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2019 CBC Trailblazer Award

2019 CBC Trailblazer Award for Von Allan aka Eric Julien
It’s always a bit weird to be writing this, but here goes. I’m one of the winners of a 2019 CBC Trailblazer Award. With a trophy and everything! I have to admit to having mixed feelings about awards*, but it’s still pretty neat to have won one. And since this is the second award I’ve won for my art-related activities, it is another “arrow in the quiver,” especially given how hard it’s been to get to this point.


Hell, yeah.

Art, as a career, is not the easiest thing in the world to make a “go” of, especially given the austerity-fueled times we live in. And it has taken me a long time, longer than I would have liked, to reach the point that my art is, for lack of a better word, “professional.” ‘Course, one of the interesting things about art is what one means by “professional” can take on all kinds of different meanings. It really depends on who you are and what you like.

In my specific case, I knew I was pretty rough, but we really do learn by doing.

“Doing” also meant falling on my face. A lot. I’ve covered that in a piece I wrote called “On Getting Stronger” so I won’t cover that again here.

I think one of the interesting things about the Trailblazer Award is it really is recognition for the work I continue to do around my first graphic novel, the road to god knows... Who knew, when I first self-published it almost ten years ago, it would still be finding a life now? That’s in large part thanks to the documentary film I Am Still Your Child, written and directed by Megan Durnford, produced by Katarina Soukup and the fine folks at Catbird Productions, and supported by all the creative folks behind it (including “behind the scenes” people like Alex Margineanu, Howard Goldberg, Kathy Sperberg, St├ęphanie Couillard, and Sara Morley, as well as folks like Jessy Bokser, Sarah Leavens, and Marie Leavens who I shared screen time with). The film gave a “second life,” so to speak, to the graphic novel and has led to speaking engagements, panel discussions, Skype conversations, and on and on.

Judith Lee Julien and me
And, more concretely, it’s given me an opportunity to talk about my mom. Not just her battle with schizophrenia, but also the poverty we battled combined with the lack of social programs to help her. To talk about the immense courage she showed (courage I’ve really only became truly aware of as an adult) while she fought a lonely and often terrifying battle to navigate a truly unforgiving health care and social aid system. And what it was like to grow up with her, for both good and ill.

It’s funny; my mom died pretty young, at 48. And I’m slowly but surely approaching that age myself. In fact, I’ve now lived longer without her in my life than I did with her (she died when I was 20, and I’m now well-past 40 myself). But the memory of her stays with me still. That’s partially because I loved her, of course, but also because I still find, to this day, how unfair her situation was. And the fact that it never had to be that way. Despite all of the “by your own bootstraps” nonsense we live in (you know, that idea that any failure, let alone any health issue, is a sign of personal rather than societal failure), what happened to my mom was grossly unfair. What is heartbreaking to me is that the unfairness she experienced is experienced by so many other people right to this very day.

Yeah, yeah, awareness about mental health and mental illness is better. There’s more open and frank discussion around it. Sure. But poverty has not gone away. The lack of social support really hasn’t changed. Welfare rates for anyone (let alone single moms) have, if anything, gotten much worse. We can talk about “resilience” and “perseverance” as much as we’d like. We can even point to individuals who’ve managed to do just that, but what about those who can’t? There’s still a chronic lack of systemic support. There’s still a culture that desperately needs healing (don’t believe me? Look at the suicides that are still occurring in the wake of the Parkland shooting).

I’m pleased to do what I can to help. And I’m proud, damn proud, to talk about my mom. To help put a face on what otherwise might be simple dry statistics. To use my art, as best I can, to show what some of this is like. But it’s hard not to escape the idea that in a very real way, the 2019 Trailblazer Award should not have gone to me.

It really should have gone to my mom.

She died in 1994, alone and isolated. I had moved out some months before because I had to, for my own sanity and self-esteem.

What I try to stress to people, though, is that she had hopes and dreams. Things she still wanted to accomplish. Who knows what she might have done if she had managed to beat a truly vile disease and get healthier? She’d be 73 right now, probably feisty as all get out, and probably telling her own story to people, trailblazing change.

I don’t doubt that for a second. But it was not to be.

Judith Lee Julien, age 14
I placed, a long time ago, the grief along with the disappointment of what could have been. It is what it is and it happened a long time ago. But other people, right now, are going through similar things. And even if mental illness is not a part of it, there is still crushing poverty, a cold and often hostile health and social services system, kids going hungry, massive personal debts, and horrible unhappiness. All the celebratory economic statistics in the world doesn’t change that. There is a lack of solidarity with each other, not just with our fellow citizens but a lack of solidarity and fellowship with people around the globe (don’t believe me? Look at all the hate against immigrants and refugees we’re seeing now).

We have to overcome this.

And what about me? Well, I continue to grow and get stronger, especially with my art (both visual art and my writing, too). And with my art I try to not just focus on the past (though always to honour it), but to move forward with new stories and new adventures. One of the things about falling in love with art, with comics, and with visual storytelling, is that the growing and learning never stops.

Using comics to tell stories has been, I think, the most rewarding thing I’ve done as an adult. And I can still remember where I was when the journey started to where I am now. Harder than hell, yeah, but rewarding all the same.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

* The late Harlan Ellison, back on the “Awards” episode of the TVOntario program PRISONERS OF GRAVITY said it best: “I think awards are bullshit. I think awards are detrimental to the writers…You win a Hugo, you win a Nebula, you win a Horror Writer’s Award, you win an Edgar, I’ve won all of them in multiples for god’s sake. What you’re getting are popularity awards. If you were a good boy that year. If you were published in the right place. If the right people read it. If stories that were five times better than yours were published in places no one saw them. Then you get an award. They’re meaningless.

They had value, years ago, as being, you know, you could put them on a cover of a paperback. “Hugo Award Winner.” Well, every book you pick up now is a Hugo Award Winner or Hugo Award Nominee. Or someone thought this should have won a Hugo. They don’t mean squat.

The minute you start thinking that you’ve won an award because you’re a terrific writer, you’re dead.”

Always good to keep in mind, right?


Here's the CBC Video Interview with me about the Trailblazer Award:

Wolf's Head by Von Allan

Link to Von Allan's Wolf's Head comic book series

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I Am Still Your Child Trailer

Documentary Film Excerpt