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The return of Johnny Canuck

TORONTO — A Canadian comic book hero used as a morale booster during the Second World War could soon return to print — if he gets a boost of his own.

Johnny Canuck, a Second World War Canadian comic book hero who in one issue fought Adolf Hitler in hand-to-hand combat, has been silent for decades. But now Toronto archivist and publisher Rachel Richey has obtained the rights to reprint the collection of classic comics for the first time.

Richey is launching a crowdfunding campaign in the hopes of resurrecting Johnny Canuck.

The character appeared in 28 issues of Dime Comics written by Leo Bachle and published from 1941 to 1946. He’s a “hero” but not a “superhero” — he doesn’t have superpowers. Instead, Johnny Canuck fights using his strength, quick wit and patriotism.

As a teenager, Leo Bachle lied about his age to enlist in the Canadian army, said Robert Pincombe, a Canadian comics historian. After his age was discovered, Bachle returned to high school in Toronto.

The Johnny Canuck character is physically modeled after Bachle, and his teachers and friends were often written into the comics, said Pincombe.

“Leo was a kid himself, so he knew what kids wanted to see,” Pincombe said. “He wanted to see action, wanted to see clear villains. So he brought all that to the page.”

Johnny Canuck was a glorified personification of the Second World War effort, Richey said.

“He’s a two-fisted, aviator-type character,” Pincombe said. “Comics in general rely on caricature in order to make the ’good versus evil’ more clear.”

As part of the “war at home,” the Canadian government restricted American imports of non-essential goods, including comics and pulp novels. This gave Bachle’s homegrown hero a market in which to flourish, Pincombe said. The comics cost 10 cents and were a popular source of children’s entertainment.

The original Johnny Canuck was a symbolic character from 19th-century political cartoons, a Canadian version of Uncle Sam. His name has been used and adapted over time, including as the namesake of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

In the comics and elsewhere, the Johnny Canuck character appears in various ways, said Richey. He might show up as a lumberjack in one story and a soldier in the next.

Reintroducing him to the public imagination, she said, creates opportunities for artists to recast him further.

“He’s a really adaptable character,” Richey said.

“And yes, maybe (war) was the situation for him in the forties, and now he can be supplanted into something else that Canadians believe in, or something that is threatening the Canadian way.”

Richey has reprinted other comics from the early 1940s. Her latest book, a collaboration with fellow comics publisher Hope Nicholson, is a collection of reprinted comics starring Nelvana of the Northern Lights, a part-Inuit demigoddess who rides into battle on the back of a polar bear.

There’s plenty of blatant Canadiana there too, Richey said.

“CBC Radio is featured in one panel,” she said. “You just look at (the comic) and you see wolves and trees and landscape.”

These black-and-white comic books are entertainment, but they are also historical documents that contain elements of wartime propaganda, she said. In the Johnny Canuck series, modern audiences will find jarringly racist depictions of Japanese characters.

If Johnny Canuck had continued his adventures into the mid-20th century, Richey said, he would have changed with Canadian society.

“Maybe if he was around for those 70 years that he was kind of lost to the depths of the Canadian comics, then he could potentially have changed,” she said. “For now we have this image of Johnny Canuck as he was.”

Richey raised $50,000 as part of the crowdfunding campaign to reprint Nelvana, and hopes to fund this venture the same way. The Kickstarter campaign for Johnny Canuck will begin Sept. 1.

 
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