The story behind Canada’s first-ever comic book

Most don’t know that the Second World War brought about a brief golden age for home-grown comics — but these researchers are hoping to change that
By Justin Chandler - Published on Aug 17, 2021
From left to right: Dime Comics #1 (Edmond Good/Bell Features/lac-bac.gc.ca), Better Comics #1 (Vernon Miller/Maple Leaf Publishing/canadiancomics.org), and Triumph Adventure Comics #1 (Adrian Dingle/Bell Features/lac-bac.gc.ca).

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HAMILTON — In the captain’s quarters of “a trim little freighter” sailing for the South Sea Islands, two men engage in spirited discussion. “I must admit Major, that your venture seems fantastic to me,” one says. “Well, gentlemen, here is the story and I have every reason to believe it true!” the other replies. Then, raising a cigar, he speaks of “a city of untold wealth and culture” where lives “a young man who possessed unbelievable strength and powers.” 

While the exchange took place in a March 1941 comic book, the powerful young man in question wasn’t Superman, the Sub-Mariner, or Captain America. He was the Iron Man, created by Vernon Miller, and he debuted in Better Comics #1, from Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publishing (no, this isn’t the armour-clad character of the same name introduced by Marvel Comics in the ’60s). 

page of comic book featuring the exploits of the Iron Man
The Iron Man debuted in March 1941 in Better Comics #1. (Vernon Miller/Maple Leaf Publishing/canadiancomics.org.

According to Hamilton comics historian Ivan Kocmarek, Better Comics #1 was Canada’s first comic book. “[The Iron Man] came from a civilization that had been sunk and now lived in a bubble city somewhere in the South Seas,” Kocmarek says. “He would come up and fight the Nazis and help people out against crime.” The stories in Better Comics #1 marked the beginning of a unique but little-known period of prosperity for home-grown comics publishing in Canada. And this year — the 80th anniversary of the Iron Man’s debut — Kocmarek and a group of comics enthusiasts and researchers are working to commemorate the period and introduce it to a new generation of readers through a symposium and a re-print of Better Comics #1.

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two men standing behind a desk covered in comic books
Ivan Kocmarek (left) is a Hamilton-based comics historian. (Facebook/Ivan Kocmarek)

Prior to World War II, “all the American comics were there on our newsstands,” Ivan Kocmarek says. At the time, comics were tremendously popular. New superheroes, such as Superman and Batman, flew off the shelves. But, in 1940, Canada’s supply dried up. With World War II underway, the War Exchange Conservation Act of 1940 banned the import of pulp magazines, certain candy bars, and comic books, among other things. By cutting out American comics, the act sparked the creation of comic books by and for Canadians. While Better Comics #1 wasn’t the first comic published in this country — newpapers ran strips, and there was a wartime comic on tabloid-sized paper — Kocmarek says its use of the now-ubiquitous “floppy” format, which features soft covers, qualifies it as the first comic book. Not long after its release, several other publishers released versions of their own, he notes.

a two-page spread featuring the exploits of Thunderfist
Two-page spread from Active Comics #1. (E.T. Legault/Bell Features/lac-bac.gc.ca)

“I feel like just trying to impress on people the weirdness of this particular historical moment,” says Benjamin Woo, associate professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University. “Imagine if a couple of years after the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, we banned the importation of video games, and a bunch of Canadian programmers and designers said: ‘Okay, kids like video games; let's try to figure that out.’” 

Kocmarek says that wartime Canadian comics (often called “Canadian Whites” by historians and collectors because, to save money, they were usually printed without colour pages) had more in common with comics from England than with those from the United States: “[Better Comics] started off with stories that seem to come more from British boys’ and girls’ annuals that were out at the time, dealing with adventurers, tinkering scientists, cowboys and detectives but not the garish superheroes that were south of the border.” However, some superheroes — such as Iron Man and Nelvana of the Northern Lights — were introduced then. While not all comics were set in Canada, many had Canadian settings and characters, such as Johnny Canuck

man in bowtie standing in front of graffiti
Benjamin Woo is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University. (Bryan Gagnon)

Community discussion, which is an important part of contemporary comics culture, was also vital in the ’40s, Kocmarek says. Then, comics effectively became the first social network for Canadian children, connecting them with one another through letter columns. “They encouraged kids to form clubs, to raise funds for the war effort, to save scrap, to have paper drives, to contact each other and stay in touch,” he says. (In Active Comics #3, the letters page includes the names and addresses of 100 “new members” and praises Port Credit’s Billy Senior for selling used magazines at five cents each to fund cigarettes for soldiers overseas.) 

letters page from a vintage comic
Letters page from Active Comics #3. (Leo Bachle/Bell Features/lac-bac.gc.ca)

Woo, though, is hoping that marking the publication of Better Comics #1 won’t turn into a “rah-rah Canada moment.” The “real challenge with an anniversary like this is to resist the temptation of easy, unthinking commemoration,” he says, adding that wartime comics were often “aggressively racist” and sexist. “As we think about how we integrate this into our idea of an artistic tradition in this country, [part of that is] recognizing the extent to which there are a lot of exclusions there,” Woo says — exclusions that, he warns, still exist in mainstream comics today. When thinking about wartime comics, he suggests asking such questions as: What voices aren't we hearing from? Who is considered Canadian?  

smiling man in suit
Zachary Rondinelli is pursuing a PhD at Brock
University. (Courtesy of Zachary Rondinelli)

For Zachary Rondinelli, an educator and member of the Society for the Promotion of Canadian Comics, asking such questions is critical. “What I think is most important about bringing those early World War II comics back into focus is the idea that we have a new audience, a new group of readers who can bring their world experiences … and start revealing things we might not have seen previously.” Rondinelli, who’s doing a PhD at Brock University focusing on education and comic books, says he and the society are planning a symposium on Canadian comics set to take place in mid-October. According to the society, it will be the first symposium dedicated solely to Canadian comics. “I love the idea that we're opening the floodgates for new interpretation,” Rondinelli says.

While Canadian comics were popular during the war, their reign ended quickly come peacetime. Import rules changed, and home-grown publishers “just couldn't really compete with the American companies,” says Olivia Wong, special-collections curatorial specialist at the Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections. She adds that some, like Toronto publisher Bell Features, hung on for a while by reprinting American books. (It closed in 1953.)

two-page comic spread featuring Johnny Canuck
The exploits of Johnny Canuck, as seen in Dime Comics #1. (Edmond Good/Bell Features/lac-bac.gc.ca)

It’s hard to find Canada’s wartime comics now Wong says that, unlike contemporary comics, which are sold with bags and boards, wartime comics were printed on cheap paper and not meant to be collected. Ryerson has about 120 Bell Features books, including Active Comics, Dime Comics, and Triumph Comicsin its collection. “These are really fantastic pieces of Canadian history,” Wong says. And, while they originally sold for mere cents, they now command a pretty penny: according to the London Free Press, the collector who donated a copy of Better #1 to Western University’s archives paid $2,314 for it on Ebay in 2001.

Agenda segment, August 13, 2021: Hamilton's connection to comic-book history

Kocmarek is hoping Better Comics #1 will soon reach a larger audience: the family of Vernon Miller has given him permission to use a digital copy, held in the Western archive, as the basis for a reprint — which he anticipates will be available this fall. “We've got such a thriving graphic narrative and comic-book culture in Canada,” he says. “We need to recognize when it started.”

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