Book About WWII Comics in Canada Launches Fundraising Campaign on Kickstarter
by BK Munn
Comics researcher Dr. Ivan Kocmarek has launched a Kickstarter to publish his massive history of 1940s Canadian comic books as seen through the lives of the cartoonists who created the Bell Features line of superhero, action-adventure, and humour comics. The book features meticulously-researched biographical material on these creators and their creations, including scans of 175 pages of rarely-seen original art. Bell Features is well-known as the home of pioneering superheroes Nelvana and Johnny Canuck, but this new book promises to reveal even more about these and the lesser-known characters and features that shared the comics pages of the so-called “Canadian Whites” published during World War II when U.S. comics were not available in Canada.
You can check out the Kickstarter here. It runs until October 4. I think this is a book many comics fans and collectors need to have on their bookshelves, the untold story of a generation of Canadian cartoonists who contributed to the War effort and entertained Canadian children with their art. Many of the comics published during this time are equal to or surpass much of the American product from the same era, with the added bonus of unique Canadian content. Artists like Adrian Dingle and Lou Skuce are all-time great, hall-of-fame cartoonists and the book also introduces forgotten greats like the first woman cartoonist to contribute to comic books in this country, Toronto’s Doris Slater,
I talked to Ivan Kocmarek about the history of this project and about some of the highlights of the book.
SEQUENTIAL: There seems to be a bit of a renaissance or newfound appreciation in terms of these once-forgotten Canadian comic books from the 1940s. We’ve recently had complete collections of several superhero features from what you call “the WECA-era” published. How does your book fit in to this revival? Why did you choose to focus on the creators behind the Bell Features comic books?
IVAN KOCMAREK: My small part in this revival/renaissance of interest in the first Canadian comics began with me starting my Comic Book Daily column on the books in January of 2013. I coined and started using the term “WECA comics” to describe these comics in this column and in an article I had published in the 44th Overstreet Price Guide in 2014. I’d actually finished that article before I began the online column but it was too late to get it into the 2013 Overstreet. I also began doing presentations at cons around Ontario telling people about these forgotten Canadian comics. I appraised a large donation of these comics to the Ryerson Archives in 2015 and another large donation to the Western University Archives in 2016. These are two great repositories that, along with the collection of art and comics at the Library and Archives of Canada, will facilitate a further growth in our knowledge about this comic era. I also published an academic article on Bell Features in the March, 2016 volume of Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and have one forthcoming in a book on the alternative form in Canadian comics which will be put out by the University of Mississippi Press early next year.
My book Heroes of the Home Front book is a sort of culmination of this effort not to allow these comics to languish in the neglect of their unwarranted obscurity. I originally envisioned the book to be more comprehensive with an examination of the creators at the four main Canadian WWII comic book publishers (Maple Leaf, Bell, Anglo-American, and Educational Projects), but that soon became too unwieldly and difficult to ferret out without travelling to the west coast, for example. It seemed more sensible and productive to focus on the publisher with the most accessible material and with the largest number of creators who had lived and worked within the region. The other factor was that huge 2300-page plus of original Bell Features comic book artwork in the holdings of the Library and Archives of Canada. Nobody knew what really was in there and none of it had ever been published in its original form. Bell Features it became, and I obtained license to reproduce 150 of those original art pages that I selected after going through each and every one. I guess my point is that my book doesn’t fit into the revival signalled by the reprint books, but that they fit into a revival I began championing a full year before the Nelvana reprint book came out—even though it probably had a broader impact on this “revival” of the first Canadian comic books. On the other hand, I don’t want to start playing up or taking my efforts here too seriously. In the end, I’m not doing this to make a living or to start a career. I needed to find a retirement project to interest me and lend a little bit more gravity to each day. When you retire, every day is like a Saturday and it’s always great to find something to do on a Saturday and there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday than pick up a handful of comics. It also helps tremendously that your wife is fully supportive of your efforts.
Can you talk a bit about the process of putting the book together. How long have you been researching these artists, the detective work involved in tracking down their stories and family members, and how did it all come together as a book?
I began researching these comics in the fall of the year I retired—2012. My first interview was with Alene Alexanian, daughter of Aram Alexanian who is the first entry in my book, in February of 2013. My research involved mining the internet, newspaper databases, ancestry websites, city phone book collections, numbers of blind phone calls, and collections at the Library and Archives of Canada as well as at McMaster University. I was fortunate enough to make some contacts with families of these artists through responses to my online column features. There is an immense amount of slogging and a good number of frustrating dead ends as any researcher is able to tell you. I made contact with Gerry Lazare by buying a print of Jazz musicians off his website and asking if I could interview him for a book I was working on about Bell Features. He and his wife Setsuko ended up being the most accommodating and helpful of all the individuals I interviewed. I’ve spent two years visiting Gerry and Setsuko and learning more about the life-long adventures and experiences of artists than I could have taking a university programme. They are two wonderful human beings. I managed to contact Gerry Lazare, Murray Karn, Jack Tremblay, and Mel Crawford directly. Mel is now gone and the others are all 90 or older. It’s something I had to snatch at while I could, and I’m glad I was lucky enough to get it done. Altogether, after a couple of years, I was able to build a couple of dozen sections on these Bell Features artists from the contact interviews I set down and, you know, that was the best part of the whole process—meeting these wonderful people who wanted to share there own stories or proudly wanted to share the stories of parents, or grandparents, spouses, and siblings. Putting those interviews together with my own summaries of the back stories of the artists, indexing their contributions to the Bell Features comics, and matching these with a selection of their original artwork gave me what I think is a solid book. It is certainly one I would want to pick off a shelf to read and one I would give a proud place on my bookshelf of comic book related material.
I know that the book contains reproductions of a ton of original art and other archival goodies, mostly from the collection of Archives Canada. How did you track down the other odd pieces of art in private hands? What is your favourite of these pieces.
Some of the original pieces that don’t belong to the Library and Archives collection came from the legacy holdings within the families of these artists. For example, the Alexanians had a five-page “Black Commando” story which is clearly an unpublished prototype for the character Super Commando that actually appeared in Joke Comics. Some of these family holdings came by contacts through my online column on Comic Book Daily. Finally, a nice private collection of about 20 original Bell pages came to light through our network of collectors of these old Canadian comics. Among my favourite pieces of original Bell Features art pages that are featured in my book is a seven-page Tedd Steele story which appeared in Joke Comics No. 16 in which he depicts himself and fellow artists Ross Saakel and Leo Bachle having to meet one of Cy Bell’s deadlines—just great fun, and the meta context of seeing the artists themselves undergoing an adventure in one of their own stories is icing on the cake.
One of the most intriguing discoveries in the book is the life and work of Doris Slater, one of the first women cartoonists to contribute to comic books in Canada. Can you tell us a bit about her story and the features she drew?
Doris Slater’s comic book work began with a feature called “Pat the Air Cadet” in Anglo-American’s Grand Slam Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 which has a cover date of Sept.-Oct. 1941 making her the first female comic book artist in Canada and probably one of the earliest in all of comics. After a solid career at Anglo-American, she moved on to Bell Features in November of 1944 with a strip called “Penny’s Diary” in Active Comics and was the only female to draw a cover for Bell Features when she did a Penny cover for Active Comics No. 21. In the 1950’s she went on to become an art teacher in Brantford and then moved to Ottawa in 1960 to teach high school art there. She died tragically in a car accident on highway 7 heading down to Toronto on the very day that her school term had ended to teach art for the summer at OCA. She was 47.
The money raised by the Kickstarter will finace the printing of a hardcover collection celebrating artists such as Adrian Dingle (creator of Nelvana of the North), Gerald Lazarre (creator of Nitro, The Dreamer, and Drummy Young), Edmond Good (creator of Rex Baxter), Tedd Steele (creator of Speed Savage), Fred Kelly (creator of Mr. Monster), John Hilkert (creator of The Wing), and Leo Bachle (creator of Johnny Canuck and The Brain), and will have you, according to Kocmarek, “glowing with pride in the roots of our own Canadian comic book heritage.”