12.Apr.2011 Canadian Cartoonist Landmarks
“I don’t mind being a symbol but I don’t want to become a monument. There are monuments all over the Parliament Buildings and I’ve seen what the pigeons do to them.”–Tommy Douglas
As another famous Canadian has said, “unlike other countries, Canadians (and their leaders) loved and supported cartooning.” What better way to show this love than through large public monuments to cartoonists and their creations?
by BK Munn
Let’s take a quick comics landmark tour of Canada, shall we?
First stop, Halifax and the future site of the Prince Valiant statue. This monument to the comic strip created by Halifax-born Hal Foster is currently in the fund-raising stage but maybe someday soon there will be a statue at Bishop’s Landing on the Halifax waterfront? Honestly? I thought this thing was already built but it seems to be languishing, judging by this neglected website.
After a short career as an artist and illustrator in Canada, Foster (1892-1982) departed for greener pastures in the USA, where he became rich and famous as the illustrator of first, the Tarzan comic strip (1929-37), and then his own creation, the long-running Prince Valiant (1937-1980). Valiant has a strange position in the canon of North American comics. Because it more often resembled an illustrated storybook than a typical adventure strip and eschewed many of the comic strip storytelling devices like word balloons and speed lines, comics fans sometimes see it as a pretentious hybrid whose mashing-up of potboiler pulp epic with a classical approach to composition and subject matter made for an uneasy marriage. However inexplicably, the strip was extremely popular and influential in its time (it was certainly beautiful!). At its peak it was carried in hundreds of newspapers and inspired comic book artists like Gil Kane, Wally Wood, and Jack Kirby; one of the few comic strips to achieve a sort of high culture status among the general public (as Luc Sante notes in this recent review, Prince Valiant was the only comic strip Lynd Ward could name.)
Next, to Granby, Quebec, site of Brownie Castle and Palmer Cox’s gravemarker. Palmer Cox was the Granby-born cartoonist known for creating The Brownies, a pixie-ish clan of imps that appeared in comic strips, magazines, and books beginning in the 1860s. Cox emigrated from rural Quebec to the American wild west in 1863 and created cartoons for various newspapers there. His Squibs of California is an example of an early graphic novel. Moving to New York, he found work for the burgeoning humour market there and created The Brownies for St. Nicholas magazine. The characters were a huge hit and Cox shrewdly marketed his creations, licensing them to all sorts of publishers and toymakers, eventually lending their name to the iconic Kodak Brownie box camera. Cox retired to his ancestral home in the Teens, creating a large mansion dubbed Brownie Castle, where he died in 1924. The house still stands and a large stained glass window featuring the Brownies is still visible. Cox’s grave is nearby with a large bas-relief Brownie figure featured prominently on his memorial.
While in Quebec, why not make the trek up to St-Jean de Matha, where Albert Chartier has a bridge and short street named after him. Chartier was known as the godfather of Quebec bande dessinee and created the long-running Onésime strip which was featured in the weekly rural newspaper Le Bulletin des Agriculteurs. Known equally for his wonderful illustration work and a series of cosmopolitan strips featuring shapely girls, it seems his reputation will rest on the linguistically rustic adventures of this stuttering milquetoast figure of Onésime. Now you might say, ‘A bridge? Why honour a cartoonist with a bridge? What kind of memorial is that?’ Well, it’s a pretty big deal, as far as memorials go. Not quite an airport (usually reserved for heads of state), a bridge is an important structure, charged with safely conveying citizens over dangerous waters. This bridge bears its users on its shoulders just as Albert Chartier bore the cultural weight of Quebec comics on his shoulders, forging a new tradition from the base metal of a foreign medium. The location makes a cameo in Michel Rabagliati’s Paul Goes Fishing graphic novel.
Next stop: the London Press Club in London, Ontario, where a papier mache sculpture of Luke Worm, the cartoon mascot of political cartoonist Merle “Ting” Tingley resides. Born in 1921 in Montreal, Ting took a few cross-country journeys himself, first as a young cartoonist manque, post-World War Two, when he rode his motorcycle across the land looking for work in his chosen profession, and again years later, when his work was syndicated nationally. Ting was the cartoonist for the London Free Press between 1948 and 1986 and his signature character Luke Worm made a cameo appearance in most of his cartoons. This “life-size” version of the character has been ensconced in Ting’s club since time immemorial (probably the 60s). Luke Worm, and indeed the entirety of the London Press Club, is a relic of a bygone era of Canadian newspaper culture, when large regional dailies employed a full staff of writers and artists, including foreign and Ottawa correspondents, as well as cartoonists who dealt with local and international issues on the editorial page (check out the Club’s gloriously retro webpage). Ting’s cartoons were collected in several books over the years and he won the National Newspaper Award, the big political cartooning award in Canada, for his work in 1955.
Speaking of drinking, let’s take a little drive down the 401 highway and stop for a pint at The Ben Wicks Pub in downtown Toronto. The only bar named for a Canadian cartoonist, The Ben Wicks is still a local haunt of Cabbagetown’s creative class. Founded in 1980 by cartoonist and tv personality Ben Wicks (1926-2000), the restaurant is decorated on the outside with large murals of Wicks’ drawings, and framed copies of his cartoons decorate the walls around the large “Cheers”-style bar inside. (Little-known fact: the Doug Wright Award nominees are chosen at a secret ceremony that takes place every year at this location.) Wicks was a nationally-syndicated political cartoonist who specialized in single-panel gags and domestic comedy. His strip The Outcasts (later renamed “Wicks”) began in the 1960s and he was also published in The Saturday Evening Post and Macleans. Wicks was also familiar to many as the host of a CBC cooking-slash-talk-show (seriously!) as well as for his work for children’s literacy (a literacy charity administered by his family is his other legacy).
stumbling out of the pub worshipping at the shrine of Wicks, you might want to walk a few blocks North and a few blocks East to 66 Charles Street East, the site of a Historical Plaque outside the home of J.W. Bengough. Bengough (1851-1923) was the founder of Grip magazine, a weekly humourous paper that featured cartoons by Bengough, his army of pseudonyms, and other cartoonists dedicated to skewering the excesses of Canada’s Victorian elites, in the manner of England’s Punch or the original U.S. Life magazine. One of the first post-Confederation cartoonists to make a name for himself, he covered the rise and fall and rise of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and MacDonald’s adversaries, Louis Riel and Wilfred Laurier. This plaque to Bengough’s memory was bolted in place long ago in 1983.
On to Flin Flon, Manitoba, where the town’s titular mascot keeps watch over the frozen north. Named for a character in a science fiction novel discovered in the wilderness by the town’s founder (full name: Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin), the character was allegedly designed by U.S. cartoonist Al Capp in a gesture of cross-border goodwill. Flin Flon is a mining town that shares the border with Saskatchewan and was also once the underground capital of marijuana production in Canada. The chamber of commerce commissioned the production of the massive statue of Flintabatty Flonatin and you can visit it at the Flin Flon Tourist Park on Highway 10A near the city limits. And that should complete your tour of Manitoba’s 5th-largest town and the largest (24 feet) landmark on this list.
Finally, to Alberta where we will stop at Jasper National Park and visit with the park’s internationally-known mascot, Jasper the Bear. Created by cartoonist James Simpkins in 1948, Jasper was a regular feature in MacLean’s magazine for twenty years and the star of a syndicated comic strip from 1968 to 1972. Through the years, the character also represented the Boy Scouts and the United Way charity. The friendly bear has greeted tourists since the he was adopted as mascot in 1962, standing opposite the Jasper train station until damaged by vandals in 2004. A repaired and updated Jasper now stands in a more secure location and is an essential photo op for all visitors. It’s fitting that one of the most well-known cartoon landmarks in Canada is based on Simpkins’ bear. Along with Doug Wright, Simpkins was probably the most visible cartoonist of his generation, helping to create an impressive cartoon legacy across the national print landscape in the latter-half of the Twentieth Century.