Friday, March 27, 2009

Comic Canucks - Derek of Bras d'Or

They say they grow them big in Texas, but no one grew them bigger than Angus MacAskill, the true life giant of Cape Breton who served as the inspiration for Triumph Comics' Derek of Bras d'Or. The legendary feats and gentle demeanor of MacAskill served as a perfect template for writer Glen Guest and illustrator A.L. Alexander's comic book hero.

And this is one case where the comics seem incapable of exaggerating their character's feats of strength!

Triumph Adventure Comics #4,
pub. Hillborough Studios, Nov. 1941.

First, a little background…

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online assures me that Angus MacAskill was born in 1825 on Harris in the Hebrides, Scotland (though the Angus MacAskill Museum page at's page on the MacAskill museum insists he was born "at the north end of the island of Berneray, in the Sound of Harris"). Angus was the fourth child of Norman McAskill and Christina Campbell, whose brood would eventually number either ten or thirteen, depending on the source. Somewhere's about 1831 the whole family immigrated to Cape Breton and settled on a farm on the south side of St Ann's Harbour. The district was dubbed "Englishtown" because the current inhabitants "had not the Gaelic".

As a baby, Angus was so small he was not expected to survive but he would more than confound that prediction. Though a normal-sized child, Angus soon sprouted. By 14 he was large enough to have earned the nickname Gille Mor (Gaelic for Big Boy) and by his twenties was so tall his father lifted the roof of the family home and raised the ceilings of the kitchen and living room. Kind of a seventeenth century Extreme Makeover: Home Edition without the helpful sponsors.

MacAskill and Major Tom Thumb,
in a publicity photo contrasting
two human marvels.

By the age of 22 Angus had reached a full-grown height of 7 ft 9 inches, weighed between 425 to over 500 lbs., depending on your source and time period cited, and the palm of his hand was about a foot long. MacAskill’s gentle nature was such a contrast to expectations of one so large, that he “…endeared him to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance", according to his obituary in The Acadian Recorder obituary of Aug. 16, 1863, by way of Wikipedia.

As with any tales passed on partly through word of mouth, the specifics vary, but the basics stay pretty consistent. One thing all accounts agree on is that Angus was unique in that that he was perfectly proportioned despite his size, with none of the usual growth abnormalities associated with such stature., a website devoted to amazing examples of the human race, explains:

In 1981 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized MacAskill as the largest true giant to have ever lived, the strongest man who ever lived and the man with the largest chest measurements of any non-obese man.

The distinction of his status as a ‘true’ giant hinges on the fact the Angus was purported to be free of any growth abnormalities. His stature was proportional in every way and his immense size and strength was due only to his natural genetic gifts.

MacAskill worked on his family's farm and as a fisherman to make his way. In a time when strength was respected above most else, the Gille Mor earned the respect of all and came to be known far and wide as the Cape Breton Giant or simply, Giant MacAskill. Though MacAskill’s immediate family were of normal dimensions, this article by Abagael MacAskill, one of MacAskill’s descendants reveals there was a precedent for Angus’ massive size.

During my travels I learned that Angus is not the only giant in the family line. His grandfather was called Neil Mor (Big Neil) and matched Angus in size. Written records are sketchy back that far so this is not "officially" documented- just passed down through the generations.

Still more fascinating is the history prior to this. The MacAskills were not a clan, but rather a sept of the McLeod clan. It is written that the McLeods considered the MacAskills the most favored servants because the whole tribe was known for their unusual size and strength back to their Viking roots!

…Almost two centuries have past since the birth of Angus and there have been no more giants. I can confirm from the family reunions that the present MacAskills are all of average stature.
MacAskill’s feats grew in renown long before crop failures and an economic downtown in 1847 and 1848 forced him to tour as a curiosity to earn money. Such demonstrations stemmed mainly from doing his chores as only he could accomplish them. This living, breathing “tall tale” could tip a half-ton boat to empty bilge water (a task that normally took six men) and set a 40-foot mast into a schooner “as easily as a farmer set a fence post in a hole”.

He could could jog down the street with 300 lb barrels of pork under each arm or hold 50kg kegs by two fingers. People also claimed to have seen MacAskill lift a full-grown horse over a four-foot fence and once silenced taunting sailors by carrying a ship’s anchor (weighing in excess of 2700 pounds) down a wharf.

In the late thirties and early forties, young painter Adrian Dingle and his artist friends likely picked up many such tales and local colour as they traveled around to paint. The adventures of folk heroes like Giant MacAskill were oft repeated in magazines, newspapers, books and through word of mouth. So at the dawn of 1941, when Dingle conscripted those same friends into forming Hillborough Studio and launched the proudly canuck Triumph Adventure Comics, it made perfect sense to use some of that folklore to create a uniquely Canadian features.

Dingle famously combined elements of Inuit legends with a dose of science fiction to create Nelvana, the most beloved Canadian comic book character that no one really knows much about. For their contribution to Triumph, writer Glen Guest and artist A.L. Alexander recast MacAskill’s adventures into a modern setting and Cape Breton Island’s handsome young Derek MacGregor of Bras d’Or was born.

Sketches of Angus MacAskill and his comic book
progeny, Derek MacGregor of Bras d'Or.

I’m not sure when Derek debuted in Triumph Adventure Comics, I haven’t seen issues 2 or 7 (the last of the Hillborough issues before selling the title, minus the Adventure part, to Bell Features). I can confirm he appears in issues three to five, with a promise of more tales to come. Truthfully, issue 3 sure reads like his first outing.

Other than some modern trappings, Guest and Alexander made little effort to differentiate their character from the real Giant MacAskill in Triumph Comics 3, quickly involving him in an incident taken from real life legend. According to a variety of sources, an American fishing vessel came to St. Anne’s to buy bait, and her Captain challenged the well-known MacAskill to a wrestling match. The Cape Breton giant refused and when the 300 hundred pound visitor verbally lambasted him, MacAskill lost his temper and tossed the brute over a woodpile ten feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the Derek of Bras d’Or yarn in Triumph 3, the unfortunate braggart is Rex O’Donnell, a champion wrestler from the big city. Guest and Alexander combined the infamous woodpile toss with another famous MacAskill tale; that of intimidating another tormentor by squeezing his hand until his fingers bed! As the city slicker runs off, never to be seen again, we know within the first three pages that Derek is one tough cookie!

In short order, Derek competes at the highland games, winning every event including the caber toss, hammer throw, hundred-yard dash and the broad jump. But a prize bull, likely enraged by the bagpipe music, breaks free, scattering the crowd and endangering a wee “Scotch Lassie” competing in the sword dance. Derek staggers the beast with one punch and saves the day.

Hillborough Studio was comprised of very accomplished artists with styles all their own and Alexander was no exception. His work on Derek resembles that of a woodcut, lending an element of verisimilitude to the folkloric storytelling. Despite his odd figure work at times, Alexander's work on Derek is full of detail and elegant etching, lending a real senses of place to its Atlantic Coast setting. It is quite similar in approach to American artist Harry G. Peter’s unique sense of design on Wonder Woman and Heroic Comic’s Man O’Metal feature, although it's unlikely he'd have seen Peter's work at so early a date. Their figures, animals, and action sequences are handled in comparable fashions.

An example of H. G. Peters' work on
Heroic Comics' Man O'Metal...

...And illustrator A. L. Alexander's similar
approach to Derek of Bras d'Or.

That style is well-displayed in Triumph Adventure Comics 4 as Derek joins his friend Captain Angus Trites and his son John on board the Silverqueen for a deep seas expedition to harpoon swordfish. In a rare case of an animal giving as good as it gets in a contest with Derek, the impaled swordfish returns the favour to Derek’s dory, leaving them clinging to the side as the pierced hull fills with water.

On the way back to the harbour, the Silverqueen spots a modern menace in the form of an enemy U-Boat near Lundy’s Head (presumably near Lundy, Nova Scotia, in Guysborough County). Captain Trites signals a patrolling Canadian Corvette while Derek proves he’s crack shot as well as a pugilist by shooting out the U-boat’s periscope with the Captain’s rifle. The corvette’s depth charges force the blinded U-boat to surface. Derek helps take the survivors prisoner and wishes he weren’t too young to join the war effort directly.

I'm unfair to single this one, unusually sensual, page of Derek art by A.L Alexander out, but it does share something else with H.G. Peters Wonder Woman work; the tendency to send mixed gender and sexual messages with awkwardly kinky posing and situations!

Of course, some messages aren't so mixed...

But I digress...

In Triumph Adventure Comics 5, Derek’s storyline keels more toward typical comic stories of the day, while still maintaining a sense of the small, coastal town in which Derek lives. Derek stumbles upon an attempt the rob local bank, largely it seems, through his natural East Coast suspicion of outsiders, or anyone “from away”. Derek tackles the crooks as they flee the scene. Snake Eyes, the gang’s luger-wielding leader, is happy to shoot Slick-Joe, his safe cracker, to get at Derek but the giant is too much for them. He holds two of the gang members while the others disappear into the night with their loot. Still suspicious, Derek sees the remaining thugs pull away from the wharf with money meant to sponsor a dope deal.

The final panel asks, “Will Derek intercept this gangster mob?”

Sadly, I have no idea.

Anybody wanna send me the covers and contents of Triumph 2 and 7 so we can all find out? Pretty please?

Learn more about Angus MacAskill at his Wikipedia entry here, and at

More info on the Angus Macaskill Museums can be found here for the one on the Isle of Sky and here and here for the one in Englishtown, Nova Scotia.

A pic of MacAskill's grave in Nova Scotia can be found on Flickr, here.

Beavers Up!


  1. That's a wonderful tale of one of the interesting Canadian whites. Thanks Rob.

  2. Sorry to have to let you down on number 7 here, but there was no Derek tale in that issue. I guess he was replaced by the Speed Savage or Capt. Wonder features - here's that issue's list.

    Triumph Comics #7, contents:
    Nelvana - by Adrian Dingle
    * Speed Savage - Introducing Speed Savage by Tedd Steele
    * Repeat Performance - Edmond Good
    * 4 pgs of text story (western), single illustrations by Murray Karn
    * Shickelgruber's Circus (3pg. parody) by J.O'Henly
    * Tang - Rene Kulbach
    * Captain Wonder - Ross Saakel
    take care, Jim B.

  3. Thank you Jim!

    It's good to confirm that much. I'm doing this out of love and out of a chance to trade information. And your input is appreciated.

    Once my computer woes are over I'll try to update the post with your info.


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Impressive that such a man had lived all those years ago, and that there are no more traits of this "true" Giant genes somewhere in the family, you could guess that something like that could have been passed down some how, but if there are no direct descendants it is hard to happen.

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  6. Very unusual. Cool blog I loved reading your information Thanks for sharing. Very valid points.