Legends Of Brok: Hope Nicholson Brings Back Brok Windsor, Canada’s Golden Age Hunk Hero [Interview]
Canada offers an impressive range of comics talents, but its comic industry has usually been overshadowed by the buying power of the U.S. market — but for one brief period in modern history. During the Second World War Canada restricted the import of non-essential items — and that included comic books. For much of the 1940s, Canadians could only read Canadian comics. The era has become known as the Canadian Golden Age.
Hope Nicholson was a researcher on a documentary about the characters created during this era, Lost Heroes. Fascinated by the subject, Nicholson and her partner Rachel Richey launched a project to restore and republish the stories of one of the first comic superheroines, Adrian Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights. With that book now in print, Nicholson has launched a Kickstarter to revive another lost Canadian hero; the square-jawed action man Brok Windsor.
The creation of writer and artist Jon Stables, Brok is a dashing figure in a quirky bare-shouldered leotard, who stumbles on a lost world and fights giant rats and horned lions with the help of his cliche native sidekick Torgon and his gal pal Starra. Brok’s adventures were serialized in Better Comics, published by Maple Leaf Publishing out of Vancouver between 1944 and 1946.
Nicholson is raising money for a Brok Windsor reprint through Kickstarter, with PDFs of the book available at the $10 donation level and print copies available for donations of $30 or more (plus shipping for those outside of Canada). Other rewards include the original art for Brok Windsor pin-ups by artists including Scott Chantler, Carla Speed McNeil, Yanick Paquette, Megan Kearney, Leonard Kirk, J. Bone, and Ray Fawkes — or print versions of these pin-ups.
ComicsAliance spoke to Nicholson to learn more about the project.
ComicsAlliance: This is your second project collecting comic strips from Canada’s Golden Age. What made you settle on Brok Windsor for your follow-up?
Hope Nichsolson: I was very pleased with the success that Rachel Richey and I had publishing Nelvana, and it is still very important for me to get all of these lost comics published. … I also wanted to do something a bit different. Brok Windsor was a Vancouver-published hero, and was not a superhero but rather a sci-fi/adventure hero in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I deliberated between choosing him or a more familiar character, but chose him at last because of a few reasons:
One, he has by far the best quality artwork I had seen in the Canadian Golden Age comics. Two, he was published in Vancouver, and I was eager to show that comic publishing happened across the country, not just Toronto. Three, I wanted to challenge myself as a researcher. With so little known about Brok Windsor, and no idea if I could even find all of his adventures, any further research done would have to be intense digs, and those are always the most exciting parts of the publishing process for me.
CA: What makes the Canadian Golden Age so special?
Nicholson: The Canadian Golden Age is this fascinating part of our cultural history, and of comic book publishing itself. I was drawn to it because of its obscurity; unlike the U.S. golden age of comics, there has only been a few books on the subject, and even they aren’t completely comprehensive. There is so much information to dig into and find out! It does make me feel a bit like an archaeologist.
These comics weren’t always good. I will say that I will not be as excited about some of them as I am for Nelvana and Brok Windsor, because many were done by inexperienced artists under tough deadlines, and it shows. And some are downright awfully racist! But the fact that they exist, and we have forgotten about them, makes me sad.
These are comics that our grandparents read to bed every night, trading with their friends in the school yards; they’re important to our history. And if there wasn’t a few of us campaigning endlessly to bring them back to the attention of the public, they would completely fade away. That’s how history becomes forgotten. If there’s one area where I can help ensure that it doesn’t, I will.
CA: Tell me about Brok. What sort of hero is he?
Nicholson: Brok Windsor is a strange character. He draws comparisons to Flash Gordon, Tarzan, John Carter, but not perfectly. In the end I say Brok Windsor is Brok Windsor, there is no perfect comparison to what he is. There’s an adventure side to him, with him wrestling bears and going on dangerous missions to far-away countries. There’s a sci-fi side as he encounters an advanced aboriginal community hidden in the wilds of Canada with rayguns and flying cars. And there is a strong fantasy element as well; the magical mists that transform him into a giant, and his friend’s Starra’s grandmother — a ghost!
He is a typical strong-jawed, brilliant, action-adventure hero. He’s a medical doctor by trade, an outdoorsman by hobby, and a hero by circumstance. But he can’t realize his friend Starra is in love with him. Strong, clever, but also oblivious in certain ways.
CA: Is there a distinctly Canadian angle to the character?
Nicholson: Canada is mentioned at least once a page in Brok’s adventures! His identity is very much tied in to being a Canadian, and he is often referred to as “the brave Canadian,” or variations thereof. He first encounters the mystical land while canoeing in Lake of the Woods, and daydreams about heading back to Toronto. He even schools Torgon on the importance of bilingualism.
CA: Brok Windsor’s creator, Jon Stables, was clearly a very talented artist, yet I’d never heard of him before this project. How much do you know about him?
Nicholson: I know a bit about Jon Stables and am learning more each day, which pleases me immensely. He was born in the UK, and moved to Winnipeg as a young teen. … When the war broke out he moved to Victoria to be a sign-painter for the shipyards, and tried to enlist to create propaganda posters for the war. He was put on a waiting list, and when he was in Toronto at one point, he met Harry Smith, the owner of Maple Leaf Publishing, a comic book publisher in Vancouver who was pleased with his work and invited him to join his company.
While working for Maple Leaf, Jon Stables created the characters of Bill Speed and Brok Windsor. Both characters were apparently named for friends who passed away fighting overseas. Soon, Jon Stables moved up to be an editor and art director of Maple Leaf, with editor Ted Ross assisting with the writing of Brok Windsor stories and artist Shirley Fortune assisting with the artwork.
After the war, Jon tried to create a Bill Speed comic strip to be distributed nationally with no success. He had slightly more creating colouring books with Maple Leaf, but soon left to the US to pursue other opportunities. He tried to get in to work with Disney, but had no luck, and finally settled down in Seattle, and worked for Boeing in their art department. He continued to create fine art for his own enjoyment throughout his life.
CA: I feel like there’s something very homoerotic about Brok and his shoulderless leotard. Am I just projecting?
Nicholson: In the magic land of Chaqua all the men go shirtless or wear halter leotards. The women wear shapeless sacks, sadly.
In truth, I imagine it’s a throwback to some sort of sporting or gymnastic uniform, but it is very startling to see a man in a halter jumpsuit today. Good! And I won’t let anyone tell me it looks silly. I think it looks magnificent. In fact, the tailoring of his new outfit is an integral part of the second Brok Windsor storyline!
Brok Windsor is sadly one of the least homoerotic comics I know of. But just wait until I get to reprinting Spanner Preston! Beefcakey, and chock full of homoerotic subtext. Sadly, Spanner only lasted about 6 issues and wasn’t terribly well drawn. And now I’m reminded that I don’t know anything about Spanner’s creator, Leon James… certainly might be a fun research project too!
CA: Tell me about the Kickstarter; what sort of rewards are on offer? I know several artists contributed beautiful portraits of Nelvana for your last project, so will we see hunky pin-ups of Brok this time around?
Nicholson: Yes! There will be pin-ups by several artists, and I can only hope that they make Brok as hunky as previous artists made Nelvana gorgeous. I’ll be honest, I was very anxious to get J. Bone to sign on board, since I think that his art style matches perfectly with how I’d want Brok to hang on my wall. I’ve had a few submissions so far, and look forward to more being rolled in as the campaign progresses.
Sometimes, I think I’ve only decided to do publishing to see these pin-ups! I’m as eager, if not more so, as any of the funders to see them unveiled.
CA: If the Brok Windsor project is a success, do you know what you might follow up with? Are there plans to build a Canadian Golden Age comics library?
Nicholson: There are dozens of Canadian Golden Age characters, and I’m sure that there will be several more editions as time goes on! I definitely have some ideas for my next projects. Anglo-American’s Freelance; Bell Features’ Major Domo & Jojo and Wing; Canadian Heroes’ Canada Jack… I don’t want any to be forgotten, but these are my selfish must-prints. I’m sure, like Brok Windsor, that some will come out of left field and surprise me.
I’m not intending on being limited to Canadian comics either; some artists whose works have been forgotten in the US have approached me to help them reprint, and it’s definitely something I’m eager to do for the right project. I have one of these lined up as well, and I’ll be making a dramatic jump from 1940s Canadian comics to a high-energy, super-saturated 1980s US independent comic. I can’t wait to unveil it!
The Brok Windsor Kickstarter is running now until September 29 2014.