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November 13, 2010

  • The Decline of Johnny Canuck
  • On April 4, 1978, a male cartoon died, slumped over the steering wheel of a Buick that was parked at Grantham Plaza, a strip mall at the junction of Niagara and Scott streets in St. Catharines. The station wagon was filled with Saturday’s worth of errands: a red, plastic palate full of empties waiting to be taken to the Pop Shoppe; a Lawn Boy mower with blades needing to be sharpened at the local dealer. Most tellingly, the car was parked outside of a Canadian Tire, indicating the heart’s desire of the owner.

    Johnny Canuck, the patriotic superhero that fought during World War II in the Bell Features comic book line, was dead.

    *

    imageMost papers carried the obituary written in the St. Catharines Standard which listed Johnny’s wartime accomplishments of squaring off with Hitler and then talked about how Canada’s greatest hero of World War II ended up working at the local General Motors plant as a machinist. The Globe and Mail went to the effort of tracking down Johnny Canuck’s creator Leo Bachle, now working as an entertainer under the name Les Barker. Bachle invented Johnny while he was a high school student at Danforth Tech in Toronto. “Geez, that’s just so sad,” Bachle told a reporter. “We haven’t been in touch for a while, but we always got Christmas cards from him and his wife.”

    The CBC tired to get other superheroes to comment. Superman and Batman were, naturally, very busy. However, Captain Marvel—who remained friends with Johnny over the years—was kind enough to be interviewed by Knowlton Nash. “He was a swell guy.” Captain Marvel said to the camera, his trademark triangular eyebrows and squint prominent. “I presume there will be some kind of state funeral. I’d like to attend.”

    Captain Marvel was shocked to be informed that, in fact, there was only a private funeral to be held at St. Columba’s Anglican Church off of Geneva Street in St. Catharines.

    “Holy Moley,” the World’s Mightiest Mortal said with alarm and a little disgust, “you Canadians sure don’t have much respect, do you?”

    It was a remark befitting someone endowed with the Wisdom of Solomon. But the truth was, most Canadians didn’t know who Johnny Canuck was. Johnny had not been employed as a comic book adventure hero since 1947. His tenure as a hero was remarkably brief, 28 issues of Dime Comics all told.

    In fact, the only reason Johnny Canuck came into being at all was a 1940 piece of legislation called the War Exchange Conversation Act, which banned practically any American item from coming into Canada for the duration of the Second World War. What it meant to millions of kids was it effectively banned comic books featuring Superman and Batman and his cohorts. Canadian entrepreneurs, in particular, Cy Bell, who ran a Toronto commercial art firm, saw an opportunity.  Eventually, Bell Features was born and eventually published comics including Wow Comics, Dime Comics, Active Comics, Commando Comics, Triumph Comics and Joke Comics.

    Johnny Canuck was created for Dime Comics, which debuted in February 1942. With physical features derived from Leo Bachle’s own face, Johnny was an apple-cheeked allied air captain and secret agent who fought the Axis in Berlin, Libya, Africa, China, Tibet and the South Pacific. Unlike Superman, Johnny had no superpowers and simply relied on his brawny, athletic physique to save the day, foiling the Nazis and the Japanese in a number of battles and usually dramatically losing his shirt in the process. He is perhaps most famous for his daring raid on Hitler’s secret headquarters where he got to sock Der Fuhrer on the jaw, before evading execution by guillotine.

    If the truth be told, Johnny was probably more fondly remembered because of his patriotic name than anything else. He didn’t feature on the cover of a single issue of Dime Comics: the Flash Gordon-esque capers of Rex Baxter did for the first dozen or so issues; remaining issues featured the colourful exploits of heroes and heroines like Nitro and the Polka Dot Pirate. His adventures aren’t even all that readable decades later—most of them have him facing the Japanese in stories full of casual racism. There was also a certain formula to his serialized exploits: arrival, capture, torture, escape. And yet, Johnny’s adventures were exciting enough. Johnny knew he would never be among the best superheroes in the Bell comics range—that honour went to The Penguin and Thunderfist—but Johnny was high on the B-List.

    However it all went bust when the War Exchange Conversation Act was revoked and American comics were permitted to return to Canadian newsstands. Bell’s comics couldn’t take the competition. Johnny was fired in late 1946, when Cy Bell changed the format of Dime Comics to reprint humour strips from the U.S. The Bell Features comics were dead by early 1947.

    *

    Most fictional heroes go into oblivion quietly. They find new jobs and sink into a life of quiet anonymity. Sherlock Holmes kept bees; Captain Marvel stayed on the Rock of Eternity with the wizard Shazam and constructed elaborate model railways; the Shadow used his powers to cloud men’s minds to sell life insurance. The Canadian heroes did the same. Rex Baxter went back to the Island of Doom. Nitro opened up his own bar in North Bay. Thunderfist sought his fortune in Hollywood. Nelvana of the North moved to Vancouver and took up landscape painting.

    Johnny Canuck had a harder time than most. He first attempted to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force but was surprised to learn that the Armed Forces now refused to allow fictional characters to enlist—even if they once socked Hitler on the jaw. If such discrimination made Johnny bitter, he never showed it. “I’ve always been proud to serve my country,” he said in a 1971 interview, “and there’s more than one way to serve.”

    Even so, the 1950s were not kind to Johnny Canuck. The only job he was able to get was as a waiter in the restaurant in the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa. An old Air Force buddy got him the job. The reference letter from Rex Baxter helped. Johnny was, from all reports, a conscientious waiter who was helpful but unobtrusive.

    He roomed in a boarding house on Maclaren Street that was heated by a wood stove. He was often seen outside, shirtless, chopping wood, his musculature well drawn, though obviously missing nipples and a navel. His strokes were precise. The axe connected with the wood with a “BAM!” sound effect and the wood then exploded into kindling.

    Some of the local teenagers who remembered him from their childhood reading would ask if he was going on any missions to Korea or China and if he would fight the Reds the way he fought the Axis.

    “Not right now.” He answered.

    In 1959, Johnny Canuck was fired from his job as a waiter at the Lord Elgin Hotel. Accounts vary as to why. While most sources agree that Johnny had inadvertently insulted John Diefenbaker, who was a frequent patron, no one knows what the source of the snub actually was. Some say Johnny forgot to bring Diefenbaker ketchup for his steak; others say Johnny helpfully attempted to demonstrate for Diefenbaker the correct pronunciation of ‘Boeuf Bourginon’. Whatever the case, Diefenbaker apparently told the manager, “I don’t want that goddamn cartoon here anymore.”

    Johnny wound up in Toronto, where he sought the help of an Army buddy, Conn Smythe, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The best Smythe could do for Johnny was a job as an usher at Maple Leaf Gardens. And so people going to see the Leafs in section G, rows 75-110 would be directed to their seat by the man who socked Hitler on the jaw.

    *

    imageJohnny never gave up hope that he would be once again employed as a superhero. He saw that American superheroes like Green Lantern and Captain America were being brought back in the early 1960s and he thought his time might come soon. He exchanged letters with American superhero Captain Marvel—himself in exile after a 1953 lawsuit with Superman’s employer DC Comics had put him out of business—expressing that very belief. “Kids love characters like us,” Johnny wrote, “it’s only a matter of time before they look us up.”

    By 1964, People had became more and more unnerved by a two-dimensional comic book character escorting them to their seats, particularly the next generation of kids who had not read Johnny’s exploits. This came to a head when the Beatles performed at Maple Leaf Gardens for the first time and female fans in Johnny’s section nearly caused a riot before the performance began.

    Johnny drifted to Hamilton, where his old friend from Wow Comics, Captain Wonder, had taken to driving a cab. After Captain Wonder was killed in an accident on the QEW, Johnny lived in a flophouse on James Street performing odd jobs. His fine linework had begun to become fuzzy. Johnny was seen at some of the seedier taverns drunkenly arguing with steelworkers that he had a right to a job at Stelco.

    It was a 1966 reunion with his fellow Bell Features heroes that turned Johnny’s life around. The heroes gathered for a picnic in Burlington on the shores of Lake Ontario to discuss pitching a television series to the CBC. At the time, the Batman TV series was popular and Johnny felt the time was right to do something similar in Canada. Unfortunately, CBC President Alphonse Ouimet, a French Canadian who did not grow up reading the Canadian whites, was not interested. Nonetheless, Johnny enjoyed reacquainting himself with his fellow heroes. The Brain had made a success for himself in Calgary working as an executive for Imperial Oil. Rex Baxter and The Dreamer were working on opening a pavilion for the Island of Doom at Expo ’67.

    But it was meeting Trixie Rogers, who fought crime back in the day as the superheroine called the Wing that changed everything for Johnny. Johnny told Trixie that the first time he saw the Wing was in a story in Joke Comics that artist Jerry Lazare swiped from a Phantom Lady story in American comic book, Police Comics #20. Trixie laughed and said, “Shame Jerry couldn’t have drawn me with Phantom Lady’s tits.” Johnny and Trixie drank Seagram’s 5-Star Rye mixed with orange juice and talked and laughed all afternoon.

    After a bad marriage with Nitro, Trixie had moved to St. Catharines, where she worked as a secretary at Thompson Products, an automotive parts manufacturer. Her roommate had a brother who worked at General Motors and could put in a good word for Johnny. The roommate’s brother was as good as Trixie’s word, and Johnny Canuck became a machinist at the GM Number 2 plant, making $22 an hour.

    *


    Johnny Canuck enjoyed working at GM. He was often seen, shirtless, working on machines that were too dangerous for other workers. The plant employees loved Johnny for this and immediately took him as one of their own. He knew he was respected when he was invited to join their bowling league, which was just down the road from the plant at Parkway Lanes on Ontario Street. He often brought Trixie with him, and the workers were as accepting of her as they were of Johnny—Trixie joked that her skintight Wing costume helped.

    Johnny and Trixie were married in May, 1967 at St. Columba Anglican Church. (Johnny nominally considered himself a United Church member and while an agnostic created Trixie, she had become an Anglican during the 1950s.) They soon moved to a three-bedroom bungalow on Linwell Road. They bought an aboveground pool and frequently hosted barbeques and parties on weekends.

    On many summer evenings, Johnny would sit on the pool deck watching the sunset, a bottle of Molson Export in his hand, his face inscrutable.

    In 1971, the book The Great Canadian Comic Books was published. People came to St. Catharines to interview Johnny and Trixie. Johnny was surprised to see the deference given to him as a character—there was an assumption he was the Canadian equivalent to Captain America, even though Bell Features hadn’t deemed him that popular in the 1940s.

    Johnny was hopeful when he heard the book’s authors had formed a production company called Nelvana had purchased the rights to the characters from Cy Bell. “I knew if I waited long enough my time would come,” he wrote Captain Marvel, who was himself about to be revived in comics published by DC, the one time competitor that put him out of business.

    The interviews, though, petered out. The talk of a revival began to wane as the people behind Nelvana concentrated on starting an animation studio.

    In 1974, a new superhero, Captain Canuck appeared. Captain Canuck was a Mormon from the future of 1990 where Canada was a major geopolitical superpower. Johnny met Captain Canuck when they were both interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens by Barbara Frum. Johnny wrote to Captain Marvel about the meeting. “He seemed so earnest. So young.”

    *


    Johnny and Trixie played euchre while watching the hockey game with his friends every Saturday night during winter. In the summer they entertained by the pool. Johnny bowled an average of 264, and bought a new GM car with his employee discount every two years. As a cartoon, he couldn’t vote but he didn’t like Pierre Trudeau because, to Johnny’s mind, he was too friendly with the Japanese. “You can’t trust them.” Johnny told his friends over the sound of frozen burger patties from Dominion cooking on the barbeque.

    In April, 1978, Johnny Canuck parked his 1977 Buick Le Sabre station wagon outside the Canadian Tire at Grantham Plaza. He told Trixie we was going there to pick up some shock absorbers for the Le Sabre because, even though the car was relatively new, he didn’t like the ones GM installed. On the radio, the oldies station from Buffalo was playing the Andrews Sisters. Johnny heard them singing:

    I’ll be with you in apple blossom time,
    I’ll be with you to change your name to mine.

    It’s tempting to speculate: in that moment, did Johnny Canuck think back to a much simpler time? A time when he strode through Hitler’s secret headquarters beating up henchmen and finally punching Hitler—something Superman and Captain America were never able to do. A time when he rescued Tibetan resistance members from the Japanese and avoided execution in Libya in time to save the RAF from certain doom.

    We will never know. But in that moment, Johnny Canuck slipped away from life and slumped forward onto a steering wheel, while nostalgia from an American radio station played in the background.

    *


    imageIn 1992, Canada Post issued a stamp in Johnny Canuck’s honour along with stamps for Nelvana, Superman and Captain Canuck. Of the honorees, only Captain Canuck attended. Long since cancelled, he now worked as a roofer in Goderich and appeared in costume on weekends at comic book conventions.

    Representing Johnny was his creator Leo Bachle. Johnny’s wife, Trixie, who was in poor health and now lived in a retirement community in Florida, was there as well.

    Trixie reportedly looked at the stamp and gasped. “My God, he was so handsome in uniform.” Trixie said, looking at an icon that was unremembered, and yet commemorated all the same

    © 2010 Graeme Burk

    Posted by graeme | (1) Comments | Permalink

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    Kimberley Moore  on  06/15  at  01:45 PM

    As amusing as this piece is, you may be interested to know that the legacy of Leo Bachle goes on much more proudly than this. I am married to one of his sons and Johnny Canuck never experienced such insult.

    Johnny is not forgotten.

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