The Golden Age of Canadian Comics

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The Second World War raged across the ocean. At home, items like meat and sugar were limited because they were being rationed in the hopes of helping the war effort.

Children who loved to get lost in the detective stories, and superheroes, friend vs foe like the latest adventures of Batman, Superman or Captain America had to go find alternates.

From 1941 to 1946, comic books were considered non-essential and therefore weren’t imported into the country.

With many fathers and brothers fighting overseas, or sisters serving in the army, and constantly worrying about whether they would come home or not.

It made a difficult time for children, even more difficult.

A comic book was a wonderful distraction.

With no American comics crossing the 49th, some companies saw a unique opportunity.

The first, and only time, that it’s ever happened.

It has been called the Golden Age of Canadian Comic books, and it was all too brief.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!


Before I take you to the birth of the Canadian War-Time Comics, known previously as the Canadian Whites. An era known for the tales of Johnny Canuck, Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Brok Windsor were born.

I got to take you back to April 18, 1938, when Action Comic #1 hit the stands for the first time and within its pages was a story co-created by Canadian Joe Shuster, one that gave birth to superheroes.

The story of Superman.

Before it was changed to The Daily Planet, the newspaper Clark Kent worked at was called the Daily Star, named after The Toronto Star, where Shuster used to work.

Superman’s home, Metropolis, was modelled on Toronto’s skyline as well, and who could forget this Heritage Minute?

[Joe Shuster Heritage Minute 1 Minute]

Batman debuted one year later in 1939, then Captain Marvel, or Shazam as he is now called, arrived in 1940. They were followed by Captain America and Wonder Woman in 1941.

The world of superheroes was exploding in popularity and Canadians of all ages were ready to snap up the weekly adventures at the store.

Amid the rise of superheroes, was the start of the Second World War.

Suddenly the caped crusaders of the comics were fighting Nazis in Europe in the name of freedom.

With the start of the war though, came rationing.

Advertisements encouraged people to cut back on items such as coffee, tea, sugar, butter, and meat.

They told people quote,

“We are at war. It costs a lot to win. It costs everything to lose.”

The rationing was two-fold.

First, it freed up consumer goods for military use and distribution to Allied countries in Europe. It also limited consumption and importation of those commodities by merchant ships, which were cut back to bolster the Canadian Navy.

The government then made the decision to ban the importation of some items into Canada including comic books.

The hope was that by not bringing in these luxury items, Canadians would put money saved towards Victory Bonds and thus help the war effort.

Limiting imports would also stabilize the Canadian dollar and put more money into the economy for Canadian-produced goods, during a time when the world’s financial markets were on a roller coaster ride because of the war.

To that end, the War Exchange Conservation Act was passed on Dec. 6, 1940, and the flow of American comics into Canada stopped completely.

For several years, there would be no tales of Superman in Canada.

Ivan Kocmarek is a comic book collector of 50 years with a specialty in the Wartime Comics Era. He says (paraphrase a bit of the clip here)


Suddenly, kids around were hoarding comics.

Renowned journalist, Denny Boyd, wrote in 1972, that he and his friends created a trade bloc in their school.

No one threw away comics and what they had was stockpiled so that everyone could read them and re-read them.

Trades happened every day, and they visited second hand book stores to buy what they could, no matter the condition of the comic.

He wrote,

“I can remember sitting up nights with a great, dangerous needle and a ball of butcher’s twine, re-binding the edges of pre-ban Flash Gordons, the comic equivalent of a Modigliani original on the wartime pulp market.”

With no American comics coming into Canada, something had to change.

Kids wanted comics.

As they say, nature hates a vacuum.

Seeing the absence of Batman and Superman, four companies took advantage of the situation.

In March 1941 Anglo-American Publishing got in on the action.

Publishing out of Toronto, Anglo-American was put together by Ted McCall, in partnership with Sinnott News.

McCall was the creator of Men of the Mounted, an incredibly popular comic and story series that took the real, though likely embellished, stories of the RCMP and made them into something accessible for young adults.

That comic strip debuted in 1933 in the Toronto Evening Telegram and was printed off and on throughout the next decade.

McCall is considered the father of the graphic adventure story in Canada and a founding giant in Canadian comic books.

The first title released by Anglo-American was Robin Hood and Company.

Also created by McCall, it was a tabloid-sized publication that used reprinted comic strips that had run in Canadian newspapers since 1935.

Almost at the same time on the other side of the country, Maple Leaf Publishing in Vancouver jumped on the trend, and put out its first comics in March 1941.

Vernon Miller was the man behind the company, and he convinced magazine vendor Harry Smith to invest in Maple Leaf Publishing’s. Their first release, Better Comics #1, is considered the first true Canadian comic book.

Deborah Meert-Williston works at the Rare book Library at Western University, which has a huge collection of comics, she says there was a major effort to create these comics in an American style.


Upon Seeing the success of Maple Leaf and Anglo-American Publishing were enjoying, two other companies joined in on the action.

Hillborough Studios launched in August 1941, with its flagship publication Triumph-Adventure Comics.

Rene Kulbach and his brother Andre founded the company.

Both were artists known for their landscapes in Germany and Canada.

Rene painted the murals on the massive ceiling of the Crystal Ballroom in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto.

Joining them was Adrian Dingle, another artist.

Dingle was the mainstay of the company, and the creator of Nelvana and the Northern Lights.

Of all the comic book characters created during this era, none reached the level of popularity and cultural impact as Nelvana. 

She was the first Canadian female superhero, and she has the distinction of debuting months before Wonder Woman.

Dingle was inspired by the stories of Franz Johnston, a Group of Seven painter who had recently visited the Arctic.

While there, Franz Johnston had met an Inuit woman named Connie Nelvana at Coppermine, Northwest Territories.

He described her as an Arctic Madonna, and this sparked an idea for Adrian Dingle.

Nelvana debuted in the first issue of Triumph-Adventure, released in August 1941.

She was a powerful Inuit mythological figure who protected the Inuit with her superpowers.

Her mother was a mortal, but her father was Koliak the Mighty, the King of the Northern Lights.

Nelvana wore a fur-trimmed mini-skirt, knee-high boots, gloves, and a headband with a cape.

She had the ability to fly at the speed of light, had heat ray vision, invisibility and telepathy.

Fighting crime with her father Koliak and her brother Tanero, she was eventually joined by RCMP Corporal Keene as a sidekick.

The fourth company to join the Canadian comic book race was Bell Features.

Bell Features was launched in September 1941 under the leadership of Cy Bell. Bell had experience in the artist world through his company Commercial Signs of Canada.

Wanting to break into the comic book market, he joined with his brother Eugene and borrowed $15,000 to start Bell Features.

What would become the most famous of the four began with those two brothers, a few employees and a lithography machine no one really knew how to use.

The first production of the company was Wow Comics, featuring Dart Daring, a character who sailed the high seas in the 1700s and was created by Edmund Legault.

That first issue of Wow Comics ran over 64 pages in four colours and had a press run of 52,000 copies.

Full colour comics were not easy to produce and that first run wasn’t great, Dart Daring appears to be running out of his pants due to misalignments in printing.

After that first hiccup, the company quickly emerged as the most successful of the four during this time.

Within a year, it was enjoying weekly sales of 100,000 copies and was able to keep up with demand thanks to 50 freelance creators, which included several women including Doris Slater.

After eight editions, the company switched to black and white completely and yet they saw no drop in sales.

While these four companies brought about the Golden Age of Canadian Comics, one man deserves his due as well, Edmund Legault.

(pause/ tunes/ transition)

Despite his importance, very little is known about him.

He was the one created, Dart Daring and Whiz Wallace, another creation by Edmond Legault.

Around 1940 he brought those two characters to Cy Bell to convince him to publish them.

Edmund saw the future. Cy did not, and he declined.

Then, the War Exchange Conservation Act was introduced, and Cy turned to Edmund for help and launched the aforementioned Bell Features.

Edmund then introduced Dixon of the Mounted, before leaving to join the Royal Canadian Artillery.

While he survived the war, he faded from history soon after.

(small pause)

As the war raged on in February 1942, Leo Bachle, a cartoonist with Bell Features created Johnny Canuck.

Somewhat based on the fictional lumberjack that was portrayed in cartoons and literature in the late-19th century, Johnny Canuck had no superpowers, but he led the fight for Canada against the Nazis.

He was essentially Canada’s Captain America, and like Captain America, he beat up Adolf Hitler and single-handedly won the war.

A few years later in April 1944, Maple Leaf Comics debuted Brok Windsor, a character created, written and illustrated by John Stables. Stables had worked in the world of commercial art before venturing into comics in 1942.

Brok Windsor was a Winnipeg doctor and outdoorsmen who could speak multiple languages.

After crashing his canoe into the shores of a hidden island in the Lake of the Woods, he has to make his way back to mainland Canada.

During his adventures on the island, he develops increased strength, speed, and height. The residents of the island also gave him a uniform, dagger and flashgun.

He used all these skills and items to fight crime.

These characters gave children across Canada something to be inspired and delighted by at a time of so much loss, sadness and fear… even if they were devoid of the brightness that we come to expect from comic books.

These were called Canadian Whites after all…

While the cover of the comics typically featured colour, the interior pages were almost always printed in black ink on white paper.

Deborah Meert-Williston from Western University says the use of the black and white was easier, cheaper, and fit in line with rationing.


Sadly, the Golden Age of Canadian Comics wasn’t meant to last forever.

The decline started before the war ended.

Hillborough Studios was the first casualty, it closed its doors in 1942 when Adrian Dingle took his artistic services, along with his flagship character Nelvana, over to Bell Features.

Most of the Hillborough staff joined him.

Deborah Meert-Williston says the three remaining companies were making good money and they started investing heavily in mechanical equipment and increased staff numbers.


With so much success, what brought about the demise of the Golden Age of Canadian Comics?

The first supervillain to their success was the Wartime and Prices Board.

Although the demand for comics was high, the three companies were only allowed 20 tons of paper per month, when they needed 140 tons to print.

This meant idle presses and growing debts.

When the war ended in 1945, trade restrictions quickly loosened.

Comic books flooded in with our years-worth of back content of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Captain America.

With such a small share of the market, Canadian publishers were unable to compete.

The better production values of the American comics also pushed the unique black and white style of the Canadian comics to the side.

The publishers, specifically Bell, attempted to break into the American market.

While American publishers were just fine to send their comics into Canada, they did not like the opposite.

 Ivan Kocmarek says although there’s little evidence of this, what is available shows that several US publishing companies blocked Canadian publishers’ efforts of breaking into the American market, effectively starving them out of business.


The most famous of the characters of the Golden Age of Canadian Comics, Nelvana, had her final issue released in 1947.

Maple Leaf Publishing, which went full colour to compete with the Americans, ceased operations a year earlier in 1946, while the original company that started it all, Anglo-American Publisher, printed its last issue in 1951.

By 1953, the biggest of the Canadian comic companies, Bell, closed its doors.

Ivan Kocmarek said it had outlasted all the others.


Canada didn’t lose its appetite for superheroes though.

By the 1970s, 35 million comic books were bought per year in Canada.

Nearly all were produced in the United States.

They featured American heroes, fighting American battles, with little Canadian content.

While we can claim Wolverine and Deadpool, as Canadian superheroes, something was lost with the demise of the Canadian War-Time Comics.

Today, the comics are prized among collectors and quite hard to get your hands on.

And if you happen to have some, well I’ll be happy to give them a good home and my PO box address is in the show notes.

While the war time comic book publishers are now long gone, their impact on Canadian culture has remained.


Johnny Canuck didn’t last much longer past the Second World War, but his legacy was commemorated by a stamp in 1995 and he may have inspired the creation of a new superhero named Captain Canuck in 1975.

Meanwhile, Nelvana hadn’t been seen in print since 1947, but she remained in the hearts and minds of her readers for many years.

Nelvana Limited, named for the comic character, was founded in 1971 as an entertainment company.

This animation studio based out of Toronto co-produced some of the best animated shows in history including Clone High, The Fairly Odd Parents, Bob and Margaret, Inspector Gadget, Babar, and the Care Bears.

In a season three episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, a planet is named Nelvana III, in honour of the animation studio, and by extension, the superhero.

The company is now owned by Corus Entertainment, which runs Curiouscast, which is the network that my show is a part of.

So, in a weird way, Nelvana, the character, had a big impact on my own life.

Nelvana’s impact on Canadian comic book culture was large enough that on Oct. 5, 1995, Canada Post issued a stamp depicting her.

In 2013, a Kickstarter campaign to republish Nelvana of the Northern Lights was launched and reached its goal in five days.

A collection of the comics was released one year later, forever cementing her in the hearts of the true north and free.


Information from Canadian Animation, Cartooning and Illustration, The Toronto Star, CGC Comics, First Comics News, Wikipedia, Kingston Whig Standard, Regina Leader-Post, Vancouver Sun,

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