“Kodak Karn” Drew Canadian Comic Book Heroes Thunderfist and Jeff Waring
by BK Munn
The cartoonist, illustrator and painter Murray Karn died earlier this year, on March 19, in Southampton, New York. Karn was one of a handful of artists who produced comics for the Bell Features company in Toronto in the early 1940s, for a brief time establishing a war-time comic book industry in Canada.
Born in Toronto, Murray Joseph Karn had an early aptitude for art, earning the nickname “Kodak Karn” from his highschool classmates for his realistic portraits and his ability to mimic the styles of the cartoonists and illustrators of the day. The 16-year old Karn parlayed this skill into a job with Cy Bell’s Bell Features comic book company in 1941, after answering a classified newspaper ad.
Bell Features was one of a small group of companies that sprang up to take advantage of the temporary ban on imports of “non-essential” goods from the U.S. during World War II as part of the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA), and soon found themselves overwhelmed with the demand for homegrown versions of the superheroes and funny animals popular south of the border. Karn was assigned to illustrate the “Thunderfist” feature for Bell’s Active Comics title. The first issue of the comic debuted in February, 1942, and Karn would draw twelve issues worth of the character’s stories for Active.
Co-created by writer E.T. Legault, Thunderfist was one of the first Canadian supermen to see print. The character was Randolph Steele, a circus strongman whose scientist brother is murdered by Nazi spies. Steele uses his brother’s inventions to give himself a streamlined costume and the powers of superstrength, flight and invulnerability which he uses to fight criminals and saboteurs from his secret underground base. Karn drew the feature in an accomplished style reminiscent of Flash Gordon‘s Alex Raymond, taking over the writing chores himself with Active Comics #7.
Karn also pitched Bell a feature he created himself called “Jeff Waring, King of the Amazon.” Modeled after Alex Raymond’s Jungle Jim comic strip, Jeff Waring debuted in Wow Comics #7 and ran for 13 episodes.
In addition to these two strips, printed in black-and-white, Karn provided several full-colour covers for Bell, including a few featuring his two signature characters, as well as many interior black-and-white spot illustrations and ads for the publisher.
As Karn told writer Ivan Kocmarek in a 2014 interview, he and his teenage studiomates “all worked on a $5 or $6 per page basis rather than a salary”:
“When I started, a bunch of us worked in the basement of the Bell Features building [165 York Street, Toronto] but, after a while, Cy Bell wanted us to work freelance. As a freelancer it was a great time. You were your own boss. You had to discipline yourself and meet all those deadlines. I had an uncle who had a social club and it was only in operation during the evening so I used it in the daytime as my studio to do my work and at five o’clock I locked my stuff away and left. I look back at that time as giving me a great training and honing of skills in line drawing. You had to work fast and think on your feet all the time because you were coming up with the story as well and don’t forget you had to do all the lettering on top of it all –all in time for the publication deadline.”
Karn joined the war in Europe in 1943, serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. He was wounded in France sometime after D-Day, but still found time to produce portraits and art for the entertainment of his fellow soldiers.
Returning to Canada at war’s end, Karn picked up his illustration career where he left off. Several more of his comic stories were published after 1945, but Karn soon moved on to working for a large commercial art firm in Toronto. In 1947 he emigrated to the U.S., and quickly landed employment in the New York advertising field, where he continued to work for the next 55 years, producing advertising art, book covers, and magazine illustrations for a long list of clients.
Late in life, Karn moved into fine art, painting landscapes and buildings. He exhibited and sold his work as a member of the Southampton Artists Association, located near his home of Hampton Bays on Long Island, NY.
Murray Karn died peacefully at the Stony Brook Southampton Hospital on March 19, 2018. He is survived by his wife Margot and by his sister, Roslyn Baldwin and her family.