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ARCHIVED - Canadian Golden Age of Comics, 1941-1946

On September 15, 1939 -- shortly after Canada's declaration of war against Germany -- the Foreign Exchange Control Board was established to oversee the rationing of foreign currency, which it did with varying severity until 1951. In December 1940, as Canada's trade deficit with the US grew, and British gold shipments were curtailed, government intervention in the economy broadened with the introduction of the War Exchange Conservation Act. Aimed at countries outside the sterling bloc (sterling bloc countries traded heavily with England and kept their currency at parity with the English pound), it was primarily designed to conserve American dollars by restricting the importation of non-essential goods. Among the items banned were fiction periodicals, a category that encompassed pulps and other newsstand magazines, including comic books. The government had inadvertently laid the groundwork for a Canadian comics industry.

Working independently of each other, four publishers rushed to take advantage of the vacuum created by the sweeping economic legislation. One company, Maple Leaf Publishing, was located in Vancouver, the other three -- Anglo-American Publishing, Hillborough Studios, and Commercial Signs of Canada -- were all based in Toronto. Both Maple Leaf and Anglo-American managed to hit the newsstands with comics by March 1941, while Hillborough and Commercial made their debuts in August and September, respectively. The voracious appetite that Canadian kids had developed for funny books was about to be assuaged by strange new heroes.

Although Maple Leaf's first title, Better Comics, was released in the same month as the inaugural issue of Anglo-American's Robin Hood and Company, it was distinguished by its content and format. Unlike its rival, which initially appeared as a tabloid-size collection of reprint strips, Better consisted entirely of original material and was published in a regular comic- book format, although without a glossy cover. Based on this distinction, Maple Leaf can be viewed as the publisher of the first true Canadian comic book. Better also introduced the first Canadian superhero -- Vernon Miller's Iron Man. Miller, who had returned to BC following a stint with the Walt Disney Studio in California, played an instrumental role in launching Maple Leaf by convincing the Vancouver magazine vendor Harry Smith to invest in the promising new comics industry.

Smith and his associates were obviously encouraged by the response to Better, as the title was soon followed by three more comic books: Bing Bang Comics, Lucky Comics and Rocket Comics. These, like the majority of pre-1945 Canadian comic books -- but unlike the full-colour US comics -- had colour covers and black and white interiors (although the first few issues of Better featured some colour), thus giving rise to the term "whites". As well, they often relied on serial stories to convince kids to spend their hard-earned dimes, issue after issue.

In addition to Vernon Miller, Maple Leaf employed several other notable artists, including Bert Bushell, Ernie Walker, Ley Fortune, and Jon St. Ables. St. Ables, whose best work surpassed that of most of his North American comic-art contemporaries, was responsible for an elegantly rendered fantasy strip, "Brok Windsor." Set in the Canadian North, in the "land beyond the mists," it debuted in the April-May 1944 issue of Better. On the whole, Maple Leaf comics were probably the most professional comic-art products during Canada's "Golden Age." All of the company's titles were well drawn and designed, featuring engaging, rather sophisticated characters like Deuce Granville, Senorita Marquita, Bill Speed, Stuff Buggs, and the Black Wing.

Maple Leaf's first competitor, Anglo-American, was owned and operated by four Toronto businessmen: Thomas H. Sinnott, John M. Calder, John G. Baker and Edward C. Johnston; but its creative force derived primarily from two creators, Ted McCall and Ed Furness. McCall, the writer of the newspaper strips "Men of the Mounted" and "Robin Hood," brought both with him when he joined the company. In addition, he worked on a number of original characters with Anglo-American's talented chief artist, Furness. Among the firm's major heroes were Freelance, Purple Rider, Red Rover, Commander Steel, Terry Kane, and Dr. Destine.

In an effort to bypass the government's restrictive foreign-exchange legislation, Anglo-American also acquired scripts from Fawcett Publications in the US, producing Canadian versions of that company's American superhero stories. This arrangement led to some curious results. Commander Yank, for instance, fought his Canadian adventures with a Union Jack emblazoned on his chest. Like Maple Leaf, Anglo-American quickly expanded its line of comics. By the end of 1941, it was publishing four titles: Robin Hood and Company, Freelance, Grand Slam, and Three Aces. In 1942 these were augmented by a trio of Fawcett-related books: Captain Marvel, Whiz, and Spy Smasher. Unlike most Canadian companies of the 1941-1946 period, Anglo-American avoided serialized stories. Also unlike their competitors, their product was not particularly Canadian. While undeniably patriotic, in so far as they supported the war effort, Anglo-American's comic books lacked the fervent nationalism evident in many other comics of the time.

Although a number of artists -- a very young Harold Town among them -- worked on Anglo-American's titles, they all tended to emulate the clean, square-jawed style developed for Fawcett by the famous American artist C. C. Beck. This deliberate "house" style resulted in a somewhat homogenized product. Furthermore, Anglo-American's comics were initially the least impressive of the period in terms of production values. Printed slightly oversize on cheap newsprint, they utilized flimsy, two-colour covers during the first few years of their existence. Like all Canadian comics, though, they improved markedly over the course of the Second World War.

Cover of comic book, TRIUMPH ADVENTURE COMICS, number 1

While both Maple Leaf and Anglo-American represented fairly substantial publishing ventures, the third Canadian publisher to enter the comic-book field was founded by three unemployed artists. Adrian Dingle and the brothers René and André Kulbach were joined by a single anonymous investor to form Hillborough Studios. Their sole title, Triumph-Adventure Comics, made its debut in August. Included in its pages were the adventures of one of the most memorable characters of the Golden Age: Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights. The first Canadian national superhero or heroine, Nelvana predated the best-known US superheroine, Wonder Woman, by several months. Triumph-Adventure Comics appeared for only five issues under the Hillborough imprint, before Dingle decided, in 1942, to join what would become the best-known Canadian comics publisher of the forties, Bell Features.

Cover of comic book, WOW COMICS, number 16

During the 1930s, Cy Bell and his brother, Gene, ran a Toronto-based commercial-art firm called Commercial Signs of Canada. In 1939 they had been approached by a French-Canadian comic artist, Edmund Legault, who was trying to find a publisher. The Bells had been forced to turn Legault away at that time; however, late in 1940 when Cy Bell learned of the impending ban on US comics, he re-established contact with Legault, acquired capital from businessman John Ervin, and began work on an adventure comic book entitled Wow Comics.

The inaugural issue of Wow, dated a month later than issue one of Triumph, was a huge success. Initially it appeared in poorly registered colour, but eventually, like subsequent Bell titles, it switched to the familiar Canadian "whites" style, with black and white interiors and colour covers. Early in 1942, around the time that Commercial absorbed Hillborough, Bell changed the firm's name to Bell Features and hired Hillborough's Adrian Dingle as art director. Shortly thereafter, Bell launched five new titles: Active, Commando, Dime, The Funny Comics, and Joke.

Cover of comic book, DIME COMICS, number 1

Although somewhat uneven in terms of quality (many of the strips were drawn by adolescents), Bell's line of comics was unabashedly Canadian. Among its major heroes were both Nelvana and the Penguin by Dingle, Legault's Dixon of the Mounted, Jerry Lazare's Phantom Rider, Edmond Good's Rex Baxter, and Fred Kelly's Doc Stearne (a character that was resurrected in the 1980s, as Mr. Monster, by American artist Michael T. Gilbert). Another particularly notable Bell character was Leo Bachle's Johnny Canuck (the second Canadian national superhero), who made his debut in the first issue of Dime Comics in February 1942.

More than 50 other freelance artists contributed to Bell's titles, including René Kulbach, Ted Steele, Manny Easson, Jack Tremblay, Mel Crawford, and veteran newspaper cartoonist Leo Skuce. Bell's pool of freelancers also included the artist Doris Slater and the writer Patricia Joudrey, two of the few women involved in Canadian comics during the 1940s. Given the number of contributors to its comic books, it is not surprising that Bell would prove to be the most prolific publisher of the Canadian Golden Age, eventually issuing nearly 20 different titles (including several compilations). By the end of 1943, the firm was selling more than 100 000 comics a week.

The success enjoyed by Maple Leaf, Anglo-American, and Bell soon encouraged other publishers. Accordingly, late in 1942, Educational Projects appeared, owned and operated by Harry J. Halperin out of Montréal. Although it adopted the same format as its predecessors, Educational, as its name suggested, sought to produce a more edifying type of periodical for children. As a result, its main title, Canadian Heroes, focussed on such wholesome fare as profiles of Canadian prime ministers and governors general, historical narratives, and RCMP cases. Not especially inspired and rather didactic, the stories found in Canadian Heroes were handled by the company's stable of freelance artists, including Joseph Hillenbrand, George M. Rae, Sid Barron, and Fred Kelly. Rae and Barron, in particular, were among the most accomplished Canadian comics artists of the time.

While Canadian Heroes' approach appealed to parents and government officials (some issues of Canadian Heroes actually featured laudatory endorsements from Canadian cabinet ministers), even the publisher Halperin came to realize that Canadian children had developed an appetite for somewhat more thrilling narratives. As a result, when George M. Rae suggested that Canadian Heroes depart from its focus on true stories and feature a fictional character, a national superhero named Canada Jack, Halperin gave him the go-ahead. However, the publisher insisted that the realistic nature of the character be emphasized, so as not to detract from his firm's wholesome image.

If Educational's chief publication can be characterized as competent but dull, the only title issued by the fifth Canadian Golden Age publisher, Feature Publications of Toronto, suffered from the opposite problem. Entitled Lightning Comics, the monthly featured the unrestrained, but poorly realized adventures of such singular characters as Captain Daring, Dr. Future and Pee Wee, and Nemesis and Rover the Wonder Dog. Published by sometime Bell contributor Edward Schecter, the comic, though amateurish, underscored the popularity that Canadian comics had achieved by 1944, when Feature Publications was launched.

Although 1945 would see three more new companies -- F. E. Howard, Al Rucker Publications, and Superior Publications -- become active, it would prove disastrous for the Canadian comics industry. As the Allied victory over Nazi Germany approached, Canada's vulnerable comic-book publishers were aware that the war's end would mean the resumption of US comics distribution in Canada. Some firms revamped their titles in the face of this threat, while others, without the resources to survive American competition, accepted their inevitable demise. Two publishers, Educational Projects and Feature Publications, folded almost immediately, in the fall of 1945. Maple Leaf, on the other hand, boldly switched to colour production in an effort to hold its own on the nation's newsstands. Such an expensive product created exclusively for the Canadian market, however, was not viable over the long term. Consequently, by the summer of 1946, it too had failed.

Anglo-American, and the newcomer Al Rucker Publications, tried to avoid Maple Leaf's fate. Not only did they adopt US production values, switching to colour interiors and glossy covers, they also penetrated the lucrative American market (Rucker also appears to have briefly exported to Britain). It was probably the only strategy that might have allowed for the survival of original Canadian comics. The result, in the case of Anglo-American, was a line of polished adventure comic-books that received some US distribution. Regrettably, by late 1946 the firm was faced with unsatisfactory sales and had to abandon its own titles, as did Rucker Publications. Anglo-American, however, was eventually able to resume comics publishing as a reprint operation.

A similar fate befell Bell Features. As the war neared its end, Cy Bell borrowed $75 000 to purchase a huge offset press from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Determined not to be displaced by the influx of American comics, in 1946 Bell issued two colour comic books, Dizzy Don Comics and Slam-Bang, and planned for an ambitious line of new titles. As well, he began to arrange for distribution not only in the US but also the United Kingdom. Bell apparently encountered a major obstacle, however, when the federal government refused to authorize the purchase of newsprint in the quantities that his company required. Deterred by this and by other problems, Bell Features ceased publishing its own titles and began reprinting US comics for the Canadian and British markets.

Even though Bell Features and Anglo-American managed to remain in the comic-book business, by the end of 1946, the Golden Age of Canadian comics was clearly over. Where there once had been five major publishers regularly issuing more than twenty original titles, there were now -- with the exceptions of the relatively untested Superior Publishers and F. E. Howard -- only reprint houses.

The glory days between 1941 and 1946 would never be forgotten by those who had taken part in the exhilarating explosion of Canadian popular culture; at no time since have English-Canadian children grown up with such a wide array of Canadian comics heroes and superheroes. The boom also meant unprecedented opportunity for dozens of young artists. Unfortunately, most of the Canadian comics creators of the 1940s drifted into anonymity. A few, however, went on to make their mark both inside and outside the comics field.

Adrian Dingle (Bell Features) and George Rae (Educational Projects), who became friends after the war, both worked as illustrators while pursuing careers as fine artists. Patricia Joudrey, who had written scripts for Bell, became an important playwright, while Harold Town (Anglo-American) emerged as one of the country's leading modernist painters. Maple Leaf's Bus Griffiths became a commercial fisherman, leaving comics behind until the 1960s, when his graphic narratives depicting the logging industry were discovered by the BC provincial museum. Jerry Lazare (Bell Features), Vernon Miller (Maple Leaf), and Jack Tremblay (Bell Features and Educational Projects) all became accomplished illustrators, as did Harold Bennett (Bell Features), who worked in the US as a paperback-cover artist. Sid Barron (Educational Projects) emerged as one of Canada's leading political cartoonists.

The few artists who chose to remain in the comics business were largely obliged to pursue their careers south of the border. Edmond Good (Bell Features) worked on such strips as "Scorchy Smith," "Casey Ruggles," "Red Ryder," "Bruce Gentry," and "Dixie Dugan." He also freelanced for a number of US comics companies before launching his own title, Johnny Law, Sky Ranger, in 1955. Johnny Canuck's creator, Leo Bachle (Bell Features), worked for the American firms Prize and Croydon prior to abandoning comics for a career as a comedian and nightclub performer. John Alton (Bell Features), co-creator of the Doodlebugs, contributed to various E. C., Fox, and Gleason comics titles. Most prolific of all Canadian comic artists working in the US was Mel Crawford (Bell Features), who became one of the major artists at Western Publishing. Although Crawford entertained thousands of Canadian children throughout the 50s and 60s, his Canadian roots were no more in evidence than were copies of the Canadian "whites" to which he had once contributed.

In the US, the first post-war decade witnessed a veritable explosion in the comics industry; it is estimated that at its peak, over 60 million comics were appearing every month. Inexorably, it seemed, comics in anglophone North America (with the exception of a few newspaper strips) were becoming an exclusively American medium. This did not mean, however, that Canadian publishers could not profit from the popularity of US comic books. As had been the case in 1940, growing government concern over Canada's foreign-exchange situation would provide the basis for Bell, Anglo-American, and a host of new firms to survive in the comic-book industry.

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