While interviewing Nancy Lee, the niece of Doris Slater, a couple of years ago, a family anecdote she shared with me has stuck in my mind. Doris’ older sister, Minnie, was married to Ted McCall, a long time editor at the Toronto Evening Telegram and the person who started Anglo-American Comics in Toronto. Ted and Doris worked together on the strip “Pat the Air Cadet” which appeared in issues of Anglo American’s Grand Slam Comics and Three Aces Comics. Anglo-American’s most famous and most enduring character, created by Ted McCall and drawn by Ed Furness, was soldier of fortune Freelance who fought the Axis across Europe, Africa, and in the Pacific in his own title.
Nancy told me that there had been a family story that a close relative of Ted McCall was involved in the D-Day landing on Juno Beach during the Allied assault on Normandy and during the chaos and carnage of that day (think of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan) caught a glimpse a copy of a Freelance comic partially buried in the grit of the beach. Perhaps the story is apocryphal but it has such a compelling ring to it that it almost needs to be true.
The Second World War and Canadian comics of the period are intertwined in a way that makes them quite distinct from American comics of the same time. Canadian comics came into being directly as a result of the war through the economic tension produced by that war and an Act of Parliament (War Exchanges Conservation Act) which worked towards solving that tension and which allowed many struggling artists an avenue of employment. American comics, on the other hand, especially with the appearance of Action Comics and the birth of the superhero, seemed to begin as a consequence of Jewish entrepreneurs and creators (such as Jerry Iger, Max Gaines, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby…) being unable to find work in their fields due to prejudice and subsequently needing to carve their own way out of that predicament (see Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerald Jones).
Remember, it would be another generation before we had a national flag of our own and at that time our soldiers fought for and rallied around the Union Jack and Newfoundland wasn’t yet a part of the Dominion. The war stoked the comic fires of each of the four main companies and provided much of the steam for their continued popularity. At Anglo, as mentioned, Freelance was the main champion, but every one of their heroes, except for maybe Robin Hood and The Purple Rider, regularly butted heads with Axis foes at one time or another. But aside from maybe Freelance, Anglo-American tended to hyperbolize the war for its readers more than the other publishers, most often reducing it to the caricature you might find on a daily newspaper editorial page. Here are a couple of examples.
At Educational Projects in Montreal, the presentation of the war was a far more sober affair and the real exploits of our war heroes became the firm backbone of its main title, Canadian Heroes.
Even when George Menendez Rae brought the fictional Canada Jack aboard, his main foes were fifth columnist saboteurs trying to mess things up on the home front and main aim of the title’s Canada Jack Club was to connect and pull readers into an awareness of the war effort on the home front right across the country.
Canadian Heroes often dipped back a generation into the Great War for stories about war heroes such as Billy Bishop.
The title also provided biographical sketches of famous war leaders such as Winston Churchill and offered up informative accounts of events from the war to its readers.
Maple Leaf Publications out in Vancouver seemed to have been the most subdued when it came to flaunting stories and images of the war in its books and it appears to have been the most escapist publisher of the bunch—escapist in the sense that it the war wasn’t as front and centre in its pages and on its covers as it seemed to have been with the other publishers. Yes, it did have, by the way one of my favourite story lines in WECA comics, the saga of eight-year-old orphan Lucky and his trek through occupied France in Lucky Comics.
Maple Leaf was also the home of Bill Speed and strips like “Action Stations,” but the war never seemed to be the front page story for them. Check out how many war covers Maple Leaf put out compared to the other three main publishers.
In the summer of 1945, Maple Leaf start a series of war covers to commemorate Canadian Victoria Cross winners. Here is the announcement concerning them from the back cover of Bing Bang Comics Vol. 5 No. 2 with the cover date of July/Aug. 1945:
There seems to have been at least five of these covers but I can only locate three so far and here they are:
These three are all by Jon Stables so I assume Numbers’ 2 and 4 would be by him as well should they be discovered. I hope we can determine, in the near future, how many there were in total and on what issues they appeared.
At Bell we had one of its seven main titles, Commando Comics, specifically devoted to the exploits of the military and we can’t forget that Johnny Canuck was, above all, “Canada’s answer to Nazi oppression” who, indeed, managed to sock Hitler right in the nose.
Also we can’t leave out the Bell air aces such as Crash Carson, Ace Bailey and Scotty MacDonald who all carried on in the tradition of Spanner Preston from the first issue of Hillborough’s Triumph-Adventure Comics. The Active Jim Club also updated readers on events in the war and shared stories of individuals who were fighting overseas. The club also encouraged readers to share their stories of how they were contributing to the war effort here at home.
However, some of the best war pages in all of the Canadian war-time comics belonged to Bell Features. Ironically they didn’t feature soldiers and combat but were full-page war machinery and weaponry studies by Al Cooper. Cooper was born in 1925 and was a teenager of 17 or 18 when he was doing these. Here is one of his earliest from Active Comics No. 5.
These informative and detailed full page studies of war planes, artillery, ground machinery and weaponry were presented in a number of the Bell titles but mostly appeared in Commando Comics. Here is a selection of them:
Here was a teenager introducing other teens and pre-teens to some of the mechanics and machinery of war. Today these images may have been exploited into a money making line of G.I. Joe type toys but at that time, perhaps because of the lack of change in the pockets of war-time Canadian kids, it seemed the best that war-time toy manufacturers could come up with the play rifles and model plane kits.
I think Canadian comics did a great job of connecting readers to the actuality of the war and adding to the information they received from radio and news reels in a way that American comics of the time never really did. They also connected young comic readers to each other across the country in a social network of sharing what they were doing to contribute to the war effort. In fact, once the war was over the wind seemed to collapse from the sails of Canadian comics and only partially because American comics were bound to return soon.
Heroes no longer had the same enemy to pound. At Bell, Ace Barton returned to Civy Street, The Brain and other heroes started taking on black marketeers and Capt. Red Thortan battled a drug ring. Rex Baxter became a counterspy for the United Nations but managed to keep his wartime integrity by chasing a supposedly post-war surviving Hitler (remember his body wasn’t found till decades later) down to Atlantis.
At Maple Leaf, Mono the Air Cobra became a Bush Pilot and Brok Windsor left the Land Beyond the Mists (perhaps a metaphor for the Second World War in itself) and returned to everyday civilization to a world where people were less than 12 feet tall with Starra in tow. Funny animal features start appearing more often in all the Maple Leaf titles and also started taking over the covers. The times in comics were changing just as they were south of the border. War comics would not become popular again until the time of the Korean War but Canada’s involvement in that conflict did not lead to an act of parliament that caused American comics to disappear off the newsstand shelves and present a clean slate for the birth of new set of original Canadian comics.
A retrospective of the presentation of the Second World War in Canadian comics would make a great travelling display at war museums and galleries across the country. It would be amazing to see a number of these great covers and pages and original art blown up to poster size and we might better understand what Canadian kids were presented with when it came to the war and what little bricks our own Canadian comics added to the larger wall of our Canadian identity as it developed over three generations ago.
In the WECA comics collecting community a polarizing question has recently arisen again and it concerns the following. When someone who has a sizeable collection of WECA comics is ready to divest themselves of the collection is it better that that person place that collection on the open market so that the books are made available to collectors or is it better that the person donate the collection to an archive or library so that it will be preserved as a whole and be available to researchers in the future? Circumstances will of course be different for each owner of a large collection of WECA comics who may be ready to part with them, but my own feeling is that if the owner doesn’t need the financial compensation that the sale on the open market such a collection would raise, then that owner should probably donate the collection to posterity. If, on the other hand, the owner is not financially settled and needs the liquid funds the sale of the collection would provide, then of course he should sell the collection. Many collectors feel they should be able to have a crack at these hard to find comics before they disappear into archival vaults and that owners of these solid WECA comic collections are wrongly depriving collectors, who would appreciate and “love” these comics far more than dusty shelves in an archive could. I say this in the face of the fact that in the past couple of years two good collections of these books were donated separately to archives at Ryerson and Western Universities while there is currently rumour that an equally solid collection of them will be appearing on the CLINK comic auction site this summer. How do readers feel about this dilemma?
Quick news item: The Library and Archives of Canada, down the road from the Parliament buildings on Wellington St. up in Ottawa, is opening a month-long retrospective display on Canadian comic books put together by Meaghan Scanlan, who is responsible for their Bell comic book collection, in May. The retrospective is called Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity and opening night is Thursday, May 12—the day before the start of the Ottawa Comiccon. I’m heading up to the Archives to tie up some loose research ends and plan to be there for it. I know that John Bell will be offering a short talk on Canadian comics for the event and that Mark Shainblum (Northguard creator) will be there. I hope some readers will be able to make it up there. It’s always great to meet other people who love to talk Canadian comics.
Ivan Kocmarek—WECA Windbag (I know editor Scott V. doesn’t appreciate my columns being so long and I apologize, but once a month things build up in my head and I have to vomit out the lot….)