By Rob Lamberti
Something interesting is happening in comic book collecting: There’s a growing interest in Canadian comics.
The Whites, as they’re dubbed because for the most part they’re black and white with colour covers, are surging in both interest and price because of the usual reasons: good art, decent stories and scarcity, especially at higher grades.
Their prints runs were much lower than that of American comics and a great unknown is how many survived since they were printed during the war years.
The Canadian comic industry exploded on the heels of the Second World War. Imports were restricted because of the war effort and comics were not seen as essential items. With that sprouted publishers and characters that are uniquely Canadian, and the story lines as well.
Probably the most famous among the Canadian stable of comic characters are Nelvanna of the Northern Lights, who appeared in Triumph Comics, and soldier Johnny Canuck who appeared in Dime Comics 1 in 1942.
Learning more about the characters, the artists and the companies of the short-lived industry is a task that has been difficult as very little information is available to collectors or pop art historians.
Comic book expert Ivan Kocmarek is working to open the archives of Canada’s rich comic book history. He’s currently working on the finishing touches of his book Heroes of the Home Front, a historical overview with interviews of the artists who toiled for Bell Features, one of the few Canadian publishers during the war.
It’s something that’s sorely needed and Kocmarek is expecting to launch a crowd funding drive this summer.
He says he’s noticed Canadian and American collectors showing increased interest in the Whites, a term he’s not comfortable with, in part because not all of the books from the war era were in black and white.
“I know there are some American collectors who are interested and are picking them up,” says Kocmarek, who also writes market reports for the Overstreet Comic Guide and penned a feature on Canadian comics in Overstreet’s 44th Edition in 2014-15.
“You can get a sense of the market increasing there,” he says. “I think it was because nobody knew much about them (that) I began writing a column on them in Comic Book Daily (website) around 2014 and people became more interested in them and wanted to know more about them.”
He says an auction last year showed a spike in both interest and prices.
“I think they’re beginning to level off now because of a large collection that appeared last year,” Kocmarek says. “But the demand now compared to even four, five years ago is tremendous because more is known about them, more people have written about them.”
He says there has been a few recent reprints issued, in particular Nelvanna.
“People are more aware of them, they see that they’re not just a bunch of badly drawn comics,” he says. “They were seen as inferior to U.S. books.”
Uh huh, he says. Much of the artwork stands up over time and against anyone from anywhere.
The Canadian publishers include Maple Leaf Publishing based in Vancouver, and three firms in Toronto: Anglo-American, Hillborough Studios and Commercial Signs of Canada, better known as Bell Features.
Educational Projects of Montreal, Feature Publications of Toronto, and Superior Comics of Toronto followed them later in the war years. Magazine Enterprises of Canada was the last among the wartime publishers.
The companies included a great line-up of characters, including Brok Windsor, Sergeant Canuck and Black Wing by Maple Leaf; Freelance, Commander Steel, Terry Kane and Purple Rider by Anglo-American; and Nelvanna, Spanner Preston and King the Wonder Horse for the short-lived Hillsborough.
Bell featured a large stable of heroes, including Johnny Canuck, Whiz Wallace, the Penguin, Mr. Monster, The Dreamer and Speed Savage.
Speed Savage by Toronto-born artist Ted Steele is an interesting character, which debuted in Bell’s Triumph Comics 7 and continued until the run’s end in issue 31. Unlike most comics, which are named for the superhero character, Speed was the person’s name and his superhero moniker was The White Mask
The character Steele (who’s first name sometimes appeared as Tedd) devised was an athlete, criminologist, a racecar driver, a high-calibre skier and to top it off, a motorboat racer, who was sometimes aided by the lovely Veronica. When he needed to be a superhero, he became The White Mask.
A compendium with two covers — one for the Canadian market and the other for Britain — was also printed. It contained reprints found in Triumph and original and truly Canadian stories, Murder Has The Puck, parts one and two.
Kocmarek says the Speed Savage book was among six compendiums Bell Comics published with new cover art printed on heavier stock, boasted 68 pages and sold for 15 cents. A Canadian edition of Speed Savage graded by a third party as a 6 or fine sold for $2,300 in the 2016 auction.
He says the growth in historical interest about the Second World War Canadian books fuelled the surge of attention towards the books as a collectible: “Even a dozen years ago when I told people about these comics, they said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know they existed.’
Kocmarek says the books vanished from Canadian culture because there wasn’t the same continuity in the industry after the war. The American industry not only continued to print comics into the ’50s despite dropping circulation, they also maintained a link to their golden age, he says.
“In 1946, these original (Canadian) comics virtually stopped and there was a big gap until 1974” when the renaissance of Canadian comics happened with the publishing of projects like Warp Magazine and Captain Canuck, Kocmarek says. They paved the way for smash hits like Cerebus the Aardvark.
What filled in the gap after the Whites faded away were educational comics and Canadian variants of American comics, such as Batman, EC comics or Whiz editions printed in Canada. Because of continuing wartime restrictions imposed by the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA), American comics were prohibited, but Canadian publishers would buy the rights and print variations of those American editions, with the same cover but varying content and a fewer number of pages.
“Some people actually collect the variants between Canadian and U.S. books,” Kocmarek says. “I try to pick those up when I can because they have low print runs compared to the American one and because they’re published in Canada, you know, it’s something that’s part of our culture.
Rob Lamberti started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not so mild-mannered crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a little bit of history during the past three decades. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.