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ARCHIVED - Comics During the "Great Darkness"
It has been seen that until the Industrial Revolution, Quebec society had been primarily rural, attached to its traditions and to its language, and controlled by Church authority. By the beginning of the 20th century, industrialization and urbanization were progressing at a rapid pace and the Church had grown wary of the propagation of liberal ideas that threatened its influence. The clergy, in response, tightened its grip on Quebec society and turned more and more towards a mythical past -- this period became known as "la grande noirceur" ("the great darkness").
Between 1919 and 1944, the Quebecois comic strips in evidence -- excepting comic strips published in the major press -- were creations of religious congregations and of certain francophile Catholic associations. Turning their backs on modernity and on American influence, these strips gave up the use of balloons in favour of a long paragraph of text placed under the image, as is still done in France. From adaptations of the Bible to the lives of saints and Church prelates and the martyrdom of missionaries, albums of religious comic strips constituted almost the entirety of Quebecois production at this time.
Land and the Past (1919-1940)
Although comic strips published in the dailies were decidedly modern and reflected a society in transition, the conservative and reactionary strips published under the aegis of the clergy or of nationalistic or religious organizations promoted the dominant ideology and transmitted the same recurring themes as French-Canadian literature from the beginning of the century: the past and the land. However, industrialization was progressing so rapidly that, in 1921, the farming population only represented one third of the total population of the province. The daily comic strips, aimed primarily at children, were, in essence, propaganda of the ecclesiastic authorities and presented an idealized picture of contemporary society.
Glorification of a fabled past
In 1919, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (SSJB), a nationalist organisation, published a series of ten leaflets called Contes historiques de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Strongly inspired by the French drawings of Épinal1, these tales glorified New France, the French-Canadian "race" and the Catholic faith. They were authored by influential members of the Catholic elite such as Canon Lionel Groulx, and illustrated by, among others, Onésime-Aimé Léger, Albert-Samuel Brodeur, Rita Mount, Napoléon Savard, Claire Fauteux, Georges Latour and James McIsaac.
Buoyed by the success of this series of ten tales, the SSJB published a second series of eight stories the same year and a third in 1920. Reprinted numerous times, the first two series of the Contes historiques ran to more than 500 000 copies, and a cover was printed around 1921 to collect the 26 sheets.
The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal continued publishing for children and, from November 1920 to July 1940, published the monthly L'Oiseau bleu. The first Quebecois magazine dedicated exclusively to youth, on its cover and on the centre pages, L'Oiseau bleu provided some captioned comic strips by Albert-Samuel Brodeur ("Francine et Graindesel") and James McIsaac ("Les Aventures de Florette"). As of 1923, L'Oiseau bleu presented reprints of the three Contes historiques series as well as a fourth series, which was never published. As of 1929, L'Oiseau bleu no longer published stories in pictures.
In 1935, the Association catholique des voyageurs de commerce, of Trois-Rivières, commissioned several leaflets which depicted stories in pictures: L'Appel de la race and Au cap Blomidon, by Alonié de Lestre (Lionel Groulx's pen name) and adapted by Victor Barette, with illustrations by J. Paquette and James McIsaac respectively; Jean Rivard, a novel by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie with illustrations by J. McIsaac; La Campagne canadienne, a novel by Adélard Dugré with illustrations by Maurice Raymond; Les Anciens Canadiens, a novel by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé with illustrations by Jean-Maurice Massicotte; and many others. These leaflets, albums of which were collected, came out in newspapers (Le Devoir, L'Action catholique and Le Bien public) as well as in magazines (La Famille and Ave Maria). They propagated values promoted by the clergy and by nationalist groups: valuing the French-Canadian home and family, protection of the French language, racial homogeneity within the culture, return to the land, the dangers of urbanization, and submission to Church authority.
Comics Under Attack (1943-1965)
The English-Canadian comic strip was in its Golden Age during WWII, because of an import ban on American comic books. Paradoxically, in Quebec, it was the return in force of American comic books at the end of the conflict that stimulated the production of local comics.
The proliferation of violence in American comic strips led civil and religious authorities to take the issue up, and comics received bad press in Quebec and in Canada. The government also created a senate committee to study the matter and reinforced the provisions of the Criminal Code (section 150) related to obscenity. (See "Crackdown on Comics" by John Bell.)
In 1955, in Montréal, Gérard Tessier, a school inspector, supported by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, started a crusade against the pernicious publications. In his work Face à l'imprimé obscène, he mounted an inflammatory denunciation of American comics and magazines imported from France. He adopted various arguments put forth by the American psychiatrist Frederic Wertham in his anti-comics campaign and adapted them to the Quebecois context. He added a list of periodicals, "subject to additions," that all Quebecois homes should forbid for various reasons. All American comics and most Franco-Belgian comic-strip magazines for youth were included in this list.
Several Quebecois comics periodicals, of Catholic inspiration, came into being in the 1940s and 1950s: François in 1943 (joined by Claire in 1957), Hérauts in 1944 (as well as its sister reviews Ave Maria, L'Abeille , Jeunesse, L'Éclair and Stella Maris in 1947), Sais-tu? in 1945, Exploits illustrés in 1947 and Le Petit Héraut in 1958. Religious strips were then at their apogee.
Publications for young people: François, Claire, Hérauts...
In 1943, the Centrale de la Jeunesse étudiante catholique (JEC) started a bi-weekly newspaper called François, which published several Quebecois series, most of which were humorous: "L'As des montagnes," "Les Loups-garous de Beauchâtel" and "Le Dernier des Saute-à-pic" by Julien Hébert and "Pictou" by Jean-Paul Ladouceur. Some adventure strips, very rare at the time, also appeared in François: "Yves l'Aventurier" by Julien Hébert and "Robino" by Jacques Bernier. At the beginning of the 1950s, after having published translations of American strips and reprinted European series, François offered a mixture of French, American and Quebecois strips. Several episodes of the adventures of Météore, a bold lad, written by Jean-François and Michel, were published there, as well as "Les Contes de papa Du nord," signed simply with the initial "S".
In 1957, the JEC came out with Claire, the feminine counterpart to François. The two papers published roughly the same comic strips and differed only in their articles and features. The star of the Claire series was "Jani," about a young airline hostess, determined and self-assured, drawn by Nicole Lapointe in a distinctly modern style. Nicole Lapointe -- who would later have a singing career under the name Isabelle Pierre -- signed almost all of Claire's illustrations as well as several short religious stories.
The monthly Hérauts, created by the Fides publishing house, was launched in April 1944. The first number, consisting almost entirely of translations of American comic strips taken from the U.S. religious comic book Timeless Topix, had a print run of 100 000. The editorial statement in the second issue clearly declared the magazine's purpose: to battle the "bad" American comic books, which corrupted and dulled the minds of youth, on their own ground. In September 1947, the review Hérauts joined the religious reviews (Ave Maria, Jeunesse, Stella Maris, L'Abeille and L'Éclair) distributed in schools. This association resulted in a reduction of the magazine's comic strip content in favour of more staid columns and articles. Hérauts' Roland Canad-Marquis repeated the formula he had used for the short-lived magazine Sais-tu? (1945-1947).
From 1948 to 1952, a European version of Hérauts was published, in France by Société Fides and in Belgium by the Éditions du Rendez-Vous. This magazine, which did not match the quality of native European comics publications (Spirou, Tintin, Vaillant, Bayard, etc.), quickly disappeard. Although its contents only consisted of translated American comic strips, Hérauts represented the first attempt at exporting Quebecois comics to Europe.
As of 1955, Hérauts offered indigenous Quebec strips by Gabriel de Beney and, most notably, by Maurice Petitdidier. Apart from illustrating features, colouring pages and games in Hérauts, Petitdidier also drew numerous tales of adventure that inspired his young readers: "Une de perdue, deux de trouvées", "Le Secret de la rivière perdue," "Toupet dans l'Ungava," "Picou agent secret," "Claude en hélicoptère," "Tonio le petit émigré," and others. Gabriel de Beney produced "La Sonate de l'aveugle," "La Légende de Cadieux" and "Les Trois Pommes et le calife." Almost all the American and Quebecois strips published in Hérauts were reprinted in albums in the collections Trésor de la jeunesse, Légende dorée, Albums du gai lutin, or Jeunes intrépides.
In September 1958, Fides launched a version of Hérauts adapted for students aged 7 to 10 and called Le Petit Héraut. Once again, Maurice Petitdidier was everywhere. He drew a series called "Fanchon et Jean-Lou," which quickly became the newspaper's star feature. Le Petit Héraut published reissues of Hérauts as well as certain French and American series. This magazine appeared until June 1961 (the last year of which it was called Fanchon et Jean-Lou).
In 1947-48, the Compagnie de publications agricoles ltée, which published Sais-tu?, turned to publishing Quebecois versions of comic books. The renamed Treasure Chest of Fun and Facts (Exploits héroïques et d'aventures illustrés) offered moralizing stories, lives of saints, adaptations of classic youth literature and some funny stories. The company also published Classics Illustrated, renamed Illustrés classiques.
The BDQ as presented in François, Claire and Hérauts was short-lived as, within five years (1955 to 1960), American strips took over. Hérauts published translations of Classics Illustrated as well as strips originally published by Dell Publishing, whereas Claire and François offered adaptations in strip form of successful television and film series, also distributed by Dell Publishing. The Quebec revues were doomed when magazines from Belgium (Tintin and Spirou) and France (Vaillant, then Pif and Pilote), with their colour pages -- on glossy paper -- and their exciting adventures, flooded the market. Unable to compete, the modest and moral François and Claire disappeared at the end of 1964, soon followed by Hérauts in May 1965.