure larger projects, or has earned some of the comic industry’s top awards, but by being in demand. In the past, Pérez recounts, a dozen RAID members would cram into a rented van and road trip to New York to shop their portfolios around for work. Now? The work is coming to them. Even if they can’t call it The All-Canadian Hawkeye.