At one point in time the term comics referred to a small group of publications. The superheroes of DC and Marvel were the predominate characters, although other minor publishers achieved a decent amount of success with the likes of the Archie series and the comics that were aimed at the preteen market. Since that time in the not so distant past the world of comics has exploded into an industry that generates almost $900 million in sales in North America alone.
Superheroes still dominate the character landscape but now must compete with more “real-world” characters. And while the traditional comic book still accounts for the lion’s share of sales, graphic novels, and digital comics are an important part of the comic industry.
The Canadian comic scene is extremely healthy. Comic Convention are held throughout the country, with the largest being the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival (TCAF) which is held each May and sells out each year in short order.
The comic publishing business is still very healthy in Canada, with over fifty companies publishing comics and graphic novels.
The history of comics in Canada is a rich one and the influence of Canadian artist is felt worldwide.
The comic industry in Canada is fairly new after receiving a jump start during World War II. The War Exchange Conservation Act of 1940 was written to address trade imbalances with the US. The act limited imports of non-essential goods. US comic books disappeared from the shelves and a number of companies rushed in to fill the void. While the first comic, Robin Hood, was based on historical legends, Canadian superheroes were not far behind.
Seven Notable Past and Present Canadian Comic Artists
Leo Bachle (Les Baker)
Leo Bachle’s success as a comic artist came about as a direct result of the absence of US comic books on Canadian shelves. In 1940, while Bachle was still a teenager, John Ezrin the manager of Bell Features, one of the new comic publishers, met Bachle as he was looking at the company’s comics. The teen expressed his disapproval and Ezrin challenged him to come up with something better.
Bachle showed up the next day with sketches for Johnny Canuck. Ezrin signed Bachle on the spot and Canadian comic history was made.
In his first adventure Johnny Canuck battled Hitler and his elite guards and quickly made mincemeat of both. Johnny Canuck became an overnight sensation. Bachle continued to pen the comic throughout the war and worked on other comics in the Bell group’s line. The Canadian government considered Bachle’s work so important to moral during the war that they refused to issue him a visa to travel to the US until he had completed several Canuck adventures.
So influential was Johnny Canuck that Canada honored the hero with his own stamp in 1995.
Dave Sim is best known as the creator of Cerebus, a 6000 page comic series that he began in 1977 and completed in 2004. Sim originally envisioned Cerebus as a parody of the sword and sorcery genre of comics, including Conan the Barbarian, but realized that the comic had a life of its own about two years into its history.
Sim formed the comic publishing company of Aardvark-Vanaheim, which helped to spur the growth of Canada’s comic industry. Many of the company’s titles became part of rival Renegade Press after he and his wife (and company partner) divorced in 1980. Sim’s company is still going after more than 35 years, but has recently moved to an on demand publishing model.
Sim’s is well known for his controversial personal and political beliefs but his influence on the Canadian comic industry is undeniable. He is a strong advocate of creator’s rights and has arranged for all of his works to enter the public domain upon his death.
Unlike some of the illustrators on our list Jack Tzekov’s work extends far outside of the comic world. In addition to his comic illustrations, Tzekov paints still-life’s and abstracts, illustrates children’s books, and deigns posters and DVD cases. (You can get an idea of the wide variety of his work by visiting his Facebook page.) Tzekov is also classically trained in painting and Art History.
Two of Tzekov’s recent comics take a look at the world of poker. One is an illustrated history of Poker Annie, one of the true characters of the Old West. Poker Annie was one of the first women poker players as well as an independent business woman. Tzekov’s comic of her exploits does a great job of providing the highlights of her life and will leave you wanting to learn more. The other is a comic called The Fish from the Valleys, a comical look at some of the most dysfunctional, but funny, fictional poker players to ever take a seat at a poker table.
When DC decided to reboot all of their characters they drafted Toronto’s Francis Manapul to guide the new exploits of The Flash. Manapul started working as a comic illustrator when he was twenty. Manapul is a self-taught artist who fell in love with comics at an early age.
In an interview prior to the re-launch of The Flash comics he described what drove his to comic art. “When I was a kid my dad used to buy me Superman comic books, so the interest was always there. However it was my discovery of an issue of X-Men, which had Captain America, Black Widow, and Wolverine teaming up and was drawn by Jim Lee, that really sparked the fire for me. The art was dynamic and exciting; I remember thinking to myself: ‘I never knew comics could look so cool!’ Prior to that I was just a casual comic reader, but after that I became a rabid comic fan. I followed artists more than the characters. My passion for comic arts cemented itself when I was around 14; it was then and there that I made it my life mission to become a comic book artist.”
Manapul is also working on a project to revive the Johnny Canuck series.
Manapul is not the only Canadian working in the tops ranks of the comic industry. Steve McNiven works with Marvel and is well known for his work on Captain America, as well as Marvel Knights 4, Civil War, and Ultimate Secret. McNiven’s work has been on the cover of more than thirty Marvel issues since 2002. His blog “Rough Work” shows his process for drawing some of Marvel’s most iconic characters.
Although he is not well known in the English speaking comic world, Albert Chartier’s contribution of to the world of comics must be included. Chartier grew up in Quebec and at the behest of family friend began to study fine arts. Chartier rebelled against the conservatism and elitism of his teacher and the fine arts community and left to pursue a career as an illustration artist.
In 1943, he accepted a position as an illustrator for the French language Farmer’s Bulletin. It was there that Chartier created the comic strip Onésime that ran for an incredible 59 years. The Canadian government also enlisted Chartier’s talent to create pamphlets and gags to boost morale during World War II.
It is unlikely that any of the artists on our list, or in fact that the world of comics would be the worldwide phenomenon it is today, if not for Joe Shuster. It was Shuster, who with his friend Jerry Seigel, started the superhero movement with the creation of Superman in 1938.
Prior to the Man of Steel’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, Shuster and Seigel tried repeatedly to interest various newspaper chains to carry the comic as a serial but had no takers. Shuster’s distinct style that included clear concise drawing and a vibrant flourish set the standard for the comic industry and his influence can still be seen in today’s comic.
Before Superman debuted Shuster created other memorable characters such as Slam Bradley, Dr. Occult and The Radio Squad, which not only show the depth of his imagination, but show his progression as an artist.
In movies, television and the comics, Superman has been portrayed as an American superhero. However in one of his final interviews prior to his death in 1992, Shuster gave the impression that the Man of Steel was actually Canadian. Shuster said that the Metropolis skyline was modeled after that of Toronto. The Daily Planet was also originally called the Daily Star after the Toronto Daily Star. Shuster was a Star paperboy and said the he had fond memories of his father reading him the newspaper’s comic when he was a child.