CBC Digital Archives

Superheroes to call our own

From the wholesome wartime heroics of Johnny Canuck to the exploits of a three-foot-tall aardvark named Cerebus, Canadian comics are anything but dull. Though comics got their start south of the border, Canada has become home to an eclectic roster of cartoon talent from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated strips of Lynn Johnston, to the world-renowned comic art of Seth and the multi-media phenomenon of Todd Mcfarlane's Spawn. The CBC Digital Archives takes an in-depth look at the history of our homegrown comic strips, comic books and graphic novels.

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Many people know the role Canadian-born, and U.S.-raised, artist Joe Shuster played in the creation of Superman. But fewer are aware of our own home grown heroes, The Canadian Whites, a lineup of comics written, drawn and published by Canadians in the 1940s. The product of wartime legislation banning foreign periodicals, the largely black-and-white comics were eagerly snapped up by comics-hungry kids across Canada looking for a fix. This CBC Television clip looks back at the short-lived Whites through the eyes of the men who created them.
• The superhero comic made its debut in the summer of 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1 featuring Superman. Written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Toronto-born Joe Shuster, the comic was a sensation and spawned the superhero comic genre.
• Spurred by the success, the American comic industry unveiled Batman in 1939 and Captain Marvel in 1940.
• To learn more about the life of Joe Shuster, go to our clip 1938: Superman makes his debut.

• In the winter of 1940, the Canadian government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act. The legislation was intended to stabilize the value of the Canadian dollar by barring the import of non-essential goods from the U.S.

• As a result, all American periodicals - including comic books - disappeared from magazine racks across Canada. Over the next few months, several Canadian companies sprouted to take advantage of the lucrative comic market, including Maple Leaf Publishing, Anglo-American Publications, Commercial Signs of Canada and Hillborough Studios (which later merged with Bell Features).

• Cy Bell, owner of Bell Features, oversaw one of the more ambitious of the Canadian companies publishing such characters as Dixon of the Mounted, the patriotic Johnny Canuck, the Penguin and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, which was inspired by an Inuit legend.
• The daughter of the king of the northern lights, Nelvana debuted in August 1941 and is considered Canada's first national superhero.
• Based on an idea by Group of Seven member Franz Johnston, Nelvana preceded the U.S. debut of Wonder Woman by three months, making her arguably the world's first female superhero.

• Originally an old lady, the comic-book version of Nelvana was the beautiful young daughter of the king of the northern lights who wore a miniskirt while battling Nazis and the mysterious Ether People.
• Years later, Nelvana was the inspiration for the Canadian animation company Nelvana Limited, which produces the TV cartoons Franklin the Turtle, Babar and The Backyardigans.
• Johnny Canuck was created overnight by 16-year-old Leo Bachle. A captain in the Allied Air Forces who had super-strength, Johnny debuted in the February 1942 issue of Dime Comics. Bachle's skill earned him notice in the U.S. and in 1944 he moved to New York City to draw for several comic companies.

• In the 1950's Bachle left comics, changed his name to Les Barker and started a new career as a nightclub entertainer and actor.
• In 1995, Canada Post commemorated Johnny Canuck on a stamp. To see Barker discuss the honour, see our clip Stamp of approval.
• Though Johnny Canuck is well remembered today, the first made-in-Canada superhero was actually a hero called Iron Man.

• Iron Man first appeared in Better Comics No. 1 in March 1941, which is considered to be the first Canadian-made comic featuring original characters. Created by Vancouver native Vernon Miller, Iron Man was the only survivor of a destroyed civilization who lived underwater.
• Other Canadian-made characters of the period include the Polka-Dot Pirate, Freelance, Canada Jack, Stuffy Bugs and Senorita Marquita.
• Despite the popularity of The Whites, the federal import law was repealed after the war ended in 1946. Within a couple of years all of the companies had closed.
Medium: Television
Program: Telescope
Broadcast Date: Oct. 5, 1971
Guest(s): Leo Bachle, Cy Bell, Adrian Dingle
Director: Patrick Loubert, Michael Hirsh
Host: Fletcher Markle
Duration: 9:46
Excerpts from The Great Canadian Comics provided courtesy of Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert.
This clip has been edited for copyright reasons.

Last updated: July 2, 2014

Page consulted on July 2, 2014

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