Invaders from the North - How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe
Reviewed: June 6, 2007
By: John Bell
Publisher: Dundurn Press
223 pages, $40.00
We like to
celebrate the fact that a close relative of Frank Shuster’s, a young lad named
Joe, is one of the two fellows responsible for the creation of Superman. Joe
Shuster was the artist whose work set the style for much of what has followed
in comic book art. We tend to gloss over the fact that he’d been living in
Cleveland for quite a while by the time he got together with his boyhood chum,
Jerry Siegel, to flesh out the idea.
The modern comic
book is, essentially, an American creation, brought to paper by what was
originally a fairly tight knit group of second or third generation
Jewish-American young men who were under the control of an older generation
which had developed a publishing empire putting out men’s adventure magazines
and relatively mild pornography.
There were Canadians
in on the ground floor though, and John Bell’s book covers the range of talent
and type of material from the lush art of Hal Foster’s adventure sagas (Tarzan
and Prince Valiant) to the barbarian satire of the controversial Dave Sim, the
work of Tod McFarlane (Spider-man and Spawn), also touching on a number of
other big names in the field, such as ex-patriot John Byrne, Darwyn Cooke (The
New Frontier, Catwoman and the revival of The Spirit) and others.
Canadian cartooning back to the middle of the 19th century, to several
magazines that tried to be the Canadian equivalent of the British satirical
magazine, Punch. Later on, it appears that some political cartoonists made the
transition to other types of work. In particular, Bell mentions a Winnipeg
artist named Arch Dale, who went on to work for both the Disney and MGM
organizations and is cited as the fellow who first designed the look of Bugs
Canada’s golden age of comics, the period during WW II when the American versions
weren’t available here and we actually had a home grown mainstream industry for
a few years. A “spotlight” chapter on superheroes only covers the field from
Johnny Canuck to Captain Canuck (in numerous incarnations, none of which seem
to have lasted very long).
This isn’’t the
primary focus of the book however, and this is probably where Bell will lose a
lot of people who are mainly familiar with newsstand comic book displays. If
you don’t frequent comic book shops at all, there’s a whole world of material
out there that will be new to you and most of it has nothing to do with
book publishing seems to be the Canadian way. If an artist or writer wants to
be part of the mainstream, they direct their work south, to Marvel, D.C.,
Image, Dark Horse, or one of the other smaller publishers featured in the trade
magazines. Witness the work of John Byrne, Tod McFarlane, Tom Grummet and many
others. If you’re Dave Sim, living in Kitchener, and producing a Conan the
Barbarian spoof called Cerberus the Aardvark, you do it yourself. Sim did, for
300 issues and 6,000 pages, between 1977 and 2004.
Other artists, and
Bell holds up Chester Brown and Seth as the poster boys for this category,
create autobiographical, issues based stories that have small press runs and
circulate mainly through the comics stores. Brown has been as diverse as to
deal with relationships in “I Never Liked You”; history, in his story of Louis
Riel; the Bible; and human sexuality, in The Playboy.
While you might not
expect it, this is a scholarly book, complete with footnotes, a bibliography
and website addresses where you can find out more about this subject and even
look at some samples of that new phenomenon, online comics.
This was in
interesting study, going well with Gerard Jones history of the American comic
book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book,
which I reviewed here back in April.