Hope Nicholson has already done a lot when it comes to preserving the legacy of the long neglected Canadian Whites of comic book history, and she has recently embarked on a second major restoration effort to bring back a major part of our pop culture heritage.
While researching in university, Nicholson, a lifelong comic fan, came across an almost secret history that she had never been made aware of. Following the conservation efforts of World War II which led to no American comics being available North of the border, Canadian artists, writers, and publishers came up with their own superheroes and daring crime fighters. It was something that stuck with Nicholson long enough to work as a producer on the documentary Lost Heroes –a great overview of the Canadian comics industry and its ups and downs over some seminal moments that are often forgotten – and to a successful collaboration with Rachel Richey in 2013 to bring back and restore the Nelvana of the Northen Lights series, Nicholson’s favourite character from that particular era and a female hero that might have been the first of her kind.
Now thanks to her previous work, Nicholson has successfully found the basic funding necessary to move on to her next project: the restoration of Brok Windsor, a Canadian Robinson Crusoe type who lives on an island with his girlfriend Starra and has grown to enormous size. Intrigued by the comics stunning artwork and a personal connection to the material, it was easy for Nicholson to become engaged with the character. Although her Kickstarter has reached its base goal to complete a basic run, it continues throughout the month with hopes of reaching a larger audience than just a cursory, limited edition run.
We caught up for coffee with Nicholson last month to talk about her history with Canadian comics, what drew her to Brok Windsor, and the challenges faced with such a large scale restoration of a now sadly obscure and hard to find bit of our publishing history.
Dork Shelf: Let’s start with your personal history with Canadian comics, not necessarily with Brok or Nelvana, but in general. Because this isn’t the first time you’ve done something for classic Canadian comic history.
Hope Nicholson: As much as I like to have a more romantic story than I do, it honestly started with Wikipedia while I was doing my undergraduate degree. It was about eight years ago now, and I had always been a big fan of comic books and I had read them my entire life. I had an essay that I had to do on forms of Canadian media, and I thought “Well, comics are media, so I’m going to do that!” (laughs) Really as many times as I could I always find a way to come back to comics whenever I had to do a paper.
So I googled “Canadian comic books,” and I found these essays that led me to all of these books that I started reading, and I thought it was crazy. Then I started asking all the comics people I knew to see if they knew about this. I think the first person I asked that knew about these was Mark Askwith when I was doing a TV internship. He was the first person ever who took my interest beyond just online research because he actually had copies of these books. Actually, I waited my entire internship to bring them by, and he never did. (laughs) It was only when I was interviewing him for Lost Heroes, the documentary, that he finally brought them into a screening and all I could think was, “Wow, this would have been really great when I was twenty and I had never seen them before.”
But yeah, it fascinated me that we had this history with comics, and it frustrated me because after a while I stopped thinking that I was part of this cool club that knew about these obscure things to thinking that if a large bunch of people didn’t know about these and that we weren’t sharing them, then what’s the point? So, that’s why I’ve been doing this.
DS: In some cases, these comic characters shouldn’t be obscure. Some of them should arguably more famous than a lot of their American counterparts.
HN: Oh, absolutely. I hear different accounts from different people about how much kids actually enjoyed these comics growing up. Some people I talked to said that kids up here couldn’t wait for the American comics to come back, but then some people who read the comics back then would say that they loved Freelance more than they loved Superman or Captain Marvel. It’s a very confused history. There’s really no way to tell with any great degree of accuracy a sense of before and after.
DS: When you were going down this researching rabbit hole and you started branching off into other areas, what were the character that popped out to you the most? There are two very obviously that stuck with you, or you wouldn’t have spent this much effort into trying to get them restored, but once you started reading them, what stuck out?
HN: For years and years, it was really just Nelvana. The others I vaguely knew about, but I just kept going back to Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Just ask my schoolmates from back in the day, I would always be saying, “You know, we really need a dramatic feature film about Nelvana.” I would just daydream about it constantly. I thought about doing a documentary just on Nelvana alone. Eventually, that did happen, but it was about all of the comics and that was a much larger process with a lot of different winding roads, as most projects are. The most obvious thing I could have done at the time would have been to reprint the comics, but back then I just couldn’t find most of them and because the thought never really entered my head. Plus, I was honestly just waiting to see if anyone else was going to do it.
Nelvana was definitely my first obsession.
DS: So when it comes to tracking down all of these back issues so you can reprint them, how much of an undertaking are we talking about? What are the easiest parts of tracking these issues down and what’s the most frustrating aspect of it?
HN: Getting the comics is very difficult. I’m lucky that I know a lot of people in the comics industry, and that’s both artists and collectors and retailers. I draw upon every single one of them to make this work. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without them.
Collectors do a great job of helping me keep track of and find these issues, but even they don’t know exactly where everything would be. Then I would look at archives and go through that, but it was only with Nelvana and now with Brok Windsor that once I started the Kickstarter campaigns that people would see it and come to me and say, “I’ve got a bunch of those comic books!” Then in some cases I would go to their house, and they might end up having the biggest collections anyone has ever seen and no one knows about them.
And to draw attention to that campaign, that’s where the artists and retailers are indispensible. They put the link on their Facebook page or Twitter, they help out with some artwork to get them to the page, and that’s when collectors start finding me the most and helping me track down these books. And without Kickstarter, none of this would have been able to take shape. It’s an example of a really great perpetuating cycle.
DS: What is your relationship like to the collectors you get in touch with? I’m sure some of them are fine with you taking care of something they’ve spent their life preserving, but I’m guessing that others need a bit of convincing.
HN: I think people can tell pretty easily from either talking to me or from what I post online that I have a passion for these comics that’ verges on the absurd. (laughs) The research that I do into these is pretty in depth. For example, for Nelvana of the Northern Lights, I was going through pages of Franz Johnson’s diary, who was the artist who first met Nelvana, who was a real person. I didn’t know that until saw that he had a gallery show in Ontario in 1970, and I emailed the gallery to ask if they had anything that other people might not have.
With Brok Windsor now, we reached out to Jon St. Ables’ old team that worked with him. When people see me posting things like that, a lot of times I think that I’m just shouting into the ether, but it’s amazing how people can come back to it.
It’s all about finding that sense of authenticity. One of the collectors recently got in touch with me about this issue of Brok Windsor that I just could not find. Absolutely, 100%, I thought this thing was lost for good. I looked high and low. I went through 2,200 collections and nothing was ever there. Finally, one guy came forward and said “You know, I didn’t want to tell you this…” because the collectors community can be very aggressive in regards to things this rare and he was actually concerned about maintaining a sense of anonymity. He said, “reading your post I can see that you have a real passion about the subject and that I have this issue.” It was an issue right in the middle of Brok’s storyline, and it’s one that some collectors I talked to didn’t even believe existed because so few people had actually seen a copy. No one had seen a copy, or a cover, or a page, or a mention, not anything. That was a huge help.
DS: At what point and how did you make the transition from Nelvana to Brok Windsor?
HN: I’d say the first time I had heard about Brok was when I was looking through history books, and I was vaguely aware of him being one of the more interesting characters from the Vancouver published books. Other than that, I didn’t think much of him at the time because my brain was focused very much on Nelvana, and basically when we were making the documentary and doing research for Lost Heroes I was asked to track down some issues of Brok Windsor. So I found them and sent them over and then when I saw the film, I think that was when I really realized that Brok Windsor looked great! The artwork stood out so much more than any of the other comic books, and that actually includes Nelvana. On screen was when I first thought it was really interesting.
That was when I decided to find out a bit more. I just so happened to be going to Vancouver for the Vancouver Comic Festival, so a few months before that I started to read Brok Windsor stories to see if I would be interested in the content itself. I find it hard to get behind a project if I’m not really invested in it personally. There are some characters in the Canadian Whites where… It’s not that I don’t want people to see them and discover them. I do want them to be accessible, but I don’t know if I could get excited about them. Brok Windsor, however, is very easy to get excited about.
I got in contact with the people who deal with Brok in the States and just hoped they didn’t come back to me and say, “Actually, we’re really ashamed of these and we don’t want them getting out.” If they said that, I probably would have moved on to another character. I went down there and we had coffee, and they were really excited about it. We talked and I got to look through all their work and it was fantastic. Probably about February of this year was when I started work with Brok.
DS: What is it about Brok that makes you really want to get attached to this?
HN: Aside from the artwork, there’s a Winnipeg connection there for me. I’m from there, and Jon Stables worked there. I found out in that missing issue that we were talking about, Brok says he’s from Winnipeg. It’s kind of sad that it’s just a throwaway line in the middle of a story where he says he can’t wait to get back home to Winnipeg, but that got me so excited. (laughs)
The biggest thing is that it’s a huge challenge to me. I know where all the Toronto produced comics are. I know where all the comics for those are archived. Maple Leaf Publishing, I had no idea because that was a Vancouver based publishing firm. So I jumped in, got my feet wet, and when you google Brok Windsor I want it to be more than just two articles about the history of Brok and for people to be able to find it. I’m big on people having access to these titles, so that drives me the most, especially when it comes to something like Brok.
Brok’s storylines are really fun. When I was reading the stories when I finally had access to them, Jon Sables was also the writer and he knew that the concept was silly. Telling the story of a man living on a deserted island where the mists make him grow to gigantic size is going to be ridiculous. In this one issue, he comes across these monsters that look like giant, disembodied heads with little tiny legs like spiders, and Brok just punts this thing like it’s a soccer ball, and that’s one of the best issues. It’s ridiculous. It has fun with itself, but it’s still an exciting, fun read.
DS: For you right now in terms of preserving the Brok Windsor legacy?
HN: Well, we’ve been funded, which is lucky for us, but the more that we get the more circulation we can get. Right now we’ve raised enough to make probably about a thousand copies, which gets us out there, but it doesn’t give us as much reach as we want. The more reach would be better. The more that we can raise our profile, we might even get a publisher attached. Self-publishing to a wider audience would be a great challenge, too.
In terms of getting the issues themselves, I am fortunate to say that either all of the issues have been digitized, or that they will be by the end of this week, and with no travelling for me. That was a huge concern for me because most of these comics are out in Vancouver, and travel costs would be way too expensive, and now we can spend more of the money on producing the product, putting it into the work being done, and marketing it.
I really do want to go down there still, though, because there are letters from the editor of the comics down there that I really want to read for clues about more information on the publisher.
DS: You sound like you’re also a bit of a history buff as much as you are a comic buff.
HN: I get really, really excited about niche things. (laughs) If you ask me about Canadian comic history in general, I can give you a great overview, but if you asked me specifically about Nelvana or Brok, I would give you information that no one else does. It’s fun to go in and do archiving and digging up stuff no one else knows. It’s exciting that a lot of this stuff isn’t on the internet. It’s fun finding that stuff. Yesterday, I went to the University of Toronto and looked at a book that was literally falling apart in my hands. I was looking through Country Life magazine, because Jon Sables was doing artwork for them, and that’s the kind of stuff you’ll never find on the internet, and that’s the stuff that gets me excited the most.
DS: Once everything is digitized, what’s the next step after that in terms of the restoration?
HN: I’m about 30% done right now because I have raw scans to work with. It can be challenging, especially depending on people who send me lower resolution scans of their collection than might be ideal. It can be hard to preserve the quality. Luckily, compared to Nelvana, Brok was printed really well and using a better process, so that part isn’t too difficult. It’s mostly about the little details and making sure everything flows well in the artwork. I’m not an artist, so it’s sometimes like I’m Photoshopping with a rock in my hands, but I am very careful when it comes to this. I can only hope I can make it look as good or better than when it came out.
DS: When you start a Kickstarter for something like this and a character that isn’t as well known, what would you say to someone unfamiliar with the work to pitch them on why Brok matters?
HN: I like to stress to them that this is an important part of popular culture. Their parents and grandparents consumed a lot, but this is something that’s never been archived before in any fashion. Not only is it a comic history thing, but a cultural history thing in general. Most people seem to understand that, and get excited about that. I have a lot of friends and family who wouldn’t pick up a comic book if their life depended on it, but they’re excited to feel and see something new when I explain it like that.
DS: Is there one issue of Brok that you’re looking forward to sharing with people once again that you might consider a favourite?
HN: You know, it’s actually much easier to say what my LEAST favourites are. (laughs) My least favourites are the ones from the final year of his run because he leaves the island, and then he’s on the trail of the killer of his friends WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN MENTIONED IN THE SERIES until that point. It really does everything that every bad TV show does when they start to feel like they’re getting desperate for ratings. Plus, he leaves his love behind. Starra, his girlfriend, followed him back to Winnipeg or Toronto or wherever they ended up going back to, and she just stays behind while he goes off on his next two adventure. She left her entire life behind to go on adventures with him and he basically just says, “Have fun here alone with all these strangers!” (laughs) I don’t think he actually likes her very much. (laughs) She really likes him, but I don’t think he ever made up his mind and told her that he liked her. It might have been a one-sided romance. It’s kind of hard to tell. “Yeah, you just stay here with my friends. They’ll take care of you… probably. I, uh, I gotta go to Egypt now. I might not be coming back.”