Debra Jane Shelly
(April 23, 1974-January 25, 2014)
Everyone involved with The Joe Shuster Awards are in shock and deeply saddened to hear the news that Debra Jane Shelly passed peacefully in her sleep Saturday afternoon from an epileptic seizure.
Deb was the light and partner for our co-founder and Associate Director, Kevin Boyd.
The Joe Shuster Awards were very fortunate as well that she volunteered her time and considerable knowledge of the industry to the JSAs. She was part of the Gene Day nominating committee this past year and did some copy writing for the website and program book. She was an ardent supporter of the awards and helped out whenever she was needed.
It’s not an understatement that the comic book community in Toronto and beyond are reeling from hearing the news Deb has left us. This piece typifies her reach, impact, spirit, and generosity to others. Some she never even met face to face:
Jennifer Haines, owner of The Dragon, had known Debra since high school at St. Mildred’s in Oakville:
“Deb was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. In high school, we were both outcasts among our peers, and that formed a bond that would last for over 25 years. It always amazed me how well she maintained her positive spirit and determination to be herself through those tough times. In fact, I’m not sure Deb even realized how outcast she was in that place. I admire her for that too. She didn’t let anything make her jaded or less generous with those around her.
“When Deb and I reconnected years later, I re-discovered this joy and strength in her. She had a boundless ability to help those in need. The day before she passed away, she posted a reassuring comment on my Facebook wall in response to a difficulty I was having. It brought a smile to my face that stayed with me. From reading the comments of others in response to this tragedy, it’s clear that she shared this generosity of spirit with absolutely everyone she knew, even those she had never met.
“I remember one night we were out at a bar and were headed downstairs to the washroom, when this rather drunken woman stumbled down the stairs, twisting her ankle. Deb escorted her into the washroom and helped her clean up, and somehow ended up giving her advice in her family legal trouble. That was Deb. It was amazing to watch. I couldn’t believe how incredibly supportive she was of someone she had only just met. But, Deb was like that with everyone. Absolutely everyone.
“One fateful night, I invited Deb to join me and a few friends for drinks at Mill Street to celebrate my birthday. I remember that night so clearly because it was the night she met Kevin. Afterward, we headed to the Golden Griddle on Eglinton and ate pancakes at 4 in the morning. We knew we were witnessing something magical happening between Deb and Kev. It didn’t surprise us one bit when they quickly became a couple. They just made sense. We knew they were going to be together forever. It isn’t fair how short “forever” turned out to be.
“The greatest thing we could do for Deb is to carry on her legacy: be good to each other, better than we’ve ever been, with strangers, with friends, with family; be positive and bring a smile to everything we do; support those in need; remain strong as people, and idealistic, and ready to argue the merits (or lack thereof) of even the most obscure creators and characters at a moment’s notice.
“I will always remember Deb as one of the best specimens of humanity that has ever walked this earth. She has left the world a better place. While we mourn her and feel the loss of her presence, let us not forget those smiles, those character voices she’d do, those hugs, those snacks delivered at conventions, and that boundless energy and ability to be there for each and every one of us. I hope I can become even half the human being that she was. I sure am going to try. I love you Deb; you’ll always be with me.”
All the nominating committees and volunteers involved with The Joe Shuster Awards, past and present, wish to send our heartfelt condolences and strength to Kevin Boyd and to the Shelly family.
Donations are welcome in Deb’s honour to Epilepsy Toronto:
Updated: here is the text of Kevin’s eulogy, read at the service at the Manor Road United Church on Friday, January 31.
Today you have heard and will continue to hear the same things about her in our talks: Deb was genuine, she was happy, she was 100% there for us. She loved children,and pets, and flowers, and art and books, which she absorbed with her supercomputer of a brain. She loved taking pictures of the people and things that she loved, and above all else she fiercely loved her wolf pack – those of us she had taken into her heart.
She and I met a little over five years ago at a birthday dinner for our mutual friend Jennifer Stewart (Haines). I’m a reserved person, naturally introverted and shy, I’d rather be at the back of the church taking this all in instead of here at the front. I don’t rush to meet new people. At one point she grew tired of talking to my friend Scott, turned her laser beams toward me and said, “Tell me about YOU!” — I was smitten.
Over the course of that night I knew I had to see her again. We all went for pancakes at 2 in the morning. Deb and I split a cab home, as our apartments turned out to be a short distance apart, and on the way she received the call that Cristie had gone to the hospital, and she went on her way to meet her nephew Noah later that day. That certainly made our anniversaries easy to remember!
A couple of weeks later, after some chatting through facebook and email, we agreed to meet for dinner and it was a magical night — a massive snowstorm was in the process of shutting the city down, but we had no idea – we had dinner and chatted for hours. As we left the restaurant we walked into an empty Eaton Centre and the subway was virtually deserted. We felt like the only two people in the world. When we got to St. Clair station, without hesitation, Deb said “I’m in!” She hugged me for the first time. I was taken aback, I’ve never met someone that direct emotionally, I think maybe I retreated a little. Deb did not.
Over the following months we met on and off for movies and or dinner, and early on she explained that she had epilepsy and what might happen if she had a seizure. When she returned from a family trip to Florida, she introduced me to her family and I must have passed another test, as meeting her nephews Caleb and Noah for the first time, and of course Jake, the family dog, who she loved dearly, she seemed even more proud of the concept of ‘us’.
One night we were talking — and I’m a low talker at times, sometimes I mumble. I apologize if that’s the case today, but at one point in our conversation I think I said “thank you”. Deb grabbed my shoulders and said “You love me! That’s AWESOME!” I was floored, and speechless – where did that come from? I didn’t remember saying that? It mattered so much to her, and she grabbed me in that bearlike hug of hers and squeezed me tight and told me she loved me too. How could I contradict her?
I also got a chance to spend more time with the Shelly family, and you can see where Deb got it. I’ve never in my life encountered such a strong and loving group, and she had the most amazing support structure. My family – I think we know that we love each other, but we never say it, I have only brothers, so as brothers are, we were tough on each other. But Deb and her family, she knew she was loved. And you could see from spending time with her parents where she developed aspects of what made Deb essentially Deb. During any family crisis or illness, she would strive to be the strong and funny older sister: a pillar of strength, because they deserved it. She would do her best to remove the negative, but what she did was, like a true empath, take it inside and later in private let it all out – like emptying a vacuum. Conquering Cristie’s cancer was the most important thing to her, nothing else mattered and you can only imagine how happy she was that she did. Her victory was also Deb’s.
I have always been a comic book reader and collector, and she and I connected over that, she had told me of her teenage years collecting in Oakville, and about the jerks at the shop she frequented, who would tease her, and that led to her leaving comics behind. I introduced her to my world of shows and the people here at events like Fan Expo. She would volunteer to help me, and along the way she met many amazing people who she pulled into her ‘wolf pack’. She would say she loved being a nerd, a term I’ve never cared for, but Deb embodied the positive aspects of the word, and reclaimed it on her terms. She devoured my books over the years, and at shows, online and in other places she focused on being an expert in all things nerdy, and she succeeded. She could talk to anyone about anything. As she would say, fiercely, no one can tell you it’s wrong to like what you like.
The five years we were together were a tornado. For the first few years Deb struggled with the medication she took for her epilepsy. It would exhaust her, like she had weights on her shoulders. She would sleep 18 hours a day. You had to be like water on rock in some ways with Deb, but eventually she went to see a specialist at Toronto Western and he introduced some different medications. Deb blossomed on the last one and it was amazing to see Deb emerge from under the weight of her medication and become this shining force. It also coincided with some pretty amazing things, like the opening of the store and going to work at the Mount Sinai Foundation. Even when the store made me miserable and a giant ball of stress, Deb was there, always helping, but always reminding me how important it was to relax, to step back, to be with her and with family. If you look at the wonderful pictures gathered at the visitation you can watch Deb grow younger and happier. She had reclaimed her life.
Deb always loved Facebook. She joined the Comics Cube group a few years ago, and that group has splintered off into a handful of smaller, private groups. She loved them all, especially her fellow moderators like Duy Tano and Ben and Kim Smith. She connected with so many people around the world. They could tell how awesome she was through her posts, her comments, what she could add to a conversation, or how she could make you feel better when you said you were down. Deb had the innate ability to find the best cat photo to make a person laugh and brighten their day.
Last week was an amazing week for Deb. She watched some documentaries, she met her newest niece Sidney, who she had two visits with – at one we watched her favourite movie of the year, Pacific Rim with brother Greg and she was so happy to have an afternoon with a baby, brother and ‘giant robots fighting monsters!’ She had a chance to visit with Anne Marie and her daughters, and enjoyed catching up with them. She had multiple visits with Karrie, Caleb, Liam and had a magical afternoon with Ana. We went to a movie premiere for a terrible movie and saw many friends there. We had this amazing Saturday morning, chilling over coffee and she was raving about how great the last few days had been, telling me about Ana and Sidney. I spoke with my friend Peter and Deb added to the conversation in the background. She was wearing her I love DC Super Heroes t-shirt, which always made me smile. I got ready to go down to the store, and Deb was there with a bear hug and an ‘I love you!’ and we talked about Ladies Night, her favourite event at the store, and how her friends would be there. I got down to the car and found the door was open and the battery had run out. I went back up to get the booster and Deb was right there again, with a big hug and warm I love you.
Trying to find meaning in what happened after is going to be our challenge. Deb was like that car battery, she was full of life and energy, but epilepsy was the door we didn’t know was open, and that battery ran out. But magical things happened that afternoon, and continue to happen. So many of you have told me that on Saturday afternoon, unbidden, Deb was in your thoughts. I think that she sent out a wave of energy, like an exploding star,to all of us in her wolf pack to let us know that she loved us and to take strength from that.
I miss her terribly, but I feel her presence in the room and I’m trying to follow her examples. I hope that everyone here can do the same. Always do what Deb did and make sure the people you love know how you feel about them when you say goodbye.
In comic books, the heroes pass and return regularly. It’s a storytelling device that reminds us why this was a great character, and when they are taken off the table for a while it is to remind us why we like them, why they mean something to us. Debra Jane Shelly was the superhero in our lives, and so I keep expecting her to find her way back to us. Her absence reminds us why we loved her so much and by doing so she is bringing us closer to those we have in our lives, reminding us about what’s important – she always knew that. She’s still out there righting wrongs and kicking evil’s butt.