Few can deny that comics and graphic storytelling have become an influential force in 21st-century western culture. Academic departments and programmes that concentrate on its study are growing. It fills the small screen and the big screen and is the focus of large, regular weekend gatherings around the continent. Its importance is emphasized by the amount of commerce that it continues to generate. Understandably, the epicentre of this comic ‘Big Bang’ is the United States and the genius of individuals like Siegel and Shuster and Lee and Kirby. Action Comics No. 1 occupies a preeminent place in this comic cosmology.
In comparison, our own Canadian comic universe is a tempest in a teapot with few people aware of its beginnings. That brief, almost accidental, half-dozen year comic book window that produced our first Canadian comics during World War II was, for the longest time, more like a forgotten ‘lost world’ than part of our Canadian socio-cultural fabric. The landscapes of Maple Leaf, Anglo-American, Bell Features, and Educational Projects roll-up fiction existed more like Kong’s Skull Island or Pellucidar than part of our remembered history for decades. Whenever garage or estate sales, or farmer’s barns spat up related artifacts, they were most often regarded as valueless curiosities or even nuisances within the clumps of American comics we could net.
Now that we’re beginning to ‘crack’ that mysterious world of Canada’s first comics, we’re finding out that what we know, like Canadian culture in general, is funnelled through Toronto. Bell Features and Anglo-American comics are the ones that show up most regularly and Bell Features books are the ones most commonly housed in the archive repositories around the country. Toronto area World War II creators were most accessible for invites to cons of the last century and early part of this century, again, that were held in Toronto. My own book, Heroes of the Home Front, had Bell Features creators as its focus. Availability and accessibility of resources and documents have handcuffed us into becoming Ontario- and Toronto-centric in our approach to these comics.
However, the proper beginning of Canadian comics – the locus of its ‘Big Bang’ – was in Vancouver. Canada’s west coast Maple Leaf Publications has always been the least explored territory of Canada’s World War II comic world. I hope that we will eventually get a solid repository of these scarce books somewhere in the country so that this can be rectified.
Canada’s comics started with the cover date ‘March 1941’. As any comic book collector will know, comics (and magazines) with this cover date were physically on the stands four to six weeks earlier. To get a sense of Canadian life at the time, take a look at the March 15, 1941 issue of Canada’s national magazine Maclean’s which would have been on the stands at the same time as Canada’s first comics and which you could have bought for half the cost or less of one of those comics.
There were actually a half-dozen comic books that appeared on Canadian stands with the cover date ‘March 1941.’ All but one were published by Toronto’s Anglo-American Publications. The five Anglos included the four mysterious, and apparently illegal (according to the War Exchange Conservation Act), direct reprints of American Fox issues (Big 3 Comics No. 2, Fantastic Comics No. 16, Mystery Men Comics No. 20, and Weird Comics No. 12).
The other Anglo was the 16 page,tabloid-sized collection of Ted McCall’s Robin Hood dailies from the Toronto Evening Telegram that was Robin Hood Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 that didn’t very much resemble a comic book at all.
The remaining March 1941 Canadian comic was Maple Leaf Publications’ Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1. It was the most significant of the lot.
This is the one we have to regard as Canada’s first comic book. It was completely original content. It even had some full-colour pages and it introduced us to the first superhero to appear in a Canadian comic book: The Iron Man. This comic was almost entirely the work of one Vernon Hope Miller, born in Winnipeg on July 2, 1912, and therefore of the same vintage as Adrian Dingle and Edmond Good. His family moved to Vancouver when Vernon was in his teens. When he was 28 Miller founded The Maple Leaf Publishing Company with Vancouver book entrepreneur Harry Smith and their first offices were at 818 Richards St. By the third issue of Better Comics, the company had moved to 849 Homer St. and this became its permanent home.
Vernon Miller was living next to Kitsilano Beach Park at 1218 Maple St. in Vancouver with his parents (his father, Gerald, was a real estate agent) and younger brother (Phil) and sister (Mavis) when the first issue of Better Comics came out. He endearingly dedicated the very first issue off the press to his parents at the bottom of its inside back cover and presented it to them. The family is still proudly in possession of this copy.
The cover of that first issue showed an explosion of primary colours emanating from just beneath the open door of a cylindrical screw-tipped vehicle with an older, bearded gentleman flinching from all the commotion. The cover was unusual in that it sported a 15¢ price tag rather than the regular dime price point.
Vernon Miller placed an introductory message to his audience on page seventeen just before the story about The Iron Man. It had a clear wholesome, positive, and nationalistic theme. It also attempted to engage the reader straight away into a partnership with the editors in the evolution of the comic itself by asking for input. This, I think, was a distinguishing characteristic of all the major Canadian World War II comic book publishing companies. They actively, through clubs, letter columns, and contests, sought suggestions and criticism from readers to an extent that never, to my knowledge, appeared in American comic books until much later.
The first story up, written and drawn by Vernon Miller, is “The Earth Torpedo.” It’s about Professor Miles and his nephew Bobby who have just finished building a cylindrical vehicle with screw tips at either end. They call this ‘The Earth Torpedo.’ It can drill through the earth and solid rock with ease and the Professor plans to put it to work as a rescue and exploratory machine. By the second page, bad guys have co-opted the machine and force the professor to break into a bank vault. However, instead of bringing the bad guys back to their point of origin with their loot, the professor surfaces at the penitentiary and gets the culprits back to where they really belong.
This same trope of an earth boring machine was used again a half-dozen years later by Tedd Steele for his villain, The Mole, when he battled Speed Savage in Triumph Comics Nos. 28 and 29.
The next feature is a western with the unwieldy title, “Tiger Tex, The Cowboy Detective and his Talking Parrot.” Again, the strip is written and drawn by Vernon Miller. Tiger Tex is your typical all-round cowboy except for the fact that he rides the plains and solves crimes with a parrot on his shoulder.
Tex captures a gang of train robbers with the help of the misdirection of his talking feathered pet. Though Tex refers to his avian sidekick as “Polly,” in this story, the last of five contests listed at the back of the book asks readers to suggest a name for the bird. The ‘Tiger Tex’ splash page for the third issue of the title announces that the name chosen for Tex’s partner in detection is “Echo.”
Miller had a gadget story with “The Earth Torpedo” and a western with “Tiger Tex,” but he knew he needed some sort of super-powered figure to make this into a proper comic book and he came up with his next feature about a character called “The Iron Man.” The phrase “Iron Man” in the first half of the last century conveyed the epitome of male physical fitness in opposition to the idea of the cowering ’98 lb. weakling.’ It was the aspirational endpoint of the male vector of the time and its residue still exists in the contemporary idea of the “Ironman Triathalon.”
Miller wrote and drew “The Iron Man” feature and he decided to distinguish it by making it a full-colour strip. “The Iron Man” has nothing to do with Tony Stark but is more akin to the Sub-Mariner and Aquaman. There are no credits, but the art clearly looks like rushed Vernon Miller and, for some reason, he doesn’t put his name on the strip until the fourth issue of the title.
The Iron Man is an undersea denizen of sunken civilization in the South Seas. It has survived in the form of a ‘Bubble City’ and The Iron Man survived because he “…possessed the faculties and powers far beyond his or our times–” Here are the first two pages of the story:
He appears to have some of Superman’s stock powers of super-strength, flying ability, and a certain invulnerability, but there is nothing Canadian about him or about any of these first three features other than the fact that they were created by a Canadian. Here are the fifth and seventh pages of the story:
With the fourth feature, “The Hidden Passage,” we find Miller sharing the credits as the illustrator with writer Frederick Percy Thursby. Thursby was born in Cork, Ireland on January 30, 1890, and came to Vancouver with his family in 1909 where he found work as a draughtsman. He seemed to exhibit an expertise in nautical history and chose to display it in this strip about 18th-century treasure hunting and pirates.
Thursby did a few amazing nautical illustrations that looked almost like etchings in the first issue of Lucky Comics and took over the strip completely for the fifth issue of Better Comics though, ironically, that was its last appearance. Thursby again tried his hand at his own strip with “The Modern Privateer” in Rocket Comics Vol. 3 No. 2. Thursby died in Vancouver in 1960.
The final feature, titled “The Roaring Rails” is, again, all Vernon Miller.
It has no splash panel and looks to me as if it could have been originally intended as a daily strip. It is railroad-themed and involves engineer Dawson Steele getting important papers to their destination. Dawson is waylaid by a pair of crooks who steal the papers and cause a train crash that is blamed on Dawson. At the end of the strip, Dawson sets out to right the wrong.
Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 is 90% Vernon Miller and 100% Canada’s first comic book. Besides Thursby’s contribution to “The Hidden Passage,” Ernie Walker, future artist on “Peter and Peggy and the Haunted Castle” and the “Lucky” saga in Lucky Comics and other strips created two full-colour pages called “Gnome Man’s Land” for the inside front cover and the back cover.
Still, there’s very little Canadian about the content of Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 other than the fact that it was created by Canadians and published in Canada. The stories aren’t set in Canada and the characters aren’t clearly distinguishable from any American characters. This, however, would soon change with creators like Bert Bushell, Spike Brown, Ley Fortune, and John Stables coming on board to build perhaps the very best of Canadian comic book publishing companies.
The first seven issues of Better Comics were published monthly and by the time that Freelance Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 came out in July-August, Better Comics had its fifth issue on the stands. The first issue of Triumph-Adventure Comics appeared on the stands alongside Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 6 and the first Bell Features comic, Wow Comics No. 1 sat on the stands alongside Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 7.
I know of the existence of only 5 copies of Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1, all of them in remarkably good condition. This would put the scarcity of the book right on the cusp of a 9-10 Gerber scarcity rating. I doubt many more of these are going to show up for quite a while, if ever.
The importance of Vernon Miller and Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 to the story of Canadian comics cannot be understated. Given the political and economical window that the Second World War provided, Vernon Miller jumped in with both feet and was the first to show the Canadian audience what there was the opportunity to do. This Vancouver initiative led to the coalescence of comic book creativity in Toronto and eventually Montreal and is the mostly forgotten original source of our Canadian comic culture today.
INFO NOTE: Those of you going to TCAF this weekend. Ken Steacy will be signing his recent project done with Margaret Atwood about the Canadian comic scene of the ‘40s in Toronto titled War Bears. Check it out and chat with Ken about it. Ken’s wife, Joan, will also have her new work Aurora Borealice on show.