Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Adventures of Johnny Canuck: WWII Dime Comics

Canadian patriotism inspired by the Second World War led to the birth of the big three of Canadian nationalist super-heroes.  Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, and Canada Jack, would all battle the Nazis and their sympathizers at home and abroad.  War economies also played a role in the publication of home-grown Canadian comics. Concern about balancing the exchange of American dollars lead the the 1941 War Exchange Conservation Act, which banned the import of American "fiction periodicals" into Canada.  The need for Canadian heroes, and concern over a balance of foreign currency led to the dawning of the Golden Age of Canadian comic books.


Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Adrian Dingle,
front cover, Nelvana of the Northern Lights,
ca. 1945 © National Archives of Canada/Nelvana Ltd.

In August, 1941, the first super-hero with a distinctly Canadian identity was introduced.   Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights, co-created with Franz Johnston of Group of Seven fame, was a super-symbol of the Canadian North. As Mary Louise Adams noted, in The Trouble with Normal: "based on a character from Inuit mythology, Nelvana was, nevertheless, portrayed as a white goddess, the personification of the North. She drew her supernatural powers from the Northern Lights and dressed in a short, fur-hemmed skirt, tall boots, and a cape. She had just about everything a superhero could want: she was immortal, she could fly, travel at the speed of light, melt metal, disrupt radio communications, make herself invisible, and alter her own shape and that of her brother (with whom she communicated telepathically). She put her powers to use fighting supernatural villains with nasty ties to the Nazis." (Adams, 143)  Nelvana stands out from her heroic Canadian cohorts in that she had bonafide super powers.  The following two nationalist super heroes were just plain tough.

The next national super hero to arise was the now legendary Johnny Canuck.  Johnny or Jack Canuck had been portrayed in Canadian political cartoons, beginning in the nineteenth-century.  Once portrayed as a French-Canadian habitant, the figure became increasingly western, donning high leather boots and a stetson.  
"Canada's Answer to Nazi Oppression", Leo Bachle, Dime Comics No. 2, p. 23, March 1942
© National Archives of Canada/Nelvana Ltd.
 Johnny Canuck's Second World War reboot has an interesting origins story of its own.  In 1942, the sixteen-year-old Leo Bachle was browsing some Dime Comics when that company's financial backer John Ezrin asked the young man what he thought of the comics.  Bachle candidly criticized the artwork, and when asked to produce a better depiction of two men fighting, he promptly did.  Ezrin told him to dream up a new comic book character, and that night Johnny Canuck was born.

Leo Bachle (script and art), Dime Comics No. 1, p. 23, February 1942  Super ITCH
Unlike Nelvana, Johnny Canuck had no super powers to speak of, but travelled to exotic climes, met with the resistance (and inevitably a beautiful woman), and usually escaped from his Nazi captors by highly improbable means. While Canuck fought evil overseas, a super-hero soon emerged to keep the home-front safe from Nazi sympathizers.

Canada Jack appeared in 1943, and was the first fictional addition to the Canadian Heroes comic books.  Canadian Heroes was the creation of Montreal's Educational Products, which had a wholesome educational mandate legitimized by letters of endorsement by Canadian cabinet ministers.  Canada Jack's exploits were largely restricted to foiling the dastardly plans of saboteurs on the Canadian home-front.

When the war ended, the ban of American comics in Canada also ceased, and the fledgling industry all but collapsed.  The transition to colour was another barrier to a home-grown comics industry.  Crime and mystery comics began to grow in popularity, and were the subject of considerable backlash from those who felt their message was unsavoury.  By 1947, the Golden Age of Canadian comics had all but come to an end.

Sources/Links
Adams, Mary Louise (Author). The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality.
Toronto, ON, CAN: University of Toronto Press, 1997. p 144.
http://site.ebrary.com/lib/calgarypublisher/Doc?id=10200841&ppg=171

Johnny Canuck's entire adventures summarized on an archived Library and Archives Canada page:
http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/lac-bac/guardians_north-ef/2009/www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/superheroes/t3-301-e.html

English Canadian Comic Books from the Canadian Encyclopedia:
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/comic-books-in-english-canada

2 comments:

  1. Now I need to have another kid to name her Nelvana.

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  2. Aahhh, that Johnny Canuck was just a johnny-come-lately compared to "Freelance" a real Canadian comic book hero of the era.
    He had his own title from Ango-American, and Johnny was just a back up feature in a book.

    History can be so cruel.
    ~j.

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