033: For the Greater Good
December 22, 2016
Listen Now [28.8 MB, length: 31:20]
Collectors are a breed apart. Quite commonly, their motivations are not simply for personal gain but as a means of ensuring that future generations can enjoy the fruits of their labours in ways that can only be imagined. In this episode, the second edition of our donor interview features, we speak to author, comic book historian and retired LAC archivist John Bell who generously donated his Hulk-sized comic book collection to LAC in 1996. His collection includes over 4,000 comic books ranging from Second World War comics to 21st century zines and related ephemera.
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For the Greater Good
Geneviève Morin: Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
Collectors are a breed apart. Quite commonly, their motivations are not simply for personal gain but as a means of ensuring that future generations can enjoy the fruits of their labours in ways that can only be imagined. In this episode, the second edition of our donor interview feature, we speak to author, comic book historian and retired LAC archivist John Bell who generously donated his Hulk-sized comic book collection to LAC in 1996. His collection includes over 4,000 comic books ranging from Second World War comics to 21st century zines and related ephemera.
John Bell traveled to Ottawa from his home in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia for the launch of the LAC exhibition, Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity. LAC special collections librarian and curator of the exhibition Meaghan Scanlon gave John a quick tour before sitting down with him to talk about the amassing of his extraordinary collection. She started the conversation by asking him about his upbringing and when his love for comic books began.
John Bell: I was born in Montréal and lived there until I was about 10 [years old]. And my parents were both "Maritimers," my mum from P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island], my dad from Nova Scotia. We used to make the annual pilgrimage back to the Maritimes every year. But in '62, we moved to Halifax and my parents returned home. For me, I was being wrenched out of a kind of a utopia for kids—downtown Montréal. I lived on a base for—well it wasn't a base but a housing, a really interesting housing complex called Benny Farm, which was at Sherbrooke [Street] and Cavendish Boulevard. It looked a lot like an army base and had a brick three-story housing [unit] for veterans but each apartment also had their own garden lot so it was very progressive in that way. But we had a huge—we used to call it "the back 40"—this huge area where the kids could play so it was one of those places you just walked out the door and you had kids to play with. But the other thing I should note about that experience in growing up in Montréal in the 1950s, comic books were everywhere—but I also was a TV baby, right? Broadcasting, I think, in Canada started in Montréal in '52, the year I was born and TV was a pretty important part of our lives but comics were more important. They were everywhere, they were in the grocery stores, they were in the tobacco shops, the drug stores, and I was forever harassing my father for money to buy more comics. He had interesting ideas about comics; he had read about [Dr. Fredric] Wertham and the—and he got caught up in the anti-comics moral panic.
GM: Dr. Frederic Wertham was an American psychiatrist and author who spearheaded a campaign against comic books, which he felt were a corrupting influence on youth and would lead to juvenile delinquency. His 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, made a big splash at the time, but it was later revealed that he had wilfully distorted data in order to support his hypotheses. As a result, much of his work has been discredited.
JB: But he actually liked the medium itself and later on in life, one of the things I'd give him every Christmas was an Asterix album—he loved Asterix. And he used to read the comics; he was a big Li'l Abner fan and all that. For me, my reading of comics was kind of policed by them, my parents, especially him; I don't think my mother really cared but he was determined that we wouldn't read what he classified as weird comics. So what was I allowed to read? I was allowed to read Classics Illustrated kind of a bluffer's guide to world literature and those were like graphic novels almost, right? I think they ran about 48 pages or more. I remember crying over some of those—Uncle Tom's Cabin, you know—I was devastated. Some Victor Hugos, you know, they were really quite powerful. We were also allowed to read Funny Animal comics but superheroes—no way—they were weird. Anything related to crime or horror—of course there weren't that many around by that point because of the "comics code"—so no weird comics. For weird comics I had to sneak down to my friend Jackie's house. Jackie could go to the corner store and buy just about anything he wanted. So, you know, he could buy tons of trading cards and comics, and any comic he wanted. I can remember late '61 reading, up to that point, the greatest graphic narrative I'd ever read, it was just so stupendous, it was breathtaking: Fantastic Four #1.
Meaghan Scanlon: Fantastic Four #1, that's sort of the dawn of the Silver Age, right?
JB: It is, yeah, the Marvel Age of comics. But this led to some difficulties in the future because once we moved to Halifax, I had a bit of a Marvel addiction going, but there was no Jackie figure in Halifax so how was I gonna get my Marvel comics, right? There were some stores around our area in the south end of Halifax where they would sell comics for five cents, older comics—there'd be boxes at the back of the store. So I would be picking through these things and I found Amazing Fantasy #15.
MS: The first appearance of Spider-Man.
JB: And I had the first Iron Man story. Later on, I also found the first Hulk in one of these boxes for a nickel, which was great. But I knew I had to stash these things because if my old man found these weird comics, I would be in big trouble.
JB: So I found a place. We lived in a kind of an old Victorian house, in a flat where there were lots of little nooks and crannies and cupboards, so I thought I had these things extremely well-hidden. But much to my horror one Saturday, my dad was looking for something in one of these cabinets where the stash was and lo and behold, he found those two: the first Iron Man and the first Spider-Man.
JB: And… [makes a ripping sound].
JB: He ripped them. This was like one of the great traumas of my life.
MS: That's horrifying from a historical perspective as well.
JB: Oh and believe me, I'll tell you more about that later. I did tease my mum for years because eventually, what happened was I knew—okay, this was a turning point in my life. I was probably about 12 or 13 [years old]; I started looking around for an income and I was gonna make my stand once I had a flow of money. So, I got a paper route and eventually, you know, I had money, I could buy my own comics, now I had to fight for the right to read whatever I wanted. I guess when I was about 12 to 13, 13 [years old], I stood up and I said, "I'm gonna read whatever I wanna read and I'm gonna buy whatever I wanna buy and blah, blah, blah" and I won the argument.
JB: So then, I started amassing a Marvel collection. I had probably every Marvel comic except for Millie The Model and even that, a couple of Millie The Models. From about '65 to—we'll say late '64 to around late '66 or early '67—I had every Marvel comic. When I eventually left home, of course, I got diverted by other pursuits as a teenager eventually and put my comic collection aside but it was still—most of these comics had only been read once. It wasn't so fetishistic as it is now with the plastic bags and the boxes and the acid-free backing boards and all that, but I kept them in good shape, and they were in a box and they were neatly stacked. Anyway—that stuff—I left all those behind when I eventually moved out at about the age of 17 to 18. But not long after, maybe three or four years later, there was a lot of media attention devoted to auctions and the kind of prices that Golden Age American comics were getting. Imagine a Superman selling for, you know action [comics], selling for $1,000. So then I thought, "oh my god, those comics; I've left them at home, they're in a dry room in the basement, they're gonna be there" and I went back home, talked to my mom and I was headed downstairs to see my pile of comics, my Marvel collection. And it had been thrown out like about two weeks after I left.
JB: So I did tease her for years after that. I said, "You know what? Your grandsons could go to university on those comics you threw in the garbage." I hope somebody found them on the curb and they didn't just go in the landfill, but who knows.
MS: I wonder how many people have a similar story. [Laughs.]
JB: Yeah. Yeah.
MS: Just goes to show, comics have not always been valued.
MS: At all. When you started working on your collection of Canadian comics, you set out to document the entire history of Canadian comics—so I wonder, how did you start? Were there some easy targets that you were looking for or were you really just starting from a point of very little knowledge?
JB: It was really unknown territory. I mean, I think what led me to begin that collection and again, it was very much a research collection when I started. In '75, I started working at the Dalhousie University Archives and the summer before that—that was in the fall after I had graduated, a collector of Golden Age comics in Halifax had a display in the library, the Killam [Memorial] Library and I found that quite fascinating. He had amassed a remarkable collection of timely Marvel-related Golden Age comics; some of them were in extraordinary condition. He had worked at a bookstore in Halifax that bought comics and resold them. They would pay you like a nickel for a comic but people were coming in there with boxes of Golden Age comics and he was quite happy to buy them for a nickel and then buy them from the store for a dime or whatever it was, so he had an amazing collection. But he also turned me on to something called the [Comic] Buyer's Guide. The Buyer's Guide, prior to the emergence of the web and all that—the Buyer's Guide was, what was called then, an adzine but it was a tabloid newspaper, often two or three sections running to well over a hundred pages of small—there was some editorial content but essentially it was just advertising. Some big dealers would have pages, but a lot of it was just a collector selling stuff they weren't interested in and a little eighth of a page ad. So there were hundreds of people all over North America advertising in this thing. It was kind of an eye-opener for me, I didn't realize that there had been—that's where I first encountered Gene Day [Howard Eugene Day] and Dave Sim [David Victor Sim]. Dave Sim in those days was advertising in the Buyer's Guide that he would do illustrations for fanzines for 10 bucks. Everyone was selling their small press stuff and I started to notice that there were quite a few Canadians involved in this thing and it introduced me to comics fandom. I had no idea that there was such a thing. If I had known when I left all my Marvel stuff behind, it may have gone in another direction but I didn't know; I wasn't aware of the fact. At a certain point I thought, "you know what, this is way too juvenile, I'm just gonna leave it behind and get on with my life and other teenage pursuits" but little did I know that I didn't have to do that. I started getting an interest and I just took note of all this small press activity and I kind of got active. I started writing science fiction fantasy; I was contributing to Gene Day's magazine, Dark Fantasy. So in addition to all his comic art, Gene was also a major illustrator, science fiction and fantasy illustrator—in the small press, what they call the semi-pro zines. Dave [Sim] and Deni [Loubert] were launching a science fiction and fantasy magazine like Gene's Dark Fantasy. And I submitted a story to them and it was accepted.
MS: To Dave Sim?
JB: Yeah, Aardvark-Vanaheim.
MS: Right, okay.
JB: They had a little logo with an aardvark and a sword. They were gonna publish this science fiction and fantasy magazine. Well, things fell apart on that front and I think they may have gotten ripped off by a printer. I know Gene had difficulties with a printer they were both intending to use. That prompted Dave to think, "well maybe I should just take that little guy and run with him and see what happens" and so it became a comic book instead. And the rest is history.
GM: Dave Sim co-founded the small press publisher Aardvark-Vanaheim. He is best known for his comic book, Cerebus, which ran from December 1977 to March 2004, totaling 300 issues. Sim was a strong advocate of self-publishing and was instrumental in the rollout of the Creator's Bill of Rights in 1988. As his career progressed, his work became more sophisticated and metaphysical in nature, but also a vehicle for some of his often controversial views.
JB: So anyway, I started becoming increasingly aware of the fact that there were Canadian comics. In '75—well '72—I was working in bookstores and I saw the [Michael] Hirsh and [Patrick] Loubert book. That was an incredible revelation to me.
MS: So that's the book The Great Canadian Comic Books.
JB: Yes. And I thought, oh my god, there actually were Canadian comics. I couldn't believe it. I kind of hung on to that, you know, I remained interested in that but there was nowhere to go with it, there was nothing else available. Then Captain Canuck appears in '75 and Orb appears on the newsstands in Halifax as well. And then I realize, oh my god, there's Gene Day, Dave Sim and all those guys that I saw in the Buyer's Guide. There's stuff happening in Canadian comics, there's a lot of artists out there and I thought, you know, it would be interesting to, kind of—then I had discovered a few giveaways and I realized there were comics published in Canada. What was the extent? How many publishers were there? So initially I thought, you know what, I'll do a little checklist for one of the fan publications, The Comic Reader or one of the other journals devoted to comics fandom. And so I started working on that with a view to doing an article and it just grew from there.
JB: You know, little did I know. I mean Bell Features wasn't the only publisher active in the '40s.
GM: Bell Features was one of the major Canadian comic book publishers from the Second World War era. LAC holds 382 comics from this publisher including legendary superheroes Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck. To be clear, this is a separate collection from the one John Bell donated to LAC.
JB: When I first plunged in and decided to—I really thought I was preparing a small article, a checklist but no.
MS: Not so much.
MS: So clearly, the extent of it surprised you. And so I imagine….
JB: It did, yeah.
MS: Did your collection balloon quickly? Did it take a while? Did it start to get to a point where you felt like oh my god this is out of control?
JB: Oh yeah! It did, yeah. I mean, as the white long boxes continued to fill, I thought "oh my god, you know, where's this gonna end?"
MS: "Do I need a second house?"
JB: And the thing that really killed me in terms of collecting—that went on for about 20 years, right? My collection, it took about 20 years to build. But what really made it impossible to continue—because that scope I developed over time. I didn't want to distinguish between self-published and small press. I mean I thought a lot of the real creativity and energy was in the small press and I really admired that. And so I didn't distinguish. For me it was original comics published in Canada; I wasn't interested in the reprints. That's what I was hoping to document in English and regardless of format or where it was published or by whom it was published. But what really made it impossible over time, by the mid- to late '90s, was something as simple as the evolution of photocopy technology.
MS: Oh yeah.
JB: I connected with Sim and Gene and those people through a magazine. I published a Canadian science fiction magazine titled Borealis; I did two issues of that. In order to do that magazine and to make it look professional or semi-professional, I had to lay the thing out; I did all my typesetting on an IBM Selectric and then shot it down 30%. So I did three columns, I did all the design and layout work myself. It was literally a kitchen table thing but that was offset printing, that's expensive. I had to get PMTs [Photo Mechanical Transfer] made, I mean it was really an expensive undertaking. I got a bit of a break because the printer in Halifax who I was working with, he just thought this was so cool—comics and science fiction and he was having fun doing it, just like your designers have had so much fun working on your show. People love this stuff, right? So I got a bit of a break but nonetheless, it was an expensive thing to publish a decent-looking black-and-white comic, even black-and-white comic. But photocopy technology by '96 to 97—late '95, yes, '95 let's say—it was pretty good; it almost looked professional.
This is the era where Chester [Brown]'s coming out with Yummy Fur and selling on the streets of Queen Street West and that whole milieu is emerging in Toronto. That kind of small press scene, that's happening all over the country as people respond to other people doing it, right? So you see this explosion of minis; they're everywhere, a lot of them. They're very, very local. They're not advertising in the Buyer's Guide. They're handing them out in the streets of—you know—Winnipeg, Montréal, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Dartmouth. Then my goal of being exhaustive, well I had to abandon that. I knew that it would then become a collective thing if the story was going to be told from a bibliographical point of view—if you were gonna document it all in an authoritative way, you would then need a team of people. One person couldn't do it and I tried; I corresponded with everyone. I would often go—you know—I'd see examples of something and then I'd correspond with the artist and they'd say, "Oh no, that's not my first mini, I did 15 others, I've got maybe 10 of them left." So I corresponded with a lot of people, tried to continue it but I was starting to get exhausted, frankly. And there was real fatigue building and I thought, you know what, I've done my bit, I probably pushed this as far as I could and…
MS: Fair enough.
MS: In terms of thinking sort of archivally and bibliographically about original order, I'm wondering, did you have a system for keeping it organized? It must have been a challenge to remember what you had.
JB: Yeah. I didn't do it so much as—again, because it was for me a research collection, I did have a record, but it wasn't necessarily of my collection. I had an ongoing bibliography that I would continuously update. And then as for the comics and the cels [celluloids], I basically, unless they were oversized, I just kept them in long boxes in alphabetical order regardless of format; so I kept it simple that way.
MS: Interesting because we have them in alphabetical order now.
JB: Oh good!
MS: Yes [Laughs].
JB: Well I remember the day after I donated it and Michel began work on it with Kevin. I had a sabbatical, kind of a self-financed sabbatical that dragged on for almost two years in Nova Scotia—went back home and was living in Lunenburg County for two years. So then I came back and Michel grabbed me and said, "You've got to come see your collection." And, you know, I had it stuffed in these long boxes almost as tightly as you could put the stuff in there, but he had them all now in mylar, each individual comic was in mylar; they were out on the library shelves and spread out that way. I have to say that I was impressed. [Laughs.] Oh my god, I collected all that?!
MS: It does take up a lot of shelf space. [Laughs.]
JB: But of course, even after I gave it up and handed it over to you guys [Library and Archives Canada], well then I would stumble on things. You know, I thought if I don't buy these mini comics now, right, no one's ever gonna document these things or collect them so every once in a while you'd get another little donation from me because I just felt somebody should preserve this and document it.
GM: Meaghan asked John if there were any comic book finds that were particularly exciting to him.
JB: I was excited about any new Canadian comic that I found so I didn't really care; I didn't distinguish between them particularly. So if it was new and I hadn't documented it [yet], I felt like I had accomplished something. But I did go into a comic book shop, which was mostly a science fiction bookstore in Halifax but there was a comic component as well. The guy who ran it knew me and he said, "I've got something Canadian you might be interested in" and I said, "Oh, okay." He pulled out this long box and it was the compilation volumes in my collection, the Bell Features, it was full of those.
JB: Other Bell Features comics, Bell Features original negs [negatives] that they shot the comics from, some Bell Features pre-comics advertising projects in downtown Toronto and manuscript material,…
MS: Oh, wow!
JB: …correspondence—their correspondence with Archie comics on the reprints and sample contracts. I said, "Where did you get this stuff and why is this in Halifax?" He kind of fudged it, he said, "I got it from a guy from Ontario who knew Bell" or you know. He never really did nail the provenance down but I thought I gotta take this, right? [Laughs.] I gotta rescue this stuff.
MS: Safe to say, yeah. [Laughs.]
JB: Yeah. I'll provide it with a good home. That was a surprise to think that I would find original Bell Features manuscript material. That was donated to the Archives and you've got the comics.
MS: Did you ever have a sort of a "white whale"? Was there any title that someone told you, "you know I heard about this Canadian comic" and you took—I don't know—years to track it down or anything like that?
JB: No, I don't think so. Nothing comes to mind in that vein. They were all white whales.
JB: There was way more than one white whale.
MS: It's a whole ocean of Moby Dicks.
JB: Yeah! I mean, you think about, you're trying to document an aspect of Canadian publishing where—I mean apart from the Library's legal deposit holdings right, and the stuff that came in with Bell Features and the few scattered copies of Golden Age comics and some archival collections out west—I mean, in terms of English-Canadian comic book publishing, there was nothing. There were no holdings. There was no record. There was no bibliography. There was no historical narrative. There was nothing, so they were all new discoveries, they were all white whales or minnows or whatever.
MS: Do you have a few favourite items from the collection? Any favourite artist?
JB: Well, I think in terms of—my favourite part of the collection would be the mini comics and the early small press stuff. I just think there's so much creativity and energy wrapped up in those publications especially that first wave, you know, in the late '80s, early '90s. I find that stuff really exciting visually and I think that's probably my favourite part. The Golden Age stuff, I'm fond of that. You've got one of my favourite images in the exhibition, which is that Nelvana [of the Northern Lights] cover in colour, you know, that's spectacular.
MS: Yeah, and quickly becoming a pretty well-known image too.
JB: That should become an icon, right?
MS: Definitely. Well, Canada's first superheroine.
MS: As we know, she predates Wonder Woman even a little bit.
JB: That's right.
MS: We all love Nelvana.
JB: I'd just like to say that I'm really happy to see that the collection's being utilized finally, and you know, that other people—I mean the reason—I collected it so that I could eventually do my own narrative of Canadian comics' history, but I donated it so that other people could use it and tell, perhaps, different stories or focus on different aspects. And I think you've done a wonderful job in the exhibition and I'm glad to see that other scholars are coming in and drawing upon it. That's why it's here. And so that's very gratifying because you know one temptation when I started thinking—about '95 to '96 that it was time to relinquish those comics, you know—I could've easily broken it up and sold it off piecemeal but I didn't want to do that. I mean it held an awful lot of effort that had gone into accumulating it all; I hoped that I could find a home for it. I'm really glad to say that I'm happy that I found the right home.
MS: Well I'm glad. And I will tell you, the comic books are some of the most often requested material that we have.
JB: Fantastic! I'm really glad to hear that.
MS: Yes, it's a growing area of research so we are very lucky to have your collection, so thank you.
JB: Thank you!
MS: Thank you again for being here today with us.
JB: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.
GM: To learn more about the John Bell collection of Canadian comic books at LAC, please visit the episode page for this podcast at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. In the related links you will find a number of resources related to his collection. You can also learn about how to make a donation to Library and Archives Canada here.
Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. You've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you."
We hope you've enjoyed the second edition of our donor interview feature. We'll keep you informed about some of the amazing collections we receive thanks to our very generous donors. Special thanks to our guest today, Mr. John Bell and to special collections librarian Meaghan Scanlon for conducting the interview.
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For more information on our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.