From the Archives

Library and Archives Building, Ottawa on a cool April morning
Library and Archives Building, Ottawa on a cool April morning

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at the Library and National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. It’s just a couple of blocks west of the Parliament buildings on Wellington and backs onto the Ottawa River.

As you would expect, you can’t just walk in off the street and ask to go through their collection of original Bell Features artwork. To begin with, the art and over 300 Bell Features comic books are kept in storage across the river in Gatineau and have to be requested by any visitor or researcher at least a week or two before they arrive. You also have to apply for an id card on line and you receive it when you get there and sign in at the security station and have to display it at all times when you are in the building. The id card, though, is good for 2 years so it’s easier to come back again.

I managed to get through a small container of Cy Bell textual material in one morning and then spent two full days looking at original art pages in the Special collections area on the third floor. You don’t need white cotton gloves for the textual material and aren’t so closely supervised in a large research room full of other people doing research at other tables on material of particular interest to them. However, there are security cameras watching you in every part of the building (except the washrooms, I hope).

The Special Collections Room is a little different. There are a couple of dozen 3 metre long viewing tables and two supervising government research assistants with their desks in the middle of the room. There were never more than two other researchers looking at their own material at the same time I was looking at mine. Here the gloves are on.

The art came out of a back room on a trolley. Before my visit I had ordered in 9 boxes of art, which ironically looked like elongated “pizza boxes” with each box containing between about 120 and 150 original art items (in fact the research assistants referred to them a “pizza boxes” as well). Inside the boxes the pages are stacked sandwiched between non-acidic archival sheets to reduce progressive deterioration.  The archives have almost 2300 pages of original Bell Features art and by my calculations I was able to get through just over half of them (this means another trip up before summer).

Here are a couple of items from Cy Bell’s textual material box. The first looks like it’s from around 1946 and lists a few story ideas. I wonder if this means that Cyril Vaughn Bell had more of a creative role than previously thought. The Johnny Canuck meets Uncle Sam idea is the “peach” of the crop.

Handwritten page by Cy Bell, in his calligraphic style, about ideas for storylines
Handwritten page by Cy Bell, in his calligraphic style, about ideas for storylines

Here is a post-WECA period item from 1949 and from Louis Silberkeit of Archie Comics who mistakenly calls our Cyril the more American “Cyrus” (this sort of, in itself, signals the tacit relationship between the American and Canadian businesses) and offers Bell Features new title Jughead Comics #1 for reprinting. The reply is saved in the files in carbon copy form and comes from Cy’s brother Gene. Too bad, a Canadian Jughead #1 would have been a great item to have in a collection. Bell Features, though, did pick up the title with No. 2 on.

Letter offering Jughead Comics No. 1 for reprinting in Canada
Letter offering Jughead Comics No. 1 for reprinting in Canada

 

Gene Bell's response.
Gene Bell’s response.

With the original art pieces, the super-hero features tend to be generally missing, so no Dingle Nelvana pages or Murray Karn Thunderfist or even Ted Steele Speed Savage pages. These are either lost or, more likely, hidden away in private collections.  I don’t know if Patrick Loubert or Michael Hirsch kept any part of what they had before they donated it to the Archives.

Here is one peculiar page. It’s a Jo-Jo Congo King original but what is it doing in the Bell Archives. The title of the story is “The Terrible Fanged Lady” and the closest I can find in Jo-Jo Comics appears in issue No. 9 and its title is “Death of the Fanged Lady” and it’s from December, 1947. I hope that we can identify this splash appearing in a late forties Bell book. It certainly looks like a re-draw of the script from the Jo-Jo Comics #9 story.

Jo-Jo original splash in the Bell Features Collection
Jo-Jo original splash in the Bell Features Collection with overlay page attached.

 

First splash page from Jo-Jo Comics No. 9
First splash page from Jo-Jo Comics No. 9

Finally here is a more significant page. It’s from Joke Comics No. 5 and is the original splash for the first “The Terror” story written by Al Clemenson and drawn by Don MacKague. You can see that the first picture is without all glued on items and that The Terror was originally called “The Avenger.” I wonder who made the editorial name-change call?

The first Terror splash original with all paste-ons off
The first Terror splash original with all paste-ons off

This second image has a previously glued-on piece that was floating with the page put it its proper place.

First Terror splash original with one paste on in place
First Terror splash original with one paste on in place

The final image is from the microfiche of the published page.

The Terror splash page from Joke Comics No. 5
The Terror splash page from Joke Comics No. 5

Looking through over a thousand pages of original Bell Features art in two full days left one central impression on me. The quality of the artwork on these original drawings shouldn’t at all take a back seat to American produced comic art of the same period. Bell’s reproduction and printing processes on relatively inferior quality paper does not do them justice. When you see these pages up close and in their original state, you can easily see that they represent quality comic book art of the first order.

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Ivan Kocmarek
Grew up in Hamilton's North End. Comic collector for over 50 yrs. Recent interest in Canadian WECA era comics.
Articles: 169

12 Comments

  1. Hello Ivan. I just want to mention that my Nelvana original art splash page from Triumph Comics # 29 may well be the only extent piece of Dingle Nelvana art work, as Rachel Ritchey indicated to me there are no such pieces in the archives. You have certainly echoed this sentiment. I would be curious to know if there any other Nelvana artwork splash pages extent in the Dingle estate??

  2. Though i didn’t get to it. The cover of the Nelvana 1945 compendium is listed in the Archives collection, Stephen. I also wonder if Patrick Loubert or Michael Hirsch kept any Dingle pieces (or others) for their own collection before donating the bulk to the Archives.

  3. I used to have a Penguin Dingle splash from Wow Comics # 27, and a couple of Nels Grant Dingle splashes, but I regrettably sold those several years ago. The only piece I have left is the Nelvana splash. I also wonder of Patrick or Michael kept any pieces. That being said, I would imagine the one piece they would want to retain would be that iconic cover to the Nelvana One-Shot. Conversely, that would also be the one page to donate, as it exemplifies everything Nelvana! I would be interested in seeing the list of the Bell Features artwork that is housed in the LAC. I spoke to the former curator of the artwork, Jennifer Devine, some years ago and she indicated that there were in excess of 5200 pages of original Bell Features art. Were some pages sold off over the past 6 years? Now, because the pages are DOUBLE-SIDED, this may be the case: 2300 pages X 2 = 4600 pages

  4. Wait. I stand corrected. The original artwork pages are NOT double-sided, like in the comic books. My bad!

  5. The only count I have seen for the number of pages is just under 2300, Stephen. I know that Dingle gave signed original drawings away as conest prizes a couple of times and at least one of these was of Nelvana. These may still be stored away somewhere by the winners. I think that there are still some originals in collections around the country and in the States. I managed to purchase an original Dizzy Don page from Funny Comics No. 5 and a Harry Brunt splash page earlier this month. Let’s see if some more surface with all this publicity going on.

  6. That is correct Ivan. in fact, Adrian Dingle gifted the Nelvana splash page to Fred Kelly back in the 1940s and I subsequently acquired the splash page from Fred Kelly directly, just prior to his death.

  7. Nice report Ivan, thanks for giving us a look at a trip to the Archives and the details for getting access to view the Canadian comics that they hold.

    One thing it makes me wonder is if there is a logbook to tell how many people have been interested to look at these over the years?

  8. That’s an interesting question, Jim. If I can get up there again before the summer, I’ll certainly ask. It would be interesting to see which names were on such a list, if it exists. With all their security, you’d think it would be data they might have on hand. The government is pretty good at keeping data on us.

  9. There is an article in the March-April 1984 issue of “The Archivist” by Paul-Henri Delvaux who was working in the Picture Division at that time and he gives the number of 2,301 original art pieces.

    The last paragraph of his article titled ‘The comic strip’ says “The Picture Division’s comic strip collections include primarily albums, magazines, books and press clippings. Of particular interest is the collection of 2,301 original drawings published by Cyril Bell during the Second World War.”

    That ‘and one’ sounds like a pretty precise number to me.

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