Ivan Kocmarek talks about HEROES OF THE HOME FRONT

Ivan Kocmarek is a retired high school teacher and comic book collector for over 50 years based in Hamilton, Ontario who has taken on the research of the Canadian war time comics as a retirement project. Has an online weekly column on this subject on Comic Book Daily and recently wrote about these books in Overstreet 44. He is a founding memeber of the Whites Project and currently has a Kickstarter for his new book Heroes of the Home Front. Ivan was nice enough to stop by First Comics News and let our readers know all about Heroes of the Home Front.

 First Comics News: What is Heroes of the Home Front about?

Ivan Kocmarek: Overall, the book is about the art and artists who worked for Canadian WWII comic book publishing company, Bell Features Publications, which was based in Toronto and which put out original Canadian comic book material between 1941-46. The book is a 300-page 9” X 12” volume that reproduces more than 150 pages of original art from the Bell Features collection held by the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa. It also reproduces an additional 25 Bell Features original art pages from private collections. Each of these original art pages is reproduced as a full 9” X 12” page in the book and have never been reproduced in this way before. The rest of the book is text with photos sharing some of the backstory of the artists who made those pages. There are about 30 sections in the book each one about a different Bell Features comic book artist. The basic structure of each of these sections is:

-A backstory on the life of the artist

-An index of his/her work for Bell Features

-An interview with the artist where possible or an interview with a direct family member.

-Pages reproducing a selection of that artist’s original page drawings for Bell Features.

1st: What was the War Exchange Conservation Act?

Ivan: The “War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA)” was enacted by the Canadian parliament on Dec. 6th, 1940. This act limited the importation of “unessential” products into the country in order to protect the Canadian wartime economy and shore up the Canadian dollar.  The government wanted Canadians to spend their money on goods produced in Canada rather than American products. Among the “unessential” products banned from entering the country from America were comic books and pulps. This produced a comic book vacuum in Canada for a couple of months and until Canadian companies began to step in and produce our own Canadian comic books. The ban lasted roughly until the end of WWII and then American comics began appearing on Canadian stands again and our own Canadian comic book industry of original material folded about a year afterwards.

1st: Who were Gene and Cy Bell?

Ivan: Gene and Cy Bell were brothers who started up the Commercial Signs of Canada Company in Toronto in the 1930s. This company began producing comics in the summer of 1941 and then changed its name to Bell Features early in 1942. Cy Bell seemed to be more of the leader and was always President of the company while Gene worked more in the background as a sort of general secretary. There’s a “Woody and the Wolf” story by Tedd Steele in the last issue of Wow Comics that parodies the brothers as mobsters and calls them “Gene and Cy Bong.”

1st: What did Edmund Legault bring to the company?

Ivan: Edmund Legault was a teenager who worked for Commercial Signs of Canada before they started doing comics. Original Canadian comics had been around for a couple of months in Canada after the ban and Ed Legault brought the idea of doing a comic book to Cy Bell by showing some sketch pages for a buccaneer character called Dart Daring. Cy Bell bought into the idea and Wow Comics No. 1 quickly appeared on the stands. Legault also created Thunderfist, who was drawn by Murray Karn in Active Comics.

1st: How did John Ezrin become involved?

Ivan: John Ezrin was an original investor in Bell Features and, in 1947, when the company had folded, Ezrin bought the holdings of the warehouse which contained all the original art pages and some comics. He sold this to Patrick Loubert and Michael Hirsch in 1971 and they were able to sell the collection to National Archives of Canada and started up the Nelvana Studios animation company with the proceeds.

1st: Once the US Comics are banned, how do the Bell brothers go out and find Canadian creators to put out their comics?

Ivan: Murray Karn told me that he was hired by answering an ad in the newspaper and this must have been the main method. Adrian Dingle, creator of Nelvana, came over to Bell Features in the spring of 1942 after his own short-lived comic book publishing company, Hillborough Studios, folded and Cy Bell bought up his debts. Jack Tremblay and Gerry Lazare were still in high school and sent Bell Features samples of their work and were hired. So, it happened in various ways.

1st: What was Commercial Signs of Canada?

Ivan: Commercial Signs of Canada was a Toronto signage company that the Bell brothers founded in 1929. Its name is on the indicia of the comic books it produced up until the spring of 1942 when it changed its name to Bell Features.

1st: Why did that change to Bell Features publishing?

Ivan: By the spring of 1942 Commercial Signs of Canada had 3 additional titles (Dime Comics, Active Comics, and Joke Comics) to its first title, Wow Comics. It was finding that comic book publishing had legs and room for growth and profit. I think it wanted to recognize this new branch enterprise and so changed its name to the family name of the founders of its company. It also came up with a logo (thought to have been created by one of its artists, Oscar Schlienger) that make its books garner instant brand recognition on the newsstands.

1st: Which heroes found a home in the Bell Features Universe?

Ivan: Depends on which genre you mean. There were Air Aces (Scotty MacDonald, Ace Barton, and Crash Carson), there were Detectives (Drummy Young, Dr. Blue and Blackie, and Nels Grant), there were Military/Espionage Heroes (Johnny Canuck, Major Domo and Jo-jo, Guy Powers, Clift Steele, The Sign of Freedom), Western Heroes (Tang, Phantom Rider), and Soldiers of Fortune (Rex Baxter, Jeff Waring, Red Thortan, Doc Stearne). But, you’re probably talking about the costumed super heroes which included female heroes such as Nelvana, The Wing, and The Polka-Dot Pirate, and male heroes such as Speed Savage, Nitro, Capt. Wonder, Thunderfist, The Brain, The Penguin, The Dreamer, Nighthawk, Super Commando, and a brief panel appearance by the promising Mr. Monster.

1st: Who were the creators that worked on these comics?

Ivan: There were dozens with the most notable being Adrian Dingle, Edmond Good, Gerry Lazare, Leo Bachle, Fred Kelly, Tedd Steele, Murray Karn, Al Cooper, Ross Saakel, Jack Tremblay, Rene Kulbach, Mel Crawford, Doris Slater (their lone female creator and one of the first female creators in comics) and many more.

1st: Which of these creators were you able to interview?

Ivan: I managed to interview Gerald Lazare, Murray Karn, Jack Tremblay, and Mel Crawford.

1st: What about the creators that have passed on since World War Two?

Ivan: For the others who are no longer with us, I managed to track down direct relatives (children, wives, siblings) to interview.

1st: What is the split on the book between reprint stories and original interviews?

Ivan: There are no reprint stories in the book. The format of the book is described in the answer to your first question.

1st: How did you collect the art for the reprint stories?

Ivan: I obtained licenses to reproduce 150 Bell Features original art pages from the collection of the Library and Archives of Canada and I found another two dozen original Bell Features art pages in private collections.

1st: What’s your Kickstarter goal?

Ivan: The Kickstarter goal is $25,000 Canadian.

1st: What does that go towards?

Ivan: The majority of the funds raised will go to the printing and distribution of the book with $2,000 going to pay the book designer and $1,000 towards original art commissions obtained for the Kickstarter.

1st: What is the minimum pledge to get a PDF copy of the book?

Ivan: $20.

1st: What is the minimum pledge to get a physical copy of the book?

Ivan: $70 plus $20 for shipping = $90.

You can find the Kickstarter here.

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