Christmas is just a week away and the eye-of-the-storm peacefulness and sentiment of the coming Christmas eve and Christmas day, rather than its stressful bustle and rabid commerce, begin to rope me in. This holiday season, I’ve been wistfully thinking about what sort of volume of WECA reprint material I’d most like to find under the tree on Christmas morning.
You all know that we’ve had volumes on Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, and Brok Windsor in recent years and many of you have all three of these on your shelves. Each of these bundles up the published Canadian golden age output of stories anchored to a specific character. This week, I’d like to offer up my own take on what vertical script should appear on the next spine to incrementally widen your WECA-related bookshelf. I’d like to do this by submitting what I think is the best candidate from each of the four main Second World War Canadian comic book publishers in the hope that readers will consider challenging my choices and/or suggesting a couple of their own.
In order of preference, my top choice is from the company we’ve tended to cover least, not because of the unwarranted Toronto-centric orbit of our Canadian cultural consciousness, but because of the dearth of information available on that company and because that company’s comics are, in fact, the hardest to find of these scarce Canadian WECA comics—Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publications. Strangely enough, my first choice of featured reprint character has no costume or uncommon ability. In fact, he hasn’t even reached puberty!
My leading candidate for a graphic novel resurrection is an eight-year-old French orphan named “Roger,” who is forced to navigate the stark necessities of occupied France in the hope that he can eventually make his way to his grandparents in Manitoba. That’s his Canadian connection. He was born to a Canadian soldier from WWI who remained in France and married a French woman. In spite of losing his parents and having to travel across occupied France, Roger takes on the nickname “Lucky,” and begins a saga that takes him through 32 issues of Lucky Comics. You can read my previous look at Lucky here.
This feature presents a well-crafted, serialized, almost Dickensian, minor odyssey through occupied France and then to Canada after the war that better fits today’s graphic novel template rather than that of a trade reprint. It has quality and allure that Drawn and Quarterly or Conundrum could pick up outright instead of having it piggyback on a Kickstarter.
It wouldn’t be an easy task collecting it together, but writer Howard Hagar Hall and artist Ernie Walker offer up their best work for Maple Leaf and it needs to be seen as a whole. Lucky, therefore, is my top pick for reprint resurrection.
(As an aside, I must note that another contender from Maple Leaf is Bus Griffith’s “Now your Loggin’” run that appeared in early issues of Rocket Comics. You can find the whole first story reproduced in an earlier column of mine here, and more about Bus himself here. In fact, Bus Griffith did a more recent take on this as a successful graphic novel in 1978. Though the original series appeared as only about a dozen installments in Rocket Comics, it still merits consideration as a good reprint candidate.)
Half a continent away in Toronto, the Anglo-American comic factory with its assembly line production values, churned out one of the best-written features in Canadian war time comics. It was about a stateless, blond hero in a red long-sleeved, crew-neck t-shirt, jodhpurs, and riding boots who confounded Nazi efforts and plans throughout the African and European theatres of war. He was named Freelance and he did his good guy work pro bono and anonymously though, in the tradition of The Lone Ranger and Zorro, he often left a calling card. In his case, it was an actual calling card. You can find additional background information on Freelance from one of my past columns here.
The Freelance saga runs 35 issues with most containing 3 or 4 stories ensuring that a Freelance reprint project would probably have to span three volumes, but this amount of Ted McCall scripting and Ed Furness artwork would certainly be worth the effort. The stories are mostly sequential, with solid supporting characters such as Big John Collins and Natasha, and better structured and more absorbing than Leo Bachle’s one-note efforts with Johnny Canuck.
I don’t think that other reprint collections of Anglo-American material would have the same impact, though something like a compendium of Fawcett redraws might sell well to Fawcett aficionados on both sides of the border (more information on Anglo’s Fawcett content is here). Anthologies of the Canadian characters from Grand Slam Comics (Commander Steel, Dr. Destine, Red Rover) and Three Aces Comics (The Crusaders, The Purple Rider, Terry Kane) might also generally sell well, but I don’t think McCall’s Robin Hood or Men of the Mounted/Kip Keene stories have enough umph! What we need to see from Anglo American’s published body, therefore, is a quality reprint of its Freelance stories.
Shifting east about six blocks from Anglo-American’s location on John Street in Toronto to Bell Features on York Street we find a trove of material that has already been mined for the well-known reprints of Nelvana and Johnny Canuck. But there is much more great reprint material here.
Characters that first jump to mind are Thunderfist, created by E. T. Legault and drawn mainly by Murray Karn, and Tedd Steele’s Speed Savage. Of this pair, I’d favour the latter. I know that Karn’s lines were cleaner and channelled Alex Raymond, but his artwork always seemed a little bit static to me. On the other hand, Tedd Steele’s artwork was always raw and dynamic and grew more solid as the series went on.
Steele’s writing was also more involved and generally better than that offered in the Thunderfist strip. Ironically, Tedd Steele ended up writing and drawing the last four Thunderfist installments in Active Comics but, overall, I’d still take a Speed Savage compendium over a Thunderfist one. Still, either of these superhero collections wouldn’t be a real departure from the three collections already assembled.
I tend to favour something more coherently serialized and, for this reason, would actually choose René Kulbach’s Tang feature which ran in the first 27 issues of Triumph Comics. The feature was created and first written by Frank Brookwood, but Kulbach took the whole thing over when Dingle brought the property over with him to Cy Bell in the spring of 1942. Kulbach’s artwork is first-rate, especially his rendering of horses (and Tang is quintessential ‘horse opera’) his strong story is surprising given English isn’t his first language and the culture of the western must have been something foreign to him. Overall, the saga of Buddy Brekenridge and his horse “Tang” has so much going for it, but I wonder if westerns would sell these days?
In the end, though, I’ll probably surprise you by picking something out of left field as the best Bell Features candidate for reprint resurrection. What I’d like to see most as a reprint collection from the York Street company would be Manny Easson’s neglected tour de force effort on Dizzy Don in The Funny Comics.
The last of the big four WECA publishers that we could mine for collected reprint volume material is Educational Projects from Montreal. Its flagship title was Canadian Heroes Comics, another WECA title generally overlooked by collectors. However, the thirty issues of this rough-cut gem were probably the thirty most-Canadian comics ever produced. Its in-house art director was George Menendez Rae, who produced some of the best Canadian wartime comic book art, and it’s one of his features that I’d like to single out for reprint resurrection. Surprisingly, it’s not Canada Jack, though that feature does merit a future reprint in his own right. Should anyone ever take on a Canada Jack reprint volume, it would probably be most effective complemented with the inclusion of a collection of the Canada Jack Club pages. Those eager and shiny faces of Canadian wartime kids doing their bit for the war effort was what Canada Jack was all about.
What I’d most like to see resurrected from Educational Projects is Rae’s magnificent output on his R.C.M.P. stories from Canadian Heroes Comics. These claim to be based on actual R.C.M.P. files and Rae’s comic book rendering of them needs to be available to a larger audience. I know that some have been already been collected into the sought-after 1944 Educational Projects compendium Action Stories of the Mounties, but this volume only accounts for a dozen stories from the first half of the Canadian Heroes run (up to the end of Vol. 3 of the title). The remaining 18, which came after this compendium, need to be brought into the fold of a larger collection. A reprint collection of these stories would contain more Canadian maple syrup and maple leaf energy than all of the Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, and Alpha Flight stories put together.
To sum up, the reprint collections I’d most like to see come out in the next year or two are of Maple Leaf’s “Lucky” stories, Anglo-American’s “Freelance” stories, Bell Features’ “Dizzy Don Detective” stories, and Educational Projects’ “R.C.M.P.” stories. Roughly in that order, though I’d probably move the “R.C.M.P.” stories collection ahead of the Dizzy Don collection. So there you have it, a ranked Canadian WECA personal reprint wish list, and any one of them appearing under the tree at Christmas would widen my eyes in wonder and appreciation as well as swell my sense of Canadian comic pride to bursting.
Yet, as I’ve said, these are my personal, subjective suggestions. They might even be regarded as personal indulgences arising from a researcher’s swelled head. Maybe nobody else would be drawn to cracking open the covers of any of them. For this reason, I’d love to hear readers’ gut takes on what Canadian WECA reprint collection they’d love to find under the tree on Christmas morning.
Gerald Lazare has informed me that he sent a copy of my Heroes of the Home Front book to his wife’s sister in Japan and that her husband there happens to be a good friend of the director of the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Her husband was able to donate the book to their research library and received a formal letter of gratitude from them. Adrian Dingle, Gerry Lazare, Fred Kelly, Tedd Steele, and the rest are now on a shelf in the KIMM.
Last week, the Canadian War Plane Heritage Museum here in Hamilton purchased a half-dozen copies of my Heroes book for their Bookshop and the Art Gallery of Hamilton Bookshop also has a couple of copies. My remaining copies of the book are dwindling…. which is great!
Looking ahead, 2021 will be the 80th anniversary of the very first Canadian comic book–Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 (March 1941) and we should think about using the coming year as thinking out and preparing some significant ways of commemorating this. Let’s start preparing for “80 years of Canadian Comics.”