Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Canuck Day with Johnny Canada!

Yesterday I received in the mail my copy of Johnny Canuck, a new collection featuring all of the 1940s adventures of the titular hero, created written and drawn by Leo Bachle for Bell Features' Dime Comics, one of the so-called "Canadian Whites." Appropriately, I received this handsome hardcover volume just in time for Canada Day!

The book was produced via Kickstarter by Rachel Richey, who had earlier helped publish Nelvana of the Northern Lights, another Bell Features hero. Included with my package were a Johnny Canuck bookplate and this stylish "What Would Johnny Canuck Do?" wristband, seen above.

Johnny Canuck has retained some familiarity with we Canadians over the decades, whether it be through his stature in Canadian comic book history (Captain Canuck owes him his own nom de plume) or his relationship to the Vancouver Canucks. For myself, I first saw him in a grade 4 social studies textbook which reprinted a few pages from one of his adventures. I wish I could say this sampling made me a fan, but in those days I had been successfully brainwashed by the US publishers to believe they were the sole purveyors of "legitimate" super hero fiction.

Seeing these stories together in one place, I do have to admit Leo Bachle had some real chops as an artist. Some of his body language is stiff or poorly-proportioned, but his facial expressions were quite good. The stories themselves are fairly familiar stuff - less exceptional than what his US cousins the Destroyer or Spy Smasher were getting up to. Still, Johnny toured across the scope of World War II, from Libya to Berlin to Russia to Yugoslavia to Africa and Japan. The war's end likewise brought about Johnny's end as the returning US heroes gave Johnny the boot.

One way in which Johnny managed to outplay his southern cousins is in his relationship with Hitler. Captain America famously socked Hitler in the puss on the cover of his first issue, yet less-famously didn't meet Hitler at all in the pages within. Johnny, however, caught up to Hitler in his second appearance and gave him a Canadian knuckle sandwich! Strangely, however, Germans in the Johnny Canuck stories tended to call Johnny a "Britisher." The meaning of his surname was evidently lost on them. Johnny also loved to talk about rugby; perhaps that was a popular sport in the Canada of the 40s, but unlike most of the Commonwealth we since given up such British interests in favour of sports beloved in the US (namely, football).

Top: Dime Comics #2 (1942) Bottom: Dime Comics #4 (1942)

If Bachle's stories have one serious failing it's that he would occasionally recycle art from previous tales. Unlike his friend Ross Saakel, he did at least trace his own work, rather than Jack Kirby. There are some typically-disappointing racist caricatures of the Japanese and a very strange jungle in Libya which is inhabited by a tribe of people who stepped out of a Conan novel.

Top: Dime Comics #3 (1942) Bottom: Dime Comics #7 (1943)

How wonderful to have such hard-to-find comics preserved for future generations! Thank you Mr. Bachle for being one my country's pioneering artists. Johnny Canuck lives again!

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