Comic Books in English Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Comic Books in English Canada

By the 1920s comics were an established popular art form in North America. With the advent of the Depression, however, significant changes occurred as publishers responded to the public's growing appetite for escapist entertainment.
Nelvana of the Northern Lights
Adrian Dingle's Nelvana was one of the Canadian comic book heroes engaged in the struggle against the Axis during WWII. Triumph Comics No 25, circa 1945 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-136935).
Captain Canuck
Captain Canuck was a new superhero (compared to the former Johnny Canuck, who was simply a hero) introduced in 1975 (courtesy Comely Comics).

Comic Books in English Canada

By the 1920s comics were an established popular art form in North America. With the advent of the Depression, however, significant changes occurred as publishers responded to the public's growing appetite for escapist entertainment. The first adventures strips, Buck Rogers and Tarzan (the latter drawn by Halifax native Harold Foster), appeared in 1929 and were eventually followed by such classic strips as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant (Foster's masterpiece). In Canada, the success of US strips gave rise to the Toronto Telegram's Men of the Mounted and Robin Hood.

The 1930s also witnessed the emergence of a new form of comics - the comic book. After the publication of Funnies on Parade in 1933, a number of publishers, including Windsor businessman Jake Geller (Comic Cuts), experimented with the new periodicals. While the first comic books consisted of strip reprints, subsequent titles used original material. At the outset comic books were only moderately successful, but they quickly became a major industry following the release in 1938 of Action Comics No. 1, which featured the adventures of Superman, the first comic-book superhero. Co-created by Jerry Siegel and Toronto-born Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel struck a powerful chord and inspired myriad costumed competitors. As the US comics field flourished, it attracted at least 2 more Canadian practitioners - Albert Chartier and Charles Spain Verral.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, the popularity of comics continued to grow in Canada. However, as the country responded to the demands of a war economy, measures were introduced that abruptly deprived Canadian youngsters of American comic heroes. Faced with a growing trade deficit with the US, in December 1940 the King government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act, restricting the importation of such nonessential goods as comic books.

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The Golden Age: 1941-47

The resulting vacuum on Canada's newsstands was short-lived. Four publishers - Maple Leaf Publishing in Vancouver and the Toronto-based firms Anglo-American, Hillborough Studios, and Commercial Signs of Canada (later called Bell Features) - all rushed to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the exchange legislation.

The first truly Canadian comics, Anglo-American's Robin Hood and Company Comics and Maple Leaf's Better Comics, appeared in March 1941. While Robin Hood had black and white interior pages (like most of the Canadian "whites" of the 1940s) and consisted of reprints, Better was printed in colour and featured original material, including the first Canadian superhero - Vernon Miller's Iron Man. These titles were soon joined by Anglo-American's Freelance (July 1941), Hillborough's Triumph-Adventure-Comics (August 1941), and Bell Features' Wow Comics (September 1941).

In 1942 Hillborough merged with Bell, and a fifth publisher became active - Educational Projects of Montréal. By the end of 1943 about 20 Canadian comic-book titles were appearing regularly, including Active Comics, Canadian Heroes, Commando Comics, Dime Comics, Grand Slam Comics, Lucky Comics, Rocket Comics and Three Aces. Bell Features alone was publishing over 100 000 comics a week.

Between them, the Canadian titles covered a wide variety of genres: war, humour, science fiction, superheroes, westerns and more. Among the leading heroes were Dixon of the Mounted by E.T. Legault, Rex Baxter by Edmond Good, Phantom Rider by Jerry Lazare, Speed Savage by Ted Steele, Freelance by Ted McCall and Ed Furness, and Brok Windsor by Jon St. Ables. Of special note were 3 national superheroes engaged in the struggle against the Axis powers - Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Leo Bachle's Johnny Canuck, and George Rae's Canada Jack.

Despite their success, especially during the peak years 1943-44, the Canadian comics were living on borrowed time. As the end of the war approached the ban on American comic books was removed. Apparently discouraged by the coming flood of US colour comics, Educational Projects withdrew from the field in the autumn of 1945. Maple Leaf, Anglo-American and Bell, on the other hand, tried to compete by revamping their lines, switching to colour and (in the case of the 2 Toronto companies) arranging for distribution outside Canada. A handful of new publishers also became active during the 1946-47 period, but by the end of 1947 the explosion of indigenous popular culture - now known as Canada's Golden Age of Comic Books - was over. The multitude of Canadian comics heroes vanished, becoming a fond, but increasingly faint, memory for those who had grown up during the war years.

Crackdown on Comics: 1948-66

Following the end of the Golden Age period, Edmond Good, Mel Crawford and a few other artists found employment in the US comics industry. Most creators never worked in the field again, although some did pursue careers in the graphic arts. Two, Adrian Dingle and Harold Town, later achieved renown as fine artists.

As it turned out, Canadian comic books were not quite dead. Late in 1947 the country faced another exchange crisis, and a second ban on US comics was introduced. A crucial difference this time was that publishers were permitted to import American printing mats, precluding the need to produce original comics. As a result, a significant reprint industry operated in Canada from 1948 until 1951, when the restrictions were lifted. The major publisher of the era was Superior Publishers of Toronto, which, unlike its competitors, also issued original comics (using art purchased from a US studio).

The same year that the reprint firms emerged, comic books became the target of a nationwide crusade. Led by persuasive leaders like PTA activist Eleanor Gray and MP E. Davie Fulton, the movement sought to eradicate crime comics, which were blamed for juvenile delinquency and a host of other social ills. Late in 1949 the anti-comics campaign resulted in the passage of an amendment to the Criminal Code that made it an offence to make, print, publish, distribute, sell or even own crime comics.

Once it became obvious, however, that the new legislation was failing to stem the flow of lurid crime, horror and romance comics, Canadian activists resumed their campaign, joining forces with Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), and other American allies. In 1955 their efforts culminated in US Senate subcommittee hearings, which, in turn, led to industry self-censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority. The following year, Superior, the last surviving Canadian comics publisher - and a major villain to the pro- censorship forces - ceased publishing.

For the next decade, most of the comic books available in Canada were sanitized and American. Indigenous comic art was largely limited to the work of 2 promotional-comics studios, Ganes Productions in Toronto and Comic Book World in Halifax, and a few comic strips, including the nonhumour strips Larry Brannon and The Giants.

A Maturing Medium: 1967 to the Present

By the mid-1960s the repressive attitudes that had shaped popular culture in the 1950s were under assault. Virtually all cultural activity was being redefined and revitalized - even comics. Between 1967 and 1973 several different Canadian underground and literary presses produced a number of outrageous, adult comic books with titles such as All Canadian Beaver Comix, Beer Comix and Fuddle Duddle. Referred to as "comix" in order to distinguish them from the work produced under the strictures of the Comics Code, the underground comic books originated in 4 main centres: Toronto, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Ottawa. The principal artists contributing to the comix rebellion were Rand Holmes, Brent Boates, Dave Geary and Stanley Berneche.

Towards the end of the underground period, as Canada's Golden Age of Comics was rediscovered and a national comics fandom emerged, the focus of comic art shifted from counterculture themes to science fiction, fantasy, superheroes and other genres. Like the comix, these new titles, which became known as alternative comics, were largely intended for a mature audience. Two key factors contributed to their success: the introduction of a new distribution system and the emergence of a cross-country network of comic-book shops.

From 1974 to 1985 dozens of comics appeared from alternative publishers such as Orb Publications, CKR Publications, Andromeda Publications, Aardvark-Vanaheim, Vortex Publications and Matrix Graphic Series. Among the leading titles of the period were Orb; Captain Canuck; Mister X; Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman; New Triumph; and Stig's Inferno. The most important alternative comic book, though, was Dave Sim's Cerebus, a monthly that first appeared in December 1977 and is still being published today, making it the longest-running title ever issued in Canada. Conceived as a 300-issue epic, it is recognized as a masterpiece of contemporary comic art.

The 1974-85 period also witnessed two other notable developments. Firstly, starting with fan favourite John Byrne, a growing number of Canadian creators became active in the US comics industry. Secondly, improvements in photocopy technology led to the formation of a vibrant small-press comics milieu - a new underground, where truly alternative visions were nurtured. Among the leading artist-publishers were Chester Brown, Colin Upton, and John MacLeod.

Since the mid-1980s these same trends have continued. The number of Canadians contributing to US comics has increased markedly and now includes Ken Steacy, Tom Grummett, Ty Templeton, Bernie Mireault, Dale Keown, Dave Cooper, Neil Hansen, and many other popular artists. The small-press field has also thrived, producing some of North America's most innovative comic art. Many Canadian communities now have a lively local scene devoted to the publishing of small-press comics and comics-related "zines."

The post-1985 period also witnessed the meteoric rise of Canadian artist Todd McFarlane, who first achieved recognition in the late 1980s while working for Marvel Comics. In 1991, following a dispute over creator's rights, McFarlane left Marvel. Early the following year he co-founded a new US comic-book company, Image Comics. Not long after, Image began publishing his comic book Spawn, which has become one of the world's best-selling comics. Spawn's commercial success has led to a host of spin-offs, including a movie, a line of toys and an animation series.

As for Canadian alternative-comics publishing, in 1986-87 the field experienced a substantial shake-up. Since then, Drawn and Quarterly, Black Eye Productions, and several other new publishers have become active. Drawn and Quarterly in particular has contributed significantly to the growing sophistication evident in the North American comics medium. The 5 main Canadian artists associated with the firm - Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Underwater, Louis Riel), Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte), Joe Matt (Peepshow), Seth (Palooka-Ville), and David Collier (Collier's, The David Milgaard Story) - have all achieved international recognition and are at the forefront of modern comic art, creating intensely personal and often daring graphic narratives that transcend the tired conventions of mainstream (mostly superhero) comics. The work of some of these artists has recently begun to shift from autobiographical themes to explorations of historical subjects.

Although comic books first emerged as an ephemeral form of entertainment for children, today Canada's best graphic-narrative creators - particularly Dave Sim and the Drawn and Quarterly artists - are intent on establishing an adult art form of lasting significance.

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