Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dingle Bell Rock - Merry Christmas, Nelvana Creator John Adrian Darley Dingle! (68 years late)

Merry Christmas, Mr. Dingle.

The Toronto Star's online archive are a treasure trove of nuggets from the past -- if you're willing to spend hour after hour slogging through their labour intensive and slooooow search engine. But for every dozen wrong turns, you also find things both surprising and inspiring.

1941 was a banner year for Adrian Dingle, one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of Canadian comics as the founder of Hillborough Studios, the collective behind Triumph-Adventure Comics and birthplace of Nelvana of the Northern and the classiest comics of the Canadian Golden Age.

It was a different time for painters in the late 1930's. One could still make a living with portrait commissions and gallery showings. Young Dingle was very much a part of his local art scene. One can find numerous mentions of his portraits for various school officials and appearances at local art shows advertised in the Star as the forties approached.

Most people with any knowledge of Canadian Comics are aware that in the early forties, restrictions were placed on the import of US paper products like magazines, books and comics due to foreign exchange issues. Several publishers rushed to fill the void, with Maple Leaf Publications' Better Comics and Anglo American Comics' Robin Hood And Company virtually tying as the first to hit the newsstands.

Ever mindful of an opportunity to make money from their artistic chops, Dingle and several Toronto-area, artist friends formed Hillborough Studios and began to create their own comics. The Hillborough comics are some of the most intrinsically Canadian comics of the era and it's hardly surprising. In the early twentieth century Canada began to explore a more nationalistic approach to painting in an effort to define the country and provide its art scene with an independent identity. The most famous examples of this are painters like Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. The success of this approach encouraged the Group of Seven to expand in the thirties, renaming themselves The Canadian Group of Painters to reflect their enlarged roster of artists.

The fact that the public so embraced the Group of Seven as a national institution gave rise to the Eastern Group of Painters, founded in Montreal, Quebec in 1938. This group felt the Group's limited focus was too limiting and fought to restore more variety of subject, substance and geography to Canadian Art. Thus, by resisting a national approach to art, the EGoP, actually helped bring Canadian to a new, mature level of variety.

All this could not have been lost on the young artists who joined Dingle in his desire to create their own comic book. Since they were Canadian artists they were going to create decidedly Canadian comics. The pages were peopled with canuck characters through and through: Dingle's own Nelvana of the Northern Lights (easily the most famous character to emerge from the period along with Johnny Canuck) and Clue Catchers, co-written with his fiancee and later bride, Pat), H.B. Ohrt and Leon James' Spannner Preston", Canadian pilot and squadron leader, Rene Kulbach's Tang and Out of the Woods, a sweeping western epic and the misadventures of a hapless Canadian bear in the deep woods, A. L Alexander and Glen Guest's Derek of Bras d'Or, based on the life of Angus MacAskill, the Cape Breton giant and Jon Darian's amusing one-pager the Mums, featuring the fueding couple Maxie and Minny Mum.

Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights and her brother,
Tanero. She's a native Goddess and he's... oddly blonde.
Perhaps he's an albino Inuit?

The first issue of Triumph-Adventure Comics is dated August, 1941. Since magazines were cover dated ahead to allow for more newsstand time, it is likely Dingle and crew had been working on the book since early 1941 and it was released in July. But in the mean, time, the young artists still had rent to paid and profile to keep up.

According to this Star article, (amusingly placed next to an announcement that Adolph Hitler would the target of choice at a coming archery tournament) Dingle and fellow Hillborogh artist, Rene Kulbach (creator of the western saga, Tang) still found time to contribute to the war effort. The Peel Kennel Club hosted a garden party in which artists Dingle, Kulbach and artist Andre Lapine would sketch your pet for free in exchange for a contribution to the Red Cross Bomb Victim Fund.

The Estonian-Canadian Kulbach, was already an acknowledged "expert" on the fine art of rendering animals and Tang still resonates today due to his fine draughtsmanship. Dingle is referred to as "a portrait painter of note" known for his "fine oils of familiar scenes along the Lakeshore" while Lapine was considered an "A-1 animal painter". The article further enhances the value of the experience by declaring, "The work of these artists is well known and is prized by those who possess sketches." Seeing Dingle and Kulbach's work in Triumph-Adventure Comics, it is apparent that the Star article was a masterpiece of understatement.

The first two pages of Rene Kulbach and Frank Brookwood's Tang from
Triumph-Adventure Comics #1. I wonder if Brookwood is a pen name for Rene,
who took on sole credit for Tang soon after its debut, save for his brother, Andre?

That Triumph-Adventure Comics hit the stands in August is impressive. What is more impressive is the fact that for the next six issues, Dingle and his compatriots kept up a remarkably high level of quality throughout the run. For the rest of the year , Dingle was putting out a top quality comic and prepping a second title for the Hillborough line.

Top-Flight Comics, billed as a "new Canadian magazine of illustrated stories". For the new book, Dingle secured the aid of more artist friends: Hugh Caulfield, Clayton Dexter, Dingle himself and "well-known Canadian artist" Hunter Barker.

Top Flight Comics was well-named indeed, with its
top line-up of young, Canadian artists.

Caulfied contributed the strip Happy Holden, featuring a pilot who gets lost in a prehistoric world beneath the Arctic with his passengers, a scientist and his lovely (naturally) daughter. The strip insists the tale was written by Jack London but I have not found anything in London's works that matches up. I sent copies of the tale to a Jack London expert (whose actual response, sadly seems lost in alaptop crash earlier this year) who did not think the tale corresponded to anything London wrote either. Perhaps, "inspired by" would have been a more apt description. Or perhaps Caulfield truly did know Jack and persuaded him to contribute a tale. At this point, I am more inclined to believe the former and yet, the credit is there, bold as you please.

Hugh Caulfield's Happy Holden splash page fromTop Flight Comics #1. Is the Jack London story credit
a caseof wishful thinking or a tremendous coup
for Hillborough Studios?

Clayton Dexter contributed an extremely, well-drawn tale of The Rapier, the swashbuckling adversary of pirates along the Spanish Main, who are led by the dark-hearted Captain Sinister. Barker, apprently a keener, drew two strips for the book, The Searunners, a tale of two boys adventures on the high seas, and Trigger Dunston, a two-fisted mountie who always gets his... well, you know the drill. For his part, Dingle turned to the classics for inspiration and created The Sword of Destiny, about a young who is transformed into a hero by the sword Excalibur and transported to wherever evil needs a thumping.

Dingle's Sword of Destiny from Top Flight Comics #1.

Like I said, 1941 was a good year for Dingle. And he capped it off sixty-eight years ago today, December 13, by marrying Patrica Neville Symmes in St. James cathedral with a reception at Maloney's Art Gallery. The wedding was described in a lengthy Toronto Star article dated the same day. Descriptions of the gowns and wedding party take up a good paragraphs, making the ceremony as lush as the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana and give one a sense of actually having been there. The gown, worn by Patricia's mother on her wedding day, is sumptuously described:

"...the bride wore a gown of heavy ivory duchess satin. the draped bodice of chiffon had a low V-neckline; the long ruffled sleeves were designed with a banding of satin from the shoulder to the wrist. The full skirt, finished with a wide ruching of double box pleating fell into a train over the long court train, lined with gold and silver metallic fell and a panel of heirloom lace belonging to the bride's grandmother. Her veil of Brussel's lace, belonging to the groom's mother, was arranged from a Russian coronet or orange blossoms.

Her only ornament was her mother's gift, a tiny rose diamond cross that had been given to her great grandmother on her wedding day. From her mother's prayer book, which she carried, fell gold streamers, knotted with tiny cream rose buds."

But you don't have to imagine it. You can see it this admittedly poor quality photo published in the Star the following Monday, Dec. 15th!

Have you ever seen such a happy, dapper groom outside of a Fred Astaire movie? Dingle's matrimonial style is second only to that of his disguised detective character, the Penguin! (No relation, of course.)

The following year would see Dingle abandon Top Flight and continue Triumph Comics under Cyril Bell's Bell Features imprint. I suspect the decision stemmed from the difficulty of juggling the publishing and sales of two comics with drawing the books, coupled with the likelihood that Dingle may have lost artists to the war effort and perhaps, simply appreciated the security of being Bell's art director.

But that in no way diminishes the tremendous accomplishments of 1941. What a year!

And thus, to mark the holidays and the anniversary of the Dingle's wedding, we wish Nelvana's creator and one of the torchbearer's of Canada's golden age of Canadian Whites a very happy holidays.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Dingle.

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