Johnny Canuck

In celebration of the Johnny Canuck Kickstarter Campaign to reprint! Support before it's too late!

In celebration of the Johnny Canuck Kickstarter Campaign to reprint! Support before it’s too late!

Throughout 1941, Canadian comic book readers experienced a boom in Canadian produced comics. It wasn’t until late in that year that Johnny Canuck was slated to appear.

In December of 1940, American luxury goods (including comics) were forced out of the Canadian market. Without the heroes that Canadian children had come to know and love like Batman and Superman, Canadian publishers got a clear shot to produce Canadian ones. Foremost of these heroes was none other than Canada’s answer to Captain America, Johnny Canuck.

leobachle1Johnny originally appeared in the first issue of Dime comics, which likely appeared on news stands in late December 1941 or January 1942, but whose publication date is February. Johnny’s creator, Leo Bachle, was just 16 at the time he created the comic for Cy Bell and John Ezrin. Despite Bachle’s youth, Johnny Canuck would go on to be one of Bell Feature’s biggest characters, and indeed, one of the biggest and most lasting characters of the Golden Age. The comic itself is just over 230 pages of comics spread across 28 issues and 7 arcs. The first and last issue are the only issues to be one shots.

Although Leo Bachle created the character and worked on the comic for most of the series, he left Johnny Canuck and Bell Features to take a position in New York. Subsequently, Johnny was handled by Andre Kulbach from issue 24 to 27, and Paul Dak took the last issue.

LeoBachleJohnny’s character was kind of a Jack of all trades, a flying ace and fighter, secret agent, and officer in the Canadian military. Most of the time, Johnny was saving “foreign beauties” and fought the axis on almost every war front. He met up with Hitler no fewer than three times and was trained in trapeze and boxing! Throughout his comics he travelled to Yugoslavia, Russia, Germany, Libya, Tibet, and China. It wasn’t until the final issue that Johnny’s story took place in Canada, and just off the coast of Halifax! Interestingly, this story also had a science fiction feel, as this last comic took place after the end of the war, and essentially, after Johnny’s biggest villain was out of the picture!

Recently, like Nelvana of the Northern Lights, I’ve been privileged with the position of collecting, restoring, and publishing Johnny Canuck! It’s never been reprinted in the seventy years since the last issue hit the rack! But I need your help! I’m raising the funds through kickstarter, a crowd funding website! Preorder the book here and get all kinds of other cool stuff like prints, posters and even original art by some of todays top creators! Let’s read Johnny’s adventures again!

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Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Triumph Comics

On September 10th, 1939 Canada joined the war effort and made its first independent declaration of war. It maintained its status and position in the war effort but by late 1940, preservation of the Canadian dollar became a priority. In December of 1940 the legislation known as the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) was passed and the prohibition of importing luxury goods from outside Canada commenced.

Also during this time, the American pulps and comics industry was booming. Some of the most famous current superheroes were well into their own story lines, and children in North America were reading them religiously. However, with the introduction of WECA, American comics were quickly removed from Canadian new stands as they fell under the non-essentials banner.

In the spring of 1941, two Canadian publishers sprang up to fill the void left by American comics which were Maple Leaf Comics and Anglo-American Comics and in the summer of that year, Hillborough Studios and Commercial Signs of Canada (later Bell Features).

Triumph #1Hillborough Studios was created and launched by Adrian Dingle with the assistance of the Kulbach brothers, Rene and Andre. Its only title, Triumph Adventure Comics, debuted in August of 1941 and contained the first appearance of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, also created by Dingle. She continued to be featured in all of Hillborough’s Triumph Adventure Comics up to issue six when Cy Bell of Bell Features purchased the title and the company and merged them with his own. Since then, Bell began publishing the comic from issue seven onward as Triumph Comics. Adrian Dingle was hired as art director for Bell Features but continued to work on the series as sole creator.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights was featured in the first 31 of the 32 issues of Triumph comics. It ran from 1941 to 1947, ending just shortly after the WECA ban was lifted. Two stories appear outside this run including a colour story in Super Duper Comics No. 3 published in May of 1947 and the Death Dealing Double story published in the collected Nelvana of the Northern lights. Nelvana is most famous for predating Wonder Woman and being part Inuit and goddess, her father being Koliak the Inuit god. Her story was loosely based on an Inuk elder the Group of Seven’s Franz Johnston brought back from his travels in the North and restylized to fit comics by Dingle. In 1970 when Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert purchased the rights to Bell Features, they named their animation studio after her, Nelvana Limited.

Nelvana GlaciaNelvana’s most famous adventures are that of her battling the Axis, with evil characters like Toroff and Mardyth and the Dictator! Subsequent storylines included Vultor, Queen of Statica and Knuckles, among others. She was assisted by her brother Tanero as both dog and human and her friend Corporal Keene, the RCMP officer. Although no Canadian Golden Age comics have been collected or reprinted since they were first published almost 70 years ago, my associate Hope Nicholson and I have obtained exclusive reprint rights and are crowdfunding the project until November 1st. Donating to this project will not only get you a copy of the complete collection of Nelvana, but funds will also go to promoting her and creating the highest quality product possible. The ultimate goal is to make Nelvana a household name!

Vernon Miller

vernon-millerAlthough Vernon Miller is now recognized for his great accomplishments in Canadian comics, his beginnings were much less auspicious. He is well known in the industry for having created one of the first Canadian comics publishing companies and subsequently the first Canadian superhero.

Miller was born in Winnipeg in February 1912 to Gerald and Ethel Miller. He was the second born in a family of three boys and one girl. Mr. Miller supported the family by working as a real estate agent in Vancouver, while Mrs. Miller stayed at home with the children. Vernon spent the better part of his childhood in Winnipeg before moving to Vancouver in his early teens. It wasn’t much later that he began his career as an illustrator in local newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun and The Province. He did so until the early part of WWII when the Canadian government introduced legislation that lead to dramatic changes in print culture in Canada.

In December 1940, the War Exchange Conservation Act prohibited most American periodical publications from being sold in Canada. Miller, seeing the opportunity to capitalize on this market, decided to take advantage of the now vacant industry in Canada. In 1941, with Harry Smith, he co-founded Maple Leaf Publishing, one of the first four original publishers of comics in Canada.

The first issue released by the company, Better Comics, appeared on newsstands in the spring of that year, beaten only by Anglo American’s oversized melange of reprints and original material. Alternatively, Better Comics was published in the traditional size and format and featured all original material. Among the stories was the first appearance of Iron Man, better known as the first Canadian superhero. So not only is Miller responsible for creating the one of the first Canadian comics publishers and comic book, but also creating and executing Canada’s first superhero.

The premise of Iron Man is that, at the beck and call of the two children Jean and Ted, and the Major, Iron Man would depart from the depths of his watery home in the South Seas to fight the Axis or any other number of topical villains. Ignoring the discordance between his name and home, Iron Man was of a race of evolved, super powered humans that were prematurely destroyed by an earthquake. He is well known for mourning the loss of his people, which was only broken by his trips to the surface.

1941 was a busy year for Miller. During this time he also married his wife Lillian. They later had two children together named Richard and Karen.

Maple Leaf Publishing expanded to four titles including Better, Lucky, Rocket and Bing Bang comics shortly after the success of Better. They expanded to include other great heroes and characters such as Black Wing, Senorita Marquita, Brok Windsor, Derry Dreamer, Bill Speed, Callahan, the Adventures of Peter and Peggy, Honourable Freddy and Circus Girl.

Directly, Miller worked on several of the books in all aspects as both creator and producer, but as his staff of artists grew he began to do more writing and editing rolls, working on such titles as Danny and his Magic Ring, Mr. E and Tiger Tex among others.

During Canada’s golden age period from 1941 to roughly 1946, Maple Leaf publishing was not only a prolific but also quality comics publishing company. They produced several distinctly Canadian pieces with many successful artists on staff such as Bert Bushell, Jon Stables, Ernest Walker, Shirley “Ley” Fortune and Ted Watson. Unfortunately, in the spring of 1946, as the ban was lifted, Maple Leaf was forced to cease publishing as American comics again flooded the market.

This was not the end of Miller’s illustrating career, though. He continued to do work for newspapers and periodicals including the popular Canadian Boy Magazine in the 1960s. Vernon Miller passed away in 1974 at the age of 62 years old. You can read one of his Iron Man stories below.

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Vernon Miller is being given a Lifetime Achievement Award this year at the Joe Shuster Awards on Saturday, August 25th at the AGO. You can read more about Maple Leaf Publishing and comics on my other post here.

Murray Karn

Murray Karn began his career with Bell Features in early 1942 while the publisher was still under the name Commercial Signs of Canada. Only 18 at the time, much of his original work was done for the Thunderfist and Jeff Waring storylines.

Karn worked on ‘Thunderfist’ in Active comics and was the most consistent artist for the line. His talents were not overlooked at Bell Features; he also did several covers for Active Comics as well as working on the ‘Jeff Waring of the Amazon’ storyline of his own creation. It was released about a month after ‘Thunderfist’ in March of 1942 and was run in Wow Comics, Bell Features’ first comic title.

Karn continued to work regularly for Bell Features for the next two years as artist on these and other lines including Captain Red Thorton, Rex Baxter and Scotty MacDonald. He even contributed artwork to the narrative shorts in Triumph Comics, all under Bell Features. Within a couple years, Karn went into the Medical Corps but continued cartooning for the wounded troops to raise their spirits.

murray karnAs Bell Features continued to gain prominence in Canada’s comic book industry, Karn was easily accepted back into the ranks just shortly before the end of Canada’s Golden Age and finished the last two issues on Jeff Waring. Shortly after, Karn went to New York to pursue other opportunities.

His classic and realistic style make his comics very easy to spot and a pleasure to view. His characters, nothing short of perfection, are elegantly composed, both on the paper and in character. Karn’s style at this time was almost reminiscent of a twenties chic with his big eyed beauties and his men modeled much like Clark Gable. Specifically, Karn’s style was distinctive in such a way that his comics were of a much higher caliber.

Murray Karn currently resides in New York and is a part of the Southampton Artists Society. Find out more on his work in the upcoming documentary Lost Heroes.

Maple Leaf Comics

Cover art by Ley Fortune.

There’s often a lot of focus on Bell Features for their contribution to the Canadian comic book industry, and rightly so. The company published hundreds of comics under several titles during the crucial years of comic book development in Canada. Not necessarily overlooked, but perhaps not looked upon as often as they should be, are the publishings of another founding father of Canadian comics, Maple Leaf Publishers.

Along with Anglo-American, Maple Leaf was one of the first to publish and release comics in Canada. While I try not to express too much favouritism, I do agree with John Bell in that it was the first true Canadian comic, as Anglo American evaded the wartime ban on American periodical publications by purchasing scripts. Maple Leaf’s first issue was Better comics, released March of 1941 in the Canadian tradition of black and white interior with colour covers.

Second issue of Better Comics

Maple Leaf’s line of comics included Better, Bing Bang, Lucky and Rocket comics. Most were released regulary on a bi-monthly basis from 1941 to 1946. They also wasted no time in producing a Canadian hero, and again, the first in Canada, which was Vernon Miller’s Iron Man in Better Comics. Later Maple Leaf produced the more famous Brok Windsor who came out in the April May 1944 issue of Better Comics.

Some of the other more regular comics published in the anthologies’ titles were The Exciting Adventures of Peter and Peggy, Coast Patrol, The Adventures of Lucky, Derry Dreamer, Black Wing, Juke Box Joe, Piltdown Pete, Deuce Granville, Cariboo Trail, Rags the Dog Marvel, Callahan, Cosmo and his White Magic, The Honourable Freddy, Bill Speed, Stuffy Boggs, Circus Girl and Senorita Marquita. One benefit to having several lines as Bell did was that he could cater to different audiences depending on the book. Maple Leaf’s stories spanned several genres but were contained within four books.

That said, one argument certainly true of Maple Leaf Comics is that they had some quality artists on staff. Some of my own favourite Golden Age artists worked for Maple Leaf such as Bert Bushell, Jon Stables (St. Ables) and Vernon Miller. Other artists included Ernie Walker, Shirley “Ley” Fortune, Ray Hazall, Bill Meikle, Bill Benz, Vim Pearson, Spike Brown, Ted Watson, FP Thursby and Herb Brew with writers such as Hall, FP Thursby, Hal Kerr, Bus Griffiths and Ted Ross. A smaller staff than Bell Features, Maple Leaf had the benefit of having a more consistent product. And, although Bell Features owner Cyril Bell created something great with Bell features, many of his own artists were either in, or fresh out of high school and were therefore very young, amateur artists.

But, like many of the publishers that sprang up at the beginning of the forties, Maple Leaf ceased publishing in 1946 when the War Exchange Conservation Act was lifted.

Commando Comics

Bell Features, the truest of Canadian Golden Age comics published several titles during the 40’s including the aforementioned Active Comics.

Where I left off speculating as to why the final issues of Active Comics went bizarrely out of routine, recalling their regular titles and importing new ones, I pick up now with Commando Comics. The series ran for 22 issues and were published irregularly from 1942 to 1946. For the most part, the plots in Commando comics were not serialized with a couple of two part exceptions. Unlike both Dime and Active, the Commando line all ran under Bell Features, and never the former title of the publishing company “Commercial Signs of Canada”.

Like Active Comics, Commando Comics was themed, and in this case, based heavily on combat, war, secret missions, the Axis, and really, all other things commando. This theme was common during the war as it fueled nationalism and support and provided a more realistic hero. Active comics’ had Dixon of the Mounted, The Brain, Thunderfist, Active Jim and Captain Red Thorton which all featured daring action adventure stories. Likewise, Commando Comics had The Young Commandos, The Sign of Freedom, Wings Over the Atlantic, The Invisible Commando, Ace Bradley and Clift Steele. These stories shared a similar theme and formula which is evident in the cover pages pictured, and produced a very tight comic. This consistency lasted until about issue #15 when some of the more regular titles began to slowly drop off.

It wasn’t really a surprise when Bell Features again began changing their lineup. Slowly, almost all of the above titles were phased out and replaced with gag comics or funnies by Robert Young, Thomas, Frank Keith, Harry Brunt and Hy Moyer. For stories they started using titles like the Polka Dot Pirate (A female avenger of sorts), Ruff and Reddy, Mr. Distracted Attorney, Salty Lane (Secret Investigator), Dick Stone, Chick Tucker and Flame Berns. There was even a Doc Stearne thrown in there. Beyond the obvious ridiculousness of the characters, the comic became unrecognizable to its former self.

As before, I think the changes were a result of the inevitable return of American comics. John Bell says in his book, “Some companies revamped their titles in the face of this formidable threat,” (52). I believe this was meant to be about production values, but I think it can also be applied to content. Perhaps Cy Bell was testing new titles for his expansion, or trying to give readers something new. In either case, it made the final issues of Commando Comics disappointing and unappealing. After all, gag comics are fine as far as filler goes, but you can’t make a commando comic out of them.

As for the lineup of writers and artists, (or in a lot of the cases both) they were the usual Bell Features crew, with Jerry Lazare, Ted Steele, André Kulbach, Adrian Dingle, Harry Thomson, René Kulbach, Edmund Legault, Jon Darian, Al Cooper, Leo Bachle, Jack Tremblay, Edmond Good, with extras by Manny Easson, Fred Kelly, Jesse French, Ed and Carl Alton, Ross Mendes, Aram Alexanian, Avrom Yanovsky (pseudonym Armand), Edward Letkeman, Clayton Dexter, Murray Karn, and Alfred Zusi (pseudonym Caz) with Vic Griffin faithfully writing the short narratives. Gag comics were typically by Mickey Owens, Frank Keith, Harry Brunt, Hy Moyer, Lou Skuce, Robert Young, Thomas and Cal.

Other titles include Kerry Dane, Tommy Tweed, Rory O’More, Lum and Tim Burr, Ivar of Mars and Rickey Regan Test Pilot, among others, although these appeared only once or twice in the series.

Active Comics

I loved the art for the mummy!

Active Comics was a comic anthology released irregularly from February of 1942 to 1946 and had a total of 28 issues. It was originally released while Bell Features was still called Commercial Signs of Canada, but after the third issue it changed over to Bell Features. Its more regular continuing comic included Dixon of the Mounted, The Noodle, The Brain, Thunderfist, Active Jim and Captain Red Thorton. Later on in the series Dr. Blue and Blackie and Penny’s Diary were introduced. It had short narratives written by Vic Griffin and several smaller “funny” and “gag” comics by Harry “Hy” Moyer, Mickey Lesik, Mickey Owens, Lou Skuce, Frank Keith and Harry Brunt as well as Peterson, Cal, and Thomas.

Some of the quirks. Active Comics was pretty consistent with artists/writers and story lines having a single artist cover a story for at least a couple of issues before passing it on. In the middle of the series the comic began to cover “The Panthers’” in the Toronto Hockey League although I’m pretty sure there were no actual artists on the team. This was also one of the only ways of distinguishing approximately when a comic was released since they ceased to put a date on the comics after the first three or four issues.

Another “funny” thing they did, was for issue 28, their comic line up was as follows: Torr: Interplanetary Space Detective, The Wing, Steve Storms, The Dreamer and the Polite Pirate, Guy Powers: Secret Agent and Tophat ’N’ Tales. I’m not sure if this was part of Cy Bell’s goal to change his lineup to compete with the American comics that were filtering back into the country or what. I guess only further research can tell. That said, only Fred Kelly remained of his original story comic artists.

Here are some of the regular artists that worked on the above storylines: Ed Legault, Murray Karn, Al Cooper, Ted Steele, Ross Saakel, Leo Bachle, Adrian Dingle, Kurly Lipas, Edmond Good, J. Henly, Mel Crawford, René Kulbach, Fred Kelly, Ed and Carl Alton, Patricia Joudrey and Doris Slater and who I believe are Jon Darian and André Kulbach although they did not sign their full name on the comics. Jerry Lazare, Paul Dak and Allan Ross Mendes worked on the final issue.

My favourite art was by Murray Karn, who by issue 13 had kind of disappeared. I’m curious to see if he turns up again in any of the other Bell Features early comics. All in all, the comic itself was pretty consistent, if not consistently issued, with regular cover art by Dingle and Good.