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A funny thing happened on the way to the lab

by David Dauphinee


Under the Western Engineering jacket of Jeff Burney beats the heart of a filmmaker, T-shirt designer and newspaper cartoonist.

From an early age Burney, BESc’93, had a foot in both sciences and arts. There was no need to choose between Newton’s Laws of Motion and Lego filmmaking until highschool graduation planted a fork in the career road – where now?

“There was a lot of soul searching,” says the now 42-year-old Chelsea, Quebec father of two. “In many ways I fit into that (engineering) personality type. I liked science, I liked Star Trek, I liked Dungeons and Dragons. I did the nerdy things people associate with geeks.”

Burney chose engineering at Western, helped along by knowing his Ottawa buddy Fred Dick – now Western biochemist Fred Dick, BSc’92 – would be his roommate.

So the sciences won. For a while.

These days, if you follow ‘Attica,’ Burney’s daily cartoon strip in the Ottawa Citizen (, you’ll know the arts side of the former Bell Canada engineer has gained the upper hand.

At the drawing table, his world is set in 450 BC Athens, Greece, a city-state working out the bugs of a new system of government – democracy. Nearby Sparta feels threatened and declares war.

The characters are 2,500 years old but their banter is Tim Hortons lineup.

Burney was born in Japan, one of four sons of Canadian diplomats. His father Derek Burney was onetime ambassador to the United States.

At Western the art side resurfaced, what with designing T-shirts for intramural teams, redesigning the engineering handbook and creating the cartoon strip ‘Another Day.’

One series tackled then-Western president George Pedersen for criticizing engineering student behaviour. “The football team paraded naked through the Ceeps Tavern; that got kind of a laugh and a chuckle from the president. I thought there was a double standard.”

Then as a Bell engineer in Montreal and Ottawa, “I was keeping an eye on moving into that (arts) career path.” Leaves of absence helped to hone art skills.

With Attica finally developed, Burney eased out of Bell. He pitched his strip to syndicates, then to newspapers. Two years ago he got a bite from an Ottawa Citizen editor.

“It was one of those lucky moments when the art and the feeling of the artwork click with the person who is reviewing the material.”

Now with his technique improved and halfway into a five-year plan, Burney is seeking fresh markets and wider exposure. An online contest ( this year pitted ‘Attica’ against dozens of other strips, and an ‘Attica’ book is being considered. “There are several irons in the fire right now.”

Funny where a fork in the road can take you.

This article appeared in the Alumni Gazette
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