If you choose to live as a comic book readin’ geek in Saskatoon who still likes the feel of the printed page in your hands, you have three choices of where to spend your money.
The longest standing comic shop in town is 8th Street Books & Comics which specializes in used books as well as comics, toys and more. Amazing Stories, open since 1993, was nominated in 2011 and 2012 for Best Comic Store in Canada at the Schuster Awards. Like 8th Street, Amazing Stories carries comics and toys but they also carry a wide selection of board games and high end toys from distributors like Sideshow Collectibles. The third choice is the newest of the lot but also might be the most unique.
Unreal City opened in 2009 when owner Theo Kivol ended his 17-year run with CFCR, Saskatoon’s Community Radio Station, to follow his love of comic books and dream of owning his own comic shop. He maintains his association with community radio through his ongoing Friday evening CFCR show, Comic Chat, with Pat Thompson, owner of 8th Street Books & Comics. In addition to reviewing comics, discussing trends in the industry and the local scene, Comic Chat has also conducted interviews with industry heavyweights such as Neil Gaiman. That’s cool by anyone’s standards.
Through his time at CFCR, Theo built up quite a connection to the local arts scene, from musicians and artists to writers and filmmakers. He carried this connection through to the essential conceptualization of Unreal City.
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When you walk in the door, all the usual suspects are there. Comic books from Marvel and DC. Branded toys from cartoons. DVDs of various nerdish movies and TV shows. It’s the kind of stuff you expect to see in virtually any comic shop in North America, though this store is not as imposing to the uninitiated. It is a boutique for comics, designed specifically to be accessible to the casual comic book fan while still appealing to the hard cores. But if you look around, you’ll also notice something extra on the walls beyond the comics and toys.
Art. The layout of Unreal City was specifically designed to double as an art gallery.
Quite consistently, Unreal City plays host to exhibits by local artists. Not always comic book art, which it often is, but also art from other mediums. The shows have ranged from artists who work primarily in album covers and posters to those whose focus is comic books. The format is always quite simple. Opening night is a wine and cheese reception. Then the art is often for sale but remains on the walls for a couple of months as an ongoing show that promotes the work of the artist in store. And whatever didn’t sell on opening night continues to be on sale.
Scott Kowalchuk and Riley Rossmo, comic book artists and former Saskatoon residents, have held more than a few shows there, both of published and unpublished work. It is actually Rossmo’s work that currently adorns the walls. Unreal City has also played host to events with the artist and creator of the Binky the Cat series, Ashley Spires. The Other Guy, a well-respected custom toy designer who primarily works with blank Kidrobot toys also known as the Munny, has held at least one outstanding event there.
This has also translated into bringing in creators from outside of the province, like Jeff Lemire, something Theo is hoping to do more of. And, as an aside, if you haven’t read Lemire’s The Underwater Welder or Sweet Tooth, you are missing something special.
It would be rather presumptuous to call Unreal City, or either of the other stores, the core of the local comic scene in Saskatoon. The reality is that Amazing Stories and 8th Street Books & Comics have been around longer, both making significant contributions to the local community. Each has hosted launch events for local creators and provided support to the community overall. Amazing Stories recently launched the inaugural issue of Punch, a magazine developed by their staff and published by the store featuring the writing and art of local creators. But in its almost four years of existence, Unreal City has had an undeniable impact on the local comic community.
Unreal City has made this mark thanks to the continual presence of local creators on a visceral level, both on their shelves and on their walls. You can’t help but walk into Unreal City and be confronted by the work of exceptional local talent, even if some of that talent no longer resides in Saskatoon.
One of the local names currently on the rise is Elaine Will. Creator of Look Straight Ahead, Elaine is a bit of a comic book auteur as she writes, draws and publishes on her own. Unreal City has been an invaluable support system to her, and other independent creators like her, providing not only a place to sell her comic book but a place to promote it to the public. A piece from Look Straight Ahead hangs permanently behind the till.
The community of comic readers and creators in Saskatoon are exceptionally lucky to have three strong and diverse shops in town. Each store is so strong that they have traded off the title of Best Comic Shop in the annual ‘Best of Saskatoon’ Planet S reader’s poll over the last couple of years.
All three stores are unique in their own ways but if you are looking to enjoy an exhibit of local comic book artists while you shop for Superior Spider-Man, Unreal City is your pick. As a comic book and toy boutique combined with a comic art gallery, it is truly a niche within a niche.
Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at@ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at iangoodwillie.tumblr.com.
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