Did you know that Vancouver was home to the first true Canadian comic book and comic super hero? Though my own experience with the world of comics doesn’t go much beyond Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest of the Riverdale gang, I was happy to discover that Vancouver was once an integral part of the Golden Age of Canadian comics.
The Maple Leaf Publishing Company, headquartered at 849 Homer Street in Vancouver, was the third largest of Canada’s wartime comic companies and the only one located outside of Eastern Canada. During World War II, U.S. comics were deemed “non-essential” imports under Canada’s War Exchange Conservation Act in December 1940, so four Canadian companies decided to get into the game and a homegrown comic book industry was born.
Maple Leaf wartime comics were conceived when Winnipeg-born Vernon (Vern) Miller, a former Walt Disney cartoonist, returned to B.C. and suggested that magazine vendor Harry Smith, owner of Imperial News Co., capitalize on the wartime comic book import ban. Vancouver’s Maple Leaf is generally viewed as the publisher of the first true Canadian comic book.
When their Better Comics Vol.1, No. 1 came out in March 1941, it was initially printed full-colour and priced at 15 cents. Later, to save on production costs, Maple Leaf produced comics with black and white interiors, known as Canadian Whites. This move allowed them to drop the price to ten cents an issue.
Better Comics also introduced the first Canadian superhero – Vernon Miller’s “Iron Man” – appearing in the first issue of Better Comics. Iron Man was the “lone survivor of an advanced, underwater civilization that had been destroyed by an earthquake”, who was “summoned to the surface world to aid humanity”. [Which, for the most part, was to fight Nazis – it was WW2 after all.] His powers – “great strength, speed and the ability to leap vast distances” – were similar to those of the early Superman. Maple Leaf’s Iron Man should not be confused with Marvel Comics’ Iron Man, who was first introduced in 1963. Therefore, it could be said that Vancouver is the birthplace of the first “Iron Man”!
Maple Leaf publishing was a prolific publishing company during this Golden Age of Canadian comics (1941-1946). In addition to Better Comics, Maple Leaf published Bing Bang Comics, Lucky Comics, and Name-it Comics (later renamed Rocket Comics). The four comics were soon selling 163,000 copies per issue, produced by a staff of 11 artists and writers – all out of Vancouver.
Ted Ross earned $110 a month during the war years as an editor and scriptwriter for Maple Leaf Publishing. Admittedly, his writing for Maple Leaf was not “high-grade fiction” from an elite publishing house, but in a 1972 Sun newspaper article Ross said, “it was a gig [and] it was fun.” Ross created “Cade of the Cariboo”, “Bill Speed”, “Mono the Aircobra”, “The Bush Pilot”, and more, “eventually I was running six characters and I was trying to come up with original stories for all of them.”
In addition to Iron Man, other superheroes like Deuce Granville, Señorita Marquita, Bill Speed, Stuff Buggs, Black Wing, and Brok Windsor were introduced to Canadians on the pages of the comics published by Maple Leaf. All were created by a team of talented artists and writers on staff, including: Bert Bushell, Jon Stables, Ernest Walker, Shirley “Ley” Fortune, Bill Meikle, Peggy Wilson, Spike Brown, Bill Benz, and Ted Watson.
Hired by Maple Leaf in 1942, Jon Stables (aka Jon St. Ables) is most known for creating the popular Better Comics character, Brok Windsor:
“Brok Windsor was a Winnipeg doctor and outdoorsman. He possessed the ability to speak multiple languages fluently including French and the fictional First Nations Blackpaw language (likely a variation of Blackfoot). Crash landing his canoe on the shores of a hidden island in the middle of Lake of the Woods, Brok Windsor looks for a way back home to mainland Canada.”
Brok Windsor debuted in the April/May 1944 issue of Better Comics and his final appearance was in August 1946.
But it wasn’t just men that worked at Maple Leaf Comics. Peggy Wilson and Ley Fortune, possibly Vancouver’s first female professional comic illustrators, were also part of the Maple Leaf team.
Shirley Fortune, aka Ley Fortune, was born in Salmon Arm in 1921 and moved to Vancouver with her family in 1933. She attended the Vancouver School of Art and was a student of artist Jack Shadbolt. Fortune joined Maple Leaf Comics in 1943. As an illustrator she joined forces with writer and editor Ted Ross on the popular “Mono The Air Cobra” and “Caribou Trail”, which was set in BC’s Caribou region. After leaving Maple Leaf, Fortune continued working as a professional artist until she married in 1950. Her love of painting and drawing stayed with her throughout her lifetime.
After the war ended, American comics were once again available for sale in Canada. When the War Exchange Conservation Act was repealed in 1946, full-colour comics that sold for only a dime flooded the market. Unable to compete, and despite an attempt to break into the U.K. market, by late 1946 Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publishing was out of the Canadian comic business.
Sadly, these Vancouver produced comics are often forgotten in favour of those produced in the east (by Toronto’s Anglo-American Publishing, Bell Features, and Hillsborough Studios) in discussions of this Golden Age of Canadian comics.
Ted Ross donated a small collection of Maple Leaf comics and scripts to the City of Vancouver Archives in 1971. The collection is available to view in person at the Archives.
For more information about the golden age of Canadian Comics and about comics in general check out:
The Society for the Promotion of Canadian Comics (SPCC)
Joe Shuster Awards – Canadian comics awards, news and links
Canadian Animation, Cartooning and Illustration: An Encyclopedia of Canadian Animation, Cartooning and Illustration