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.

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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.