Today’s column orbits Bell Features artist Fred Kelly whose best-known creation was probably Mr. Monster. It does so because, last month, I came into possession of 21 pages of original Bell Features art and this was due originally to the butterfly effect of Fred Kelly’s foresight and love of the genre—and I want to put this into perspective.
The set of 21 pages of Bell Features art I now have is less than 1% of that held by the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. LAC has about 2300 pages that were originally rescued, along with about 300 Bell Features comic books, from publisher John Ezrin’s warehouse by Patrick Loubert and Michael Hirsh back in 1971. Loubert and Hirsh put together and published a book called The Great Canadian Comic Books based on their acquisitions and subsequently sold the acquisition to the national archives in that same year. Loubert and Hirsh also purchased the copyright to that Bell Features artwork and the comic books from Cy Bell and made a deal with the archives so that the archives would hold half this copyright and half would be retained by Loubert and Hirsh and controlled by the animation company, Nelvana Studio, that they were able to found from the monies they received in the sale. Nelvana Studio was subsequently acquired by Corus Entertainment at the start of the current century, and now, if you want to use images or other content from this Bell Features collection, you must apply for permission from both LAC and Corus. This is what I had to do for much of the original art content of my book, Heroes of the Home Front, and both LAC and Corus were very amenable and no costs were incurred once they understood the nature of my project.
Original Canadian war-time comic book pages are exceedingly rare outside the LAC holdings. The artists just turned finished pages over to the Art Directors of each comic book publishing company and they never got or asked for them back. The companies themselves hardly ever saw any reason to save those pages. When some were saved, as in the case of Bell Features, they were never looked upon as something that should be preserved. They were stacked and strewn on the floors of warehouses. Many of those pages up at the Archives still have shoe prints on them. I know of less than 30 original Bell Features pages, including the 21 I just acquired, outside the LAC holdings in private collections. I haven’t yet seen, or been made aware of, a single published original art page from any of the other WECA companies (other than, what appears to be, an eight-page unpublished Ed Letkeman ‘Zor the Mighty’ story) currently held in Jim Finlay’s collection.
But, getting back to Mr. Kelly…. For some reason, Fred chose to make a deal with Cy Bell for 25 original pages from the company he worked for. He only worked for Bell for the last year-and-a-half of its existence (from about the end of the war in Europe on), but something made him pull these pages out of the warehouse pile and hold onto them for almost 60 years.
Then in 2004, writer, Canadian comic book aficionado, and foremost Leo Bachle authority, Robert Pincombe, donned his private eye fedora and sought Fred Kelly out in Owen Sound. He found Fred, who was now 82, frail and in a wheelchair, but full of a cheeky spark that must have animated his whole life. Robert persuaded Fred and his wife to come down to Toronto and for him to appear on a Toronto Comic-Con panel, held that year on the third weekend in June at the Queen Elizabeth building at Exhibition Place. Robert also asked Kelly’s one-time studio-mate, Gerry Lazare, to be part of that panel and arranged for a reunion dinner before the event at a local restaurant. Gerry himself has told me that he was very touched by this emotional reunion and that Fred immediately started up with his asides and ribbing as if the two were still at that studio space they had shared over the Capitol Theatre at Yonge and Eglinton six decades before. Fred and Gerry parted with Fred inviting Gerry up for a day of fishing on Georgian Bay, but Fred died about a year later and, to Gerry’s great regret, this never happened. Fred was inducted into the Joe Shuster Hall of Fame in 2016 joining Gerry who had already been inducted in 2007.
At that same con appearance, Fred Kelly met Michael T. Gilbert who revived Fred’s Mister Monster character back in the ’80s and approved of what Michael was doing with his character and gave him an original page of his artwork.
While connecting with Fred, Rob Pincombe found out that Fred had 25 original Bell Features art pages along with some unpublished original dailies he had done after his work with the company had finished. Fred was in need of funds for medical bills and other things and wanted to sell the pages. Robert was able to arrange the sale of the Bell pages to Stephen Lipson, who eventually sold 23 of the pages to collector Chris Preachuk in Winnipeg with Stephen keeping the lone Dingle Nelvana splash page from Triumph Comics 29.
Chris Preachuk provided hi-def photos of the Bell pages he had for me to use in Heroes of the Home Front and I duly credited him, so Chris and I had been in communication about these pages a couple of years ago.
About six weeks ago, Chris Preachuk purchased half-a-dozen wartime Canadian pulps from listings I had on eBay and we connected again through eBay messages. I asked him if he would consider selling those original Bell pages he had and he was elusive but asked what other Canadian stuff I had for sale.
I said that I was ready to sell some of my Marvel keys and sent him pictures of my Journey into Mystery 83 (4.5), Spidey 1 (5.0) and AF 15 (4.0) along with a few others. Chris said that he might be interested if we could work out a deal for the AF 15 and, after a brief back-and-forth we agreed on the AF 15 for twenty of the pages. Chris told me that he was also interested in Golden Age Canadian versions of Marvel books and we quickly made a deal of two of my reprint-era Caps for another page. Chris shipped the 21 pages to me, and I shipped the slabbed books to him and each of us was very happy with the results. Chris still holds onto a Fred Kelly original cover for Dime 27 and a Dingle Penguin splash from Wow Comics 27.
These Bell Features pages I now have are splashes from the last year of Bell’s original material production and comprise the following:
|Ace Bradley||H. Thomson||Commando Comics 17|
|Betty Burd||Fred Kelly||Dime Comics 25|
|Captain Red Thortan||Fred Kelly||Wow Comics 28|
|Cinder Smith||Fred Kelly||Active Comics 25|
|Cinder Smith||Fred Kelly||Active Comics 22|
|Clip Curtis||Fred Kelly||Wow Comics 27|
|Doodlebugs||Ed Alton||Joke Comics 24|
|Invisible Commando||Charles Zusi (CAZ)||Commando Comics 16|
|Major Domo and Jo-jo||Arom Yanovsky||Joke Comics 23|
|Nels Grant||Adrian Dingle||Triumph Comics 26|
|Nels Grant||Adrian Dingle||Triumph Comics 28|
|Penny’s Diary||Doris Slater||Active Comics 23|
|Rex Baxter||Clayton Dexter||Dime Comics 25|
|Speed Savage||Tedd Steele||Triumph Comics 28|
|Spike and Mike||Ross Saakel||Spike and Mike Compendium nn|
|Steve Storms||Fred Kelly||Joke Comics 22|
|Steve Storms||Fred Kelly||Joke Comics 23|
|Tang||Rene Kulbach||Tang Compendium nn|
|The Brain||Andre Kulbach||Active Comics 23|
|The Dreamer||Gerry Lazare||Wow Comics 27|
|Wings over the Atlantic||Andre Kulbach||Commando Comics|
In light of the fact that I will be entering my eighth decade in the spring and all my research into and championing of Canadian war-time comics, I think that the trade of my AF 15 and a couple of Canadian golden age Caps for these 21 Bell Features original splashes is the best comic deal I’ve ever made—and I know that Chris is happy on his end. The next question is, ‘Should these go to an archive (McMaster University, my old alma mater, is keenly building its Canadian graphic narrative collection, especially concentrating on war-time material) or should they go into an auction so that other collectors can have the pleasure of making them part of their collections? Anyway, right now I just want to enjoy having them for a bit and experiencing that direct connection to the talented hands that created them whenever I look at them. One thing I would like to do, once this pandemic occupation allows it, is to display them, along with some of the original comics themselves, in a small gallery so that a wider audience who might have an interest in them could also appreciate them.
Wait! The Kelly connection in the column isn’t over yet….
I recently managed to get a short interview with Ramón Pérez of RAID Studios (located on Queen St. West in Toronto, just a couple of doors east of Roncesvalles) about the impending release of Rachel Richey’s Fred Kelly Mr. Monster book, which RAID Studios has recently finished up with input by Robert Pincombe.
Let me share the interview here:
IK: I’d like to begin by asking a bit about your background. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
RP: I was born and raised in Ontario, Canada, by immigrant parents. My father is from a small town located in the Castilla y León region of Spain, while my mother is from Warsaw, Poland. They met in Oshawa of the late ’60s, an independent suburb of Toronto, where I was born and raised. I spent a few summers in Spain and Poland growing up. After my parents separated in the early ’80s, those trips became increasingly few and far between. Fast forward years later, after graduating from college in the late ’90s, I moved to Toronto to accelerate my burgeoning career as a freelance illustrator. I have now been here for over 20 years and call it home.
IK: What is your earliest comic book memory?
RP: My first comic, so worn from constant reading, was a collection of Mortadelo y Filemón, a Spanish humour comic featuring two detectives. Mortadelo was a shape-changing fellow who could shift into anything from a sausage to an airplane. Filemón was his pudgier sidekick. Following that, I quickly became enamoured with the Sunday funnies – Hagar the Horrible, Garfield, Mother Goose & Grimm, and eventually Calvin & Hobbes. It wasn’t until later that I began to collect the more “traditional” North American comics. My initial favourites were Elfquest, TMNT, Alien Legion, along with a variety of Marvel titles, including The Uncanny X-Men, West Coast Avengers, and Alpha Flight.
IK: How did The RAID Studio come about, and what was the purpose of putting it together?
RP: The Royal Academy of Illustration & Design was founded by Chip Zdarsky and a few college classmates after graduating from Sheridan College, my Alma Mater. They simply wanted a shared studio space in which to work together. After operating for a few years, I was asked to join and replace Kagan McLeod, who was leaving. I had already been working as a freelancer in Toronto for eight years – predominantly in magazines, children’s books, and RPGs. When they asked me, I jumped at the chance to join the space and work amongst my peers. It was also a great way to more aggressively pursue my comics career by throwing myself right into the mix of some of Toronto’s best creators.
I took over running the space in 2009 after the last original members had left. New members had joined, expanding from four to seven people, and we slowly began to outgrow our original space. Feeling cramped, we decided to move into a larger space in the building on College St. in Little Italy and expanded to 10 members. In our larger studio, we ballooned to 16 creators. While comfortable, we were unfortunately forced to move when our building was purchased in 2017 and our lease terminated by the new owners. We had to move – thankfully, we found a great space!
Our new headquarters is located in Toronto’s historic Parkdale. It’s a lot bigger and was in need of extensive renovations – but most importantly, it had a street-front presence. We established a comic art gallery to integrate with the community while still maintaining studio spaces for artists at a relatively affordable rate. After much ado, we just opened the RAID Gallery to the public this past summer amid a global pandemic.
IK: How did Rachel Richey’s Mr. Monster Kickstarter book come to be a RAID project? I know it had been with Chapterhouse for a while. How did it land with RAID?
RP: I met Rachel while she worked at Kevin Boyd’s Comic Lounge, located on College street many years ago. During that time, she became a close friend of RAID. She eventually ended up marrying long-time RAID member Francis Manapul! While chatting comics, she realized that I was a big fan of Mr. Monster – and when she initiated her Kickstarter campaign for The Original Adventures of Doc Stearne/Mr. Monster, she asked me to write the foreword for the book.
As RAID grew over the years, we began to explore publishing content, starting with our anthologies, but looking to expand into a wider variety of comics-related books. Being a friend of Rachel (and a fan wanting to see the project fulfilled), I approached her with the proposition of taking over the project and seeing it to completion. She was quite excited to have RAID and myself involved.
IK: The book was just about a finished product a while ago when it came to Chapterhouse. What is RAID bringing to the project, and where is RAID going with it?
RP: Aside from creating a solicitation and a horrible cover, I’m really unsure what Chapterhouse did with the project. When we (RAID) came on board, we were given all the raw files by Rachel. We essentially began from ground zero cleaning art, compiling the content, and designing the book.
On top of what Rachel provided, we have sourced other related Fred Kelly originals to scan and utilize in the book adding to the books overall all content. We’re really proud of how this project has come together – and weirdly, all the preceding project delays have allowed us to produce a more well-rounded book. I know that as a fan of Fred Kelly and Mr. Monster I’m excited about the book we’ve produced.
IK: What’s your impression of Fred Kelly’s artwork? Do you think it would stand up in today’s market?
RP: Having held some of his post-Mr. Monster originals in my hands (thanks to the generous Robert Pincombe), I can say firsthand that Fred was a master draftsman and illustrator. I believe he was learning “on the fly” as he was working during the early days – and don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful and imaginative. But Fred’s skill with a brush and dynamic lighting is impeccable in his later works. I genuinely think he would have evolved and stayed relevant in today’s market.
IK: What timelines are you operating on? How has this spring’s lockdown impacted the project? Do you think we will see the book on the stands this year?
RP: The quarantine and lockdown definitely threw a wrench into our plans. The book is essentially ready to go to press. We are just awaiting some copyright clarification and working with our printer to establish a print and delivery schedule. We hope to have the book printed later this fall, and hopefully in everyone’s hands before the year is out.
IK: Is RAID thinking of going with similar projects in the future?
RP: We are excited about the possibilities of things to come. Our mission is to produce Canadian creator-centric content and become a reliable part of our national comic ecosystem. Since the “Canadian Whites” we’ve had a few independent Canadian Publishers; Vortex and Drawn & Quarterly come to mind as long-lasting and respected publishers. While others have come and gone, D&Q still continues to produce quality material. However, their books tend to lean more into the “indie” side content-wise. Simultaneously, other publishers, such as Chapterhouse, rely more heavily on mainstream style superhero content. We hope to fill that gap between – giving a venue for creators that fit into neither camp to share their ideas.
IK: What other kinds of projects is RAID working on?
RP: We have a few things in the works. Some of which were planned for this year, but as with most of the world, Covid-19 changed all that. We have pushed all our plans to 2021 and beyond and will proudly share announcements as soon as we can!
IK: 2021 is the 80th anniversary of the first Canadian comic book (Better Comics No. 1). Would RAID consider doing anything to commemorate this event?
RP: We most definitely have some ideas. We should talk…