Rachel Richey has been running Canadian-comics-focused website Comic Syrup since May 2011. She’s an active figure in the Toronto comics scene and last year she helped launch a Kickstarter to reprint “Nelvana of the North,” a comic focusing on a Golden Age Canadian superheroine. The success of the Kickstarter resulted in a new edition of the “Nelvana” collection — soon to be published by IDW in October. Continuing the success of the “Nelvana” Kickstarter, Richey has just completed a successful campaign to reprint the exploits of another Canadian superhero, Johnny Canuck.
Richey spoke with CBR News about the origins of Golden Age Canadian comics, the backstory of Johnny Canuck and talks a little about some of the other characters she hopes to bring to a wider audience through reprint in the coming years.
CBR News: Rachel, tell us a bit about the Golden Age of Canadian comics. Canadian comics emerged during World War II, correct?
Rachel Richey: Basically, in December of 1940, Canada imposed the War Exchange Conservation Act which banned American luxury made goods to preserve the Canadian dollar and Canadian economy — everything from perfume, soap, periodicals, and American comic books. All of a sudden, kids who’d been hooked on Batman and Superman for years had nothing. In the spring, maybe four months afterwards, publishers jumped right on it. There are four major publishers during that time period. Hillborough Studios, Bell Features, Anglo-American and Maple Leaf Comics. I have the rights to all of the Bell Features products from that time period. It’s a lot of stuff. They were the most prolific publisher of that time period and they eventually absorbed Hillborough Studios. Canadian publishers had the run of the market for about five years until 1946 when the ban was lifted. After that they were pretty much kaput and people just forgot about them. There are patches of fans, but it never became a big thing.
I’m picturing old bootlegging routes from Prohibition being used to smuggle comic books in the other direction.
[Laughs] Actually, there was bootlegging. And while selling American comics was not allowed, some publishers bought the scripts and redrew the whole comic for a Canadian audience. Captain Marvel fans have to get the Canadian Golden Age comics to get the whole collection.
Tell us a bit about Johnny Cannuck. Who exactly is he, and how did the character come to be created?
In order to explain Johnny Canuck, I think I should explain his creator. There’s always that question [as to whether] you can truly separate the creator from the creation or not, but in this case I don’t think you can. It’s really good to know Leo Bachle.
Leo Bachle tried to go to war when he was 15 and he got found out. They sent him back and there’s a lot of hearsay as to how he started with Bell Features, but his first character there was Johnny Canuck. You need to look at this character through the lens of a sixteen year old. When you read these comics you will see some of that idealism. Johnny Canuck is a pure hero. He has hair raising tales and daring feats. Canuck is this young Canadian who fights for all the Allies and he is the Canuck among the allies. He an agent and he’s a flying ace. As far as form goes, Bachle kept readers involved! He has arcs, which is interesting because story arcs weren’t common in the early forties. Johnny Canuck is broken up into seven arcs with a couple of singles. In his first story arc he goes to Libya, Germany, Russia, Tibet, China. He’s everywhere with the allies fighting the Axis. He’s a great character. I love Johnny Canuck.
You have some great bonus features in the book and artists who are lending a hand with this project.
It is kind of incredible. Because I live in Toronto, I’m friends with a lot of amazing artists: Cary Nord, Ramon Perez, Macus To, Francis Manapul. A lot of the guys are doing art for this — as they did for “Nelvana.” Marco Rudy is going to be doing a piece. Toronto has a good community but it’s a small community so you get to know everyone quick. Also, outside of Toronto, Darwyn Cooke. I’m friends with his wife Marsha. I feel as though Darwyn Cooke and Johnny Canuck belong together. I’m so excited to see his piece.
The book also has an introduction by “Palookaville” creator and prolific Canadian cartoonist, Seth.
Yes. Seth is a collector at heart, which you can tell from all of his books, really. So, I think that not only is this kind of thing something that he prizes, but on top of that is the fact that this is part of the Canadian history of comics. Seth and I are friends because I’ve been on staff of the Doug Wright Awards for the past three years and he and Brad MacKay are the original directors who established the awards. That’s how I got to know him. We both like the same things.
It is right up his alley. My first thought was, “That’s perfect!” My second was, “Years from now, people will read it and ask, ‘Is Johnny Canuck actually a golden age comic or is it all fake?'”
[Laughs] I know! He screwed everybody up with the suspension of disbelief for “GNBCC” because it’s just all over the place. He talks about real people and fake people! Who knows?! I love that book, though. He captures the tone of Canadian Comics history.
You mentioned “Nelvana,” which is the first book you published as part of this Golden Age reprint initiative. She’s a fascinating character.
I think people really saw that with Nelvana. She is an incredible character for so many reasons. She appeared in summer of 1941 so not only does she pre-date Wonder Woman — and that’s just a point of reference for people, it’s not a competition — she’s the first superheroine to have her own storyline, she is a demi-goddess and she’s also Inuit. Some people say that she’s anglicized, but it’s a black and white comic so you can argue a lot of things, but she’s fascinating. The first story was co-written by the Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston. He brought the concept back from his experiences up north and he was established in the group of seven. If you know anything about Twentieth Century art in Canada, the group of seven is a pretty established group of painters in the twenties. He was up there painting and brought these stories back and Adrian Dingle was also a fine artist and friends and they got to talking. They glorified this character, who was an Inuk woman that was young and attractive, and they made her into this great story and superheroine.
That’s a nicer story than before. Originally, we thought that they were talking about an old hag. We thought it was just Inuit mythology, so we really came a long way in learning what happened there. She’s a great character. Another thing I really like about the character is that she’s a superhero for superhero’s sake.
Plus, IDW is putting out the collection of “Nelvana” in October.
Yes, I couldn’t be more thrilled. As much as the Kickstarter was hugely popular and people were excited, even more people are going to be exposed to Nelvana because IDW will get it into libraries and schools and bigger bookstores.
Reading about “Nelvana,” I was reminded of “Miss Fury,” the comic strip that Trina Robbins promoted. It seems like there’s almost this lost history of comics and characters.
Yes, there really is. I actually met Trina Robbins at TCAF this year, which was amazing and she was thrilled about the project. I think that more and more of these superheroines are coming to light. There’s a character I really want to do, another beautiful superheroine who needs to comes back, The Wing. I don’t know a ton about her because I’m still researching her but I’m really excited to get her out as well. There’s a good article by Ivan Kocmarek who’s a Canadian comics scholar about her. She’s one of the ones I plan on doing.
You mentioned you have rights to Bell Features’ comics, so talk about Comic Syrup Press.
I ran the blog Comic Syrup for three or four years now and on that site I wrote about Canadian comics. I figured that people know the blog a little, so I might as well name the publishing company the same thing to keep it branded.
I can tell you some of the other characters I plan on doing. I can’t decide who I want to do next but I’m leaning towards Mr. Monster/Doc Stearne. This is a character that was created by Fred Kelly but was used by accident by Michael T. Gilbert in the eighties. You might recognize the character if you saw him. He didn’t realize that it wasn’t public domain when he created the comic books, but he’s since made amends and he and [Fred Kelly’s] family are good friends. He did a great series of comics in the eighties about Mr. Monster, kind of a horror spoof. I think I might have to do Doc Sterne/Mr. Monster next because I personally adore that character. I’m being selfish. [Laughs]
There’s Thunderfist, who I absolutely love. The artist who worked on Thunderfist, Murray Karn, is still alive and lives in New York. I’d love to get that out soon. His art is just stunning and especially for that time period — just beautiful. There’s The Wing; The Penguin, who is a vigilante. He’s kind of Canada’s Batman, which is weird, I know. [Laughs] He’s another Adrian Dingle character. There’re a couple other ones. Rex Baxter, who’s a pretty interesting character — kind of a Flash Gordon sci-fi feel to him. Speed Savage. Those are the more popular names and the more well done comics.
What do you think is Canadian about these characters and these comics?
I think it’s almost intangible. I’ll be honest, I used to hate Canadian Lit and I have a degree in English Literature. It was always the same dry prose about the landscape and isolation and you’re like, “Okay, I get it. You didn’t want to be here and it’s cold.” I know. I live here. I got it. [Laughs]
Having matured past that, I can appreciate or at least identify and I think that these comics have a similar intangible identification. Some of the things are really tangible like Johnny Canuck — which literally means Canadian — but he’s got that sass and talks literally about being Canadian. He talks about himself like he is all of Canada. You just know he’s Canadian as you’re reading it. And he has all these one-liners about being Canadian which are really funny.
With Nelvana, because a lot of her stories take place in Canada, you get the landscape, the culture. A lot of those stories are in Ontario. Her alter ego is Alana North. There’s the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police]. They mention the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]. There are so many identifiers in Nelvana. Those are the ways that those characters are Canadians. I’m glad we started with those two characters because they’re great characters and they are very Canadian and I think that as a first push is important.
It seems like Nelvana is more about Canada, in a sense, while Johnny Canuck is more a representation.
I would say so. Nelvana’s stories are all over the place. It was a very experimental space for most comics creators because it was a new form of literature so I think that they were still trying different things. Nelvana starts off and you’re not really sure if the bad people are white people, from the perspective of the Inuit, or if the bad people are Germans, from the perspective of Canadians. From there the Germans are the enemy and then there’re more sci-fi storylines. They were good stories but they were not really one particular theme, but because the stories took place mostly in Canada and because the character was distinctly Canadian there are a lot more tangible identifiers. With Johnny Canuck, his name is Canuck. Everybody knows he’s just generally Canadian. Especially since most of his stories take place abroad and he’s always alongside other nationalities. He’s a cross between Captain America and Uncle Sam — if Uncle Sam was young and attractive. He is Canada. That’s the fun thing. You get to go on the adventures with him and you can “be” him because he is you, he is Canada.
You have a lot of exciting characters and books we can look forward to in the coming years. Any thoughts you’d like to share before wrapping up?
It is really exciting! I’ve come a long way. I worked really hard on all of this. I’ve worked really hard on everything I’ve done in the comics community for the past three or four years so it’s nice to get to a point where I can do what I want to do for the love for comics, purely for the love of comics, because I don’t get paid. I have a job. This is purely for the love of the comics.