Pasts, Presents, and Futures of Canadian Comics

Where does the story of Canadian comics begin?1
Does it begin with Indigenous peoples’ illustrated narratives—the petroglyphs, rock paintings, totem poles, button blankets, wampum belts, and other forms of visual stories from across the territories now known as Canada? As Tahltan comics scholar Camille Callison notes, such artifacts and practices continue to support the “intergenerational transfer of knowledge” and create “unique memory pathways for stories with key cultural components” (Callison et al. 149). It is not surprising, then, that Indigenous comics creators are at the forefront of Canadian comics production today. Yet both popular and critical responses to works by Indigenous graphic novelists, such as Richard Van Camp (Dogrib), David Alexander Robertson (Swampy Cree), and Katherena Vermette (Métis), as well as Indigenous cartoonists, such as Gord Hill (Kwakwaka’wakw) and Cole Pauls (Tahltan), often characterize Indigenous comics as a response to twentieth-century Euro-American comics rather than situate them as a continuation of much older, culturally significant, visual storytelling traditions.


Or does the story of Canadian comics begin with the arrival of Europeans and colonial visual storytelling on paper? Illustrated maps, sketchbooks, travelogues, botanical illustrations, newspaper advertisements (including those for runaway slaves), pamphlets, and catalogues from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries all point to an active popular and literary visual culture in which images accompany words to tell stories, both explicitly and implicitly, of settler-colonial ideologies (Spike 10-11).


Or perhaps Canadian comics begin with the advent of popular cartooning in the colonial Canadian press? By the late-nineteenth century, editorial cartoons in newspapers and satirical magazines were a popular form of political commentary, the most famous being Grip (1873-1894), and they introduced techniques of caricature that continue today (Nielson; Desbarats and Mosher). However, editorial cartoons are single-panel gags rather than sequential narratives, and so perhaps another beginning for Canadian comics and graphic narratives is the newspaper comic strip, a form whose popularity has yet to be matched by the scholarship, and that still needs more locating, collecting, studying, and even translating.2


These questions about genealogies, history, and historiography inspired 80 Years and Beyond: A Virtual Symposium on Canadian Comics, on which this special issue is based.3 The symposium acknowledged the eightieth anniversary of the 1940 War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA), which restricted the importation of non-essential goods and launched the Golden Age of Canadian comics and the first, albeit short-lived, domestic comic book industry. The term Golden Age has been adopted by Canadian comics historians to describe the period of comics publishing in Canada that occurred between 1941 and 1946.4 Whereas the term has traditionally referred to the 1940s to 1950s US superhero comics that launched the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman, its Canadian counterpart pays attention to the similarly thrilling superheroes (with Canadian twists) born from Canada’s WECA comics, such as Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck.5 As comics historians John Bell and Ivan Kocmarek discuss in their keynote, edited and published in this volume, the 1970s rediscovery of the WECA comics by fans and collectors coincided with a moment of anti-American cultural nationalism and allowed a new generation to find an origin story and inspiration for a homegrown comics market.


But the symposium also challenged the dominance of WECA comics in Canadian comics history by finding different traditions and entry points, and by recognizing that wartime patriotism often depended on xenophobia and racism. Over the two days, presenters added an exciting range of topics to expand the field, from the role of 1950s librarians and parents in censoring comics for young people, to the need to bridge French and English comics studies, to the role of GLAM institutions (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) in Canadian comics research, to filling gaps by studying literary small press comics, psychedelic comic strips, and social media comics, alongside comics by Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Jewish Canadian artists. While we could not include all this new research here, we are pleased to have assembled a variety of voices and approaches that reflect the diversity of work in Canadian comics studies. As with the symposium, our goal in editing this special issue is to make a critical intervention: we want to ensure that, as both the canon of Canadian comics and the story of Canadian comics history start to become part of mainstream academic discourse, we attend collectively to the processes of inclusion and exclusion, recovery and forgetting, that shape the salutary embrace of comics in academia.


The six articles we publish here use methodologies drawn from a variety of disciplines, including literary criticism, media and communications, education, history, graphic medicine, and diaspora studies.


In the first three essays, questions of ethnicity, race, and place shape the ways that our authors look beyond the traditionally accepted Canadian comics narratives (white settler European), and in some cases directly write back against them, in order to reveal experiences and understandings that have been historically underrecognized. Lucas Tromly’s “Invisibility, Transnationalism, and Filipino Canadian Comics” shines a spotlight on the oft-overlooked contributions of Filipino Canadian creators and stories. This article represents a long-overdue shift in Canadian comics studies towards reading Canadian comics within larger global networks and diasporic cultures. In his article “Unsettling the Canadian Whites: A Writing Back of Indigenous, Black, and Jewish Comics,” researcher-creator Jamie Michaels thinks about how the field of Canadian comics studies has taken, and is taking, shape, and how underrepresented writers and artists are using comics to “write back” against white colonial history. In “‘The Land Is Our Greatest Teacher’: Richard Van Camp’s Three Feathers as a Land-Based Pedagogy for Indigenous Masculinities,” Aman Kaur Virk brings together literary studies, Indigenous masculinity, and comics studies to explore Van Camp’s vision of a future where justice, decolonial land-based pedagogies, and Indigenous masculinities come together to reshape myopic imaginings and colonial heteropatriarchy.


The next three articles work to reveal long-forgotten (or intentionally unexplored) histories of Canadian comics and provide opportunities to better understand our present and future. Darren Wershler’s article, “Canadian Comics Studies, Canons, the Coach House, and The Cage,” discusses Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage within the larger context of small press publishing (and republishing) in Canada. His essay will be of particular interest to readers familiar with Coach House and it also brings experimental Canadian literature publishing and Canadian comics production into dialogue. Amie Wright’s essay, “Alberta’s Forgotten Censor: The Advisory Board on Objectionable Publications (1954-1976) and the Continued Campaign against Comics Post-1954,” deepens the postwar story of comics censorship beyond the famous 1950s US Senate hearings. Wright’s revelations about comics censorship in 1950s Alberta offer an important context for contemporary battles against censorship in schools and libraries, such as the recent decision of the Durham District School Board in Ontario to remove David A. Robertson’s The Great Bear from school libraries (Dawson). Amy Mazowita’s article, “Towards a Network of Graphic Care: The Comics, Comments, and Communities of Instagram,” is a timely contribution on COVID-19 comics that asks enduring questions about relationships between cartoonists, social media, and audiences in the twenty-first-century Canadian (and global) landscape.


While these articles address the past and present of Canadian comics, this issue’s forum points to the future and the need to preserve Canadian comics for public access. We are grateful to Meaghan Scanlon (Library and Archives Canada) for convening this forum for GLAM professionals to discuss the current state and future needs of Canadian comics as artifacts, and we urge journal readers to work with colleagues in these institutions, and at our own institutions, to ensure these crucial cultural documents remain preserved and accessible.


This volume has a more robust Opinions & Notes section than most issues because comics studies is a field where knowledge production often happens outside of conventional peer-reviewed publications. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure that valuable voices beyond the academy are represented and recorded. We include an edited transcript of the first symposium keynote, featuring Canadian comics historians John Bell and Ivan Kocmarek, who discuss first-hand experiences with the process of recovering WECA comics in the 1970s and the challenges contemporary and future comics archivists and historians face. The second symposium keynote was a conversation between comics artists: Toronto-based Ho Che Anderson and Vancouver-based Yukon artist Cole Pauls (Tahltan). Their edited conversation reveals important insights into their influences, practices, politics, and current concerns, as well as their shared love of comics, films, and geek culture in general.


Feminist comics icon Fiona Smyth participated in our symposium and generously allowed us to publish her short comics memoir, “From Sad Clowns to Psychedooolia.” This autobiographical comic reflects Smyth’s characteristic personality and visual prowess, while also presenting an honest reflection on her experiences in the Toronto alternative comics scene of the early- to mid-1980s. In the first of two interviews, Black Montreal surrealist artist Stanley Wany talks with Candida Rifkind about his personal and artistic background, the relationship between fine arts and comics art, and the importance of representation through authenticity. Speaking about his most recent book, Helem, Wany shares insights into his creative process that should inspire Canadian literary critics to expand their understanding of the Quebec Automatiste movement as an ongoing, intergenerational, decolonial project. The second interview features prolific Toronto alternative cartoonist Michael DeForge in conversation with Zachary J. A. Rondinelli. Speaking about his unique visual style and influences, DeForge opens up about his complicated relationship with the nation of Canada and how his art (and all art, more generally) can be politically useful. A set of book reviews on recent Canadian comics and graphic narratives, as well as scholarly works of interest to comics researchers, rounds out this special issue.


So, where do we go from here?
Canadian cartoonists have been prominent voices within the global comics landscape for quite some time, recently their renown has grown thanks to numerous prizes and honorifics. Seth was awarded the Prix Spécial du Jury in 2020 during France’s Festival d’Angoulême and was recently honoured as Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French minister of culture. Joe Ollman’s recent work, Fictional Father, received the distinct honour of becoming the first comic or graphic novel to be nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and in 2022 Julie Doucet was awarded the Grand Prix at the forty-nineth Angoulême International Comics Festival (the highest award in European cartooning). As Anderson so eloquently puts it in his keynote with Pauls, “[Canadian] work is world-class,” and these recognitions remind us of this important fact. Of course, with this prestige comes a renewed interest in understanding the different traditions and influences that have shaped individual cartoonists and asking how—perhaps even if—their identities as Canadians matter to their art. This special issue represents what we hope will be a reorientation of the Canadian comics conversation, which has long languished in the rhetoric of nationalism and patriotism ignited during the WECA era and refueled in the 1970s when Leishman and Comely’s Tom Evans pulled up his red and white spandex to become Captain Canuck. We say this to reiterate that the story of where Canadian comics began is not the same as when Canadian comics publishing began; contrary to how it might look today, the multi faceted, aesthetically diverse, and globally networked histories of Canadian comics have yet to be fully captured.



1. We are grateful to Christine Kim and the staff at Canadian Literature for their dedicated support of this issue, and to all the authors, reviewers, and artists who contributed their time and expertise. The publication of this issue was supported by a grant from the University of Winnipeg.
2. See, for example, Larisa Nadya Sembaliuk Cheladyn’s “Forgotten Immigrant Voices,” which recuperates and examines the work of 1920s Ukrainian Canadian cartoonist Jacob Maydanyk.
3. The symposium was hosted by Brescia College and took place in October 2021.
4. For a discussion of this era of Canadian comics, see John Bell’s chapter “Smashing the Axis: Canada’s Golden Age of Comics, 1941-1946,” from his book Invaders from the North.
5. For discussions of these characters and their origins, see John Bell, Invaders from the North, and Ivan Kocmarek, “Truth, Justice, and the Canadian Way.”


Works Cited

Bell, John. Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe. Dundurn, 2006.

Callison, Camille, et al. “Indigenous Comics and Graphic Novels: An Annotated Bibliography.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, vol. 11 no. 1, summer 2019, pp. 139-55.

Dawson, Tyler. “Indigenous Author Slams Ontario School Board’s ‘Outrageous’ Decision to Pull His Book from Libraries.” National Post, 21 Apr. 2022, Accessed on 5 July 2022.

Desbarats, Peter, and Terry Mosher. The Hecklers: A History of Canadian Political Cartooning and a Cartoonist’s History of Canada. McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

Kocmarek, Ivan. “Truth, Justice, and the Canadian Way: The War-Time Comics of Bell Features Publications.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue canadienne de littérature comparée, vol. 43, no. 1, 2016, pp. 148-65.

Nielson, Carmen J. “Erotic Attachment, Identity Formation and the Body Politic: The Woman-as-Nation in Canadian Graphic Satire, 1867-1914.” Gender and History, vol. 28, no. 1, Apr. 2016, pp. 102-26.

Sembaliuk Cheladyn, Larisa Nadya. “Forgotten Immigrant Voices: The Early Ukrainian Canadian Comics of Jacob Maydanyk.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, vol. 13, no. 1, 2022, pp. 3-18.

Spike, Sara. Introduction. Nova Graphica: A Graphic Anthology of Nova Scotia History, edited by Laura K̦enin̦šš, Conundrum, 2020, pp. 6-13.


Candida Rifkind is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she works on comics, Canadian literature, and life writing. In addition to numerous articles, her books and edited collections include Comrades and Critics: Women, Literature, and the Left in 1930s Canada (winner of the 2009 Anne Saddlemeyer Award), Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives (co-edited with Linda Warley, winner of the 2016 Gabrielle Roy Prize), Documenting Trauma in Comics (co-edited with Dominic Davies), and “Migration, Exile, and Diaspora in Graphic Life Narratives,” a special issue of a/b: Autobiography Studies, co-edited with Nima Naghibi and Eleanor Ty (2020). For more, see

Zachary J. A. Rondinelli is a PhD student in Educational Studies at Brock University where he specializes in reading/literacy studies, comics theory/pedagogy, and multimodal literacy. Zachary has published scholarly work in tba: Journal of Art, Media and Visual Culture, Digital Culture & Education, and Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review. He is also an active public scholar having published online scholarship with The Vault of Culture and PopMatters, as well as printed work in Sequential: Canadian Independent Comic Book Magazine and PanelxPanel. Most recently, Zachary was awarded the 2020 Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship by the Comics Studies Society for his qualitative social media research project #WelcomeToSlumberland (@LittleNemo1905).

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