The Canadian Golden Age of Comics

Happy Canada Day! You ready for some Canadian Content? Ok then!

A few months ago, I was surprised to find Golden Age era Canadian comics in the public domain, seeing as, while we're pretty good at producing comics talent, we're not exactly known for our comics industry (aside from awesome indie publisher Drawn & Quarterly, but I did say "known for"). WE had comics in the Golden Age? I had to research this.

As it turns out, we needed a comics industry during World War II because after our declaration of war against Germany in 1939, the Foreign Exchange Control Board was established, and in December 1940, as our trade deficit with the U.S. grew and British gold shipments were curtailed, the War Exchange Conservation Act was passed... well I don't understand the underling economics, but the effect was to ban the importation of certain non-essential goods during war time, including (and this is why you care about this lecture) fiction periodicals. Where was Canada going to get its pulps and comics?!

Publishers acted quickly to fill the void - Maple Leaf Publishing, Anglo-American Publishing, Hillborough Studios, and Commercial Signs of Canada (well, comics just sound like a side-business to these guys). Soon, Canadian newsstands featured titles like Better Comics, Dime Comics, Robin Hood and Company and Triumph Adventure Comics. Maple Leaf's Better Comics and Anglo-American's Robin Hood came out the same month, but the latter was a tabloid-sized reprint book, Better was all original stuff. And Better had Canada's first superhero, Iron Man!
That's right, Iron Man. Suck it, Marvel.

One of the things that differentiated Canadian comics from their American forebears was the color. There wasn't any aside from the cover. They were also much more serialized than U.S. comics, something we wouldn't see regularly in mainstream U.S. comics for a long time yet.

Maple Leaf's success with Better would lead to more titles - Rocket, Bing Bang and Lucky - and several continuing characters like Brok Windsor, Deuce Granville, Senorita Marquita, Bill Speed, Stuff Buggs and the Black Wing. Over at A-A, it was mostly collected newspaper strips, but original characters like Freelance, Purple Rider, Red Rover, Commander Steel, Terry Kane and Dr. Destine were also introduced. A-A also acquired strips from Fawcett so they could produce Canadian versions of American superhero stories(!). This gave us a Commander Yank with a Union Jack on his chest. I have got to find that somewhere some day. So in addition to Robin Hood, Freelance, Grand Slam and Three Aces, they had their own versions of Captain Marvel, Whiz and Spy Smasher.

Hillborough Studios was the Image Comics of its day. Founded by three artists - Adrian Dingle and René and André Kulbach - it was responsible for the very first female superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, beating out Wonder Woman by several months.
I'll have more on her later in the week because the strips I have access to are BANANAS!!! Anyway, Triumph-Adventure lost that second word with the 6th issue and Dingle eventually joined Bell Features, which would become the best-known Canadian comics publisher of the 40s.

Commercial Signs of Canada was a Toronto-based commercial art firm owned by the Bell brothers that was approached by French-Canadian comic artist Edmund Legault to publish his work. They'd turned him away at first, but when the ban on U.S. comics came through, they called him back, resulting in a book called Wow Comics. It tried color and quickly abandoned it for technical reasons, but was a huge success, leading the company to change its name to Bell Features and producing more titles like Active, Commando, Dime, The Funny Comics and Joke. In contrast to Anglo-American, Bell was uncompromisingly CANADIAN. Once Dingle joined Bell (bringing Triumph and thus, Nelvana, with him), he also introduced the Penguin (suck it, DC). Legault had Dixon of the Mounted. Phantom Rider, Rex Baxter, Doc Stearne (the character resurrected by Michael T. Gilbert as Mr. Monster) and Johnny Canuck were resolutely OF THIS COUNTRY. Bell had the most contributors (though some were crude teen artists) and the biggest output. By the end of the 1943, they were selling more than 100,000 comics a week.

Others tried to get into the game with less success (Canadian Heroes, for example, which took an educational approach loved by parents and government officials, and Lightning Comics which was amateurish and puerile), but victory over Nazi Germany would soon kill the Canadian industry as the color comics from down south would return to the Great White North. The little guys folded immediately. Maple Leaf tried to convert to color, but the costs ran it into the ground. A-A did better and even briefly pierced the U.S. market, but survived by becoming a reprint operation again. The same fate befell Bell, despite big plans to export to Britain and the U.S., when the government refused to authorize the purchase of as much newsprint as they needed.

These books are now all but forgotten, but here's a promise: I vow to do more articles on the Canadian heroes of yore. The capes, of course, but even western heroes like Tang interest me.
Yes, he was a horse.


Bill S. said...

Nelvana looks legit fascinating. I demand a Nelvana archive!

Jeremy Patrick said...

How interesting! I would love to read more about these titles.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this. Your site is always a pleasure to read.

Martin Gray said...

Dingle-Bell, Dingle-Bell ... Hee, wonderful stuff. And I love the typical Canadian modesty of Better Comics, rather than Best.

I've heard of Nelvana, but know nowt, so I'm looking forward to this week's posts.

Siskoid said...

Kal posted this under the wrong post. Restoring it to its proper place:

Fantastic post and for the perfect day. I watched a documentary awhile back about Canadian comic industry. It's too bad that we never had the population to support the industry. No matter how great we were we still had to compete with the US Comic juggernaut. But we did half create Superman, the most American of all heroes and today the six part animated CAPTAIN CANUCK series begins. I would like to see Captain Canuck go mainstream.

Siskoid said...

And more Nelvana in your near future guys!!!

Unknown said...

Good starting summary of this period. I've been doing a blog on this era for a few months if anyone is looking for more info on these books. It's at:

keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

The original Nelvana golden-age comic book stories are going to be reprinted in 2014 if enough people help out with the Kickstarter campaign.
The book has the support of "Corus Entertainment, Michael Hirsh, and the National Archives of Canada."

You can find out about the project, which runs for the month of October 2013 at
~ jim b.

Siskoid said...

Yes, I plan on backing this Kickstarter and get myself a copy!

Siskoid said...

Bill S.: It looks like you will get your Nelvana Archive! The Kickstarter for it has been funded!


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