Top Flight Comics

One-shots are outliers in this wonderful hobby of ours and there are many reasons for their existence. Some are compendiums that gather together a number of features around a given character or theme. Some are ash-cans that are most often cobbled together to cement a trademark or copyright issue. Some are give-away promotional copies focused on a specific message to a consumer. Finally, and these seem to be the most interesting, some are unfulfilled promises cut short by external factors.

In this column, I want to take a look at a book that belongs in the last of the above categories. Top Flight Comics No. 1 was the last of seven issues put out by Adrian Dingle’s short-lived Hillborough Studio on Granville Street in downtown Toronto. The other six comprise that very sought-after run of Triumph-Adventure Comics featuring the first half-dozen appearances of Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

The cover date for Top Flight Comics is February 1942, but we are fortunate enough to be able to establish the precise date the issue reached the newsstands because of an ad for it that appears on the back cover of Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 5. There it plainly states, in the last lines of the copy, that the comic will be on the stands December 20th, meaning, of course, December 20th 1941. This was a comic intentionally put on the stands in time for Christmas.

So, just a handful of days before Christmas, you could have found this issue of Top Flight Comics alongside Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 6 and two new titles from Commercial Signs of Canada, Active Comics No. 1 and Dime Comics No. 1. You could have probably still found Anglo-American’s first issue of Captain Marvel Comics as well as early issues of Freelance, Robin Hood, Grand Slam, Three Aces Comics, and Whiz Comics. Early issues of the west coast comics from Maple Leaf Publications such as  Better Comics No. 10, Lucky Comics No. 6, Rocket Comics No. 2, and Bing Bang Comics No. 2 would have filled the gaps between those issues. If you were a kid with a single dime, which book would you have picked? Looking back, it’s fun to imagine a ribbon-wrapped packet of a dozen of these books waiting for a youngster under a Toronto living room Christmas tree–though, at the time, it probably wouldn’t have impressed as much as a model airplane kit or a Red Ryder BB gun (if you’ve ever seen the classic movie “A Christmas Story” – 1983).

The above is my guess at some of the books that would have been on the stands in Canada just before Christmas 1941. If you were a kid with a single dime, which one would you have picked? (Remember that a Canadian kid in 1941 wouldn’t have been a speculator and he wouldn’t have considered that ten cents an investment.)

Top Flight Comics lacked an official number either on the cover or in the indicia. However, it clearly was not intended as a one-shot because each of its five features concludes with a panel promising a continuation of the story in the next issue.

The inside front cover introduces the four artists who work on the issue and provides stamp-sized portrait sketches of each by Adrian Dingle.

Hugh Caulfield had already worked for Dingle on a feature called “Escape” which straddled the last two issues (Nos. 5 and 6)  of Triumph-Adventure Comics as well as another story called “Commandos” in Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 6. Clayton Dexter (real name Howard Buchanan Cowan) was doing his first comic book work here with the lead-off and cover feature “The Rapier.” He had been working as a commercial artist for a few years. Adrian Dingle, himself, was the founder of Hillborough Studio Publications, overseer and art director for the company, and creator of Nelvana of the Northern Lights. He was an established fine artist who specialized in oil portraiture. Hunter Barker (1918-2010) had studied at the Ontario College of Art and in England. He later moved to the United States and worked as a commercial artist through the 40s and 50s before turning to fine art as he grew older and he died in Florida.

Here are a few examples of Hunter Barker’s later work.

The book starts off with Clayton Dexter’s swash-buckling story set in the 17th century starring an Errol Flynn type swordsman hero known only as ‘The Rapier.’

The Rapier arrives at the mansion of siblings Grace and Lance Forsyth to deliver a letter from their recently deceased father with the information that somewhere in the mansion is a map that will lead them to the fabled treasure-city of El Dorado. Eventually, amid the bookcase secret passages and hidden rooms of the old building, Grace and The Rapier locate the treasure chest and the map…

I had to insert this solid example of Clayton Dexter’s great artwork.

…only to have it, along with Grace’s brother, immediately stolen from them by the pirate Captain Sinister and his henchmen. The episode ends with Grace and The Rapier on the cliff outside the mansion staring out to sea as Captain Sinister and his crew, now in possession of the treasure chest, Grace’s brother Lance as a prisoner, and the map to El Dorado, row out to their ship anchored just offshore and sail away.

Hunter Barker’s “The Searunners” is next.

This is the story of a pair of Scottish fishing lads, Steve and Eric, who, along with Steve’s father, are in a small boat returning to shore after a days work. Their short trip back home in the fog and rough seas is interrupted by the surfacing of a Nazi U-boat directly under them. This capsizes their boat and Steve’s father is lost at sea while the boys are taken aboard the enemy sub and brought to a Norwegian port where they are thrown into an internment camp. They manage to escape but are tracked down by Gestapo pursuers and Steve is shot. In the last suspenseful panel, though Eric is free to make his escape, he decides to turn back to help Eric.

After pirates and treasure chests and Nazis in the North Atlantic, we move on to Hugh Caulfield’s adventure story set on the west coast of Canada.

This feature, “Happy Holden,” is the only story in the issue not written by the illustrator. The author is Jack Loudon and we know nothing about him. The title character is a pilot hired to transport a professor from Vancouver to the northern reaches of Alaska on a scientific expedition. Also on board are the professor’s two children Brenda 22 and Danny 15, as well as one of the professor’s old friends. They encounter a storm over northern B.C. and go down. When they wake up the next morning they find themselves in a lost world replete with dinosaurs and gorilla-like humanoids. In the last panels, Brenda and Danny are left in peril, lost in the jungle, and pursued by one of these gorilla-men.

Up next is another Hunter Barker feature, this time about a Mountie corporal named “Trigger Dunston.”

The story is set in southern Alberta and is an example of what we would consider today to be a racially bias presentation of drunken Indians slaughtering unsuspecting settlers. Trigger Dunston finds out about the murders from the young son of the homesteaders who had managed to escape. Dunston immediately sets out for the foothills to round up the murderous “redskins” and their notorious alcohol supplier, Slippery Dan. After a night-time encounter with a pack of wolves, a perilous pursuit of Slippery Dan himself, and a confrontation with a Crow chief at the Indian camp, Dunston returns to Fort McLeod with all the culprits in tow.

Closing out the comic is Dingle’s story, “The Sword of Destiny.”

This is probably the closest the comic book comes to a superhero-type story. Young Billy Arthurs gets locked in a local museum after hours and eventually dozes off. Waking up in the middle of the night, Billy explores the place and is drawn to a glass case containing an ancient sword glistening from the moonlight pouring through a window. He manages to take the sword out of the case and notices it bears the inscription “Excalibur.” As he wields it,  the sword generates a mist that transforms him into a costumed hero called “The Knight” who eventually helps a pair of Chinese students wrongly imprisoned by a tyrant in Burma. The episode ends on the inside back cover with the brooding tyrant Leolasha planning his next move.

However, with all of its last-panel promises, Top Flight Comics was the final Hillborough Studio comic to be issued. One of the main reasons Dingle had started the company in the summer of 1941 was that he intended to marry and needed extra funds to do this (see the Adrian Dingle obit on pg. 14 of the triple issue of John Balgé’ and Dave Sim’s  Canadian fanzine CANAR (Comic Art News and Reviews)  26-27-28. Well, on Saturday, December 13, 1941, a week before Top Flight Comics hit the stands, Adrian Dingle did, indeed, marry Patricia Neville Symmes.

A poor reproduction of a photo from The Toronto Star Dec. 15, 1941.

By the start of the new year, Hillborough Studio’s debts had accrued to the point where the comic book company, which had always been operating on a shoestring budget, could no longer put out another issue. The partnership with the financial backer that started up the company broke apart and Adrian Dingle was saddled with a significant number of debts. Here are Dingle’s own words from that same CANAR obit:

I remember taking all the debts and the broken partnership down to Cy Bell. To my surprise, I found the masthead for Triumph Comics was already made up and ready to roll. He was anticipating me. He took over all the debts. And I was on salary then. That’s how I really got started for those few years.

Dingle worked as Art Director for Cy Bell and Bell Features Publications for another five years helping produce a quality line of Canadian war time comics where, in addition to continuing the saga of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, he also created characters like The Penguin, The Sign of Freedom, and secret agent Guy Powers.

But all of this left Top Flight Comics as a one-shot and leaves us wondering what it could have been. Clayton Dexter couldn’t have continued with The Rapier because he was whisked away into the army and was in training in Saskatchewan early in 1942 but maybe the sequel to the first episode was already done because the pace of comic book production might have demanded it. This may also be the case for the other Top Flight features but we will probably never know. Remember that F. E. Howard found some unpublished art for Bell Features stories after its original titles folded and worked them into Super-Duper Comics No. 3 in 1947, this included the first Fred Kelly Mr. Monster story.

Whatever the case, Top Flight Comics is one of the rarest of the Canadian wartime comics with only two known copies in existence and one of these being an 8.0 slabbed copy. This would make it a Gerber 10 on the scarcity index. I don’t see it ever being reprinted but it’s important that collectors and fans of Canadian war time comics know about it and let’s keep hoping that at least another couple of copies will show up.

Back cover of Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 6.

NEWS:

I will be doing a panel at Fan Expo in Toronto that’s scheduled for 3 pm on the Friday in Room 717. The title of the panel is “Margaret Atwood Meets Mr. Monster: The Forgotten [Canadian] Comics of WWII and Their Impact Today.” The aim, as always, is to draw attention to our Canadian war time comics, this time in the context of contemporary creators such as Ken Steacy with Margaret Atwood and Michael T. Gilbert who have, in certain ways, mined them for material. Michael T. Gilbert, of course, has successfully revived Fred Kelly’s Mr. Monster, and Margaret Atwood and Ken Steacy have produced a three-part story about a fictional Toronto WWII comic book publisher and female character called Oursonette that has resulted in a graphic novel called War Bears. Ken and Michael will be on the panel. Comic Book Daily Centrepiece, Walter Durajlija will also be on the panel to discuss the relevance of these Canadian comics to collectors today and their values. If you plan to attend Fan Expo, please consider coming. It would be great to meet up with you and chat about these great old comics.

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Ivan Kocmarek
Grew up in Hamilton's North End. Comic collector for over 50 yrs. Recent interest in Canadian WECA era comics.
Articles: 170

33 Comments

  1. Thanks, Ron. Hope we can do one together with a couple of the old team at Richard Comely’s Tri-City Con towards the end of September. Working on it with Richard.

  2. Great Article Ivan.
    I acquired my first copy of Top Flight Comics from John Bell many years ago and put that into another collectors hands, after I acquired another copy from a basement in Montreal that I had certified by CGC as 8.0.
    These I believe are the two copies in existence known that you refer to. There is another collector who possesses a copy, hence there are 3 known copies.

  3. Thanks for the update on the number of copies of this book. This still makes it a Gerber 10. Stephen, is it possible for you to offer up, to your best knowledge, the count on the top 5 or 10 rarest Canadian war time comics? For example, I believe there is only one known copy of Anglo-American’s Robin Hood Comics Vol. 1 No. 1.

  4. While reading of Dingle’s The Knight character I am reminded of the George Freeman illo’d blind Knight from the Beyond feature in Captain Canuck. Thanks for this glimpse of another classic!

  5. While I will probably never own any of the comics of my Northern neighbors… I find all of these articles fascinating! Keep up the good work and will look forward to the next Canadian Comics entry!

  6. My dime probably would have gone to Rocket Comics first. Then Capt. Marvel or Dime. Always was an sf or super hero kid.

    Excellent art on all those features in Top Flight and indications the stories would be as well. The Rapier has a bit of a Prince Valiant vibe going on with classy “book” design elements. I’d read them all now so if any wants to publish a copy… It’s also excellent that Canadian comics seem to mostly acknowledge and trumpet their artists with bios, signatures and sometimes sketch portraits. Most comics tried to hide the artists in the cellar or attic ; )

    Sort of off topic but related – when did investment in comics start to be a thing? In sampling my downloads of comics from the Library Archive there is an ad on the inside front cover of DIME Comics #20 offering to buy back Bell Features comics for 50 cents each. 5 times original price with a list of the issues being sought. Someone thinking ahead at Bell?

    Another great article, Ivan, thank you!

  7. Great article Ivan. I look forward to Stephen’s potential input on the rarest of the Canadian comics. I don’t know if I’ll make Fan Expo and I’ll be in Spain during Tri City Con (gee life is tough) but I am sure I’ll be seeing you again soon.

  8. Top 10 rarest Canadian golden age comics and approximate copies extant of each:

    1. Robin Hood Comics Vol 1 # 1 -Anglo-American Publishing (1 known copy)
    2. Top-Flight Comics # 1 -Hillsborough Studios (3 known copies)
    3. Rocket Comics Vol 1 # 2 -Maple Leaf Publishing ( formerly Name-It-Comics #1) (2 known copies)
    4. Name-It-Comics # 1 -Maple Leaf Publishing (Rocket Comics # 1 with second issue (4 known copies)
    5. Canada Jack One Shot -Educational Projects (5 known copies)
    6. Better Comics Vol 1 # 1 -Maple Leaf Publishing (5 known copies)
    7. Bing Bang Comics Vol 1 # 1 -Maple Leaf Publishing (2 known copies)
    8. Joke Comics # 1 -Bell Features ( 4 known copies)
    9. Picture Story Annual -Educational Projects ( 4 known copies)
    10. Famous Adventures -Educational Projects ( 4 known copies)

    Honourable mention goes to:

    Your New World Maple Leaf Publishing
    Wow Comics # 30 Bell Features
    Triumph Comics # 30 Bell Features
    and so many more….

  9. What about that giant Gift Comics just discovered last summer? There can’t be too many of them around, if it only showed up recently. Also, is there a downloadable pdf of Top Flight in the LAC?

  10. Also, Mr. Lipson, didn’t you just discover a rare version of Lucky Coyne, which you wrote in your CGC column?

  11. Thank you for bringing the Lucky Coyne comics to my attention Klaus. It is UNIQUE I believe, just like the Robin Hood Comics Vol 1 # 1, with only ONE known copy extant.

    With respect to the GIFT comics it is cool compendium that collects several Anglo-American comics in the interior, just like the Picture Story Annual, that collects 3 remaindered issues of Canadian Heroes. Yes, the GIFT comics may also be unique

  12. Hurray! My 10 cent investment paid off, Rocket #2! Thanks for the list of rarities Stephen, puts things in perspective.

    Then there’s the 300 page Colossal Comics for 39 cents. Glued together Bell issues with new covers?

  13. Hey Tim so you and one other person may be the only ones to possess a copy of Rocket # 2. Congratulations!

    BTW, there are SEVERAL copies of the Colossal Comics giant floating around. They are NOT exceedingly rare.

  14. I possess the THIRD known copy of Rocket Comics # 2, so I will now amend that to THREE known copies extant. Still very rare.

  15. Hahaha If you look at it that way Klaus, including the Gift Comics, I guess we might as well make a list of the top 500 rarest Canadian War Time comics.

    At this juncture, ALL of the books are Rare. Nuff said.

  16. HaHa! It was a joke, guys. Ivan asked above in the article if I was an alleged kid what would I spend my alleged dime on so I chose Rocket Comics. Didn’t really happen, I’m only 67, born 11 years after that issue. So Stephen it’s still only 2 copies extant, don’t mess up the record with misinformation. Agreed, ALL the comics are rare now. A Colossal might be fun to track down.

  17. Stephen, thanks for this first list of the rarest of the rare Canadian WECA comics. They are all Gerber 10s. Of the 780 so of these old Canadian comics that we know about, I wonder what percentage are Gerber 10? I might even go as far as to say even 5%. We also have to include those 4 ashcans (The Brain No. 1, Doodlebugs No. 1, Red Hot No. 1, and FBI No. 1) that are in the holdings of the Library and Archives of Canada. As for a Gerber 11 (comic indicated to exist but yet to be found–a category that Robin Hood Vol. 1 No. 1 was in until 2 years ago) there is that ad for a Red Rover Adventures 128-page giant on the back of Grand Slam/Three Aces Comics No.44 which I don’t think has ever shown up.
    Stephen, though the black-and-white version of the Lucky Coyne No. 1 is so far unique, I don’t think it should be included in the same category as Robin Hood Vol. 1 No. 1 because it is a variant while the first issue of Robin Hood is not.
    Klaus LAC does not have a copy of Top Flight Comics and there is no accessible pdf of it available online.

  18. Alex, there are no plans to record the panel, but we’ll see what happens.

  19. Klaus, Ivan is right, no pdf of Top Flight, I looked for it too. LAC would be a great place for it and all of the comics actually, valuable historic resource and a good place to at least read the comics. No idea what the process is for a collector to offer up scans of what they’ve got.

  20. Wow! I tune into Ivan’s latest column and, already, there are 22 comments. Leave it to Ivan to garner the most comments. It just goes to show how incredibly interesting his columns are.

    I’ve been meaning to ask; just what constitutes a pedigree? Is it a large collection, a famous person’s collection, a number of keys withìn a collection, a higher level of condition, a complete run of something, previously unknown materials etc?

  21. Tim, I had suggested something similar but Ivan told me they won’t use any scans for books they don’t own.

  22. I have a fully scanned digital copy of the Top Flight Comics #1 issue which I did many years ago and printed a mini-comic of the book with just the Sword of Destiny story in it for someone who was an Adrian Dingle fan.
    I might print some up and bring to Fan Expo

  23. Another great article. I have seen images of the cover for Top-Flight. It is always great to read about the behind the scenes stories.

  24. activejim, I live out west so won’t be at the Fan Expo but would certainly be interested in buying one “ActiveJim Historical Comic Reproduction” should you not sell out. Even if it’s single sided sheets and I need to do my own binding of some nature. For purely historical purposes of course for adding to my Canada Comic Archive. When you have some time, please let me know how much and shipping to Alberta, Thanks! [email protected]

  25. Adding my hope there is a transcript coming of the Atwood panel. Would sure like to read it. San Diego Comic-Con religiously films every panel, for gosh sakes. And they do a zillion.

    At least I hope you, Ivan, can give us highlights. Interesting to hear different voices and their take on the era.

    My thanks to to Steve Lipson for that amazing list of top ten rarest WECA books. I had absolutely NO idea some of those books were that rare. I am really surprised.

    I tend to take Gerber rarity on U.S. comics with a grain of salt. In general the relative status of many books may hold up, but I personally doubt some of his actual numbers available are so small. His research was so long ago now and we have several decades more of collections surfaced, and books come to light as old timers pass them on. Undoubtedly more copies have turned up since his research, which I think may have been rather informally done. But with Steve’s numbers, it sounds like he’s done the homework. Amazing.

  26. Anybody hear of Mr. Lucifer Comics #1? Coverless, 1946, Crestwood Publishing, Toronto. Not in the WECA Price Guide and there’s two up on eBay. Curious.

  27. Tim, the panel went very well. We had over 50 attendees and a handful were dressed up as handmaids. Ken Steacy had about 40 copies of his War Bears graphic novel that had been signed by Margaret Atwood and sold out of them immediately after the panel. As always, a number of attendees came up after the panel and exclaimed how they didn’t know anything about our old war time comics and how this knowledge needs to be propagated more. A couple of high school history teachers also came up to say that these old war time Canadian comics could/should be used in high school history classes as part of the study of the Second World War and Canada. A few familiar and friendly faces in the audience such as Robert Pincombe, Jim Finlay, and Rosaire Fontaine.
    Tim, the Mr. Lucifer Comic is another one of those coverless American comics that were stamped over with the Century or Crestwood logos/indicia and shipped over to the UK. That particular comics is a coverless copy of an issue of the American Spook Comics. This issue hadn’t surfaced at the time of writing the guide and I expect another couple of these, hitherto unseen, American coverless books to surface over the next few years.

  28. Thanks, Ivan. I would have been there. The teachers have the right idea and what about a specialty exhibit in a military museum for a summer. Ours out here did one on war brides with artifacts and letters as another aspect of life then. Quite moving.

    Good to know the Mr. Lucifer is not actually a Canadian WECA comic. I was pondering it. An oddity cause I guess the stamps/indicia were added here before shipping to the UK. Possibly one of the post-war flood of horror comics that brought about the UK creation of Dan Dare as a more positive comic.

    Shortly, I should have some news about a real WECA… : )

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