Collectors and comic aficionados are quick to knock Canadian war-time black-and-white comics to the lower rungs of the comic book quality ladder and, of the four main Canadian comic book publishers, Anglo-American comic books are seen to occupy the lowest of those rungs. Anglos only had two-tone, newsprint stock covers until after the war. They didn’t have stand out heroes like Nelvana or Brok Windsor and, for a number of years, relied on redraws of American Fawcett scripts for the major part of their content. Anglo-American comics have always been less collectible than those from the other major Canadian publishers. Perhaps also because they generally seem to be more common, especially the later, post-war colour issues.
This is a headwind I think collectors should plow against.
Harlan Ellison, who grew up in Plainesville, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, was in a locale as an eleven-to-twelve-year-old where he could encounter some of the post-war colour Anglos which were, in fact, being printed in Cleveland at that time. In his Introduction to John Bell’s 1986 book Canuck Comics (Matrix Books, p. 9), Ellison offers up the following:
America may have done it first, but I’ll stack up a stack of Grand Slams and Three Aces against almost any title of the period and betcha nine-to-five the happy content is equal or better than the Yankee product.
Quite an endorsement! Here is an illustration from that same book, Canuck Comics done by Ed Furness which features the whole stable of Anglo-American characters orbiting around Freelance:
I remember Captain George Henderson, who was the first real Canadian champion of pop culture during the 1960s and early 1970s, saying that Freelance was Canada’s most popular comic book hero during WWII. Not Nelvana, not Johnny Canuck, not Brok Windsor, but Freelance. Without a doubt Freelance, given Ted McCall’s involvement, was the best-written Canadian comic book hero of the period. It certainly had the longest continuous run of original material with 35 issues, almost all containing at least three (early 64-pagers had four, but the four Freelance-Robin Hood books had only one) full Freelance stories. A Freelance compilation along the lines of those already done for Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, and Brock Windsor would need three volumes.
In my last few columns, I’ve looked at books from that first, formative year in Canadian comics—1941. Books from this start-off year for Canadian comics are special and amongst the hardest to come by. The first issue of Freelance is one of these and was cover-dated July-August 1941. It would probably be sitting on the stands next to the fifth issue of Better Comics, the third issue of Robin Hood Comics, and the second issue of Lucky Comics. Adrian Dingle would have been laying out the first issue of Triumph-Adventure Comics and getting it ready for the printer while Edmund Legault would have just been approaching Cy Bell with his idea for a comic book for Bell’s Commercial Signs company that would eventually become the first issue of Wow Comics.
As Bob MacMillan tells us in his “The War Years: Anglo-American Publishing” from John Bell’s Canuck Comics (Matrix Books, 1986), at the time of the passing of the War Exchange Conservation Act (Dec. 6, 1941) Toronto Evening Telegram journalist Ted McCall, held the rights to a half-dozen years of his daily strip about Robin Hood. McCall approached Harold Sinnott, head of the Sinnott News magazine distributing company based in Toronto about issuing them in comic book form and Anglo-American Publishing Ltd. was born with that tabloid-sized first issue of Robin Hood Comics.
With Robin Hood launched, McCall wasn’t satisfied and wanted a contemporary hero who could take on the Nazis. He hit upon using an idea he had probably come across while doing research on the medieval world of Robin Hood. In that world, there were a few mercenary knights not attached to any liege, who could be hired temporarily as bonus soldiers to fight any battles as they cropped up. These knights were called Free Lances. McCall wanted a hero like this who had no fixed boss and he called him ‘Freelance.’ To make him more intriguing, McCall also gave him an obscure past.
Syd Stein, the artist with whom McCall was working on his daily Robin Hood strip, and the third artist for that strip, put McCall in touch with his friend Ed Furness. With this connection, the first issue of Freelance Comics was born.
In this first issue, the hero who was to become Freelance is just called Lance and he doesn’t yet have that signal “L” emblazoned on his chest. We first encounter him flying his plane into an Arctic mountain crater hidden to the outside world by perpetual blizzards. That crater, we learn, contains the jungle world that is home to the tribe that raised and trained him from a young child after his father, an outsider to the tribe as well, had died. We also learn that Lance was sent out into the greater world under a false identity, according to his father’s wishes, to receive his education.
He is returning to his real home, in the face of a World War, to receive counsel about his desire to fight against the Dictator who is trying to conquer Europe. The tribe’s leader eventually gives Lance his blessing and Lance flies out of the crater and south to begin taking on the Nazi enemy.
After many hours of flying, Lance encounters a British freighter that is being unknowingly stalked by a Nazi U-boat. Because his plane has no markings, he is fired upon by the freighter, but Lance manages to get a message on board on board informing the ship that they are being pursued by a U-boat. The freighter immediately takes evasive action and the U-boat surfaces to pursue it. To sum things up, Lance crashes his plane into the U-Boat, destroying it and saving the freighter. He lives through this and is rescued out of the water unconscious by the freighter.
Following a number of days of recuperation in the ship’s sick bay, Lance decides to jump ship at night as they approach the coast of Africa and his odyssey across the various WWII theatres of war begins. He takes on Nazis in the jungles of Africa and, in the last story, supports the British against the Italians in Ethiopia.
The cover of the second issue is the first appearance of any sort of “L” emblem. Lance is in Iraq dressed in Arab garb and it appears as an “L” inside a shield-type container just over his heart. Inside the issue itself, it doesn’t appear until the fourth, and last, story and there also as a shoulder patch on Lance’s upper left arm.
The cover of issue three gives us the Lance we all know and love outfitted with one of the most common hero costume features in WWII Canadian comics—jodhpurs and riding boots south of the belt. These are topped off with a long-sleeved, crew-neck T-shirt with an “L” emblazoned in the centre of the chest. We can’t be sure of the colour scheme because the black-and-white world of Canadian war-time comics was essentially colour blind and Anglo-American doubly so because its wartime covers were only two-tone.
We don’t find out that Lance’s top is red until the summer of 1945 and Freelance Robin Hood and Company comics No. 27 which is the first colour appearance of Freelance.
However, the anomaly is this: throughout the rest of the first dozen issues, while Lance’s exploits cut a swathe through Crete, France, Holland, and Norway, he never has that “L” on his chest. Well, that’s not exactly right, it does appear once on the back cover of Freelance Vol. 1 No. 4 in an ad announcing the arrival of Captain Marvel and the Fawcett mainstay characters to the Anglo-American fold. I don’t know what Messrs McCall and Furness were doing here, but I hope that we can find out one day.
It’s important to realize that Ted McCall, though he would become a managing editor for the Toronto Telegram, was just a writer for Anglo-American. His publisher was Harry Sinnott and he had hired John McKellar Calder as the overall editor for Anglo-American comics. “Jack” Calder was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1904 and came to Canada with his mother as a ‘Canadian Military Dependent’ at the end of World War I in 1918 as a fourteen-year-old. He was in his late thirties when he started working for Anglo-American comics. Calder created the characters Michael Lee, Terry Kane, and Purple Rider under the name of ‘Jay’ McKellar.
By the end of the first year, Calder suggested to McCall that Lance should have a sidekick and in Vol. 1 No. 9, Freelance meets up with Big John Collins. Big John clearly seems to be a derivation of ‘Little John’ from the Robin Hood mythos that McCall had been steeped in during his run of the Robin Hood daily strip. Freelance encounters him as a tough pirate-type character on a south seas island. The Madagascar pirate, Big John Collins, has swarthy skin, hoop earrings, and a peg leg and Freelance bests him in a fight just in the same way that Robin wins over ‘Little John.’
Soon after, and before the end of the first volume of Freelance Comics, Calder also suggests to Ted McCall that Freelance get a Russian accomplice. The Russians were part of the Allied Forces and were engaging the Nazis on the Eastern Front and Calder felt that their contribution to the war effort should be recognized. With this, female Russian operative, Natasha, enters the picture. This trio, Freelance, Big John Collins, and Natasha, though more intermittently, comprises the hero team of Freelance comics for the rest of the run. Though Big John Collins made the cover with his first appearance and many more covers thereafter, Natasha doesn’t get a cover appearance until the 30th issue and then only one other in the back seat of a jeep with the issue right after that. I wonder what would have happened to Natasha if Freelance Comics had gone on for another half-dozen years and the WWII comradeship with the Russians became inverted.
After the war, Freelance, Big John Collins, and Natasha help clean up remnants of Nazi stragglers and revivalists but seem to fizzle out a little bit without the proper Axis as a nemesis and the live electricity of the European and Pacific theatres of war in which to operate. He does make it to North America in the last issues fighting alongside hillbillies in Tennessee in issue 33 and has adventures in the North West Territories in the last two issues, but he never sets foot in any of the nine Canadian provinces.
Here are a couple of pages from an Ed Furness sketch book that is in the posession of one of the best-known collectors of Canadian war-time comics:
Some attention may be brought to the similarity in appearance of Freelance (first appearance July-August 1941) and Quality’s Captain Triumph (first appearance, Crack Comics 27, January 1943). The question is whether or not Captain Triumph can be seen as somewhat of a swipe of Freelance? The powers and origin stories are, of course, completely different, but visually, there’s a striking similarity. Both are blond, have red, crew-neck tops (Freelance’s is long-sleeved, Captain Triumph’s is short-sleeved), jodhpurs (Freelance’s are brown and Captain Triumph’s are white) and riding boots. Freelance’s name is sometimes given as Lance Valiant and the name of the living twin who takes on his dead brother’s spirit when he becomes Captain Triumph is Lance Gallant. Of course, this could be a complete coincidence.
Throughout his run, Freelance is a man without a real back story tying him to any country. He is a war-time hero created by Canadians but otherwise not identifiably Canadian. He is a man without a country who fights on behalf of the oppressed. From early issues, he has had a calling card which depicts a waving stick figure riding a soaring lance which he left to indicate that Freelance had been the source of a particular Axis misery. This emblem and a sort of summary creed appear on the inside front cover of Freelance – Robin Hood Comics 27 (July-August 1945) which was the first of the four combined titles and contained the first full-colour appearance of Freelance:
I suppose this ideal of operating in anonymity and self-effacement—a sort of national ‘humbleness’—might be construed as an essential Canadian quality and to that extent we could lay an additional claim to Freelance as a Canadian superhero, but I think that this is an unnecessary stretch. Ted McCall and Ed Furness’ Freelance is a Canadian superhero in all the senses of the word. I remember a peripheral story from one of my interviews for my work on my book Heroes of the Home Front in which the interviewee recalls a cousin who was part of the Canadian invasion force on D-Day seeing a half-buried copy of an issue of Freelance Comics in the grit of the beach. I don’t care if the story is true or not, but it’s a great note to end on.
NEWS ITEM: I want to draw readers’ attention to what looks like a great exhibit coming up at the Art Gallery of Hamilton at the end of June and running through the rest of the year. It’s called THIS IS SERIOUS: Canadian Indie Comics and is co-curated by Hamilton graphic novelist Joe Ollman. Great chance to see a bunch of Canadian indie comic and graphic novel original art put together by knowledgeable people.