- Truth, Justice, and the Canadian Way:The War-Time Comics of Bell Features Publications
What might be called the “First Age of Canadian Comics”1 began on a consummately Canadian political and historical foundation. Canada had entered the Second World War on September 10, 1939, nine days after Hitler invaded the Sudetenland and a week after England declared war on Germany. Just over a year after this, on December 6, 1940, William Lyon MacKenzie King led parliament in declaring the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) as a protectionist measure to bolster the Canadian dollar and the war economy in general. Among the paper products now labeled as restricted imports were pulp magazines and comic books.2
Those precious, four-colour, ten-cent treasure chests of American culture that had widened the eyes of youngsters from Prince Edward to Vancouver Islands immediately disappeared from the corner newsstands. Within three months—indicia dates give March 1941, but these books were probably on the stands by mid-January—Anglo-American Publications in Toronto and Maple Leaf Publications in Vancouver opportunistically filled this vacuum by putting out the first issues of Robin Hood Comics and Better Comics, respectively. Of these two, the latter is widely considered by collectors to be the first true Canadian comic book because Robin Hood Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 seems to have been a tabloid-sized collection of reprints of daily strips from the Toronto Telegram written by Ted McCall and drawn by Charles Snelgrove. Still in Toronto, Adrian Dingle and the Kulbach twins combined forces to release the first issue of Triumph-Adventure Comics six months later (August 1941), and then publisher Cyril Bell and his artist employee Edmund T. Legault used Bell’s existing Commercial Signs of Canada company, just a month after that, to produce the initial issue of Wow Comics. The final major comic book publisher of the WECA period, Educational Projects in Montreal, entered the fray just over a year later.
Cy Bell changed the name of his publishing company from Commercial Signs [End Page 148] of Canada to Bell Feature Publications in May 1942. At the same time he absorbed Adrian Dingle’s Triumph-Adventure Comics after its initial six-issue run, along with Mr. Dingle himself, who became Art Director for Bell’s company, changing the name of the book to Triumph Comics.
I intend this preamble first to establish that, as an entrepreneurial venture built from Canada’s war-time economic situation and its political response to that situation, the origins of the Canadian comic book industry are demonstrably and innately Canadian. The fact of being born and bred during the Canadian experience of the Second World War would infuse ensuing books with its themes and tropes almost to the very end of their runs. The War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) itself measures out the lifespan of this “First Age of Canadian Comics” since it was born out of it and its titles inexorably lost their momentum to the point of capitulation once the relevant portions of the Act were repealed after the war was over and the American books began to flood the newsstands again. Secondly, this essay considers Hillborough Studios, Commercial Signs of Canada, and Bell Features as a single entity so that the first six issues of Triumph-Adventure Comics are can be taken as contiguous with the rest of its run as Triumph Comics with Bell Features.
1. Adrian Dingle and the Coming of Nelvana of the North
Maple Leaf’s Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 provided history with a template and the first answer to the question: “What is a Canadian comic book?” On page 17, Vernon Miller makes the premise of the magazine clear to his audience when, in the third paragraph of a one-page, blue-text message with coloured borders, entitled “Hello Boys, Hello Girls,” he says: “This magazine, boys and girls, is drawn entirely by Canadian artists and published by a Canadian firm. Don’t you think that is something to be proud of? We do.” He signs off as “Uncle Verne.”
Six months later, Adrian Dingle echoed this sentiment on the inside front...