War Bears is not what I expected, and I dare say that unless you know your Canadian Whites, it’ll not be what you expect either. Do you know your Canadian Whites, and no, I’m not talking wine? Okay, then, for the record, the Canadian Whites came about because of the War Exchange Conservation Act, enacted during World War II to restrict the import of non-essential goods from the U.S. into Canada – this included American comics. Thus, from roughly 1941 through 1947, some enterprising Canadian publishers launched their own titles – generally full colour covers but with black and white interiors – and with headlining characters like Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Brok Windsor and Johnny Canuck, it was pretty much considered the country’s Golden Age of Comics. Apologies for the history lesson but you need to know this because it’s essentially what War Bears is about, not, urm, well, War Bears.
What, though, it’s mainly about is Alain Zurakowski – this is his story. In the Toronto of 1943, he’s an inexperienced artist angling for a job with Canoodle Comics, run by the mercurial Gloria Topper, and though he gets it, he’s another who finds things ain’t quite what he expected. Initially relegated to drawing borders and word balloons, he eventually finds success with his own creation, Oursonette, a Nazi and Jap fighting damsel who is not only a were-bear but has the power to summon two polar bears, Ursa Major and Minor, to her aid. Much ass-kicking ensues, but in more than equal measure to occurences in the comic strip comes the angst in Alain’s life. Polish immigrant parents who have difficulty accepting comics as a ‘real job’, the for its time shocking revelation that his work mate is gay, and in what will strike a note of horror to all industry professionals, the casual disregard with which creator rights and original artwork was treated in the same back when.
War Bears is very much a joint effort between Margaret Atwood – yes, author of The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood – and Ken Steacy. By their own admissions it’s unclear where Atwood’s contribution to the story ends and Steacy’s input and art begins, but that’s of little import. What matters is that here is a colourful and lovingly-crafted tale about human beings, ambition and imagination interspersed with the adventures of Oursonette, correctly printed in black and white, set during a unique period of publishing history that will never come again. It’s one that is highly recommended. Mike Wild