The cover of Benjamin Rivers’ Snow.
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes a woman’s entire life through the course of events that occur in a single day. In a similar way, Benjamin Rivers’ comicSnow captures a sense of Toronto focusing only on a single street: Queen Street West. Snow follows Dana, a young woman who works at Abberline Books, a small shop on Queen Street West that falls victim to the slowing economy and shuts down. While attempting to deal with losing her job, she witnesses a traumatic event that forces her to reflect on how her life is changing and, more broadly, how the neighbourhood around her is also changing.
Snow is an exploration of the amorphous experience of urban living, an expression of the fact that each person’s lived experience of Toronto is as relevant a definition of the city as the next. “Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and sometimes people forget that,” says Rivers, who has lived in the Grange for over six years. “The neighbourhoods are very diverse but also very close-knit. I leave my neighbourhood and it feels like I’m in another city completely.” He adds: “Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable because it doesn’t feel like at home.”
Rivers says he was inspired to write Snow by the changes he was observing on Queen West, especially the disappearances of small businesses. (Full disclosure: Rivers has also spoken at Gamercamp, a festival I co-founded.) In a case of life imitating art, Snow foreshadowed the closing of Pages when its fictional counterpart Abberline shutters in the second issue. At first, Rivers says, it was purely a narrative device, an interesting obstacle for the protagonist, but it became apparent to him as he was writing the story that it was a likely thing to happen. “Things seemed to be a little slower, a little deader” at the store, he remembers. “To see the traffic actually get a little less, I thought ‘yeah, this might actually be the case.’” Since the venerable independent bookstore shut its doors, Rivers has had former employees read Snow and mention how closely he had captured the atmosphere just prior to closing.
Panels from Snow depicting Abberline Books, the fictional stand-in for former Queen Street West bookstore Pages.
Local bookstores like Pages closed, in part, because they couldn’t compete with larger chains that could mark down prices based on bulk purchases, had a wide selection, and made online purchasing effortless. Snow, initially released in four parts, now has been compiled into one book for physical and digital release; Rivers is well aware of the irony of a work about small business closing likely finding most of its audience through larger, corporate services like Kobo or Apple’s iBookstore.
Rivers decided to release in the digital format to take advantage of the ability to reach consumers directly on devices that he feels have finally reached a point of replicating the comics experience faithfully. “It’s more accessible now because of e-readers—the Kobo, Kindle, and iPad—but before it wasn’t really the case, it was clunky: the best we had for getting digital comics or things not for print were web comics, which are sort of their own beast,” says Rivers. Now, a digital release “is so easy and cheap as long as you have the technical know-how or just have the gumption to do it. Why worry about a bunch of boxes of books that maybe won’t sell when I could reach ten times the people with digital release?”
Stores like the Beguiling and Silver Snail that sell comics and graphic novels have perhaps survived the downturn better by focusing on a niche audience. Rivers—who had a signing at Snail yesterday and has been a repeat exhibitor at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival—says these stores provide a space for people to congregate, not just to make purchases: “You don’t go to a bar to drink the beer, you go to talk to people also there. You go for community, not for the product necessarily.”
A still from the game based on Snow.
Snow has reached a broad audience already, and Rivers has noticed a special popularity among adult women, many of whom are experiencing comics for the first time as adults. “There’s something about the drawing or the synopsis,” he says, that appeals to women. “That’s the audience I like to reach with my work,” he adds, “because there’s not enough written for this audience.” Choosing a digital release, then, was also a way to increase accessibility to audiences that may feel intimidated entering a comic store. “I don’t think my mom will go into the Beguiling and search for books that she might like, but she will buy stuff off Amazon.”
In another forward-thinking move, Rivers has also created a game based on Snow that is freely available. In 2008, shortly after the first issue of Snow, Rivers was at the Artsy Games Incubator, an experimental game jam, and wanted to make a game. “Snow was in my head, because I had just published it,” he explains. Players assume Dana’s character, but instead of replicating the book’s content, he created a prequel to give players a sense of her experiences. He hopes it provides the reader greater kinship with his Snow protagonist and the world she knew, which is about to break apart.
Snow is a meditation on the changing landscape of Toronto, and the role of citizens in shaping that change to enhance the city. With the book and game, Snow reminds us that while Toronto is so often disguised as other cities in film, there are many way to reflect this city and its stories. We’re inspired to wonder about the other Danas—the ones who call Kipling or Steeles or Morningside home—each with their own collection of experiences and interpretations of Toronto.
Images courtesy of Benjamin Rivers.