Books·How I Wrote It

Ken Steacy teams up with Margaret Atwood to explore the Golden Age of Canadian comic books

The Victoria illustrator's graphic novel War Bears offers a fictional look at the little-known history of Canadian comics during the Second World War.

'Most Canadians don't know that we had a homegrown comics industry.'

Victoria illustrator Ken Steacy adapted Margaret Atwood's short story into the graphic novel War Bears. (Submitted by Ken Steacy, Dark Horse)

Victoria-based comic artist and illustrator Ken Steacy's new graphic novel War Bears offers a fictional look at the little-known history of Canadian comics during the Second World War.

The mini-series-turned-graphic novel was inspired by a short story Margaret Atwood wrote and Steacy illustrated in The Globe and Mail for the country's sesquicentennial in 2017.

The comic follows a young man named Alain Zurakowski, whose health issues prevent him from joining his brothers in the war effort abroad. In Toronto, Alain invents a Nazi-fighting superheroine named Oursonette in hopes she will help with morale for Canadians at home.

Below, Steacy describes the real Canadian comics history that inspired Atwood's story and how the graphic novel came to be.

Canadian comics history with Margaret Atwood

"The Globe asked a number of Canadian artists to write about a period in Canadian history that was of interest. Margaret has always had a fascination with military history so she wrote about VE-Day. She combined that with her love for comics and created this fictional Canadian comics company.

"Most Canadians don't know that we had a homegrown comics industry, which flourished for a few years during the war because of something called the War Exchange Conservation Act, which restricted import of certain 'unnecessary goods' from the U.S., including comics. Overnight, four little companies — two in Toronto, one in Montreal and one in Vancouver — sprang up. When the war ended, the act was repealed. American comics flooded back in and wiped out the industry in 18 months. It was 30 years before we started producing comics in Canada again.

An excerpt from War Bears by Margaret Atwood & Ken Steacy. (Dark Horse)

"I did the illustrations for Margaret's story and the story absolutely took hold of me and would not let go. I was so entranced with Margaret's characters, the story, the wonderful bittersweet nature of it all. Everyone is celebrating the war's end, we're all going to be rewarded with conspicuous consumption and the fictional comics company, Canoodle Comics, is transitioning to advertising so everyone is going to get rich.

"But our hero Alain has put his heart and soul into this comic about a character called Oursonette, a were-bear heroine who punches Nazis and has all these adventures, and she's about to disappear. He's broken-hearted. This wonderful dramatic tension in the story just really spoke to me.

Margaret has always had a fascination with military history so she wrote about VE-Day. She combined that with her love for comics and created this fictional Canadian comics company.- Steacy

"I wanted to know the character's backstory. I wanted to know what happened next. Having been drawing comics professionally for over 40 years, I knew a lot about comics history, knew a lot about the trials and tribulations of creators and their relationship with their publishers and their relationship with the characters that they create and the intellectual property they create.

"I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to expand on that. I contacted Margaret and pitched the idea of doing more with it. She was intrigued and we had spent a lovely afternoon brainstorming what was initially a three-issue mini series, which then became the graphic novel."

An excerpt from War Bears by Margaret Atwood & Ken Steacy. (Dark Horse)

The details

"I'm also an official war artist. I have work that's in the permanent collection of the National War Museum in Ottawa. As such, I have access to their archives and so I was very fortunate to be able to go there on a couple of occasions, requesting access to certain different types of guns and uniforms and artwork and posters.

"I really wanted to be as scrupulously accurate as possible. I wanted to avoid any kind of anachronisms both visually and in the script. It came right down to, what does the meter on a taxi cab in Toronto in 1943 look like? What does a Thompson submachine gun look like? It was really important to get that verisimilitude."

Family connection

"My dad was actually in the Air Force. He signed up when he was about 18. He was a fighter pilot. He never saw combat, which is probably fortunate because I might not even exist otherwise. He left the military at the end of the war, tried all kinds of things until he realized that all he wanted to do in life was punch holes in the clouds.

"He joined up again in 1948, I believe, and was a career fighter pilot ever since. The hero, Alain's last name is Zurakowski. He's named after a famous Polish pilot named Janusz Żurakowski, who was an ace during the Battle of Britain. He emigrated to Canada and became the test pilot for the Avro Company. There are little secret handshakes sprinkled throughout the comic that other military rats will recognize."

An excerpt from War Bears by Margaret Atwood & Ken Steacy. (Dark Horse)

Finished, not perfect

"My wife I created a program in comics and graphic novels and we're always telling our students, 'Finished, not perfect.' I hear those words come back to haunt me when I'm sitting there at 3:00 a.m. and I'm working away on a beautiful little jewel-like painting and realize, 'Wait a minute, does this serve the story?' Everything should serve the story.

"If I'm going to put so much attention into this panel just because I'm so in love with what's going on in this image then I have undermined my efforts and I should not be doing this. Coming up with the ideas and the story and bringing the characters to life is an absolute joy. That's the fun part, but then when you sit and think, 'Oh my gosh, I've got 84 full colour pages I have to produce within this period of time' then it becomes a lot of work. At the end of the day, I am very proud of it. I think it's the best thing I've ever done."

An excerpt from War Bears by Margaret Atwood & Ken Steacy. (Dark Horse)

Ken Steacy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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