© Copyright 2017 Brittany Fontes, Ryerson University
History of the Canadian Whites
The Canadian Whites were World War II-era comic books published and written in Canada that featured coloured front and back covers and a black and white interior. These comics came to be due to the War Exchange Conservation Act which restricted the importation of non-essential goods from the United States into Canada and this included comic books. There were four companies that came to be during this time period and took advantage of the demand for an emergence of Canadian heroes that would offer civilians comfort and hope. One of the most popular companies being Bell Features, the Canadian comic book scene grew and prospered during this time period giving Canadians a real image of what their heroes overseas looked and acted like. This industry was created as “…an entrepreneurial venture built from Canada’s war time economic situation and its political response to that situation…” (Kocmarek). This was the one chance for Canada’s comic book scene to be built and thrive.
In Active Comics no. 10 there are heroes of all kinds depicted in the 68 page, 10 cent comic including “Dixon of the Mounted”, “The Brain”, “Captain Red Thorton”, “Active Jim”, and “The Noodle”. These heroes are all diverse individuals in their own right but seem to have significant overlaps in terms of what makes them heroes in Canada.
“For a brief six-year window, and for the first time, we had comics that we could call our own. These Bell Features books, along with the other WECA books (from Anglo-American Publications, Maple Leaf Publishers, and Educational Projects) were as Canadian as comic books ever get, and they laid the foundation for any future comic book that wanted to earn the designation ‘Canadian'” (Kocmarek).
Masculinity for a Canadian World War II Soldier
For young Canadian soldiers during World War II, masculinity was something that was both learned from their elders but also ever-changing in definition based on what the civilians of Canada needed them to be. Soldiers were often depicted in posters and wartime advertisements as well put together, tall and slim men with shiny boots and a stern face often with some sort of facial hair. The following photo suggests “…how war would reassert an officers masculine image and bearing” (Goodlet and Hayes).
Young soldiers not only had to look the part to be considered masculine but they also had to act in an obedient, disciplined manner which was taught to them by their superiors. These men were taught to lead very simple lives with little to no entertainment and “Officers were permitted to have fun, but within bounds” (Goodlet and Hayes). Overall, the image of a masculine soldier who could be looked up to as a Canadian hero was stern, serious, well put together and well disciplined.
During World War II, Canadian solders were seen as “man-gods” (Beaty) which is how the idea of a Canadian Superhero came to be. All these heroes have one interesting thing in common: they have no superhuman power. Their job was to be “…exciting, but not overly exciting; active in the war, but not so active as to accomplish much of significance” (Beaty). All in all, the main goal was to give Canadians heroes that they felt they could connect to as people which is why they didn’t seem unreal and the ideas in each comic were not unimaginable in real life context. “Dixon of The Mounted” could be your neighbourhood police officer, while the brain could be the businessman who lives in your apartment building. Being a Canadian hero meant to be distinctly un-American while also being humble and able to fit into typical Canadian society.
In the first section “The Dynamic Adventures of Dixon of The Mounted” (Figure 2) (pp 1-9) we are shown a hero who is known for his patriotism and manly pride. Dixon’s super power is simple and functions perfectly with this story line: he is a Canadian Mounted Police trying to find out who is selling marijuana to “Indians and half breeds” (p1). He is pictured in typical mounted police uniform with a stern look on his face.
In the next comic titled “The Brain” (pp 10-18) our superhero is younger than the previously pictured Dixon and he is shown wearing “typical” superhero garments: a mask, tights, a cape and boots. The Brain is what one may picture when thinking of the word “superhero” and his purpose is completely different from that of Dixon. He is saving a “damsel in distress” from what looks like alien captors. Similar to Dixon, The Brain does not have any super-human powers. The Brain is simply strong, fast and masculine. He is an example of a stereotypical “macho-man”.
Next, we have the story of “Captain Red Thorton” (pp 26-34) whose superpower is once again being manly, patriotic and defeating a Canadian enemy of this time: the Japanese people. He is pictured with a muscular build, slicked back hair and nothing but a gun strapped to his hips as protection.
We then have “Active Jim” (pp 36-38) who is shown saving a young woman from another Canadian enemy: the Nazis. This story serves as encouragement for young men and woman to serve their army as it says “Like all you Canadian boys and girls, Jim has solemnly pledged his services to eventual allied victory…” (p26).
Lastly, we have “The Noodle” (pp 39-42) who is animated completely differently from the rest of our heroes as he resembles a baby. His mission is to save the world from “the jeeter-bug” and similar to our other heroes, he is saving a woman.
All these comics have a common enemy as to ensure that the Canadians enjoying the comics make an enemy of the Japanese people, Nazis, drug dealers and anyone who is not of “good moral standing”.
Establishing Canadian Indentity
Canadian Comics during World War II were so much more than a medium for entertainment. They were a connection to the outside world that Canadian people, children especially, had never had the chance to experience and “…a didactic vehicle, a means to popularize certain philosophical and religious ideals” (Bell). During World War II, Canadian comics were the only option for comic book readers. “These comics were different from their American counterparts in their scope as well as their levels of violence and patriotism” (Reyns-Chikuma and de Vos). Though Canadian heroes did not have superhuman powers per say, their powers were an uncanny sense of masculinity, patriotism, and religious morals. These comics were a mirror of everything a good Canadian citizen would be during the war and that one could be just as helpful and important on the Homefront as on the battlefield. Some ways Canadians on the Homefront helped out were victory gardens, or children collecting war stamps; young or old everyone did their part. “These comics solicited readers’ opinions about what was and should be inside them and offered up contests for those same readers to participate in with almost every issue” (Kocmarek).
The purpose of these comics were “…to produce exciting adventures designed to intstill patriotism in Canadian kids” and also to “…explore complex mystical beliefs and the nature of good and evil” (Bell).
These qualities are what separated Canadian Comics from the rest of the world and what made them so special. They were unapologetically Canadian and distinctly un-American.
The End of An Era
The Canadian Golden age of comics ended in 1945 and the superheroes that were so revered and popular became obsolete. These comics were the first to explore “the utilization of comics as a lens for reading history as well as contemplating the future of
artistic interpretations of Canadian identity” (Reyns-Chikuma and de Vos). Unfortunately, “…the next generation of Canadian kids thrilled to the adventures of foreign heroes” (Bell). Thus, Superman, Spiderman and all the popular American comics reemerged.
Though many Canadian artists have been persistent in the Canadian Comic book scene in trying to ensure its success, other Canadian artists view superheroes in comics “…represent cultural immaturity” (Bell) and “…an artistic deadend” (Bell). It is possible that superheroes simply do not represent Canadian history and culture and that we need a comic medium that includes “…literature, autobiography, history, and other sources” (Bell). because “…Canadians are probably way too wary of the uncritical portrayal of unrestrained heroism and power for the superhero genre to ever become a mainstay of the country’s indigenous comic art” (Bell).
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol 36, no. 3, October 2005, pp 427-439.Canadian Business & Current Affairs Database, 10.1080/02722010609481401
Bell, John. Invaders from the North. Dundurn, 2011.
Grace, John. “The Canadian Soldier and the Study of Current Affairs.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), vol. 20, no. 3, 1944, pp. 341–46.www.jstor.org/stable/3018560
Kocmarek, Ivan. “Truth, Justice, and The Canadian Way: The War-Time Comics of Bell
Features Publications.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, vol. 43, no. 1, March 2016, pp. 145-65. Project Muse, https://doi.org/10.1353/crc.2016.0008
Kulbach, Rene, “Dixon of the Mounted.” Active Comics, no.10, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1945, pp. 1-8, Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada, http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166511.pdf
Reyns-Chikuma, Chris and Gail de Vos. “Exploring Canadian Identities in Canadian Comics.” Canadian Review of Compartive Literature / Revue Candadienne de Littérature Comparée, vol. 43, no.1, March 2016, pp 5-22. Project Muse, https://doi.org/10.1353/crc.2016.0003