Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Canadian Comic Book Publishers 1941-46

by John Adcock

“…The Canadian comics hastily published to fill the gap were simply awful. We wouldn’t have them. Banning American comic books was a typically unimaginative measure, for whatever pittance the government made up in U.S. currency, it lost in home front morale… before long a street corner black market in Detective and Action comics began to flourish…”
Mordechai Richler, in a review of Jules Feiffer’s 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes, in Tamarack Review, No. 44, Summer 1967 

[1] Maclean’s Magazine, September 19, 1964 article.


ONE DREARY December in 1964 (school had just resumed) I entered our public library, picked up the latest Boy’s Life (for the comics) and Maclean’s Magazine (for December 19, 1964), and hunkered down in a fat armchair for a read. I lazily turned the pages of Maclean’s until I reached 27, a sensational Pop Art page introducing the lavishly illustrated article ‘A fond portrait of those wild… Wartime Comics, A Maclean’s Flashback’ by Alexander Ross.

[2] Wow Comics No. 26, by Adrian Dingle. 
A circular blurb blurted:
“If you were young twenty years ago, you got your war news between covers like this one. Turn the page for an action-packed, Axis-smashing adventure starring Cy Bell, the man who turned out a billion Canadian comic books.”
[3] Wow Comics, No. 3, by E.T. Legault.
In December 1940 William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government had banned the import of American comic books, pulps, and “non-essential items” for the war’s duration. Unless you lived along the border there would be no Detective Comics, Action Comics, Adventure Comics, All-American Comics, More Fun Comics, or All-Flash Quarterly. There would be no Batman, Superman or Flash. Cyril Vaughan Bell, “a former Toronto sign painter” told Ross his Bell Features took full advantage of circumstances and “turned out a billion comic books” between 1941 and 1946. 

[4] Three Aces, No. 58
Near the end of the war, with sales slipping, Bell reprinted old issues, slapped new covers and titles on them, and shipped them to England to be sold. Alexander Ross made no mention of the other major entrepreneurs publishing comic books in Canada during the war years; Anglo-American Publishing, Hillborough Studio, Educational Projects Inc., and Maple Leaf Publishing on the West Coast.

[5] Triumph Comics, n.d.
When Hirsch and Loubert’s The Great Canadian Comic Books was published in 1971 it too left the impression that Bell was the lone pioneer of the northern whites and published the first Canadian comic book — Wow Comics No. 1 — starring Dart Daring by Edmund T. Legault. Even though historian John Bell corrected that impression in 1986, and again in 2006, falsehoods still persist.

[6] Better Comics, Vol. 7 No. 4, 1946, by Jon St. Ables.
Anglo-American Publishing (Robin Hood and Company, reprints of Ted McCall’s newspaper strip) and Maple Leaf Publishing (Better Comics) both made their debut in March 1941, Hillborough Studio (Triumph-Adventure Comics) in August 1941. Commercial Signs of Canada (later Bell Features) published in September 1941 with the aforementioned Wow Comics No. 1. And Educational Projects Inc. of Montreal registered Volume 1 No. 1 of Canadian Heroes on October 7, 1942 edited by Harry J. Halperin. 

[7] Robin Hood and Company, No. 33.
Heroes were revived. A superhero named Canada Jack appeared in the fifth issue of Canadian Heroes in March 1943. Canada Jack was the brainchild of writer/artist George M. Rae who had written the character for a stage-drama called ‘Adventure Incorporated’ on November 13, 1942. A second Halperen title, Famous Adventure Stories, was published in February 1943. Comic books continued to be published in Canada until 1951 but they were mostly reprints for the British market or American product.

[8] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1941, by Vernon Miller.


Maple Leaf Publishing, located at 849 Homer Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, was begun by producer-writer-artist Vernon Hope Miller with the financial backing of Harry Smith, a vendor for the Imperial News Company (we still waved the Union Jack in those days). The Imperial News Company Limited was a wholesale distributor of newsstand fodder throughout Canada, with an emphasis on British origin newspapers and periodicals.

[9] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1941, by Vernon Miller.

Vernon Hope Miller was probably, born in Vancouver, B.C., on February 28, 1912, and spent part of his childhood living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His parents resided on Maple Avenue in Vancouver and the memory may have inspired Maple Leaf Publishing. He died August 6, 1974. An interview with Miller’s grandson can be found HERE.

[10] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1941.
The first issue of Better Comics was released in March 1941; the first seven were issued monthly, changing to bi-monthly with issue No. 8. Better Comics had primary-color covers and mostly black and white interiors. Vernon Miller’s ‘Iron Man,’ the first Canadian superhero, appeared in color in the first issue. By 1946 the comics were printed full color throughout in an attempt to stay in business.

[11] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1941.
Better Comics was followed by Bing Bang Comics, Lucky Comics, and Rocket Comics (originally titled Name-It Comics). On December 14, 1943, a fifth title, Pinky, was added to the line-up. The number of issues is unknown. Pinky may have only lasted one issue, at any rate it was gone from the lineup of 1944. Maple Leaf Publishing came to an end in 1946, although they emulated Bell Features in shipping issues to England.

[12] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 5, 1941.
Vernon Hope Miller was listed as editor on all titles until April 1946 when he was replaced by John Stables — penname “Jon St. Ables” — on all titles. Jon St. Ables (1912-99) was born Jon Stables in Ulverston, UK, December 23, 1912. He moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1925 then to the west coast where he was employed as a sign-painter in the shipbuilding industry during WWII.

[13] Better Comics, Vol. 3, No. 7, 1944-45, by Jon St. Ables.

Maple Leaf employed him as an artist (and later editor) on Maple Leaf Publishing’s line of titles in 1944. Stables series ‘Brok Windsor,’ a Burroughs-like fantasy set in the Great White North, made a first appearance in the April-May 1944 issue of Better Comics. Stables also prepared a coloring book — The Animals’ Picnic Coloring Book — for Paint Books Limited in Vancouver in October 1944. Denis Gifford described Stables style in The International Book of Comics as:
St. Ables rejected the usual poster effects of red, yellow and blue for unusual oranges and greens, laid with a variety of tints. His interior pages also used variegated dot tints for added effects, making a virtue of their economic monotone.
[14] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 6, 1941.

Bert Bushell worked for Maple Leaf Publishing during the war years on ‘Callahan the Detective’, ‘Adam & Eve’, ‘Dr. Evil’ and ‘The Black Wing’. Bushell illustrated Robert E. Swanson’s 1943 book Rhymes of a Lumberjack; a second book of verse concerning the trials and tribulations, lives and ways of the loggers living and working in the Great Northwest of America, Toronto, T. Allen, 1943. 

[15] Better Comics, Vol. 3, No. 7, 1944-45, by Shirley Fortune.
Lumber faller Bus Griffiths, author of the graphic novel Now You’re Logging! (Harbour Publishing, 1978), drew westerns for Maple Leaf Publishing but doesn’t seem to have been too prolific. Other artists employed by the company were Ernie Walker, Ley Fortune (Shirley Fortune, a student of West Coast artist Jack Shadbolt), Vim Pearson, Ray Hazall, Bill Meikle, Bill Benz (‘Quest of the Solar Star’), Spike Brown (‘Cosmo and his White Magic’), Ted Watson, F.P. Thursby and Herb Brew.

[16] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 7, 1941.
Cy Bell’s comics, with their svelte Nazis, muscular heroes, headlight heroines, torture and violence, were darker than Maple Leaf’s comics. Most of Bell’s artists aspired to newspaper strips and the influence of Raymond, Foster and Caniff is obvious on the best artist’s work. Maple Leaf’s artists and writers were much more sedate but also more original. American influence (at least in the few comics still available for reading) was next to nil. If there was any prior influence it was probably British comics.

[17] Better Comics, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1941, by Vernon Miller, art.

It’s difficult to judge the over-all quality and continuity of Maple Leaf comics since there’s no complete collection that can be accessed. A couple of hundred Bell Features comics, along with original art, printer’s negatives and plates were saved by Bell’s financial backer, Toronto businessman John Ezrin, and sold along with publishing rights to Hirsch and Loubert in the early 70s. Library and Archives Canada holds a mere 380 copies of published comic books and 2,298 pieces of original artwork.

[18] Better Comics, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1946, by Jon St. Ables.

Further Reading. Michael Hirsh & Patrick Loubert, 1971, The Great Canadian Comic Books. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates John Bell, 1986, Canuck Comics. Montreal: Matrix Books John Bell, 2006, Invaders from the North. Toronto: Dundurn Press Alter Ego, No. 71, August 2007, reprint of The Great Canadian Comic Books, Introduction by Alan Walker
Canadian Notes. Hope Nicholson (Associate Researcher on the Lost Heroes Documentary on Canadian War-time Comics coming out next year) and Rachel Richey announced at Fan Expo that they have obtained the rights to reprint all 31 Nelvana stories that appeared in Triumph comics in the forties and are working on ways to fund this. You can keep up on their progress on the Nelvana Facebook page HERE.
Thanks. To Ivan Kocmarek and Walter Durajlija, for their help on this post.        

[19] Lucky Comics, 1944, by Jon St. Ables.
[20] Nelvana of the Northern Lights — News of vital importance…
[21] ‘Help keep the Bomb-Bays full!’

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