If you want to research, first hand, the Bell Features holdings of the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) up in Ottawa, you have to go into an imposing solid block of a building located just west of Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court on Wellington Street. It’s covered in square, porthole-like windows that would imply a more sinister purpose such as the gathering of government intelligence rather than being our national repository for Canadian culture and history.
You must make LAC aware of your intention to visit at least a couple of weeks in advance and indicate specifically which materials you want pulled from their off-site storage facilities by consulting their online database and filling out the proper online forms. It certainly isn’t a place you can walk in off the street and browse around in like a local library.
My first visit was during a cold late April week 2014 when I still hadn’t decided on the form of the book on old Canadian comics that I wanted to put together. An id badge/card on a lanyard that was waiting for me at the front desk and with that around my neck, I went up to the third-floor viewing room area. There, in that brightly lit room with windows far larger than the portholes that dotted most of the surface of the building and under the secure but polite scrutiny of the librarians/research assistants, I waited a few minutes until a squeaky library trolley was pushed out from a side room. On it were two tiers of large, pizza box-like containers, perhaps a dozen boxes in all, each filled with original Bell Features comic book art pages (50 or 60 pages in each box). I spent two-and-a-half days going through all 2000 pages plus in the collection and photographing the ones that were of interest to me. (It wasn’t until my second visit, two years later, that I looked through a similar trolley but this time filled with eight short boxes containing LAC’s collection of original Bell Features comic books.)
It was on the afternoon of the second day that I left that large reading room for a smaller viewing area on the same floor where a single, small, brown file box was waiting for me behind the reception desk. This one didn’t need a trolley and I carried it through pods of other researchers and students lost in their laptops and their own brown boxes.
My box contained the Cy Bell textual material originally deposited, along with the comics and original art, by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert in 1971. It comprises original letters from and to Cy, telegrams, contracts made with his creators (some signed and some not), certificates of copyright, trademark documentation, and other sundry textual materials—enough that I could mine for a half-dozen columns, really.
However, the thing that dominates the collection when you first open the container up is a large, green, ledger-sized book.
In this over-sized “scrapbook,” Cy had pasted in the cut-off the back covers of almost one-hundred reprint era (1947-52) Bell Features comic books. Each of these back covers had on them a puzzle-type contest invitation for readers to tackle. These contests were a carry-over from those original Canadian comics that Cy put out during the war years. Those comics were crammed with various contest pages, club pages, and pen pal lists that connected kids from across the country and even some from abroad. With these contest back covers on the reprint books, I think Cy felt that direct connection to readership was important and wanted to continue it, even though the contents of the comics from 1947-53 were mainly American.
The first page in Cy’s scrapbook was the back cover featuring Contest No. 6 and underneath the pasted-in page were the winning (first, second, and third place) cut-out coupons sent to the company. This time the winners were 15 year-old named Grant Plyley from Ontario, 8 year-old Heather Mills from New Brunswick, and 11 year-old Bruce McCulloch from Saskatchewan.
Cy must have assigned the management of these contests to somebody else in his office, perhaps his wife Gladys who served as Secretary-Treasurer for the company because the handwriting accompanying the paste-ups is clearly not his. In any event, the handwriting notes that the prizes have been bought and what they are. A catcher’s mitt for Grant, a doll’s stroller for Heather, and a fastball for Bruce. So it looks like the contest winners were picked and then, what the manager of the contest thought were gender-appropriate prizes, were bought.
The handwriting also indicates that this particular contest (No. 6) appeared on the back cover of Bell’s reprint of Feature Comics No. 135. It’s highly likely that the Canadian reprints of the American issues came out a month to two months after the original copy. The American copy of 135 itself has an indicia date of June 1949 and probably appeared on the stands in August which would mean that the Canadian edition probably appeared on Canadian stands a couple of months after that, or around October 1949. So this being the sixth context available, Cy must have started these contests somewhere in the late summer or early fall of 1949. However, it doesn’t look like the appearance of these back cover contests was done in sequential or consecutive months, since Bell’s Feature Comics No. 137, just two issues later, has contest No. 77 on its back cover.
The last pasted-up page in the scrapbook contains a back cover featuring contest No. 100 and it’s important to note that this contest page contains the statement that “All prizes go to Canadian boys and girls and no prizes leave the country.” This time there is no indication what prizes were bought and won but the winners of this contest were 11-year-old Yvonne Burridge from Huntsville, Ontario, 13-year-old Donald Hall from Montréal, and 7-year-old Dorothy Kerr from Trail, BC. The page also tells us that this contest, which was the last in the scrapbook but not the highest number that came out (the contests run at least to No. 112) appeared on the back cover of the Canadian edition of Hollywood Diary No. 1.
Now, I bring attention to this Cy Bell scrapbook of back covers, not just for its historical and research interest, but also for the fact that it points to what could be a very interesting collecting strain—a complete run of all the Bell Canadian reprint issues that featured these contests on their back covers. It would be approximately a 112-issue run and probably a very difficult one, indeed, to complete.
Here is a chart of what I know so far, gleaning material from Cy’s scrapbook and my own collection:
|Contest No.||Canadian Edition Back Cover||Contest No.||Canadian Edition Back Cover|
|6||Feature 135||57||Heartthrobs 2|
|7||Georgie 24||58||Wilbur 25|
|8||Jr. Miss 38||59||Justice 17|
|9||Li’l Willie 20||60||All True Crime 35|
|10||Tex Taylor 6||61||Archie 39|
|11||Wild Western 9||62||Wild Western 9|
|12||Plastic Man 18||63||Secret Loves 1|
|13||Doll Man 25||64||My Love 2|
|14||Casey 1||65||Hedy de Vine 35|
|15||Heartthrobs 1||66||Love Letters 1|
|16||All True Crime 34||67||Hollywood Secrets 1|
|17||Lawbreakers Always Lose 9||68||Two-Gun Kid 9|
|19||Best Western 59||69||Georgie 24|
|20||Amazing Mysteries 33||70||Darling Love 1|
|21||Marvel Comics 93||71||Amazing Mysteries 34|
|22||Patsy Walker 23||72||Darling Romance 1|
|25||Pep 72||73||Tex Taylor 7|
|26||Super Duck 26||74||Torchy 1|
|30||Marmaduke Mouse 13||75||Range Romances 1|
|31||Li’l Willie 21||76||Flaming Love 1|
|33||Wilbur 21||77||Feature 137|
|34||Jr. Miss 37||81||Police 92|
|35||Two-Gun Kid 8||82||Susie 82|
|36||Hedy of Hollywood 34||83||Modern 89|
|37||Spirit 16||84||Laugh 35|
|39||Lawbreakers Always Lose 10||85||True Western 1|
|40||Candy 11||86||Romance Tales 7|
|41||Love Diary 1||87||Marvel Tales 94|
|42||Blackhawk 26||88||Our Love 1|
|43||Doll Man 24||89||My Diary 1|
|44||Crime Fighters 9||90||Diary Loves 2|
|45||Plastic Man 19||91||Love Romances 91|
|46||Laugh 34||92||Blackhawk 27|
|49||Pep 73||94||Lawbreakers Always Lose 11|
|50||Molly Manton’s Romances 1||96||Justice 18|
|51||Feature 136||97||Romances of the West 1|
|52||Marmaduke Mouse 14||98||Girl Comics 1|
|53||Spirit 17||99||Love Classics 1|
|54||Love Romances 8||100||Hollywood Diary 1|
|55||Casey 2||104||Cowboy Romances 2|
|56||Love Romances 1||112||Tex Taylor 8|
An addendum or subset to this would be those Bell reprint comics that have winners announcements on their back covers. Here are the few that I know about:
|Winners for Contests Numbers||Canadian Edition Back Cover|
|107-9, 111||Active 96|
|107-111||Feature Comics 140|
|78-80, 102||Modern Comics 92|
|64-68||Pep Comics 74|
|78-80, 102||Range Romances 2|
|103-106||Wild Western 10|
You’ll quickly notice that there is a bit of overlapping and some comics feature the same winners announcements. Here is the winners announcement from the back cover of Active Comics 96. I wonder how many of these kids are still around today?
All in all, I’m on the lookout for any Bell reprint books that have numbered contests on their back covers but I don’t think I’ll come close to getting a complete set.
I now have five episodes of my audio podcast now called Cataclysmic Comics Backpack because there was already another podcast from the UK called Comics for the Apocalypse. It’s a sort of Desert Island Discs for comics and my guests are personalities from Canadian comics culture. Episodes up are for our own Walter Durajlija, Kitchener’s Mel Taylor, Dave Darrigo, Ron Hobbs, and Ron Kasman. Coming soon are episodes featuring Rob Walton and Mark Shainblum. Take a short listen when it’s convenient here.
Ivan, what an amazingly interesting article. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could track a few winners down, and record their memories of same?
I feel the same of every comic I own and the name that might be inscribed on its cover.
Respects for your Herculean efforts Ivan.
Yes Ivan, great article and I like the niche idea for collecting! I agree with Dave that it would be interesting what memories a few of the contest winners have! I am always interested in who some of the people were who either put their names on comics or filled out never sent coupons. I have an old G-8 and his Battle Aces pulp where a 16 year old kid filled out one of those “Get Work in the New Career of Radio“ coupons with his address. I Google Earthed the address and it was a farmhouse north of Boston and made wonder what he ended up doing after 1934! Keep up the great research!
We did track one of the winners down Dave, just to see if it was the same person, Mike Filey who writes the historical newspaper column in the Toronto Sun. It was him and he remembered winning, but not the specific prize I believe. I thought that was pretty cool.
Hey I notice that one of the earlier contest winner of original page Bell signed art by Al Cooper was a James Fleming!
Is this maybe the same Fleming that drew some of A-A’s Captain Marvel that Ronn Sutton met? (See Alter Ego #35).
There were 9 other Captain “Red” Thornton pages given away, I wonder if any still exist?
Dave and Gerald, thanks for your kind comments and I always think that connecting old comics with real human beings whether they are the creators or part of the audience is really important whenever we are able to do it. Jim B is right that we did get in touch with Mike Filey back in 2014. I took a stab and contacted him by email informing him that a “Michael Filey” of 758 Bathurst St, in Toronto was listed as the third-place winner of Bell Contest No. 106 and I sent him a scan of the back cover for Wild Western No. 10 on which the announcement was made. He wrote back:
WOW!!! Quite a surprise from my childhood. 758 Bathurst St third floor, big bay window all the better to track the Bathurst and Bloor streetcars. Unfortunately I don’t recall anything around about this contest (I was born Oct 1941 and so I guess I would have been 8 when I won and look the only one from Toronto) nor do I remember what I won although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a new car). I do remember submitting and winning a dart board in New Liberty magazine after entering the magazine’s back page joke book. Can’t recall the joke though. Of course like any kid growing up in the city (and with no TV to occupy my leisure time) comic books, my local movie houses (Alhambra, Midtown, Metro – the latter the best place watch cowboy serials – Whip Wilson, Lash Larue, Red Ryder and Little Beaver – though latterly it was a porn house or so I’m told) and Superman, Roy Rogers, Inner Sanctum, Blondie, etc. radio programs were the “tablets” of the era. I’ll give some thought to any memories I have of comic books and if I come up with something pithy I’ll get back to you. Thanks for sending me this “blast from the distant past”…Mike
Holy cow, Ivan. You sound nothing like I imagined. For a minute, I thought I was listening to an old episode of the Twilight Zone. You have an amazing radio voice and I, initially, thought you had hired a professional narrator for the job.
Thanks for giving the podcast a listen. Funny, I’ve been told that I have a voice that’s conducive to broadcasting, but I haven’t paid it much attention–it’s what I’ve stuck with.
This is a topic I can relate to. 🙂
I’ve considered Bell Contest back covers a great method of dating Canadian reprints, as good as date stamp data, that I track to estimate when a Bell book came out compared to the US counterpart. Some Canadian reprints don’t just get distributed right after the US issue and it can help align the Canadian books to actual distribution dates.
I started merging my info in the last few days after work and this morning my first day off work and I’ll try to pass it on to you Ivan before Thursday.
I’ll include all the BC scans I have and I also focus on the “winners” data so it will include a list of all the names, addresses of winners of the books I have.
I enjoy the podcast too.
It’s like listening to The Walking Dead while it’s, ironically, not filming due to a real pandemic, when we need that show more than ever now.
We need to temper the interesting information derived from this piece of Canadian history with the realization that Bell’s contests were responsible for all those coupons cut from Bell comic covers.
Thanks Jim, I appreciate any data you can share with me and thanks for checking out the podcast. I haven’t yet considered interviewing any collectors of, say, Canadian golden age comics, but perhaps I should.
Klaus, I agree with you and lament the books I have with cut-out coupons, especially those for the Bell sweater crests which were often on the inside front cover and disfigure a book far more than a back cover cut-out. However, we also have to remember that these comics living objects of daily commerce and culture during the 40’s and we can’t just selfishly think about them as trophies for our collections (though I still do) more than half-a-century later.
What a neat way to look at the comics, not sure I would have studied the ledger other than briefly. Those eight short boxes of actual comics are like eight Ark of the Covenants! Cool though and thanks for letting some of it see the light of day online.
A side note: when you reprint the WECA price guide would you be able to expand it to include the post war FECA comics? I think it’d be handy to have as much info for both in one spot for tracking collectibles down. Most WECA’s are beyond my wallet, but maybe a FECA reprint… Right now it seems like Canadian comics stopped dead in 1946 but that’s not the case.
Another side note: I just ordered “From Sunbeams to Sunset” the history of home grown Australian comics from 1924 to 1965. At a glance it’s much like your book, Ivan, with articles on publishers, writers and artists with lots of cover reproductions. The WW2 period seems to mirror our WECA period with a disappearance of American comics opening the doors for Australian product.