CBC Digital Archives

The gentle world of Jimmy Frise

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.

Decades before For Better or For Worse took newspapers by storm there was Jimmy Frise's Birdseye Center, a tender, humorous comic strip that lampooned life in small town Canada. Created in the 1920s, Frise's laconic wit and eclectic cast of characters proved wildly popular and spawned a mini-industry that included jigsaw puzzles, product endorsements and even a stage play. This clip from CBC Radio features Frise's good friend, writer Gregory Clark, recalling the pre-eminent artist of the early days of Canadian comics. 
. James Llewellyn Frise (pronounced "fries") was born on a farm on Scugog Island, Ont., in 1891, and was the only child of John and Hannah Frise.
. Growing up in an around the Port Perry region, about an hour's drive north of Toronto, Frise taught himself to draw at a young age.
. He launched his career in 1910, as an illustrator for a company that produced settlement maps for Western Canada. Frustrated by the position's lack of creativity, Frise sent an unsolicited editorial cartoon to the Toronto Star a year later, and earned himself a job in the process.

. In 1916, Frise left the Star to serve in the First World War. In 1917, he lost part of his left hand during the battle of Vimy Ridge and was sent home to Canada, where he resumed his career as a newspaper illustrator.
. Around 1920, he began drawing a one-panel cartoon called Life's Little Comedies for the Star. Not long after, it evolved into Birdseye Center, a weekly strip dealing with the fictional misadventures of the residents of a small town on the outskirts of a larger city.

. Based on Frise's keen observations on life in both rural and urban Canada, the strip satirized the foibles of a country life that was gradually fading away. Appearing in the Star Weekly magazine, the strip featured characters such as Pigskin Peters, Eli Doolittle and Old Archie (and his pet Moose) all of whom became well known across Canada.
. Frise said he based the small town on "any Canadian village with a hotel, gasoline station, barber shop and a town pump."

. The strip found a fan in young Star reporter Ernest Hemingway, and produced Birdseye Center puzzles and even a stage play which was written in the 1970s.
. Frise is also known for his frequent collaborations with Gregory Clark, a journalist and writer at the Star. Starting in the first months of the Great Depression, the duo produced lavishly illustrated short stories that were thinly based on the adventures of a fictionalized Clark and Frise.
. By the 1940s Frise was so successful that he had a studio in a downtown Toronto penthouse and a home in a chic west-end neighbourhood called Baby Point.

. In the mid-1940s Frise became the first cartoonist, living in Canada, to have a Canadian strip syndicated in the U.S. after Birdseye began running in several weekend newspapers.
. In 1947, Frise moved Birdseye Center to the Montreal Standard under a new name, Juniper Junction. Not long after, on June 13, 1948, he died in his Toronto home at the age of 57.
. His obituary in the Toronto Star estimated that his strip boasted two million readers at the time of his death.

. Frise was survived by his wife, Ruth Elizabeth Gate, and five children.
. Juniper Junction continued to appear for 20 years, written and drawn by a young cartoonist named Doug Wright. To watch a 1968 interview with Doug Wright, go to our clip Doug Wright's family.
Medium: Radio
Program: Voice of the Pioneer
Broadcast Date: Nov. 12, 1972
Guest(s): Gregory Clark
Host: Bill McNeil
Duration: 3:54
Photo: Library and Archives Canada (PA-005477046)

Last updated: June 18, 2013

Page consulted on March 3, 2014

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