The Golden Age of Comic Books in Canada (1941–1946)

Soldier of the Royal 22e Régiment during the Korean War, reading a comic book in a slit trench. © Paul E. Tomelin / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-128806

For the week of Monday, October 30, 2020

On December 6, 1940, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King passed the War Exchange Conservation Act, which banned the importation of non-essential goods, such as comic books, as a way to conserve Canadian dollars during the early months of the Second World War. This led to a brief “Golden Age” of Canadian comic books.

Comic books have been part of North American popular culture since the 1930s, with American companies, such as Marvel and DC Comics, dominating the industry. Canadians made vital contributions to the genre as artists and writers: for example, Canadian Joe Shuster co-created the character of Superman, which first appeared in the 1938 release of Action Comics. Shuster infused the story of Superman with Canadian references, modelling the fictional city of Metropolis after his hometown of Toronto and naming the Daily Planet newspaper after the widely-read local broadsheet, the Toronto Daily Star (now, The Toronto Star).

Canadian comics started appearing in March 1941, a few months after the government banned the importation of American publications. Publishers in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montréal had rushed to fill the void, including Commercial Signs of Canada, which became Bell Features Publications in March-April 1942. By 1943, it was publishing more than 100,000 comics per week. Later termed “whites” by collectors, these mass-produced comics with colour covers and black-and-white interiors, printed on low-quality paper, were sold at newspaper stands as cheap, disposable entertainment.

The Canadian comic books of the 1940s introduced many original characters, like Nelvana of the Northern Lights. One of the first female superheroes in North America, who first appeared in the Triumph Adventure Comics in 1941, she was an Inuit demi-goddess who worked as a secret agent for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and became known as the “Arctic mystery girl.” Another well-known character from this period was Johnny Canuck, introduced in 1942 as a war hero, protecting Canadians from the Nazi menace.

In 1946, the government lifted restrictions that had effectively banned the importation of American comic books, which led to an influx of publications from the United States. Unable to compete, most domestic publishers eventually declared bankruptcy, bringing the Golden Age of Canadian comic books to an end.

William Lyon Mackenzie King is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

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