Sunday, 21 December 2014

John Balge (1954-2014): Early Canadian Fanzine Pioneer

CANAR #21/22 Double Issue (May/June 1974)
Cover by Gene Day
BRYAN MUNN:
(from Sequential: Canadian Comixs News & Culture, 30 October 2014)
John Balge died September 14 in Kitchener, Ontario. As the founder and publisher of the fanzine Comic Art News and Reviews, also known as CANAR, Balge was a pioneering comics critic and an early patron of Dave Sim, Gene Day, and other Canadian cartoonists in the early 1970s.

Balge published the first issue of CANAR in 1972, after getting to know Dave Sim through Harry Kremer’s Now and Then Books comic shop. Originally intending to serve only as the financial backer of the zine, Balge became responsible for one-third of the content of the initial issues, which were split editorially into three “columns” or sections, along the lines of a classic collated APA-zine. Dave Sim penned "The Back Alley Report", Rick Seiler "Telegraphics", and Balge "The Red Beaver". Initial issues were only seven pages, gradually expanding with additional contributors, illustrations, comics, and letters from readers.

Already a fanzine veteran, having published his own zine at age 15, and previously editor of Kremer’s Now and Then Times, Sim was responsible for the art, layout and production of the initial issues of CANAR, using a typewriter and Letraset until Balge struck a deal with a professional typesetting company. From the beginning, the zine adopted a slightly rebellious critical attitude compared to some of its more polite Canadian contemporaries. The first issue featured Sim's diatribe against Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics and a statement of principles by Balge:
"This column adheres to the principle that a thriving Canadian culture is essential for the survival of this nation. Any fool can see that clic art has no great tradition in Canada because the comic books and comic strips are totally American. I believe, judging from the large number of comic books sold in stores throughout this country and the many comic strips in most of our newspapers, that there is a place for Canadian comic art, panel art, the graphic story, or whatever one wishes to call it. This column is dedicated to a truly independent and revolutionary comic art culture, hence the title, "The Red Beaver.'"
According to Sim, Balge identified politically as a Trotskyist at the time, accounting in part for the slightly leftist nature of his cultural nationalism. In his initial column, Balge goes on to critique one of the few other Canadian fanzines of the day, the Montreal-based Le Beaver, published by Ralph Alfonso and Clifford Letovsky, for its muddled nationalism, beginning a long-running exchange of letters.

Sim and Balge, along with Now and Then’s Kremer, became inseparable, travelling together to comics conventions in the U.S. and southern Ontario, interviewing many prominent American comics creators along the way. Issues of the zine are a treasure trove of interviews for researchers interested in cartoonists, writers, and editors active in the 1972 to 1976 period, including Will Eisner, Russ Heath, Harvey Kurtzman, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike Kaluta, Gil Kane, Steve Skeates, Berni Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, and others.

The zine continued its focus on Canadian fandom as well, with a lively letters page, reviews of other zines, and historical articles on 1940s Canadian comics. As well, both Sim and Gene Day contributed many covers, illustrations, strips, and multi-page comic stories. Richard Comely’s early Captain Canuck efforts were profiled and the triple issue #26-27-28 (1974) featured a cover by the Canadian poet/cartoonist bpNichol as well as a rare interior 3 page Nichol comic, “The Revolt of Rover Rawshanks.”

After ceasing publication of CANAR in 1976, Balge seemed to drift away from organized comics fandom, although he continued to collect comics and kept in touch with Sim sporadically.

Balge is survived by five brothers and sisters. A memorial service was held in Kitchener on October 4.

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