A long time ago I took a literature course in college where we read and studied novels about dystopian societies. We read ‘Brave New World’, ‘1984’, ‘We’, and several other novels including “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. That was my first and only exposure to Atwood until I read this comic.
Dark Horse Comics is one of my favorite comics publishers. I’ve been reading Dark Horse ever since I got back into collecting comics in college. I love those old Dark Horse Presents anthologies, the original Aliens and Predator stories, and of course the Legends creators line. I thought that the Conan and Star Wars comics published by Dark Horse were awesome. The editors at Dark Horse have a real passion for comics and that shows in the material they publish and the care and attention to detail that they put into each finished product. The point is that I dig their comics.
I also need to mention that I rarely read the full solicitation for any comic, even when trying something new. When I was filling out the order book the month this issue was solicited I figured that a comic written by Margaret Atwood published by Dark Horse and that featured Bears fighting Nazis had to be worth getting. Let’s see…
Story – Margaret Atwood and Ken Steacy
Art – Ken Steacy
The story begins on one of the famous red and white Toronto trolley cars in 1943 (Fun fact, the outdoor city scenes in the movie “A Christmas Story” were filmed in Toronto and you can see the trolleys in those scenes). A young man is reading a comic book while the older woman next to him admonishes him for reading trash. As the kid asks the woman what she had said he realizes that he’s missed his stop. As he exits the trolley he almost gets hit by a truck and drops the portfolio that he’s carrying.
After he gets his act together he arrives at his destination, Canoodle Comics Inc.. In the office he meets an attractive blond woman whom he assumes is the receptionist, but is actually the publisher and editor in chief of Canoodle comics, Gloria Topper. Removing the foot from his mouth the young man introduces himself as Alain Zurakowski and says that he’s the artist who answered the ad and has an appointment. Alain shows Gloria his portfolio and she hires him on the spot and says he can start the next day.
Alain goes home to tell his parents the good news. His mother is pleased for him but his father gives him grief about drawing stupid cartoons and says he should be more like his brothers who are serving in the military and are currently overseas fighting the Germans. After his father leaves his mother shares a letter from his older brother who been promoted to gunner on a bomber crew. Alain tries comfort his mother and tells her that her other son will be fine. Alain shares her concerns though because that night he has an awful nightmare about his brother’s plane getting shot down.
The next day at work Alain is introduced to the head artist, Mike Mackenzie. Much to Alain’s surprise he’s told by Mike that he’ll be starting out doing his finishing work, including borders, backgrounds, and secondary characters. Grunt work as he calls it. This is how the industry worked back then and I assume still does to a certain extent, The new guy has to put his time in before the big time, but it’s probably no less disheartening.
One night Alain is working late when Gloria checks in on him and finds that he’s not working on the assignment that he’s late with, but is instead working on his own material. He’s designed his own character, Oursonette. A half woman, half bear character that is punching out Hitler, a-la Kirby and Simon’s first Captain America. Gloria likes it and tells him to have an outline in the morning and she leaves. It looks like things are starting to go Alain’s way.
Another day Mike congratulates Alain for finishing the project he was working on and gives him another. The pages Mike hands him are the beginning of an Oursonette story. Alain is furious and barges into Gloria’s office screaming that Oursonette is his strip. She quickly admonishes him for barging into her office and then corrects him that he created the character at her office on her paper and that makes it hers. Dejected and angry Alain storms out and heads to a local gin joint.
As Alain drowns his sorrows the bartender reminds him that he still has to pay the rent and his tab so he might have to eat a little humble pie and ask for his job back. Much like myself, Alain appears to be highly suggestible when he’s had a little to drink and he decides to take the advice and go ask for his job back. (Fun fact number two, I once swallowed a whole Jerusalem Orange after suggesting it to myself after having a few adult beverages.)
When Alain gets back to the office he finds Mike and Gloria on the corner, arms around each other, trying to hail a cab. Alain yells at Mike that he stole his girl and takes a wild swing at him. Still drunk he misses but Mike fires back and connects. Gloria is shocked and yells at Mike. The whole scene does not go well and ends with Mike and Gloria in the cab mad at each other while Alain stumbles home embarrassed and with busted glasses.
In the next scene Mike and Alain are working side by side. Mike says he still feels bad for hitting Alain while Alain conveniently asks if Gloria is still mad at him for what happened a month ago. Gloria calls both men into her offices and tells Mike that his women still aren’t very good and that he’s being put back on Hat Trick Comics, their sports strip, and that Alain is getting the Oursonette strip. I guess time really does heal all wounds.
The story ends with Gloria giving Alain the first copy of Victorious Comics that features his were-bear heroine Oursonette. We, the readers, are finally treated to a couple pages of the comic in a comic where Oursonette is riding bombs and fighting Nazis.
In what servers as a nice epilogue to the story, or possible lead in to issue 2, we see the old woman from the trolley scene at a newsstand. She’s buying a magazine and as she does she tells the purveyor of said newsstand that he shouldn’t sell comics, that they are the leading cause of juvenile delinquency and that she’s going to write her member of parliament. The newsman responds that his kids love comics and they’re not delinquents. He offers to sell the old lady a stamp for her letter and then goes back to reading his copy of Victorious comics #1.
I have to say that I was blown away by this story. Ken Steacy’s art looks like some of the great EC and National artists from the forties and fifties, like Wally Wood or Al Feldstein. The lines and inks make for very dramatic work with a lot of emotion. The story itself was well done and packed a lot into 28 pages with no ads. This was one of the best comics I’ve read this year.
This story comes from the story “Oursonette” that Margaret Atwood wrote for Canada’s sesquicentennial about a comic writer and VE day. The premise of that story is that Canada is celebrating the victory in Europe while at the same time this comic writer of the series Oursonette, a bear woman who fights Nazi’s like Wonder Woman, knows his comic is going to come to an end and he’s going to have to find work in the commercial art industry. This story features the characters we met in Warbears; Alain, Mike and Gloria and was printed in the Globe and Mail, who had commissioned a series of stories about Canada by Canadian writers. Warbears serves as a prequel to the Oursonette story and we get to really find out more about where the characters came from while being treated to bits of comic history.
The comic tells the story of what it was like for lots of men and some woman in the early days of the comic industry without being overly dramatic or sensationalizing anything. This could easily be the story of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, or anyone of hundreds of famous and not so famous comic book creators. Pick up any issue of Comic Creator or Alter Ego and you’ll read similar tales. I would recommend this to anyone that has even a passing interest in comics history.
Finally I want to say that even as Dark Horse loses more and more licenses like the Conan and Buffy the Vampire slayer they still march on putting out good comics. Every month when I fill out my previews order I’m still a little sad that they are no longer the first company listed but as long as they publish stuff like Warbears I’ll still buy ‘em.
I’ll close this out with the introduction from Margaret Atwood and Ken Steacy where they discuss the origins of this comic.