Canadian Comic Strips and Books

An hour about Canadian comic strips and books. Over the years Canada has been home to an eclectic roster of cartooning talent from Johnny Canuck to Nelvana, Walter Frise to Lynn Johnston. In this hour of Rewind, a look at comics from Birdseye Centre to Superman, Nelvana to For Better or For Worse. ...
An hour about Canadian comic strips and books. Over the years Canada has been home to an eclectic roster of cartooning talent from Johnny Canuck to Nelvana, Walter Frise to Lynn Johnston. In this hour of Rewind, a look at comics from Birdseye Centre to Superman, Nelvana to For Better or For Worse. Though comics got their start south of the border, Canada has become home to an eclectic roster of cartoon talent over the years from Johnny Canuck to Lynn Johnston, Rural Route to Spawn. 

We start with a look at a strip called Birdseye Centre. It was a tender and humorous strip that lampooned life in small town Canada. It was created in the 1920s by a man called Jimmy Frise, and the wit of the strip along with its eclectic cast of characters proved wildly popular. It spawned a mini-industry that included jigsaw puzzles, product endorsements and even a stage play. This clip from the program Voice of the Pioneers features Frise's good friend, writer Gregory Clark, who recalls the pre-eminent artist of the early days of Canadian comics.

The superhero comic made its debut in the summer of 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1 which featured a guy who called himself 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.

The story of Superman might be a familiar one, but many Canadians probably aren't aware of our own home grown heroes, The Canadian Whites. It was a line of comics written, drawn and published by Canadians in the 1940s. 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. 

This meant that all foreign periodicals were banned and of course that included comic books. The next piece looks back at the Whites through the eyes of the men who created them. 

Cy Bell, the owner of Bell Features, published such characters as Dixon of the Mounted, Johnny Canuck, the Penguin and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, which was inspired by an Inuit legend. 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.

As for Leo Bachle the creator of Johnny Canuck, he moved to New York City in 1944 to draw for several comic companies. But by the 1950's Bachle had left the industry, changed his name to Les Barker and started a new career as a nightclub entertainer and actor.

The federal import law was repealed after the war ended in 1946 and in spite of the popularity of the Whites, within a couple of years all of the companies had disappeared.

I'm Michael Enright and this is Rewind- the archives program here on CBC Radio One and Sirius Radio 137. Today, a look at Canadian comic books. 

By the 1950s, crime and horror comics had become as common on the magazine racks as superheroes had been a decade earlier. While kids loved the gory art and fast-paced thrills, parents and teachers became increasingly concerned about the negative impact of these so-called "funnybooks." With opposition towards the genre building, this CBC Radio clip captures a citizens' forum in Nova Scotia where adults worry about the effect of the comics. From January 1949, Citizen's Forum. 

The campaign against crime and horror comics reached its peak in 1954 with the publication of "Seduction of the Innocent" by Frederic Wertham, an American psychiatrist. The book, which made the case that such comics were corrupting a generation of young boys, was a media sensation and led to the mass destruction (and burning) of comics across Canada and America. Wertham's book presented anecdotes about young boys committing crimes, which he claimed were based on comic stories.

In a December 1948 issue of Maclean's magazine, journalist Sidney Katz quoted American essayist John Mason Brown as saying "Comic books are the marijuana of the nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the home, the curse of the kids and a threat to the future."

Wertham's book prompted a U.S. Senate inquiry in 1954 and the eventual formation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body that screened comics for depictions of gore, sexuality, and excessive violence. In Canada too, comics were regulated. In 1949 the Fulton Bill was passed into law. It made it an offence for any magazine or periodical to "pictorially" represent "the commission of crimes, real or fictitious."

There were also comic book supporters. One of them was the Dr. Benjamin Spock, who argued that comics were stepping stone for children's reading development. "There's no more reason to think it will ruin his taste than there is to fear that letting him creep on hands and knees in infancy will keep him from ever walking in the more elegant upright position," Spock declared in Maclean's in 1948. 

By the 1970s, things had settled down- so much so that comic book readers were getting together in conventions to talk about their favourites. The next clip was from January 1974, and featured reporter Sol Littman at a comic book convention in Toronto. 

Uncle Elmer, Aunt Myrtle and nephew Willie may not be familiar to newspaper readers today, but for more than a decade starting in the 1950s the folksy characters were a staple in newspapers across the country. The stars of Walter Ball's popular comic strip Rural Route, offered Canadians a weekly dose of unhurried life back on the farm. From June 1982, Morningside with Don Harron. 

Arn Saba, who conducted the Ball interview featured in this clip, was a cartoonist himself and created the comic book Neil the Horse which ran for 15 issues in the 1980s.

Next is an interview from 1972 with a man who was sometimes called the patriarch of Canadian comics. His name was George Henderson and he's with Harry Brown on his program The Scene. 

George Henderson talked about the need for some Canadian voices in the comics- and Lynn Johnston- the creator of the hugely successful comic strip For Better or For Worse- fits the bill. 

Back in September 1979, her strip For Better or For Worse appeared in a handful of newspapers across North America. This piece, from the fifth estate, caught her almost exactly a year after its debut- in September 1980- as she struggled to balance the demands of a daily strip with the pressures of being a mother. Interviewing her is Adrienne Clarkson. 

Lynn Johnston is one of the most successful and celebrated cartoonists in history - Canadian or otherwise. Her strip is carried in more than 2,000 newspapers in 23 countries and can be read in eight languages. She's also won a Gemini Award, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is a member of the Order of Canada and is the first woman to ever win a Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist from the U.S.-based National Cartoonists Society. 

In 2008 Johnston announced- via the comic strip- that she would take the story back in time to its beginning with half of the material to be new and the other half repeats.