On the front cover of Canada’s first comic book, Better Comics No. 1 (March, 1941), Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publications chooses a stylized maple leaf containing the words “Canada’s Own” to be its logo. These words broadcast the mission mandate through which Vernon Miller created his comics out on the West Coast. Given this, what could be more Canadian than Bus Griffith’s “Now You’re Loggin’” comic book feature on felling trees in the BC wild which first appeared in one of those Maple Leaf comic books.
Gilbert Joseph (“Bus”) Griffiths was born on the Prairies, in Moose Jaw, Sask. on July 9, 1913. His parents Joseph and Rachel were both born in England with Rachel coming over in 1907 and Joseph in 1909. They must have met and married shortly after Joseph arrived because their first son, Ernest was born around 1911, then Bus, and finally his sister Edith a couple of years later. The family quickly moved to Penticton BC where Bus lived his youngest years and then to Burnaby in 1922. Griffiths says that it was his father who first encouraged him to draw:
I was a hard kid to get to bed and my father used to tell me if I got to bed and went to sleep that the little elves would come and draw a picture in my scribbler. I’d wake up in the morning and find the scribbler tucked under my pillow and there’d always be a drawing in there somewhere. I think that’s what got me drawing. (Bus Griffiths, Logger and Artist, 1913-2006, Obituary by Grant Shilling, The Globe & Mail, Dec. 8, 2006)
A local butcher kept calling him “Buster” and this stuck in the form of “Bus.” He initially worked as a cataloguer for Massey-Harris who made farm implements but soon found his vocation as a faller (the person who brings trees down with precision) in logging camps all over British Colombia. Bus, with no success, to market some of his drawings to local newspapers, then in the fall of 1941, came a break:
…when there was a shutdown in the mill and American comics weren’t coming up because of the austerity program, and I saw this ad in a Vancouver newspaper from some place called Maple Leaf Publishing looking for people to do comics. So I roughed in two or three pages and took ‘em in. The fellow there [Vernon Miller?] said, “We’ll take it, make it into an eight-page episode.” They seemed to like it… Then I started a Western serial. They had about four different comics and “Logging” was in Rocket. But I had to stop doing ‘em when I got sent up to Port Hardy and got froze in the woods there. (Shawn Conner, “I’d Rather be Fishing: A Conversation with Bus Griffiths” The Comics Journal #187, May, 1996.
About twenty years previously to the above quotation, Bus gave a similar account to poet and friend Peter Trower in Peter’s column “Pages from a Life Log” (Coast News, March 15, 1977, p. 5) stating that he was working on Burke Mountain near Port Coquitlam:
I saw in the paper that the Maple Leaf comics were starting up and wanted cartoonists. I took in some of my old western strips. The editor [again, Vernon Miller?] was interested and asked me if I had any other ideas. I told him I’d often thought to try a strip about the woods. That’s how the original “Now You’re Logging” series got started.
Actually, Bus’ “Now You’re Loggin’” strip began in the pre-Rocket title called Name-It Comics (Nov.-Dec., 1941). Maple Leaf had already put out Better Comics and Lucky Comics earlier in the year and at the end of 1941 put out two more titles, Bing Bang Comics and Name-It for which it chose the gimmick that the readers would come up with its name. Name-It Comics and it had this title for only one issue because with the second issue it became Rocket Comics, the name chosen as the contest winner with the winning entrant being Sheldon Kasner of Montreal. His other strip was the western “Son of the Range” which also in Rocket Comics.
Bus had already gotten married to wife Margaret in 1940 and, in fact, missed being sent overseas again because he was frozen in on one of his logging jobs (see Conner, p. 113). He ended up working for Maple Leaf for about a year but by 1943 the demands of his work as a logger forced him to drop his comic work. By 1944 Bus and his wife were settled in Fanny Bay, a little inlet community, just about in the middle of the east coast of Vancouver Island. From this base he became an itinerant logger right up to the early sixties at which point he took up trawler fishing as a main livelihood but continued to do some logging once fishing season was over.
In the early seventies, Griffiths had some of his paintings purchased by the Courtenay Historical Society and the resulting favourable reviews encouraged him to take up the “Now You’re Logging” project again and installments were published in the trade magazine B. C. Lumberman and then later in the cultural anthology periodical Raincoast Chronicles put out by Harbour Publishing. It took him five years of careful attention to detail and drawing and by 1978 Now You’re Logging was published full-blown by Harbour Publishing and has since become a classic in the field with the first edition hardcover selling upwards of $1000.
This is one of Canada’s first graphic novels. It’s steeped in dense, rolled-up plaid sleeves and suspenders argot and dripping with an authenticity that quietly asserts the integrity and sense of custodianship (of a bare-hand and genuine way of earning a living) in the soul of its author. (See Brad McKay’s splendid summary of the worth of this work, “Muck Sticks, Whistle Punks, and Donkey Punchers”).
Around the same time that Now You’re Logging came out as a hard cover, Peter Trower got Bus to do some illustrations for his collection of poetry called Bush Poems (Harbour Publishing, 1978). Trower also included, in the middle of the book, a series of six of Bus’s drawings of an old-time high rigger in the process of topping a spar tree in appreciation of the quality of Bus’ work.
About a dozen years later, Bus provided the illustrations for a children’s story called Patrick and the Backhoe (Nightwood Editions, Madiera Park, B.C., 1991) written by Howard White, who started Raincoast Chronicles.
Later in life, Bus Griffiths transitioned to oil painting and a number of these hang in the Courtenay District Museum and the Fanny Bay Community Hall. Though Bus at times thought about getting some art training he never did. He was completely self-taught and his idiosyncratic representations add more to the genuineness and charm of his work.
Bus Griffiths died from prostate cancer on September 25, 2006 in Comox, B. C. leaving behind his wife Margaret and sons Gilbert and Stephen. Few people find out what they are made for in life and no one in panel illustration fit more snuggly into his dharma than Bus Griffiths. He’s still logging.