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The Canadian Cartoonists

2014 June 8
by Matt

I have discussed works of Seth at some length, a time or two. My notes on his Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists were, by comparison, rather brief. The book didn’t really feel as impressive as the author’s other work. Yet, much as the author himself found, it has slowly grown on me.

I have re-read it a few times, now. Of late, I’ve been thinking about doing a little research into its cast. Which is a bit funny, or at least odd, in a couple of ways. For a long time, I presumed that most of the cartoonists in GNBCC were made up, just like the club itself. Then, a while back, I encountered some snippet somewhere or other about Doug Wright and discovered that he was a real person. Which is ironic because he may be the only cartoonist whose nonfictional nature is evident from the pages of GNBCC itself; it isn’t spelled out explicitly, but had I given it any actual thought, the introduction makes it obvious that Seth did not invent Wright.

Oh well. In my defense, I am far from the only person who read GNBCC without any clear idea of which characters were creators and which were creations. Ian McGillis, writing for the Montreal Gazette*, confided that “I don’t always know authoritatively exactly which ones are real and which are invented (Doug Wright I grew up on, so that was easy, but Bartley Munn? Darnley Coote?) and I resisted the urge to google and find out.”

I didn’t grow up on Doug Wright, and other than Chester Brown, had genuinely never heard of any of the cartoonists in GNBCC before reading it. Or, other than Wright, since reading it either.

Digression: to some extent, I think I very easily assumed that nearly everyone in GNBCC was fanciful, not only because I had not heard of them but because the whole idea that a distinct cartooning community existed in Canada seemed, well, silly. I’m not sure how far to go into this because I think Canada is just great (excepting the present government, an exception that also goes for my own state and nation fwiw) and have no desire to belittle it… and yet I guess that even I still have some tendency to think of Canada, or at least Anglophone Canada, as a kind of Mini-Me America. I mean, Canada’s population is not tiny and obviously some people have followed their muse into cartooning… but I couldn’t imagine why the 49th parallel would represent any kind of real division in North American comics as whole. Wouldn’t all of us (again, Quebec potentially excepted) have had more or less the same comics? Obviously in the days of the traditional “funny pages” you got a slightly different selection from one city to another, but I would have guessed that Toronto and Edmonton and Winnipeg were mostly drawing from the same overall pool of syndicated strips as Chicago and Boston and Dallas. Most strips are sufficiently generic in their cultural background that they would seem to “work” for just about any affluent urban society; I know that at least some of the biggies are even syndicated in translation. Why would Canada actually have an entire separate comics history that I’ve never even heard of?

I guess that there are a lot of ways to answer this. One is that there are, probably, quite a few American cartoonists I’ve never heard of. I think I have at least a decent grasp of comic books, but there’s a lot of cartooning outside of that. And it does occur to me that when it comes to comic books, the creators in GNBCC and Wimbledon Green are almost entirely made-up. So from that perspective, it isn’t really dumbfounding that Canada has something of a “secret history” of cartooning. You could probably find comparable sections of American cartooning that are still “secret” to me, really. Anyway…

It still feels a little bit weird, though, to discover that all of the following people were real and that I hadn’t heard of any of them…

Doug Wright, as noted, was a real guy. Wikipedia and the Comiclopedia have articles on him. There’s also a bio at the Wright Awards site.

Jimmy Frise has bios at Wikipedia and Comiclopedia. It may be worth noting that Seth spells his name “Jimmie” Frise, and, what’s more, also makes references to a “Jim Freeze” as the creator of a strip called Bangbelly—but so far as I can tell this is made-up.

Arch Dale has a Comiclopedia bio, and a nice write-up at the blog Punch in Canada.

Palmer Cox is at Wikipedia and Comiclopedia.

Peter Whalley died several years ago, as noted by the aforementioned Gazette among others. There’s also information at Wikipedia, as well as a feature at this blog which has begun a small series on “Canada’s Forgotten Cartoonists.”

Adrian Dingle was real, and this one discovery may have been as astonishing as the whole lot. A few of Seth’s invented creators seem obvious, if you’re looking… but some of his fakes are awfully convincing, while I would have bet money that the one-panel reference to “Nelvana, by Dingle” was pure fiction. The depicted character just seemed of a piece with Miss Mystery, Saturn Sally and most of the other fantasy figures in Wimbledon Green’s library. But I ran a search anyway just for consistency’s sake and sonofa! Nelvana is real. Or, rather, Nelvana is fictional but predates Seth, being the creation of Adrian Dingle who was real. Here’s his Comiclopedia entry.

George Feyer was also real, per Wikipedia.

James Simpkins (although Seth omitted the “s” at the end repeatedly), likewise. Wikipedia and Comiclopedia back this up. His Jasper the Bear has a statue and a park!

Rounding things out… as with Nelvana, I probably would have bet even more money that at least one of “Johnny Canuck” or “Dizzy Don” were meta-fiction… and would have lost again. (At least Jocko is, so far as I can tell, exclusively Seth’s invention.) The “Marquis” Townshend was at least based closely on a real figure, though any comics he drew have yet to surface in our world. Much the same goes for the Group of Seven. Thoreau MacDonald, son of a group member, was indeed “Not a member but a friend of the club,” though only if you’re referring to the G7 rather than the GNBCC.

…I think that’s most of the real people in GNBCC. I may have missed one or two. A little astonishing, all the same. In its ways, almost as confounding as the recent discovery of a real “Wilbur R. Webb Collection”; from my perspective it’s a tough call to identify which was the bigger surprise.

* I presume he’s a citizen, but I think that if your name is McGillis and you write for the Montreal Gazette you’re at least an honorary Canadian anyway.

4 Responses
  1. June 8, 2014

    I’ve been meaning to pick up both GNBCC and Wibledon Green for a little while now, but haven’t made it a priority for some reason. I do, however, have a TPB collection of Dingle’s Nelvana that was successfully Kickstartered last year. The character is frequently brought up with high praise in relation to Canadian comics, so I had to pick that up.

    Of possible interest for further Canadian educational enlightenment…

    “The Great Canadian Comics Books” from 1971. It’s a bit thin but a solid introduction. Hard to find the original, but it was reprinted in its entirety in Alter Ego #71 (8/07).

    “Invaders from the North” by John Bell from 2006. A bit more comprehensive in its looking at Canadian comic history and well worth the read.

  2. Matt permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Nice, man, very impressive notes. Appreciated!

  3. June 13, 2014

    I’m glad that somebody American plumbed these depths. As a Canadian who grew up around these homegrown comics I always wondered how much of GNBCC would come across as real/fanciful to non-Canadian readers. Seth is a genuine patriot, and snuck a lot of in-jokes into GNBCC that could only be appreciated by Canadians I think. The weaving of the fact and fiction in this book is a real achievement and serves as a knowing wink to Canadian readers who exist in a distinct culture that others can’t comprehend.
    That’s why comments like “the whole idea that a distinct cartooning community existed in Canada seemed, well, silly” don’t offend I guess.

  4. Matt permalink
    June 26, 2014

    Thank you so much for your comment, and sorry for the delay in approving it! I’m glad to know that I provided a bit of an interesting perspective and didn’t just come across as an insular Yankee boor. 🙂

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