Katherine Collins (Arn Saba) and Neil the Horse

NeilArnold Alexander Saba was born in Vancouver in February of 1947. He was born into a wealthy family and the eldest of four children. He began drawing comics at a young age, having had a very fertile environment in which to develop his skills. His mother, Allison McBain, was a cartoonist and comics enthusiast herself, and granddaughter of Mary “Dolly” Collins, a Manitoba cartoonist. Predominantly raised on newspaper strips and collections of Caniff and Barks, most of Saba’s earliest renderings are in a similar vein.

In 1965, Saba attended the University of British Columbia for Journalism and Print Production. During Arn’s time in school, he involved himself in theatre in both performance and writing. He also practiced cartooning for the school paper which, he explains, “eventually devolved into a story that featured songs.” This is not unlike a comic he created in highschool about dancing and singing garbagemen.

However, it wasn’t until 1975 that he first published Neil the Horse, the comic that dominated his cartooning career. Stylistically, the comic is most reminiscent of early Disney cartoons, but because of the mélange of characters, styles and forms, it transgresses any real comics tradition. Saba experimented with many forms of pop culture not normally associated with comics such as paper cut outs, musicals and dances.

In 1977, Saba moved from Vancouver to Toronto to be immersed in the Canadian comics scene and he continued to develop Neil the Horse, publishing it in a multitude of forums.

Oddly, I didn’t really think about or plan anything musical when I started Neil. I mean, there never had been any such comic, and my eye was firmly on “the great traditions” when I got going. And I wanted to find my place amongst those greats. But I could tell right away that I had to find my own footing. Every great cartoonist and great strip, those who really projected a unique voice, had done so by gradually finding that voice. And it had to be the creator’s own genuine voice, whatever that may be. Herriman could not have envisioned in advance Krazy Kat’s sweet mystery. Barks never planned to make Donald an everyman. Foster likely never imagined that his chivalric adventure strip would grow to include domestic soap opera. Caniff, essentially a hayseed, probably never sat around imagining he would write sophisticated male-and-female repartee. And so on. They all followed their noses, and developed what they did best, a day at a time.

The comic found its footing, because in 1980 Saba published one of these stories with Potlach Publications in the 1980 Comics Annual.

Then again in 1982 with Dave Sim and Deni Loubert in the “Unique Story” section of Cerebus No. 41, 44 and 45. In February 1983, Neil the Horse graduated and was featured in his own book published by Sim and Loubert’s company Aardvark-Vanaheim.

Neil Horse 3Saba was even deeper in the comics community as he was also developing a five-part radio documentary on CBC, The Continuous Art, which explored the cultural position of comics. He conducted many interviews including those with Milton Caniff, Floyd Gottfredson, Hugo Pratt, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, and Russ Manning. His interview with Hal Foster is famous for being Foster’s last interview. Also on the radio at this time was Saba’s radio musical called Neil and the Big Banana which did very well.

Although Neil survived the separation of Aardvark Vanaheim titles, it only lasted 15 issues, the last of which came out in 1988. This did not mean the end of Neil.  Between the years of 1988 to 1993, Neil the horse was optioned in Hollywood and Saba began taking Neil in all possible directions.

Saba was pursuing three avenues of publication: the stage musical, the graphic novel and the TV series. In September of 1993, all three were rejected. It was at this point Saba decided to abandon hopes of developing Neil the Horse and began to pursue other options. During this time he had been living in San Francisco for five years, and had begun to realize his transsexual transition. By the end of 1994, this transition was completed, and Saba began a new life as Katherine Collins. During the rest of her new life, she no longer pursued comics, either as a journalist or creator until recently. In August 2013, Collins was inducted into the Shuster Award Hall of Fame and Hermes picked up the rights to reprint the collection in its entirety.

Currently, Hermes Press is suffering from financial problems and they’re trying to raise the funds in Indiegogo. The restoration complete, these funds will go toward actually printing the book.

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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.