In a purer world, a perfected and unplagued one, wherein the Montreal Canadiens didn’t upset everyone’s expectations and ruin everything, the Toronto Maple Leafs might have gone ahead and done the sensible thing and won the Stanley Cup last year, putting an end to all those decades of frustration.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t to be.
Brian Evinou kept the faith all the same.
A lifelong Leafs fan who’s also a cartoonist, animator, and teacher in Oshawa, Ontario, Evinou was putting his passion to paper before the original Year of Our Pandemic, 2020, came along, creating colourful single-panel comics paying tribute to (and sometimes cracking wise on) the Leafs and their NBA cousins, the Raptors.
He got more systematic in his creativity as Covid-19 continued to torque and reconfigure daily life and hockey seasons, too, into 2021. What began as a game-by-game narrative of Leafian lore and experience posted across Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram evolved, as it gained notice and fans, into something altogether more ambitious.
This past fall, with the help of a quick-moving Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Evinou self-published his graphic chronicle of Toronto’s second COVID-shortened season in a handsome hardcover edition.
Smart, funny, and sharply observant in all its bright event and detail, Brian BeLeafs: 2021 Season follows John and Joe and Jack, Auston, Mitch, Morgan, and all the rest of the Leafs, as they make their way through the 62-game season that ended last May with a first-round playoff upset at the hands of Montreal.
They’re at it again, of course, the Leafs, so … maybe … this year? Evinou is doing his part, following the team where it leads, firing up his pencils and pens after each and every game.
Last week, I e-mailed him some questions. Those are here, along with his answers:
I’m wondering about beginnings. First up, you as a Leaf fan: when did that start? Is there a particular player or game that cemented it for you with Toronto?
The Leafs and hockey have always been a big part of my life. My parents are Scottish immigrants and my Dad is an avid soccer player, sports guy, and collector. When he arrived in Canada, he took to watching hockey right away and got my brothers and me playing and watching, too. My first clear NHL memory is the Calgary Cup win in 1989. I think the flaming C and Lanny McDonald’s mustache were very distinct visual memories. We moved to Oshawa when I was in grade one, which soon coincided with Eric Lindros coming to the Generals. So we were going to lots of Gennies games.
My strongest early Leaf memories are of the Doug Gilmour teams. I had a paper route when I was a kid and one of my clearest memories is making my papers, inserting the advertisements, while watching Game 6 against the L.A. Kings in 1993 with my Dad and brothers. I remember crying when the Leafs lost. Tough stuff, but I was hooked.
Back then, we went to a game once a year and during those playoff runs we even went to a couple more. I remember lining up outside the Sunrise Records box office hours before it opened to get tickets to those games. We still have the ticket stubs, one of the games against the Red Wings, one against the St. Louis Blues. I guess, looking back, it was the Gilmour team that really cemented my fandom, paired with collecting hockey cards ,which was so huge around then. Fell in love. Love that hockey.
What about as an artist? How did you get going on that?
I was always the kid drawing in class. I was really into Ninja Turtles and X-Men and early on decided I would become a comic artist. In Oshawa we had great stores like Worlds Collide, but back then it was known as Unicorn Comics, where I could get anything I was after. I spent a lot of allowances there buying comics and then copying them.
In high school, becoming a comic artist started to seem very out of reach., I didn’t draw like the Image comics guys which was the main thing in comics at the time, so I kind of redirected into animation. I’ve been working in animation since 2005-ish. I’ve worked on lots of cool projects, mainly with Solis Animation. One of the notable things we did was Gord Downie’s Secret Path, which was very cool. We were invited to his performance of that album shortly before he passed in 2017. At Solis, we’ve also done music videos for Jessie Reyez and I recently did a thing there for the wrestler Danhausen.
I got back into comics in a big way when a friend suggested I check out Scott Pilgrim, a great Canadian comic, by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The story was amazing and the art was closer to what I could do. I jumped into indie comics in a major way and soon I was making my own mini-comics. I started self-publishing my own comics around 2008 to about 2015. I did seven mini comics, one graphic novel-length webcomic, co-edited two anthologies and even coloured a Ninja Turtles cover. Today, I’m still working in animation and I teach at Durham College in Oshawa.
And how did this project start? What was the spark for Leafs comics and, now, the book?
I had my first son in 2015 and all of a sudden it was hard to make long-form comics. At work I’d listen to a lot of sports radio and podcasts and come up with little jokes I wanted to get out there. I am very active on social media, but my tweet-crafting is not as refined as Acting the Fulemin. I wanted to get more involved in my own way.
My first comic was a joke about the Dreger Cafe. Darren Dreger would do these interviews at the World Championships for TSN at these nice cafes. He did one with Mike Babcock where Dreger grilled him about how the Leafs were going to use what would ultimately be the Auston Matthews pick. I had Babs denying that they had made up their mind, all while wearing Zurich Lions gear and an Auston 2016 shirt.
I got a good response from friends on that comic, but being a new dad was pretty all-consuming and I didn’t get around to doing more comics until around the Raps championship run in 2019 and the Mitch Marner contract negotiations.
Once the pandemic hit, my sons were older and I had a bit more time and energy on my hands. I started doing actual game comics during the bubble series [in August of 2020] against Columbus. I continued that into the Raps playoff series against the Celtics that years. Those comics all did really well, which is when I started to think about doing a full season. When the NHL announced the pandemic season would be shorter, 56 games, I was more confident I could pull off a full season. Once I got going, I started to build momentum and just kept going. Next thing I knew we were in the playoffs.
It definitely helps that the team is good. It is easy to do a comic after a win. You feel good and are in a positive headspace. Of the losses, bad ones are sometimes easy to create content for. I think the west coast losses are the toughest to actually come up with a good comic for, since it is so late; I do the comics right after the game ends.
What’s your process for a particular game and the illustration you end up doing for it? Do you often know what it’s going to be before the game ends? How long then to do the work, generally? What about materials?
The process has always been the same: watch the game and react to what I’m seeing. Sometimes, Matthews scores a hatty, or hits 40 goals, it becomes very clear what the comic has to be. Some moments are too important not to be the focus. Other times visuals hit so hard in my head, I go for it even if it is not really the most dominant narrative in the game. The Justin Holl/Andrew W.K. one is an example of that. The visual of Holl with a bloody nose was memorable but not the biggest moment of the game. That comic was a big hit for me — still is. Other games have neither a big individual moment nor a big visual moment. With those, it can be harder to come up with a concept.
On average the comics take about three hours to create. I start around 9:30 p.m. Usually I have a decent concept before I get to the thumbnails, but other times I can’t come up with anything and it takes a little longer. In those cases, I listen to the post-game media and thumbnail dumb ideas until something strikes me as pretty good. With the Arizona one I did a Nightmare on Elm Street homage, but that idea came way later. I actually had a whole different comic drawn out but I wasn’t happy with it. What got me to the eventual comic was the rookie goaltender playing like a monster. I had just watched the ‘Movies that made us’ episode about Nightmare so it was fresh in my mind. That comic was an outlier, process-wise. Usually once the game wraps, they take about three hours and I’m in bed by 1 am.
The materials I use are Col-erase pencils, Pentel Brush pen for the inks, Copic markers for the colours and Microns for the lettering. I use these Strathmore sketchbooks for the comics. I work small for the comics; they are about five inches squared.
Is it still fun? What are some of your favourite illustrations and why?
It is still fun. I still get a lot out of the process of drawing. Figuring out a drawing is like a fun problem-solving exercise. Much more thinking is required. I generally listen to music during that step. The drawing can be occasionally frustrating, lots of erasing, but it is rewarding once complete. The inking and coloring phase I can do almost thoughtlessly. I can have movies playing, or podcasts, or the post-game interviews on at that point and still produce at a good pace.
I love the Leafs. Marrying comics and the Leafs into this fun project feels very natural for me and my interests. I am very happy I stumbled into it. Getting a beautiful book out of the process has been an amazing reward.
I’m a bit of a weirdo in regard to my favourite illustrations … I kind of hate my own work. Hate might be strong, but I see the mistakes. The older ones I like more now because I’m not so close to them. I did one when [William] Nylander started wearing 88. The Toronto media was making a big deal out of it as if it was somehow disrespectful to the Big E. I made a joke about Lindros keeping a list of all the guys wearing 88, but finally cracking because this “soft” Swede would wear his number. Lindros is dressed like Rambo in the comic and proclaims that he is going to reassemble the Legion of Doom line to go after Willie. I thought that one was fun. I’m a Nylanderthal and found the hate Willie got to be very short-sighted, so I’m loving his success this year. I was always there for him. People were very irrational about his warts as a young player, in my mind. And in that comic I got to draw Lindros who, as a kid growing up in Oshawa, I loved unconditionally. So I like that one.
What has the response been like from fans? Have you had any reactions from the Leafs?
It’s been amazing. Reddit in particular was an early adopter and very supportive. There are running gags in the comments, there are relationships you develop with commenters. It’s been awesome. Twitter has been fun. I know Twitter is a cesspool, but I’m addicted and try to avoid the trolls. Instagram has been great too. Even with the positive response I was still not suspecting the success of the Kickstarter campaign. I was blown away. The book was fully funded in less than two hours. I couldn’t believe it. I’m very thankful to everyone who backed the project. It’s been a great response for sure.
I also get responses from opposing team fans who leave comments, maybe not agreeing with my point of view — that’s a lot of fun, too. One guy compared me to Steve Simmons! I was very flattered to elicit that level of response from a rival fan.
Through the comic, I have had a couple conversations with Leaf players, which has been so cool. I was on a walk with my son when I got my first message from a player and I was over the moon. It is wild to know some of the players are seeing the comics. I occasionally get a like from a player here or there and that always feels awesome. Retired guys, too, which is great. Gilmour, Nik Antropov, Wendel Clark, and Joe Bowen have all publicly liked stuff and, in some cases, shared comics, which is very cool.
Are you planning more books, for this season and maybe beyond?
Absolutely. The plan is to do another Kickstarter campaign as we get towards the end of the season which will, hopefully, fund this season’s book. I put a lot of work into making last season’s edition a good product. I’m very proud of how it turned out, but I had some ideas that came too late to make it into the first book. So there will be some new tricks included for this new book. I’m very much a print fan. The comics are very different online than they are in print. Even pairing the comics with my synopsis and the stats of a given game gives a different experience than just approaching the comic when it goes up online on reddit or Twitter.
It is funny how things go. I never expected any kind of success with the comic, so to stumble into this and to have it revolve around my favourite hockey team makes sense to me as it is a gap I always saw in the comic market. I know as a consumer I have always loved sports comics and I think the world is ready for an awesome long-form hockey comic. I ended up going for a single panel presentation and it has hit a chord but I think there is an opportunity there for someone to do an amazing long-form hockey comic with dynamic action, like what Slam Dunk did for basketball comics.
As for next season, I think I will do it, but who knows what life will bring. I’m definitely committed to this season. I love making the comics and I’m not going to stop watching the games, so I think there is a good chance you might be stuck with me.
The Leafs are looking good this year. What’s your feeling about their prospects? Is this the — dare I say it — year?
I think the Leafs are an awesome team. I think this is the best squad of players they’ve had in my lifetime. But what does that mean? I think they are one of a handful of teams who have a realistic shot at winning the Cup this year. Whoever wins will end up having two things, health and luck. The Leafs had neither last year, and look what happened.
I think the randomness of hockey is undersold quite a bit. Kind of blows my mind how people can watch an amazing rivalry where the difference is one goal in a 4-3 series and then people make sweeping judgments on the loser and winner that are vastly different. Any dumb bounce can change those judgments. I believe the Leafs luck has to turn eventually. But hockey really is so random, so I have no idea. I think the Leafs are right there. Maybe this is the year they get a couple dumb bounces. It has to happen eventually. I hope it’s this year. I like this team a lot.
Brian BeLeafs: 2021 Season
Written and Illustrated by Brian Evinou
(Self-published, 168 pp., C$29 hc)
This interview has been edited.