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.

Bell traces 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 Bunny.

Bell covers 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 superheroics.

Independent comic 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.