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ARCHIVED - Emergence of the Comic Book, 1929-1940

By the late 1920s, newspaper comic strips -- the "funnies" -- were an established popular art form in North America, and quite distinct from political and gag cartooning. However, not everyone welcomed the emergence of this new form of mass entertainment. The noted Canadian critic and academic Archibald MacMechan decried the pervasiveness of comic strips: "We cannot even invent our own vulgarity," he complained. "The American comic supplement curses the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They should all be burnt by the common hangman."1 Although it would offer little solace to cultural elitists like MacMechan, the comics were about to change.

Panel from comic strip, PRINCE VALIANT

With the Depression, newspaper publishers quickly recognized the public's need for escapist entertainment. Accordingly, the year 1929 saw the appearance of the first non-humour strips devoted to adventure narratives: "Buck Rogers" and "Tarzan." The latter strip was drawn by Halifax native Harold Foster, who had worked as a catalogue illustrator for both Eaton's and the Hudson's Bay Company before departing for the US in 1921. These two groundbreaking strips were eventually followed by such classics as "Dick Tracy," "Flash Gordon," and "Prince Valiant." The latter strip, set in Arthurian England, was written and drawn by Foster. It was recognized almost immediately as a masterpiece of comic art. The emergence of the adventure strips meant that comics were no longer confined to a single genre.

In 1933, the Toronto Telegram began publishing a comic strip entitled "Men of the Mounted." Written by Ted McCall and drawn by Harry Hall, it was significant not only because it was the first Canadian adventure strip, but also because of its eventual connection with the early Canadian comic-book publisher Anglo-American. The strip was quite well-received and was eventually featured in the Big Little Books series and in a set of trading cards issued by Willard's Chocolates. Despite this measure of success, McCall's attempts to arrange international syndication for "Men of the Mounted" were rebuffed. As a result, he abandoned the strip early in 1935, the same year that the widely syndicated US strip "King of the Mounted" was launched.

A few months later, McCall inaugurated a second strip, "Robin Hood and Company," illustrated by Charles R. Snelgrove. This time, McCall managed to find a syndicate, and "Robin Hood" appeared in Canadian, US, and even some European papers. Late in 1939, following Snelgrove's death, the strip went on a brief hiatus as McCall scrambled to find a replacement artist. "Robin Hood" eventually resumed publication early in 1940, with art by Syd Stein. Later that year, however, Stein joined the army, putting an end to what was then English Canada's only adventure strip.

In addition to new themes, the 1930s witnessed the emergence of a new form of graphic narrative: the comic book. Beginning with the US publication Funnies on Parade in 1933, a number of entrepreneurs experimented with these new periodicals. Although most of the publishers of the early comics magazines were American, the field did include one Canadian -- Windsor businessman Jake Geller. Inspired by the success of the British comics papers then available on some Canadian newsstands, Geller acquired the rights to several UK strips, opened an office in New York, and began publishing a comics weekly entitled Comic Cuts (named after one of Britain's most famous comics periodicals). Launched in May 1934, the tabloid lasted for only nine issues. Discouraged by Comic Cuts' poor reception, Geller left New York and returned to Canada. He would soon regret his departure from the fledgling New York comic-book milieu, which was about to be rocked by the heroic visions of a young Canadian artist.

Cover of comic book, ACTION COMICS, number 1

The early comics magazines had, for the most part, reprinted US newspaper strips, but increasingly, through 1936 and 1937, more non-reprint titles appeared. At the outset, the new comic books were only moderately successful, but their popularity increased dramatically following the release, in June 1938, of Action Comics No. 1. It featured the adventures of Superman, co-created by Jerry Siegel and Toronto-born Joe Shuster -- two young, Cleveland-based science-fiction fans. Although it is now obvious that Superman and comic books were made for each other, the potential of the character was not immediately recognized. In fact, starting in 1934, the strip was rejected by numerous publishers, due to its unrealistic nature. Even the eventual publisher of the character, Harry Donenfeld of National Periodical (later DC), was exceedingly nervous about Shuster's outrageous cover for the debut issue of Action, which depicted Superman holding a car above his head.

To say the least, Donenfeld's doubts proved to be unfounded, and Action was soon followed by a flood of American superhero comics, which found a huge audience in both the United States and Canada. One of the young Canadians who eagerly devoured the thrilling new publications was Mordecai Richler, who would later become one of Canada's most distinguished writers. For Richler, the primal appeal of the early superheroes was obvious: "Superman, The Flash, The Human Torch, even Captain Marvel, were our golems," he later observed. "They were invulnerable, all-conquering, whereas we were puny, miserable, and defeated."2

As tens of thousands of kids north of the 49th parallel embraced America's most colourful and fantastic export, a handful of Canadians became active in the US comic-book field. Among them were the Quebec artist Albert Chartier, who contributed to various Columbia Comics titles, and Charles Spain Verral, a pulp-magazine writer who also wrote for Street and Smith's Bill Barnes Comics.

With the coming of war for Canada in September 1939, the popularity of American comics continued to grow. However, as Canadian government officials responded to the overwhelming demands of the war economy, emergency measures were being formulated that would abruptly deprive kids in Canada of the breath-taking adventures of Superman, Captain Marvel, and the other American superheroes. From its beginnings in the 1890s, comic art in English-speaking North America had been largely American. In Canada, that was about to change. While US strips would still dominate in the newspaper "funnies" sections, new comic books would soon offer Canadian kids their own heroes.

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