Historicist: At the Front With "Monty and Johnny"
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Historicist: At the Front With “Monty and Johnny”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Image from Les Callan Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945).

During the Second World War, comic books offered Canadian youth escapism from the humdrum of the home-front.
The earliest Canadian superheroes—like Freelance, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, and Canada Jack—did battle with the Axis powers or super-villains aligned with the Axis.
For soldiers enduring the gruelling tasks on the front lines of the battle against fascism, there was little opportunity for such fantasy. But they had a remarkable capacity for finding the humour in the daily tribulations of army life.
And they found a welcome respite of humour through the cartoons that appeared in army publications. Bing Coughlin was the most prominent cartoonist, but among the small circle of peers was a Toronto Star editorial cartoonist, Les Callan.
“The Canadian soldier is a grand fighting man with a keen sense of humor and a great heart,” Callan wrote by way of introduction to a post-war reprinting of his work, Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945). “It is my hope that this [work] may in its own modest way add to the record of his achievements and help to keep memories of them fresh.”

Portrait of Callan from Les Callan Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945).

Born in Ignace—a small northern Ontario town about 250 kilometres east of Kenora —Callan took an early interest in art, drawing cartoons of classmates at school. While working at the local rail yard, he completed a correspondence course in art at night before moving to Chicago in 1926. There, he studied at Chicago Academy of Art and a nearby school that specialized in cartooning. After freelancing as an editorial cartoonist at the Winnipeg Free Press, Callan worked at the Vancouver Sun from 1928 to 1937. Joseph E. Atkinson, founder and publisher of the Toronto Star, personally invited the cartoonist to join his staff in 1937. Callan jumped at the chance and remained on staff—with an interruption during the Second World War—until 1961.
As a satirist, he was subtle. “Throughout his career Callan has made it a rule to poke fun or criticism at a person’s policy but never to hurt the person himself,” The Star wrote on the twentieth anniversary of his employment at the paper. His wife added that Callan consistently tried “to get the point across without hurting too much.”
One letter to the editor from November 1940 demonstrates the popularity of Callan’s editorial work with the general public. The letter read:

Your cartoonist, Mr. Les Callan, is to me a source of continuous delight and satisfaction. As an artist his technique is remarkably fine, and his drawings are so humorously depicted that his work deserves high praise. The ideas which he expresses so well are conceived with unusual good nature and an abandon of joyous fun that must give pleasure to thousands. The average excellence of his cartoons is so good, that to make a choice is merely one of personal preference.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, international affairs and the overseas conflict became a frequent subject of Callan’s pieces. From a decidedly distant perspective, Callan’s caricatures featured world leaders and far-off events or the foibles of life on the home-front, but rarely the individual soldier. Callan’s personal life was also touched by the war effort. His brother was with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and, in July 1940, Callan enlisted in the Reserve Army. He was activated with the Artillery in November 1942.

Image from Les Callan Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945).

At around the same time, another Star man, J. Douglas MacFarlane, was being sent abroad for a stint in the military between 1942 and 1945. The Ottawa-born newspaperman had also worked in Chatham and Windsor prior to the Star and would later return to civilian life with senior editorial positions at the Telegram and the Sun.
MacFarlane played an instrumental role in Lieutenant-Colonel R.S. (Dick) Malone’s formation of a daily newspaper for the Canadian troops abroad when he became managing editor of the Maple Leaf. The distinctly Canadian newspaper’s staff was rounded up from whatever former newspapermen, linotype operators, and pressmen could be found among the ranks, and its first issue was published in Naples, Italy, on January 12, 1944.
After the D-Day invasion, a Northwest Europe edition was published with its headquarters based first at Caen, then Brussels, Amsterdam, and Delmenhorst as the troops advanced. The paper was such a success in the combat theatres that a London edition was also published for those soldiers behind the lines.
“Staff writers,” MacFarlane recalled in Barry D. Rowland’s The Maple Leaf Forever (Natural Heritage, 1987), “went where the action was, on land, sea and air to keep the men posted on their performance.” The Maple Leaf reported the news from the front to the soldiers at the front and supplied dispatches to newspapers at home. The paper also carried features culled from newspaper syndicates back home. On the lighter side, the paper also featured pin-up photos, as well as letters and poetry submitted by the fighting men.
“Humour was a major ingredient in the philosophy behind the publication of the Maple Leaf,” Rowland writes. “At a time when daily living was a serious and sobering reality, comic relief in its simplest form—the cartoon—was a welcome addition to the life of the soldier in the front line.”
Sergeant William Garnet “Bing” Coughlin submitted a couple of sketches to the fledgling newspaper’s Italian edition. On February 19, 1944, his first cartoons were published, depicting comical scenes from the daily life of the soldiers. His recurring, ne’er-do-well character, Herbie, became a favourite of the soldiers.

Image from Les Callan Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945).

After the success of Herbie, the Maple Leaf added new cartoonists to their roster, including Merle “Ting” Tingley, later of the London Free Press, who was known to draw his comics on the backside of discarded SS posters—often the only ready source of drawing paper. Other cartoonists included Ted “The Moaner” Reeve, L. E. Weekes and Tom Luzny.
The cartooning talents of Lieutenant Les Callan were also soon discovered by the Maple Leaf shortly after his arrival in England, and he was attached to the Northwest Europe edition of the paper. Callan was at the front with the troops and behind the lines as the Maple Leaf followed the troops advance through France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
Callan’s creation was “Monty and Johnny,” a daily cartoon that reproduced the situational comedy of being a common Canadian soldier. Callan concentrated “on the brighter and lighter humors of the war,” as one post-war reviewer noted. Callan also contributed serious artwork to the newspaper such as “On the Road to Berlin” thumbnail portraits of Canadian soldiers from across Canada, describing their occupation and hometown.
As with Bing’s work, Callan’s cartoons were immensely popular with troops for their authentic flair—both were enlisted soldiers before being called upon to pick up their pen. Bing took ten day tours to the front every month or six weeks to gather material. Callan, too, spoke with men at the front and those on rest behind the lines. Callan told Rowland: “After talking with the men I found that I had gleaned enough ideas for a week.”
“Many of the incidents actually occurred,” Callan later said of his cartoons. “[T]hey are the experiences and stories of individuals and patrols, picked up here and there throughout the campaign from the boys concerned while I shared their rations and ‘liberated’ champagne. As examples I might mention the night patrol returning with ‘Jerry’ prisoners, chickens, and ‘pork chops on the leash,’ or the hurried dive from ‘moanin’ minnies‘ into a supposed cellar entrance which turned out to be a cesspool.”

Image from Les Callan Normandy and On (Longmans, Green and Co., 1945).

The Maple Leaf‘s cartoons were issued at no cost for reprinting to roughly thirty Canadian newspapers. But, occasionally hindered by military jargon and the inside knowledge of military service, Callan’s cartoons might have prompted as many furrowed brows as hearty laughs for the lay reader on the home front.
His primary audience was the Canadian soldier abroad. And if the general public might not always get the punch line, the average grunt sure did—and certainly appreciated a comedic escape from the frequently nightmarish duties of warfare. On one occasion the cartoonist recalled, a colonel stopped him as Callan raised his hand to salute. “Never mind that, Callan,” the colonel said, “give me your hand. You did more for the morale of our outfit than anything I could think of and I want to thank you.”
General H.D.G. Crerar agreed in a foreword to Normandy and On, which was published in November 1945 to raise funds for the Canadian Paraplegic Association’s campaign to assist disabled soldiers. Crerar said: “To be able to see the funny side of a situation, with death lurking around the corner, is a saving grace to a fighting man. Callan’s cartoons provided just that requirement.”
After the war, Callan returned to the Star—drawing approximately five thousand cartoons in his career there—until 1961, when he left to become a freelance illustrator for children’s books and other publications. He ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons as a Liberal in his home riding of Scarborough North before he moving with Margaret, his wife of thirty-three years, to Vancouver in 1973. Callan died there in October 1986.
Other sources consulted: R.E. Beamish, “Battle-Front Humorist,” Maclean’s Magazine (June 1, 1945); Bing Coughlin, Herbie! (Thomas Nelson & Sons Limited, 1946); Toronto Star articles from November 3, 1945, March 19, 1946, January 27, 1947, May 14, 1957, April 7, 1961, October 4, 1986; and the Globe and Mail October 4, 1986.