Valium, Unforgettable

I lived with cartoonist Billy Mavreas in Montreal for a spell in the mid-90s. He brought home wild comics with titles like Guillotine, Mr Swiz, Fish Piss, Image Gun, Mille Putois, and 106U. One artist was particularly striking, having the expansive technical chops to pull off ideas that made his comics seem like they’d come from another planet. It was Henriette Valium. Mavreas recalls, “Valium was, to any emerging cartoonist in Montreal, both a threat and a favourite uncle — a threat not only because of his obvious artistic mastery, but also his seething fury of a public persona.

The work itself scared and exhilarated us. It’s funny and wicked. Some lesser talents can play with taboo, but Valium owned it, challenging readers with their own dark fantasies.”

I discovered Valium had done oversized silkscreened self-published comics as well. Francophone artists revered him, literally referring to him as the Pope, but he was completely unknown in English.

The period I spent steeped in Valium and his peers inspired me to found Conundrum Press in 1996. Many years later, Mavreas informed me Valium had a new book that had taken him seven years to complete, and no one would publish it. He asked if Conundrum Press might be interested. I answered yes, of course! That book was The Palace of Champions. He was late to his own launch that year at Expozine. His gallery agent gave me cash to pass along to Valium, “Because he may not have eaten today.” When he arrived wearing ink-stained rags, he sat down to sign books and immediately fell off his chair, leapt back up. At some point, three grown men arrived to sing to him in harmony and present him with a plastic glowing trophy from the dollar store, or as they called it, “a lifetime achievement award.” And then he was gone. Pure Valium. Crazy, frenetic, but so sweet and genuine. Or as Mavreas phrased it to me, “at once a lit fuse and a gentleman.”

The Palace of Champions went on to win a Doug Wright Award, and Valium accepted his bowler hat at the ceremony in Toronto. Finally, some recognition. He thanked me, “the only one with the balls to publish me!” I can’t think of a prouder moment in my 25-year career. Valium died in his sleep on September 3, 2021, leaving behind a complex artistic legacy. He will not be forgotten.

Andy Brown is the founder of Conundrum Press.