Later this month, Canadian comics historian Rachel Richey will launch a Kickstarter campaign to reprint the adventures of Canadian wartime superhero, Johnny Canuck. Johnny was an adventurer-hero, a young soldier who was determined to take the fight to Hitler himself. All twenty-eight issues of Johnny Canuck will be reprinted in one volume with CGA Comics and distributed by IDW.
What makes the reprint so significant is that like Nelvana of the Northern Lights, reprinted this year with Hope Nelson (CGA, IDW), Johnny Canuck belongs to a stable of uniquely Canadian wartime comics. Between 1941 and 1946, a homegrown Canadian comics industry flourished thanks to the Wartime Exchange Conservation Act, which prevented such luxuries as Yankee comic books from crossing the border, and hindered Canadian children’s unquenchable thirst for new superhero adventures. (Once you get a taste…) At the conclusion of the war, the act was lifted and American goods once again began streaming into Canada, in many cases pricing out — or distributing out — businesses which had flourished during the war years. Canadian comics publishers were not immune, and one by one, folded. And despite the cultural impact of the comics, they weren’t reprinted — until now.
I spoke with Rachel about the reprint of Johnny Canuck and what else will be making its way out the Library Archives of Canada.
First off, congrats. And, seriously, thank you for staying committed to reprinting Canada’s comics history!
Your press release got the WWAC staff all excited, even the non-Canadians. We’re comics nerds — obviously — but many of us are also history nerds. Can you tell us a bit about the material and its place in the Canadian cultural landscape of the day? Were people excited about a home-grown publishing industry, or just happy to have comics to keep their kids happy?
Thanks! I’m so happy you’re excited! Everyone should be, Johnny is great and it’s time we remember and take pride in Canadian comics!
I think everyone was really excited about the comics. Everyone was reading them, but I guess mostly kids, and they needed them. Bell Features, the publishing company that put out Nelvana and Johnny was selling an astronomical number of books a month. One thing it’s important to remember is that from 1941 to 1946, this was a relatively pure run in Canadian popular culture with little interference from the United States. Never have Canadian children been so privileged as they were then to have distinctly Canadian heroes to read about every month. It’s a shame it didn’t last.
I think everyone was amused by the books, especially Johnny Canuck, whose adventures revolved around the war effort and offered readers a successful fight in an unsure war.
You’ve been working with the John Bell Collection at Archives Canada, and have secured the rights to Johnny Canuck, Thunderfist, and The Penguin. Do they have complete collections of those comics?
I did, LAC has almost complete runs of these comics. I actually have the reprint rights to all the Bell Features material, those ones are just some of my favourites that I want to do first.
What kinds of challenges does a reprint involve in terms of research and securing rights?
The first time around it was a little more difficult, determining exactly where the rights lay. Nelvana was particularly difficult, as she was previously owned by another publisher. This time around was a little easier because I know what’s involved. I think the most important part of securing the rights is having the estate’s blessing. The Dingles and the Bachles are both very happy.
I’m curious about the actual process of reprinting these comics. We spoke, very briefly, at TCAF and you mentioned that some of the original comics aren’t in the best condition. I think it’s mentioned in Lost Heroes that the Canadian Whites — as these comics are called — weren’t printed on newsprint, but a heavier stock? How should these and other comics be properly archived and how are they restored?
They are printed on a heavier, but less refined newsprint. It’s more brittle and less pliable, you know? Essentially, no one really cared what they were printed on because they were never meant to last forever, they were just meant to be cheap.
Right now, the collection at LAC is stored in a temperature-controlled room in the preservation archives. They are individually stored in stiff mylar sleeves to prevent slouching, wrinkling or other damage.
You and Hope Nicholson previously reprinted Nelvana of the Northern Lights, which you funded through a very successful Kickstarter. Do you have funding secured for this project, or will you be crowdfunding it?
And has there been any national or international interest? Nelvana, of course, has secured an American publisher in IDW — any plans to seek a similar arrangement for Johnny Canuck?
Johnny Canuck will also be reprinted through the help of a Kickstarter campaign. The monetary goal will be a little less, as there are fewer pages to be printed; Johnny has 230 whereas Nelvana had 315. Also, there HAS been national interest! I was on Canada AM and Global’s morning show two days in a row around the beginning of the month and there was a Canadian Press article that literally went to every newspaper across Canada and on CBC. It’s a pretty good start I’d say!
So far there are no plans to print a second print run. It will probably depend on the popularity of the campaign!
It strikes me that Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, and friends would work nicely in an educational setting, both K-12 and post-secondary. Has there been any interest from educators or academics in the books? Perhaps a course adoption?
There hasn’t, as of yet, but I imagine IDW will push for something like that as they’re mostly distributing the book. Incidentally I just discovered there was a play called Hurry for Johnny Canuck that was written in the 70s by a writer called Ken Gass that was put on at the high school level. It included many of these characters!
And on a similar note, you and Hope mention a number of books in the Nelvana foreword that sparked your interest in Canadian comics history. Should our readers be similarly inspired to explore that history — yes, I’m looking at you, reader — what would you recommend as an entrée into the subject?
Oh, wow! Canadian comics are my life! I guess I would start by telling people the age old advice, support local artists, small press, etc, because those are the people full of passion, who really need your money. And hey, in a couple years you can say stuff like, “I knew Kate Beaton before she was cool.”
Some recommendations are Britt Wilson, Michael Deforge, Betty Liang, Emily Carroll, but a few older artists too like Seth, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Jeff Lemire and Pascal Blanchet. These are all both beautiful, funny and emotive books that make me love comics but also Canada too. Anyone can contact me any time to get a recommendation. I will chat your ear off! lol