New comic imagines Lt.-Col. John McCrae leading secret WW I mission

Dr. John McCrae, the Guelph, Ont., physician and poet who wrote In Flanders Fields, stars in an upcoming comic that imagines him leading a team of seven Canadian heroes during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

McCrae, known for poem In Flanders Fields, leads team of 7 during Battle of Vimy Ridge

Writer Chris Sanagan and artist Jason Lapidus have created a comic celebrating Guelph, Ont.'s John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields. The fictional comic features McCrae leading a secret mission with a real-life team of Canadians who served in WW I that includes Norman Bethune, Francis Pegahmagabow, Conn Smythe, A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Banting and Lester Pearson. (Jason Lapidus, Chris Sanagan )

Dr. John McCrae, the physician and poet who wrote In Flanders Fields, is the star of an upcoming comic that imagines him leading a team of Canadian luminaries on a secret mission during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The comic, called Group of 7, is a labour of love created by longtime friends in Ontario: Guelph's Chris Sanagan and Richmond Hill's Jason Lapidus.

The duo were introduced over a decade ago by their then girlfriends — now wives — who noticed they both shared a love of comics, Wilco and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lapidus and Sanagan plan to release the comic for free online in April to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

"John McCrae is a pretty larger-than-life figure in Guelph, for obvious reasons, so I started thinking about, or looking and researching into McCrae's history," said Sanagan, who works for the Archives of Ontario.

McCrae was born in Guelph on Nov. 30, 1872; the house where he was born is now a museum and a national historic site.

"Then I started thinking about all the other people I knew off the top of my head who participated in the war and then went on to dominate aspects of 20th-century Canada," he said.

Sanagan, left, of Guelph and Jason Lapidus of Richmond Hill, Ont., are collaborating on the comic to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Sanagan focused on:

  • Lester Pearson, who went on to be prime minister.
  • Battlefield surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune.
  • Insulin co-discoverer Dr. Frederick Banting.
  • Indigenous sniper Francis Pegahmagabow. 
  • Conn Smythe, who owned the Maple Leafs for decades and built Maple Leaf Gardens.
  • A.Y. Jackson, a Group of Seven painter.

Sanagan thought it would be fascinating to imagine connections between the seven men, and brought the idea to Lapidus, who he says was immediately enthusiastic. 

Drawing from historical pictures

"It's challenging, it is challenging, but there's also a lot of room for creativity because the information available is old and there's not all that much online for me," Jason Lapidus told Craig Norris, the host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition, on Monday.

Lapidus has taught art for almost 10 years and currently owns his own communications company. 

"You have to consider they're in a period of time where they weren't posing for photos. So what they did during the months we don't really know, and I'm allowed to have a little wiggle room to change the way they look a tiny bit. Given that it is a graphic novel, a comic book, there's some creative freedom there."

Deliberate tribute to Group of Seven painters

Sanagan said the name of the comic is a deliberate nod to the Group of Seven.

"I deliberately put the number 7 instead of seven spelled out, because seven spelled out is actually how you refer to the Group of Seven, the painters," he told CBC's Craig Norris. 

He notes that A.Y. Jackson is in the Group of Seven, and painter Tom Thomson also makes some appearances in the comic. Thomson famously went missing in the summer of 1917.

"I wanted to create something that one, people could identify with; two, spoke to some kind of Canadian legacy or history. It certainly ties in with the art, given the graphic nature of the comic," said Sanagan. 

Consulted with families

The family of Indigenous sniper Francis Pegahmagabow was consulted with for the Group of Seven comic. (Marius Barbeau/Canadian Museum of History)

Sanagan consulted with the families of McCrae and Francis Pegahmagabow while scripting the comic. He said it was of particular importance to talk to Pegahmagabow's family because the sniper is Indigenous.

"We're pretty aware of the history of cultures maybe telling the stories of other cultures, without having those cultures be included in the conversation," he said.

Sanagan contacted Pegahmagabow's great-grandaughter through social media and sent her a draft that she then shared with the rest of the family. 

"They got back to me in early December and actually provided excellent story edits," said Sanagan.


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