It's a good time to be a Canadian comic-book hero — especially if your exploits haven't seen print for roughly 70 years.
Most readers alive today likely don't know who Brok Windsor or Johnny Canuck are. But as far as two Canadian comic-book experts are concerned, that's OK. A year ago most people hadn't heard of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, either -- and they snapped up the first-ever reprint collection of her adventures.
American publisher IDW will also be printing Nelvana -- an Inuit superheroine who debuted during the Second World War several months before Wonder Woman -- for a wider North American release this fall.
Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey were behind the successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign in 2013 to collect, clean up and publish the entire run of Adrian Dingle's Nelvana. Their goal was $25,000; they raised more than $54,000. A thousand hardcover editions and 1,000 more in paperback were published, the latter of which sold out.
Not bad for a heroine few remembered.
Nelvana, like a host of other Canadian comic-book heroes, was created after U.S. comics were deemed "non-essential" imports under Canada's War Exchange Conservation Act in 1940. No more Superman, Batman or Captain Marvel for Canadian kids -- so Canadian publishers stepped in and a homegrown comic-book industry was born.
The comics are often called the Canadian Whites since, due to colour printing costs, the interiors were usually in black and white.
Now, Nicholson and Richey are each spearheading separate reprint collections of other heroes from Canada's golden age of comics. Nicholson, who grew up in Winnipeg but now lives in Toronto, is collecting the exploits of Brok Windsor, an action hero in the vein of Flash Gordon. Richey, from Toronto, is compiling the adventures of Johnny Canuck, Canada's answer to Captain America.
Brok Windsor was a medical doctor whose adventures were set in Tarqua, a magical island in the Canadian wilderness. His compatriots were the giants Torgon and Starra, and Windsor became a giant himself. Nicholson describes it as a mix of sci-fi, fantasy and western.
The character was created by John Stables, who emigrated from Great Britain and grew up in Winnipeg, where he worked as an illustrator. One of his jobs was illustrating the pulp serials in The Country Guide magazine. He later moved to Vancouver and created Brok Windsor for Maple Leaf Publishing. His adventures ran from 1944-46.
Nicholson says that in addition to Stables' Winnipeg ties, the character may have been inspired by a Winnipegger. According to Stables' son, there was an actual Brock Windsor, who lived here and went on to fight in the Second World War. Nicholson is searching for more information on him.
As for why she chose Brok Windsor, an obscure hero among already nearly forgotten characters, she says it was thanks to seeing him in Lost Heroes, a comic-book documentary on which she was associate producer.
"I didn't know anything about this character or series aside from the fact it was from Vancouver and it looked really nice," Nicholson says.
Maple Leaf Publishing's roster of heroes wasn't as well-known as Bell Features', which included Nelvana and Johnny Canuck. After working on the Nelvana reprint, Nicholson says, "I wanted to challenge myself."
Richey is collecting the adventures of Johnny Canuck -- a hero perhaps more familiar if only because the name was associated with personifications of Canada before Leo Bachle created the character at 16 for Bell, based out of Toronto.
"Johnny Canuck is a character that many Canadians know whether they realize it or not," says Richey, who was also a researcher for Lost Heroes. "He's got so many incarnations and just the name 'Canuck' is so identifiable to Canadians. It's who we are, and that's what Johnny was and is, the Canadian spirit! So I think Canadians, in general, would be most excited to read his adventures."
Johnny Canuck is not to be confused with Captain Canuck, the costumed superhero created by Ron Leishman and Richard Comely in Winnipeg in the 1970s.
Though possessing no superpowers, Johnny Canuck fights the Axis powers as an RCAF pilot. In one issue he storms Adolf Hitler's headquarters and goes toe-to-toe with the Fuhrer. In another he duels a Japanese soldier determined to prove that sumo is superior to Johnny's "Canadian boxing."
Richey says part of his appeal is what he embodied.
"He was relatable since he wasn't super, he faced the same problems Canada faced but he was seemingly able to do more about them. He was quick and clever and brave. He fulfilled the desires of many Canadians, which made him the national pride and a national treasure."
Of course, a patriotic concept isn't enough, even during wartime. Of Bachle's work, Richey says, "Leo's storytelling is some of the best of the golden age. He captivates audiences with his words, one exciting event following another, a roadblock here, a capture there, and always an escape. Leo's artwork is consistent to say the least, although later in the books he experiments with a bigger brush stroke."
For Nicholson, the superb art of Brok Windsor is also distinct. "He had very strong lines," she says. "It's definitely some of the best art I've seen in the Canadian golden age but also the American golden age, too." She adds that Stables later had help from fellow Maple Leaf artist and cartoonist Shirley Fortune with the artwork on the series.
The comics are still products of their time though. Johnny's foes were Canada's wartime enemies, and the Germans and Japanese were not portrayed sympathetically. And while one of Brok Windsor's allies is Torgon, a smart, capable aboriginal man from a futuristic society, the character was born of a Euro-Canadian mindset that exoticized Canada's wilderness.
Both Richey and Nicholson face the task of tracking down the best-quality versions of the comic pages for the respective reprints. Nicholson had some success in Winnipeg, as a local collector has some issues of Better Comics, in which Windsor appeared. She plans to scan some of the pages in his collection for use in the reprint.
Richey says the main difficulty is getting a clean image of each page. "The actual pages were printed on coarse newsprint which didn't age well and was pretty unrefined, which results in a lot of dirt on those scans."
Whether the public gets a chance to read the new collections depends on successful fundraising campaigns for each. Richey's Kickstarter for Johnny Canuck began on July 28, and Nicholson's Kickstarter for Brok Windsor began on Friday. Richey's has until Aug. 31, and Nicholson's until Sept. 29, to raise the funds to cover scanning, editing, printing and distributing the collections.
Will Brok escape the grotesque monsters of Tarqua? Will Johnny prevail over the Germans and Japanese? And will both heroes find a new audience in the 21st century? As in any good comic book cliffhanger, readers -- and donors -- will find out next month.
For more information on Brok Windsor, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelnicholson/brok-windsor-lost-wwii-comic-book-returns
For more information on Johnny Canuck, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/96364695/johnny-canuck-the-return-of-canadas-hero