We Are the Cartoon Heroes

Skills: Writing

Originally published in The Gateway
May 7, 2009

It’s a crisp Saturday morning in Edmonton as the sound of a city awakening brings the first truly warm weekend of the season.

A crew of casually dressed workers has blocked off the street along 81 Avenue between Calgary Trail and Gateway Boulevard, and is in the process of sweeping the asphalt and etching an elliptical track in chalk along its length. Balloons and streamers adorn the front of Happy Harbor Comics, one of the street’s main attractions, while the savoury aroma of barbecue fills the air. A crowd of curious and energized onlookers begins to assemble on the street, filing into the store as a legion of roller-skaters clad in brightly coloured spandex and superhero masks circles the track. Inside, a table stacked with free comic books and fabulous prizes becomes the main attraction.

“It’s all my fault,” laughs Jay Bardyla, owner of the Happy Harbor chain of Edmonton comic book stores.

He’s of course referring to the stores themselves, which celebrated their tenth anniversary on 2 May and coincided with the now-annual Free Comic Book Day. For Bardyla, it’s pretty much Christmas.

Happy Harbor, named after the Justice League America’s original headquarters, began as a small start-up a decade ago, and originally only catered to a group of about a dozen die-hard comic book fans when Bardyla shared a business space with a local liquor distributor. After moving to Jasper in 2000 to set up shop in an untapped market, he realized that his aspirations were larger than the small mountain town could provide, and came back to Edmonton in 2005. Now, Happy Harbor has expanded to three branded locations throughout the city, with a fourth joining the stable in the fall, and Bardyla knows he’s been doing something right.

“I think [community integration] is a positive step, moving towards the right direction for what you need to be as a store,” he explains. “Certainly, you can be a store that just sells things, and that’s fine, but I want a greater tether to my customers. I want them to feel not just like this is a place to go and pick up stuff. I want them to need to go there. I want them to feel that it is part of their lives, so in a way, what I’m helping to do is to say, ‘I understand that this is an important part of your life, so let me contribute to it. Let me enhance it.’ ”

Beyond just being a business owner, Bardyla has been an active member of the Edmonton community, and a key participant in many of Alberta’s pop culture events. Free Comic Book Day is just one of many annual festivals for proudly self-proclaimed geeks like himself that form the backbone of the province’s niche festivals that cover comics, science fiction and fantasy, anime, collectibles, and everything in between. While Edmonton has yet to launch its own comic-centric event, the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo (which took place on 25–26 April this year) is happy to take up the charge.

“Edmonton is the densest comic book market in Canada, and I think it’s in the top-four in North America as far as the number of pop culture stores, so there has been, for years, a very strong and dedicated base, but no one’s been putting on shows. So now that the shows are on, and people are like, ‘Finally!’ The shows every year are getting more mixed; particularly this year at the Calgary Expo, there’s a great mix of multimedia so it’s not a pure comic expo,” Bardyla says.

Although Edmonton isn’t without its share of events — it hosts a bi-annual Pop Culture Fair as well as Animethon, Western Canada’s longest- running anime festival — Bardyla explains that it’s not a lack of demand keeping a comic expo out of the city, but a lack of business infrastructure.

“First of all, you need someone who’s willing to sit down and do it. One of the advantages that [Calgary Expo coordinator] Kandrix Foong had when he started up the show was that he was very well connected in the comic book and animation industry, so off the bat, he’s got the contacts to get people in,” he says.

“Calgary also has another advantag wherein the stores in Calgary are on a bit more friendlier terms.

The store owners, the businessmen, they’re on friendly terms—at least on speaking terms. We don’t have that in Edmonton, unfortunately, so that would also create an issue […] Even with the shows that exist in Edmonton now, if there’s one particular vendor sponsoring an event, the other vendors tend to stay away from it, so you will have that friction.”

Despite these challenges, Bardyla is confident that the future has a place for a large-scale comic convention in Edmonton, as western Canada is quickly becoming the place to be for fans, vendors, and guests alike.

“It’s getting to the point where the only place to go in Canada to do shows and events is Alberta because we’re the only ones that actually take care of the guests: we treat them well, we don’t overwork them, we feed them, we water them, we give them breaks. The horror stories other people tell me, I’m just like, ‘Seriously? Other conventions treat you guys like this?’ ”

This is exactly the sort of prairie courtesy that Bardyla says has made his own franchise such a success. Happy Harbor’s Free Comic Book Day celebrations included much more than just the aforementioned free comics and a roller derby— it also featured celebrity guests, live music, and an after-hours party in the Jasper Avenue location’s store. In addition to the annual event, the

stores frequently hold meet-ups and hang-outs like comic jams for local fans and artists. On top of all this, Bardyla says that his priority is on maintaining a solid, happy staff. It’s a lot to juggle as a business owner and a comic book fan, but he feels it’s a path that’s allowed him to relate better to his customers and to the community as a whole.

“At this point, I’m really stricken between finding that balance as still being the big, gushing fanboy of comics that I am, and being the business owner that I need to be a lot of days. It’s challenging, but I’m kind of getting there. And I’ll tell you this, man, I was a C-average student in school who went to college to become a cop and now I’ve got no business degree, nothing, trying to run everything off of common sense and kindness most of the time. That’s how I operate, and it’s been working out pretty well so far.”