Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Nefarious Career - How Comics Made a Master Criminal of Me

The second book I ever stole introduced me to the world of Canadian comics and a man I would come to treasure as a dear friend, Leo Bachle, aka Les Barker, aka Johnny Canuck.

This passion I have for Canadian Comics is his fault.

But it all started with a fervor for comics in general. Like many young comic fans I spent much of my childhood perusing the spinner racks at the local, five and dime store in London, Ontario, Canada, looking for the perfect combination of comics and junk food to spend my hard-earned allowance on. I rode on an ever-expanding tour of the stores within bicycling distance to find the next issue of any story I was particularly interested in.

When I came upon a treasured issue in a new store, it was added to my route. I made a point to return there regularly, assuming more spectacular comics would be unearthed over time. The Mac's Milk Variety store in which I found the very first issue of Captain Canuck was forevermore a target on my bi-weekly mad dash. I returned to London's University Hospital, which was a two bus ride across town, for months after the physio on my injured knee was over because I discovered the X-Men's Dark Phoenix saga in their gift shop and I desperately needed to know what was going to happen.

Eventually I found Multi-Mag on Bloor Street, a downtown magazine shop two blocks from the Art Gallery of Southern Ontario that had an extensive (and more importantly, a consistent) comic array. This was during the first burst of indie creativity in the early eighties. Here I found and collected Pacific Comics; Dave Steven's Rocketeer, Ditko's Missing Man and Jack Kirby's Captain Victory. Blocks away down Richmond Street stood pro-marijuana activist Mark Emery's City Lights bookshop, a London landmark where I discovered the joys of his extensive back issue collections. It was here I discovered Kirby's Fourth World.

"I can't see the difference."

"Can you see the difference?"

Finally, two honest to gosh comic shops opened across town and though bicycling to them was an exhilarating, lengthy, and sometimes harrowing experience, it was well worth the bi-weekly exodus to bring home those comics and know the next issues would not require any more detective work.

But before all that, this insatiable passion for my four-colour, saddle-stitched drug of choice was served mostly by my local variety store and second hand comics passed on to me by friends and family or found at flee markets and yard sales. In other words, comics were hard to come by and information about comics even more so. Despite growing up in the era of the fanzine and the rising comics fan, none of that information reached my young door.

Then, when I was five or six we moved closer to the Westmount Mall and my fledgling criminal career began in earnest.

The Westmount Mall in London, Ontario is now a multi-floored glass aquarium of shops and boutiques. But in the seventies it was a classic, one story neighbourhood mall. The main hallway, tiled in deep amber ceramic hues, was kept shadowed in lower light in the hopes that the brightly lit shops on either side would beckon you toward them like a moth to the retail flame. Anchored at either end by an Eaton's department store and a Dominion grocery, it served all the neighbourhood's needs.

The Coles bookstore was set up in an oddly angled corner and the design of the store took advantage of the configuration. You could wander through staggered shelves and displays and step up and down the multi-leveled platforms, seeking your books in small nooks where you could really spend some time perusing a book before purchasing. The store eschewed long aisles in favour of pockets of books; little corners and islands of browsability. This layout allowed you to slow down and take your time, absorbing the stock and unearthing hidden treasures.

Coles was a magical place for me, as were libraries. And my mother always knew she could park me there for a while as she shopped and I wouldn't go anywhere, lost as I was in this amazing world of the printed page.

Though I browsed all over, I tended to stop in the hobby section, fascinated by the world of miniatures. I always longed to work with dollhouse style sets in the hopes of making animated films with them, despite having no idea quite how to go about doing that and no access to a camera of film technology of any kind. Later, as a spate of science fiction films sparked an interest in home filmmaking, I devoured the books and magazines on home-made special effects.

I spent so much time reading and re-reading books in Coles, completely unmolested by the patient staff, (or perhaps I was simply under their radar) it came to feel like a second home. The books I liked never seemed to move off the shelves so even the ones I couldn't buy were always there for me. And then a completely unique book appeared on the shelves.

This book so excited me I was vibrating inside and out. It haunted my dreams. I returned time and time again to flip through its pages. I was aware that comics had been around a long time due to the reprints DC Comics had begun printing in the back of their books. They were often my favourite things in the books. This book was filled with reprints, but they were nothing like the ones I had seen. This book held a treasure trove of history; its cornucopia of undiscovered heroes and lush art was like a siren call to me. Flipping through I was opening a door to whole new, expanded world. In contrast to the garish colours of DC reprints, these comics were all in black and white. None of the artists were familiar to me and yet their styles were all quite distinctive. It was a time of Nationalistic fervour as Canada was still giddy over the passing of it’s centennial and America was approaching its bicentennial. Therefore I was always subtly aware that DC’s reprints were jingoistic and American. These reprints were jingoistic and Canadian.

Whoa, what? CANADIAN????!!

It was The Great Canadian Comic Books by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert, designed by Clive Smith. The trio would go on to found Canada's most successful animation studio and, for a time, were my employers. After buying up the plates and artwork from much Bell Features later run of comics they had created a documentary film and interviewed several of the stalwarts of the era. They had also created a short radio drama based on Speed Savage and created a travelling Art Show with the assistance of the National Gallery of Canada. This was the first book to show Canadians that we had our own golden age of Canadian comics to be proud of. I had even seen their documentary in class once, totally mesmerized by these superheroes and comics I had never heard of.

Patriotic pride swelled within my heart every time I visited my precious book. I studied the art within its pages, trying to commit every brush stroke to memory. I would lovingly put it back on the shelf, hoping no one else would find it and reiterate a vow each time I was forced to leave it behind. "Never fear book. One day you and will be together."

My mind whirled feverishly. It would take too long to save for this book. I spent weeks returning to Coles to peruse those black and white pages, always worried that this time I would to find them sold out. But there it was, every time. I came to realize my allowance would take months to add up to enough to buy this book. I was tempting fate to leave this treasure alone. Soon, someone would snap it up and it would be gone from my life forever.
But there was way. I knew it was possible to steal the book. The first book I ever stole had been a crime of passion and opportunity. I had snuck it out under my coat from this very Coles almost without realizing I was doing it. So I knew it could easily be done again. But to actually plan a robbery? What kind of person did that make me, even at eight?

A desperate one.

I was lost to my baser urges. I emptied my gym bag (Phew! Those gyms clothes needed laundering anyway) and headed to the mall, a young rebel determined to free that book from its lonely, retail existence. I found my lovely book and tipped it into the open bag, hiding my actions with my back. ZZZZZIIP! The bag closed, I browsed a little longer and causally walked out. I had done it. My horror at my criminal act was outweighed by the depths of my need. Now the successful, master criminal could be properly sick with guilt outside.

In my own defence, I only ever tried to steal one other thing in my life. And was caught and banned from the mall for a year! A torturous time for me in which I felt like everyone I passed knew me for the marked man I was. Afterwards, I tended to shop at Coles very loyally, eager to fork over cash for the books I admired. I t was my way of making up for my misspent youth. But right then, racing home with this nationalistic treasure in my bag, I felt only cursory guilt. This book was simply too special to me. My ethics were simply drowned out by the love and fascination I felt as I poured over each page.

I was secure in the knowledge that I, and only I, would ever care for this book the way it deserved.

At home, I devoured the book, pored over it day after day and gave it a place of honour on my shelf... after several months hidden under my bed until I felt confident my mother would consider it a piece of literature that had always been a part my books. The book gave a general history of Bell Features, one of several comic book companies that rose briefly in the forties to fill a void on Canadian newsstands. It also gave a cursory overview of the many characters that filled the books. Instead of full stories, Hirsh and Loubert published tantalizing snippets as a way of showcasing as much variety in artwork and story as possible.

Three artists stood to my young mind. The elegant brush strokes and sophisticated work of Bell Features art director, Adrian Dingle, the creator of Nelvana of the Northern Lights. The cartoony yet manly art of Fred Kelly (creator of the original Mr. Monster). And finally, the unmistakable work of Leo Bachle, creator of Johnny Canuck and host of other characters.

Leo understood the heroic ideal of action comics better than any of his contemporaries at bell. Every pose was heroic. You’d rarely go more than a page without Johnny, flying, running, leaping or socking some Nazi in the jaw. Leo, a handsome teen, designed Johnny, and indeed, most of his heroes, to look like his own chiselled features. He was close to the age of his readership and knew what they wanted was to picture themselves as these heroes. And Leo always gave the readers what they wanted. Heck, in Johnny’s first appearance he was already a confirmed thorn in the side of Adolph Hitler himself.

I didn't know at the time I would go on to become friends with Leo, who eventually changed his name to Les Barker and became a much-sought after comedian and performer. In meeting Les in person and growing to know him and his family I discovered that our connection ran much deeper than mere comics. We shared a sense of humour, a sense of pride and a desire to do things better than anyone else. I miss Les every day. And any step forward I take in my attempts to bring knowledge of Canadian comics to a modern audience, I dedicate to him.

This much delayed journey (Hey, life happens. Right?) has also helped me rediscover a love for comics in general. So this Blog will likely cover a lot of what’s out there now in addition to our jaunts into the Canadian past.

Thanks old friend, for helping me rediscover my childhood passion.

The first book I ever stole?

The tale is almost identical, though lacking in maple-drenched, nationalist fervour. It was the Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer.

Beavers up!

1 comment:

  1. The second book you stole. so there was a beginning. A continuity of felonies and if you do something twice you do it a third time... i wonder if you did continued that line of life hehehe