Life in the comics business ain’t easy, especially in Toronto during WWII. Oursonette is a success, but for how long?
Writer: Margaret Atwood
Artist: Ken Steacy
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Cover Price: $4.99
Release Date: October 3, 2018
Previously in War Bears: Alain lands a job at Canoodle Comics writing war stories about the heroine Oursonette. He’s the new boy on a staff that is much more worldly than he is. His parents don’t understand why he’s pursuing a job in comics. It’s in the middle of World War II, a time of rationing and tough prospects, and the dread that at any time, someone you know and love could lose their life. And his boss, Gloria, is one tough cookie.
A LITERARY LOVE SONG TO A PIECE OF LOST HISTORY
War Bears #2 is something else. It is a story told through comics, about the history of comics, if that makes sense. I think it really captures the essence of the time period, as well as the various emotions behind the story, to give us readers a rich experience, and a window into this bit of history that we may not know much about.
Alain is writing and drawing Oursonette, a black and white comic of the style that was popular in Canada during this time period but, as we now know, not much longer for the world. This is late in the Golden Age of comics, and the American color comics are already out there. Gloria is hounding Alain and Mike, her creators, to get their noses to the grindstone. Mike seems a bit distracted, and Alain finds out that his friend Kevin, whom Alain replaced, was shipped off to the Navy and is in the North Atlantic. His letters are heavily censored, so it’s hard to know what’s going on with him.
That night, Alain has a nightmare about the North Atlantic, about U-boats that are alive, like giant wolves. This, rooted in the conversation with Mike, is inspiration for the next Oursonette story, which we actually see. It’s a four-page mini-story in a style that must be very like the books at the time.
Back in the studio, late one evening, Gloria calls Al over. Oursonette is gaining in sales! She pours herself a drink and offers one to Alain, who refuses politely. She is in a talking mood, and tells him about her brother, who was an airman, and was lost on his first mission. We are a long time past WWII; it is easy for us not to understand how many people it affected; how many loved ones were lost. Gloria’s mood changes from almost making a pass at Alain, to recollecting herself and brusquely telling him to get out.
Alain finds himself in a local bar where he runs into Mike again. We get some of Mike’s story, growing up in the Maritimes, the son of a squid-jigger, as well as learning how Gloria ended up in charge of Canoodle Comics. Eventually, Alain heads home and finds his mother sitting at the table, crucifix in her hand and a telegram on the table. Alain’s brother Sacha is dead. This inspires another nightmare which Alain uses for an Oursonette story.
We end with Gloria calling a meeting. Sales are good, but not good enough, what with paper and ink shortages. She has to lay off some of the few staff she has. Mike may be optimistic about the future, but Alain is a realist – how can Canada compete with the U.S. in comics, especially since they’re full color.
This has all the feel of a drama, full of conflict and complicated characters. I’ve always been interested in history, especially history of things I don’t know well. This book gives us a look at wartime, right at the gut-level of ordinary people trying to live their lives, as well as a look into a classic comic style. It is exceptionally well done.
HITTING ALL THE RIGHT NOTES
The look of War Bears #2 is distinctive. One of the things that caught my eye right away is how the backgrounds have a lot of texture, as though they were drawn with pencil on something akin to watercolor paper. I’d guess it’s a thing you can do with digital coloring, but it’s a really great choice that gives scenes a somewhat gritty feel. A lot of those scenes happen to be at night, and there is some great play of light and shadow. I also really appreciate the care taken with the clothes and especially hats. It brings the time period to life.
In contrast, the Oursonette stories are starkly black and white. I think this makes it more challenging to keep the scenes clear and the depths from being confusing – but they are clear. (Color choices, I think, can make it easier to set characters or objects apart in a busy scene.) I love a strong ink line, and these pages are gorgeous for that. We take color almost for granted nowadays, but there really is something to be said about great black and white comic art.
BOTTOM LINE: FASCINATING CONTRASTS AND A HEARTFELT STORY
Here we are at War Bears #2, and I’m already feeling for the characters who’ve lost their jobs, or their loved ones. Time marches on, and this is the past, but it is a pleasure to see a depiction of what it might have been like when you could lose yourself in the comics (creating or reading) for a brief time and get away from the realities of life.