An Interview with “Untitled Canadian Whites Project” Editor Ivan Kocmarek
by BK Munn
One of my great comics pleasures over the past several years was reading Ivan Kocmarek’s regular column at The Comic Book Daily site, “Whites Tsunami/WECA Splashes,” a wide-ranging exploration of the so-called “Canadian Whites” comic books published in Canada beginning during World War II and continuing on into the early 1950s.
These little-known comics are enjoying something of a renaissance these days with collections of early superheroes Nelvana and Johnny Canuck soon to be in every maple-syrup-lovin’ True Norther’s hands. He has also written a general history for The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and helped start an online database, but Ivan’s column was an encyclopedic journey through the history of these comics, chock full of new discoveries about the lives of the men and women who populated this weird episode from our history. Sadly, he announced the end of his column at the end of 2014, after 100 highly-educational entries.
However, at the same time he announced he was working on a giant-sized book reprinting the original art from some of these comics, along the same lines as the recent IDW and Fantagraphics “Artists Edition” coffee-table collections. Needless to say, I was so excited about the prospect of such a book existing that I had to get all the details from the man himself.
Below is a short interview with Ivan Kocmarek, who will be compiling the book all on his lonesome. As he notes in the interview, the book is a far-from-finished project, but I think Ivan’s background as a fan and the knowledge he has is relevant to his current project and was happy that he agreed to share his experience with Sequential. I think his story will be of equal interest to long-time comic collectors and newly-minted fans of 1940s Canadian comic books.
Sequential: Can you tell us a bit about your history as a comics fan and how you became a comics collector? When did you start being interested in Canadian comics and specifically the comics from the 1940s “Golden Age” –what you refer to as the WECA-period [War Exchange Conservation Act] comics and publishers?
Ivan Kocmarek: Though I was born in England, my family moved to Canada just after I turned 8 and I grew up through my teenage years in Hamilton during the sixties. My earliest recollection of a proper comic book was on that long train ride from Montreal to Toronto reading the current issues of World’s Finest and The Flash. I remember buying comics off the stands during that breakout transition at Marvel from giant monster stories to superheroes and picked up FF #1 and AF #15 off the stands. I used to do circuits of the used book stores in downtown Hamilton on my bike picking up second-hand comics for a nickel apiece as well as trading for them with neighbourhood kids.
I do remember a long walk (with my brother when we were attending the CNE) in 1965 or ’66 from the Dufferin Gates up to Queen St. and along Queen fro quite a while to George Henderson’s Viking Bookstore (this was before he opened up near Honest Ed’s on Markham) and purchasing my first Golden Age book from him for $5 (a copy of Star Spangled Comics with Robin on the cover). When I stopped accumulating comics around 1975, when I was beginning grad school at McMaster University, I had a collection of about 8,000 books with solid runs of Marvel and DC and other publishers from the early sixties to that time. I’ve kept that collection together through many moves and have just begun liquidating it since my retirement from teaching high school in June of 2012.
My interests in Canadian comics, and specifically the Canadian war-time comics, probably began when I signed out Loubert and Hirsh’s The Great Canadian Comic Books sometime in early 1972, It reminded me of Jules Pfeiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes which I had gotten out of that same library a half-dozen years earlier and which really woke me up to the Golden Age in general. However, at that time (1972) the reproduction of those Bell Feature stories in Loubert and Hirsh’s book seemed unimpressive and just another reflection of the inferiority of Canadian product to American product in every field but hockey. I picked up one or two “Whites” along the way but I still didn’t know what they really were.
It wasn’t until I retired, two and-a-half years ago, that I really started getting interested in these old Canadian comics. In that summer I was looking for a retirement project that I could spend a portion of all this new spare time on. Being a life-long comics fan and having some experience at research and writing, I decided to look into the nature and circumstances of these old Canadian artifacts that were now over 70 years distanced from us. I soon realized that my early impressions of them as a throw-away attempt and even a failure at Canada’s doing something on its own that Americans did so easily and so well—that impression was unwarranted and mistaken. My cause quickly became to bring these books back into a Canadian culture and identity and you can see the results so far in my online column and my article in Overstreet #44.
Sequential: What is your own collection like? How many comics do you have and what other archival artifacts have you managed to accumulate.
Ivan Kocmarek: Like I said, I’ve got about 8,000 pre-1976 books but contacts through my online column and the help of collectors/sellers like Stephen Lipson and Walter Durajlija have brought my collection of Canadian “Whites” from about 4 or 5 books at the start of my retirement to over 180 now. In that time I’ve also picked up about 350 of those Canadian reprint books published from 1948-53 or so. I do have two pages of Canadian “Whites” art (a Manny Easson page from The Funny Comics #5 a Harry Brunt “Buzz and his Bus” splash page) and other original pieces, though, not comic pages from half-a-dozen or so other Canadian golden age artists and other items connected to these war time books.
Sequential: Can you talk about the collecting scene for these books and how it has changed? Are these positive changes? Can you talk about the role of collectors in the preservation and dissemination of these materials?
Ivan Kocmarek: These books have always been so hard to find and I would put most WECA books at least in the category of Gerber [rarity rating] 7 or 8s. As more is being found out about them, interest in them and the demand for them has increased, though the supply just isn’t there in the same way that you find for American golden age books. Try asking for a WECA book at the next con you go to. You’ll see scads of American golden age books on dealers walls and in dealer bins, but Canadian “Whites” will be far and few between if at all. But this interest has flushed some of these books out so that I could build my own collection and current reprint projects are adding to this so I don’t think we’ll ever go back to them being in an obscure corner of the collecting field.
One of the big changes going on now is that some American collectors are acquiring an interest in them and I’m not sure how this will eventually affect the market. The two C-Link auctions at the beginning of last year showed prices bumped exponentially, even for lower grade books. Even five years ago I don’t think there were more than a couple of dozen collectors of these books across Canada and the US but now I am encountering quite a number of people, some of them quite young, who would love to get a couple of “Whites” into their collection and other, long time collectors who are starting to see these as important books.
I think that more people than ever are starting to find out about these books and their special place in Canadian culture and this has to be seen as a very positive development. The pricing of these books out of the range of many collectors has to be lamentable but reprint efforts and art-sized books will be able to put part of them in everybody’s collections. The source for these reprints and books are archives and private collections from across the country showing that collectors, and individuals who have donated their collections to archival repositories, are the ones who should be credited with the fact that we are able to bring these books back into our collective Canadian cultural consciousness.
Sequential: What are your plans for the book? Who is in it? What kind of pages are available? Dimensions? Format? How did you choose what to include?
“Right now this book is just a vision. I have the introduction and sections on half-a-dozen artists completed.“
Ivan Kocmarek: Right now this book is just a vision. I have the introduction and sections on half-a-dozen artists completed. Last year I was up at the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa and went through their collection of over 2300 Bell Features original art pages and took high quality raw photographs of those I was interested in (over 1,000 of them). From these I selected 150 that I felt were most representative and applied to the Archives for a license to reproduce them in my proposed book and I was granted this license in the fall. The downside is that there are none of the big Bell superhero pages in the Archives collection (no Nelvana, Thunderfist, Speed Savage, The Brain, The Wing, etc.); still there are many excellent pages that are worth seeing in their original form right off the artists drafting table. These pages will also serve as excellent anchors to hang my short artists bios and some interviews from. My vision is to put together a large Fantagraphics type of book that shows these pages with all their whiteout, touch-ups, and paste-ups. I hope to include a few previously unpublished materials from private collections. I haven’t finalized a title for the book. I have to see what the finished product looks like as a whole. Gerald Lazare has been kind enough to put together a small paragraph as a type of forward to the book.
Sequential: How are you publishing it? On you own dime? Fundraising?
Ivan Kocmarek: Well, I hope to throw out the proposal with sample completed sections to several publishers but this is a niche collecting area and I’m not sure any will bite so it might be a Kickstarter-type fundraiser but I don’t have the funds (still paying off the legal fees from a couple of divorces and one of the aims of liquidating portions of my collection is to reduce this debt) to carry the project on my own. It could be a dream that never sees the light of day or it could be finalized in quite a different form from what I see it as now.
Sequential: Can you talk about one or two of your favourite artists and the pages you are including?
Ivan Kocmarek: My favourite artists in all of comics are probably Eisner and Ditko but in terms of the WECA period here in Canada they have to be the quirkier ones that draw in an “in-your-face” and animated, almost abstract style. Remember that almost invariably all these WECA artists also wrote their stories as well and the artists that appeal to me the most had that sense of satire and tongue-in-cheek projection of humour in the stories they produced. So to me Tedd Steele with his fluid style and text heavy stories (Speed Savage, Private Stuff, late Thunderfist….), Oscar Schlienger with his powerful line and brush (“Lucky” and Colonel Braggart in Joke Comics), and Avrom Yanovsky with his jagged, expressionist, Cabinet of Dr, Caligari style (Major Domo and Jo-Jo, Mr. Distracted Attorney…) are the WECA creators I most enjoy jumping into the pool with.
Sequential: How much art is out there? What is missing of import?
Ivan Kocmarek: As I’ve pointed out, the collection of Bell Features original art at the Archives is missing just about all of the significant hero work and I have no idea what might exist in private collections. Original WECA art is even harder to come across than those hard to find comics. I doubt much exists. The fact that Loubert and Hirsh preserved so much in the early 70s (at that time it was found just lying on the floor in the corner of a warehouse —you can still see footprints on some of those originals at the Archives!) was such a fortunate thing or we’d only have a few dozen pages to look at. The Bell Features artists often gave away pages of their original art as contest prizes and these may still exist around the country… let’s hope.