There are a number of elite collectors of Canadian war-time comics. This tiny handful has managed to unearth these rare diamonds in the rough (in garages, barns, attics, trunks, and basements) and, through dogged persistence, ace detective work, and love of these books, amass a significant number into a solid, comprehensive, enviable, and gorgeous collection. Stephen Lipson is in the forefront of this devoted and successful group. Because these books are so rare, perhaps the time in which it was possible to assemble collections like these is past. (I know a few collectors of Canadian Whites who are nowadays even considering giving up collecting WECA books because they are so hard to find and additions to collections are far and few between.)
This week I’ve had the opportunity to interview Stephen and see his amazing collection of Canadian war time comics and I’d like to take the opportunity to share it with you.
Ivan Kocmarek: Thanks for letting me do this interview, Stephen. Can I begin by asking you where you were born and where you grew up?
Stephen Lipson: I was born in Toronto and grew up in Toronto and I’ve spent the majority of my life in Toronto. I am a Torontonian.
IK: How did you become aware of comics and starting your involvement with comics?
SL: That’s a good question. When I was a child I would go to Jimmy’s Smoke Shop at Glencairn and Bathurst and he would get the DC horror comics in every week. They were 20 cents at the time such as The Witching Hour, House of Secrets, House of Mystery, and Weird War Tales. I loved collecting DC horror comics, loved the stories by Cain and Able–they were the hosts in the House books kind of like back in the 1950s with E.C.’s The Crypt Keeper, The Old Witch, and The Vault Keeper. I would take my allowance every Thursday and going to pick up the latest Tales of the Unexpected and the rest. I affectionately remember my parents were not too thrilled that I was buying horror comics off the newsstand and I simply said that it was “my cup of tea” and they were impressed with that so that they could condone me continuing to purchase these comics.
One day I remember my mother bringing home a cardboard tube containing a series of E.C. horror reprints in them that were a dollar each. This was 1972 and I was born in 1964 so I was all of 8 or 9 years old when I was given these comics and I fell in love with them. So I cut my teeth on DC Bronze horror comics and E.C. horror comics and right up into my teens I was collecting comic books that were related to these two genres.
IK: How did you graduate from collection those Bronze horror books and E.C. reprints to the E.C. originals?
SL: When I turned 21, I received a small inheritance and started purchasing original back issue E.C. comics through the dealer catalogues of the time, people like Calvin Slobodian and Howard Rogofsky. My focus at that time were the New Trend titles which would be the seven flagship titles Crime Suspense Stories, Shock Suspense Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy. I was not into the New Direction titles such as Piracy, Valor, Aces High, etc., and certainly not the Pre-Trend titles such as Saddle Romance and War against Crime. These didn’t have the same import as the New Trend titles which were just way more exciting. Also through that I used to buy Mad Magazine on the newsstands and I soon found out that the first 23 issues were comic books. I also found out the E.C. horror titles disappeared off the newsstands in 1954 after Frederick Wertham spoke out about their connection with juvenile delinquency but that Mad survived when it changed into a black-and-white magazine which avoided it being subject to the Comics Code Authority and that’s when Al Feldstein took over and Al became a friend of mine in his declining years.
IK: How did that friendship come about, Stephen?
SL: I attended a Motor City Comicon in 2008 and he was a guest there and I remember I brought along all my E.C.’s that had Al Feldstein covers (there were 43 of them) and I had him sign each one. Not many of the attendees came up to him so the majority of the week we sat there talking. He was a very nice man and had a ranch in Montana and he regaled me with a lot of stories. He did a comic book called The Adventures of Homer Cobb in 1947 and he told me he was never paid for the work. He shared a lot of stories with me that harkened back to his time in the Iger shop studios when he worked with people like Matt Baker. He told me about his childhood and his interest in comics. Sadly he did pass away recently but I’m still in touch with his widow Michelle.
IK: What a wonderful opportunity. Well, how then did you get from the E.C.s to collecting Canadian “Whites?”
SL: In 2004, I was going through the Overstreet Price Guide and I was trying to find these artifacts… there was an ad for Richard Munchin’s store Tomorrow’s Treasures in Long Island, New York and he had purchased a collection of 30,000 comics from Nova Scotia a few years prior and he had several Canadian Whites. One person had purchased the majority of them but he still had a couple left over including a Wow Comics No. 1 and Dime Comics No. 1. I bought those from him and brought them home in Mylars and I thought it would be a pretty lucrative opportunity to resell them but my wife at the time, who was a librarian, pointed out to me that these were artifacts of our own Canadian pop culture and being Canadian and a historian (I have degree in history) I should perhaps consider keeping them. I pondered her suggestion and I looked at these books and I realized there was so much more to these books than just the black-and-white interiors and a colourful cover—these represented Canada’s Golden Age in terms of comics. I did some research and found out more about them and how special they were and I realized I should be saving them and preserving them rather than selling them when I could find them. So I began acquiring them slowly over this past decade.
IK: What happened next?
SL: I started putting ads out. I put an ad on eBay when you weren’t really supposed to put want ads up. I reached out to friends who were dealers and asked them to keep an eye out for these books.
IK: Was this just the dealers in the Toronto area?
SL: No, everywhere… all across Canada, dealers and store owners. I would take business cards to comic conventions with my name, email, and phone number on them stating that I wanted Canadian Golden Age comics. Back in the 90’s and at the turn of this century, Peter Birkemoe (owner of The Beguiling) collected these comics, but he has since sort of gotten out of them. He became the “go-to guy” for them. I purchased a couple of sizeable collections from other sources and I’ve never looked back.
IK: Well you’ve earned my admiration for your efficiency and tenacity in finding these books when they’re buried so far underground and being able to save them for posterity. I think you’ve got this science of finding these books systematically down better than anybody else and the results are there to show. You’ve helped uncover and preserve a solid number of these books. People have become more aware of their existence and specialness. We’ve had the “Lost Heroes” documentary, this column has been around for a couple of years and those reprints have come out. What do you see as the future in this story of the Canadian Whites?
SL: Here’s what I believe. I believe right now, based on market manipulation, the Canadian Whites are realizing exorbitant sums, there are people listing and relisting on eBay who are asking outlandish amounts of money for them that they will probably never get. That being said, there were two on-line auctions early in the year in which tremendous prices were realized for them. I recently had discourse with a collector who lives in the mid-western United States who purchased the Nelvana one-shot in one of those auctions for $13,750 US. The person almost had no knowledge of the book but did some cursory research and felt that Nelvana was lovely and that she was a super-heroine that preceded Wonder Woman and became enthralled with Nelvana and just wanted the book. The market for Canadian Whites goes below the 49th parallel and abroad.
IK: American interest in the Whites has previously been spurred by interest in some of the reprints that appeared during the WECA period such as the Captain America 132 page giant, the Marvel Mystery giant, and the reprints of MLJ characters such as The Shield and Archie in Super Comics. The Captain America giant has, up to now, realized the highest price for a Canadian comic and is one of those documented in Overstreet (listed at $32,000 in VF this year) purely because American interest. I see American Fawcett collectors eventually getting interested in the Anglo-American redraws and many American collectors in general becoming more aware of how good and interesting and rare our Canadian war-time comics are.
SL: Oh they already are. I know for a fact that they are. I have a number of buyers from all over North America just lining up for these books. That being said, for the future I’m hoping that prices will come down out of the stratosphere but, given the scarcity of these books, the demand far exceeds the supply and there are probably only 50 or 60 people actively collecting them right now. We know that Nelvana has been reprinted and is now carried by IDW internationally. Johnny Canuck and Brock Windsor reprints are coming up, then expect to see Doc Stearne/Mr. Monster, Thunderfist and so on with Rachel Richey tackling the Bell heroes and Hope Nicholson those from Maple Leaf. This has created a highly volatile market so it’s a bit premature to speak firmly about value… it’s too early for an accurate prognosis. Because of their high prices now they are rapidly becoming inaccessible to a large number of collectors. Myself, through hard work, I’ve put together a collection of 425 of the black-and-white copies and I’ve posted pictures of the books on the Collectors Society Comics Forum but given their rarity, I can’t sensibly be a completist. I know many individuals who got into collecting Whites but got out of it after a few years because of the sheer frustration in not being able to get copies and complete runs. And this speaks to their rarity. With all the new stuff happening in the field and things such as your column, these books are still not coming out of the woodwork. But what I care about the most is the awareness and bringing these books back into our pop culture. We had a stable of super heroes beyond Captain Canuck and Wolverine. We had a golden age and it would be good for people around the world to know this.
IK: What are some of your own favourite items from your collection?
SL: Well I actually have a beautiful slabbed 9.0 copy of Dime Comics No. 1 that came from the basement of a deceased 85 year-old man in Montreal. His granddaughter hired a “picker” to come in and remove the contents and there were several significant Canadian golden age comics found there. Another book which is one of my favourites is Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 2 which has the first Nelvana cover.
IK: Now I know you have one of the few (6 or 7) known copies of Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 1.
SL: That’s right. That came from the collection of a friend. What’s interesting is that the interior I managed to get from a dealer in the U.S. It was almost pristine but it was a coverless copy. The copy I had from my friend had a brittle interior but the cover was intact so I had the best parts married by certified conservator Tracey Heft and now it’s a wonderful restored copy. Also my Nelvana one-shot came out of someone’s garage, with this I was able to acquire some original Bell Features art pages and one of them was a Dingle Nelvana splash page from the final chapter of the “Nelvana and the Ether People” arc in Triumph Comics No. 29 which I purchased indirectly from Fred Kelly’s estate along with some other pieces and that piece particularly speaks to me because I know Rachel Richey worked at the Library and Archives of Canada up in Ottawa for several months and she doesn’t remember seeing any other Nelvana original art there—but all my books are special to me.
IK: Now one thing I remember, that you showed me once, was the Ed Furness sketchbook that you have. I know you became friends with Ed Furness as well. Tell us how that came about.
SL: I met him when he was on a Canadian Whites panel for a Comic Con that Peter Dixon put together in 2006. It was at the Direct Energy Centre (I believe Will Eisner did that show as well). This panel consisted of Fred Kelly, who created Mr. Monster, Michael Gilbert, who revived and re-created Mr. Monster, and Gerry Lazare was there as well and Ed Furness. My friend Rob Pincombe was the moderator and I made a video of the discussion. That’s where I met Ed Furness. Now Ed Furness brought with him a sketchbook that consisted of about a hundred pages of sketches and character studies of Freelance, Big John Collins (his sidekick) and attempt to create an original character called The Cat Woman.
I remember that Roy Thomas, the editor of Alter Ego asked Ed if he could borrow it and I recall him physically going to Ed and Ed couldn’t let it go from his hand. He literally had white knuckles gripping onto it and he clearly showed some trepidation in loaning it to Roy. But Roy did get and took it back with him to the Alter Ego offices for some time but never did an article on it and eventually returned it to Ed Furness.
As I subsequently got to know Ed Furness I visited him many times in the nursing home. He had lost his wife a few years back. He shared many stories with me about being the Art Director for Anglo-American Comics. He actually closed the door to the original Anglo American Publishing offices in 1946 before they later got back into the business as an American reprint publishing house. He doesn’t remember what happened to their original artwork. I met him when he was 92 and, you know, he actually worked out in the gym every day until he was 92. Before he passed away he actually gifted me that sketch book. I have fond memories of him. He was a good man.
IK: I’ve found out that he’s buried next to his wife in his hometown of Dunnville, Ontario. Now, Stephen, after amassing one of the premiere collections of these Canadian war-time comics, you must have a sense of which ones are the hardest to find. Which books would you say fall into the rarest group?
SL: Triumph-Adventure No. 1, the one-shot Top-Flight Comics also by Hillborough Studios (Jim Finlay also has the other known copy of this) that was a tough book to find. Dime Comics No. 1 isn’t as rare as people think it is and Active Comics No. 1 is a more common Canadian White. Triumph Adventure Comics No. 2 with the first Nelvana cover is also extremely difficult to find, in fact, all the Hillborough titles could fall into this category with No. 3 probably among the rarest. I remember that Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey had trouble locating a decent copy to reproduce for their reprint book. My copy has tanned pages and I was loathe have the copy scanned so they had to resort to a microfiche copy.
IK: Still, every collector has “grails” on their horizons. These are the books they think they will probably never see but would love to find. What are still some of your own “grails?”
SL: One copy I’d really like to get is Robin Hood Comics No. 1 which came out as a tabloid size newspaper section type of book. As far as I know no copy has ever been seen, if it’s even really supposed to exist. There are many copies I still don’t have, but that Robin Hood Comics No. 1 has become mythical.
IK: Besides rarity, what would you say are the engines that drive up the price of certain Canadian war-time comics?
SL: Well the obvious factors, such as first appearances, Nelvana covers, artists first works and so on…. Walter Durajlija mentioned in one of the comments to your posts on the Clink auctions the utility of ownership. Because of the rarity of these books, many collectors simply want to be able to say that they have one. Also as more and more reprints of these books come out I think that interest in the heroes featured in them will generate a corresponding interest in acquiring those original books in which they appeared… just the way the Marvel movies put a bump in the price of books that feature every new hero or villain from the comics that they add to the movie universe. When the Johnny Canuck stories from Dime Comics are reprinted next year, I see the value of Dime Comics going up because there will be international exposure to the character. A lot of people don’t know who Thunderfist is, or who The Wing is, or who Nitro is, but as more of these characters are reprinted, the price of the original comics will be driven up. Key appearances, key super heroes and simply that the demand far outpaces the supply will keep driving the prices up. These books simply don’t come out of the woodwork.
IK: For those people who want to acquire one of these Canadian Whites, what would you say would be the best way they could go about it?
SL: The problem now is that the pocketbook is such a factor… If this isn’t a problem there are some available on eBay listed from $1000 to $10,000 and the lesser ones asking about $600. You have to troll eBay and periodically a “buy it now” offer comes up that has a reasonable price to it and you have to snap it up. This summer I managed to get a couple of books this way from someone in New Zealand. It was two in the morning and I grabbed what I could at those “buy it now” prices. I just logged on at the time and “Boom!” I couldn’t believe what I saw, Joke No. 1, Joke No. 5, Rocket Comics No. 8…. But this is getting harder and harder to do because, with all this information coming out about them, prices being asked are higher.
IK: You’re so right, Stephen. Those books wouldn’t have lasted past 6 AM when I get up.
SL: Many collectors have told me that. A lot of the time it’s just pure luck but you have to stay looking…
IK: Can you find these books at comic book shops and conventions?
SL: It’s almost impossible. A lot of dealers already have these books on their own want lists or on the want lists of the collectors they’re connected with. Because of this, these books never hit store shelves or the bins at conventions. The scary thing right now is that, in spite of the fact that these books have reached the phenomenal prices of the Clink auctions, more personal found collections are not surfacing.
IK: Yes that’s something that has surprised me and frustrated me, in fact. But that can be a good thing in the end.
SL: Yes this has frustrated a lot of collectors. Something that should be mentioned is that a lot of people who enter into collecting Whites leave very quickly because they become frustrated by their inaccessibility. They are either completists who hit a wall or collectors who are priced out of the market. When these books do show up in an auction, collectors really fight over them. It’s become surreal.
IK: What’s the last thing you’d like to say, Stephen, about the whole enterprise of collecting The Whites?
SL: Well I said this when I did my little speech at the Nelvana reprint launch at The Silver Snail, these books are part of our history. They were part of Canada’s fight against the Axis and they served a great purpose on the home front. We created our own stable of Golden Age heroes, our own Captain America, our own Superman, our own Wonder Woman…. It was a unique event in Canadian cultural history and when it ended late in 1946, we’ve seen nothing like it since and we probably never will. We’ve got to keep making sure that we don’t lose them again.
IK: Thanks very much for doing this, Stephen.