A windfall anonymous donation of Second World War-era Canadian comics will offer Ryerson researchers a rare look into Canadian cultural history.
The donation was received in 2014, and Ryerson’s archives and special collections have since been working on cataloguing all 119 of the rare “Canadian Whites,” so-called for their black-and-white interior pages.
During wartime, comics were produced as cheaply as possible. Expensive coloured ink was used only on the covers, and the stories were printed on pulpy, low-grade paper.
“They were designed to just be read and discarded and repulped, used again,” says Curtis Sassur, co-ordinator of Ryerson’s archives and special collections.
Due to their age and low-quality paper, it’s remarkable the comics exist at all, but Sassur says they’re also in excellent condition for their age. The covers are vibrant, the pages inside are a little yellowed and ragged around the edges, but they’re whole and readable.
They feature super heroes like Johnny Canuck, Canada Jack and Nelvana of the North (a Canadian female superhero considered an ancestor of Wonder Woman). The heroes are often tasked with fighting Nazis or otherwise saving Canada from encroaching foreign evils.
They are a product of a unique time in Canadian history and the “golden era” of Canadian comics. In 1940, the Canadian government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act, which restricted the import of “non-essential” goods, including American comics.
The Canadian comics industry flourished, with publishers like the Toronto-based Bell Features pumping out nearly 20 titles throughout the ’40s. A product of their time, the comics also provide a window into the darker aspects of Canadian 1940s culture.
“There’s so much casual racism and sexism,” says Sassur. “Things are quite shocking to the modern reader that were just sort of commonplace, and then you unpack it and think this is all directed towards children. Especially some of the anti-German and Japanese characaturing that was going on during the war is pretty extreme.”
Ryerson’s archives and special collections rarely receive anonymous donations, but Sassur says that based on the good condition of the comics, it’s obvious the donor was an experienced collector who knew how to care for the material.“They weren’t just stored in a musty basement,” says Sassur. “If they were, we wouldn’t be able to take them.”
Well-preserved Canadian Whites can sell at auctions for thousands of dollars each, but for Sassur, the price tag is secondary to their academic and cultural value.
Andrew O’Malley, associate professor in Ryerson’s department of English, specializing in children’s and popular culture, is excited about the acquisition.
“I think it’s a very important collection. I think it will put Ryerson on the map in terms of comic archives,” says O’Malley. “I think they’ll also catch the eye of collectors who are looking for a home for their own collections. Collectors would like to see their life’s work of collecting preserved, archived and done properly.”
Sassur says special collections will likely scan the comics for researchers to view online, as the comics risk degradation each time they’re handled or exposed to light.
O’Malley says he hopes to see the comics digitized and made available online for the public as well, with information about their stories and their place in Canadian culture.