Rachel Richey doesn’t have any superpowers: she can’t fly, she doesn’t ride polar bears, and while sifting through shelves of half-century old comics, she probably doesn’t wear a cape.
But in the world of Canadian golden age comics, Richey is a hero.
Last year, the Toronto based comic historian and blogger teamed up with documentary producer Hope Nicholson to bring Nelvana of the Northern lights, one of comics’ first superheroines, back to Canadian shelves.
Now she’s set on bringing back another Canadian superhero, the globe-trotting, fighter- plane-flying, Nazi- punching Johnny Canuck.
Both heroes are part of Canada’s “golden age” of comics, which began during the Second World War when a conservation act banned the import of American luxury goods. This meant that to fulfill comic book demand, Canadians had to start creating their own heroes. Many of these heroes, Canuck included, were soldiers in the war themselves.
“Johnny Canuck is in the military, he’s a spy, and he gets into all kinds of tough situations,” says Richey. On top of that, he “physically embodies Canada.”
Canuck first appeared in the late 1860s as a recurring character in political cartoons. Dressed as a lumberjack with a beard, Canuck often argued with his cousin, the United States’ Uncle Sam.
Richey’s hero was the brain child of comic creator Leo Bachle, who introduced the flying ace in early 1942.
Today, Canuck has been out of print for more than 70 years and Richey hopes to re-release each issue of his story in one 230-page graphic novel. She hopes the project will be as widely supported as Nelvana was last year.
In 2013, Richey and Nicholson created a kickstarter page to fund their project and ended up raising more than $50,000 to put Nelvana of the Northern Lights back in Canadian hands. Since then, their revitalized hero has been stocked in bookstores and comic shops all across the country.
On top of that, American comic publishers IDW recently offered to fund a second-print run for Nelvana.
“Which is fantastic, because IDW’s distribution is beyond our means,” says Richey. “So now Nelvana will be in every bookstore across North America, maybe internationally.”
Nelvana has been particularly popular in Ottawa, where Richey lived while completing her English degree. Centretown’s Comic Book Shoppe bought eight copies of the collection and has since sold out. Now, they’re ordering more.
According to Jaclyn Bates, an employee at the Comic Book Shoppe who specializes in local and independent work, it’s the classic aesthetics and nostalgia that drew her towards Nelvana.
“Also it was a female protagonist, and it was very Canadian,” Bates says. Nelvana, who is a female Inuit deity, would be a rare hero even today, but in the 1940s she was unique.
“You so see a lot of female characters, but they are often background characters,” says Bates. “Or their main storyline has to do with romance.”
Nelvana, being an aboriginal woman that’s equal to any male superhero was decades ahead of her time, even pre-dating Wonder Woman. This certainly explains some of the interest many people have taken in her character.
Johnny Canuck on the other hand, is less unique. There were many comics about white male heroes from the golden age and Bates admits that she’s less interested in him than she was in Nelvana.
However, Bates says that the popularity of heroes such as Captain America in the United States has led to a jump in interest for Canadian patriotic superheroes as well. She’s had customers coming into the store looking for issues of Alpha Flight, Canada’s answer to the Avengers.
Johnny Canuck came into print only a few months after Captain America, and it’s easy to see parallels between the two Second World War heroes. This link might give Canuck an important leg up once he’s released back to the public.
As with Nelvana, Richey is using Kickstarter to fund Canuck’s return. Currently, the fundraising page is just $3,000 shy of its $23,000 goal, with 15 days left in the project.
“It’s pretty much ready to go,” Richey says. “I’m just waiting for the funding now.”
If Canuck is successful, Richey says she’ll keep bringing back Canadian heroes from the golden age and after. She’s even putting together a publishing company with a name that’s as Canadian as the comics it will sell: Comic Syrup Press.