The story of "Captain George" Henderson, Toronto's first retailer to specialize in comic books.
A version of this article was originally published March 12, 2013 by The Grid online (TheGridTO.com).
During the 1960s, the block of Markham Street south of Bloor transformed from a quiet residential road into a row of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. What started as a plan to build a parking lot for Honest Ed’s became Mirvish Village. While 594 Markham initially housed galleries after its residents departed, the building found its fame when “Captain” George Henderson opened his Memory Lane comic book and movie memorabilia store in 1967.
Born in Montreal, Henderson devoured comic books and movies during a childhood spent bouncing among foster homes. He also wrote poetry, a skill that wasn’t appreciated during his 12-year army stint. After his discharge, he wrote soft-core porn novels for $750 apiece. “I could rewrite the same book three times, one heterosexual, one homosexual, and one lesbian,” he later told the Globe and Mail.
Tiring of the porn trade, Henderson returned to his childhood loves when he opened the Viking Bookshop on Queen Street West near Simcoe Street in spring 1966. Dubbed “the campiest store in town” by the Star’s Robert Fulford, the Viking was the first in Canada to specialize in comic books. He claimed the largest stock of Golden Age comics (those published up to 1949) in Canada, with a weekly turnover of 5,000 comics from that era.
Henderson renamed the store Memory Lane when it moved to Markham Street because “it was the worst cliché you could think of.” The store became a place for comic fans, movie buffs, and nostalgic types to connect. Rising interest in comics spurred by the Adam West Batman TV show attracted plenty of media attention, even if it wasn’t always respectful—during one TV appearance, a laugh track played whenever he opened his mouth. He also dealt with occasional hecklers—once, when a passerby bellowed, “what a weird store!” Henderson replied, “Yes sir, and I think there’s a place in Toronto for a weird store like this.”
The “weird store” was a focal point for one of Toronto’s first major conventions, the Triple Fan Fair. Centred around Markham Street during Canada Day weekend in 1968, the gathering included art displays, a Tarzan exhibit, a panel discussion featuring Stan Lee, a comic-book swap, and silent films presented by a young Reg Hartt. Anticipating future convention costume contests, the fair offered a masked ball filled with comic characters, silent movie stars, and monsters.
The store cultivated many fans via its mini publishing empire, known as the “Vast Whizzbang Organization.” Captain George’s Whizzbang was an attractive fanzine that purveyed, according to Star media critic Nathan Cohen, “affectionate, informed nostalgia.” Its content included capsule reviews of current books, columns on comics and radio, and essays on sci-fi illustrators and movies past and present. Henderson’s reprints of classic comic strips ran into trouble when he was fined $4,000 after King Features received an injunction over copyright violations.
CBC News story on Memory Lane, May 29, 1970.
Yet these reprints reflected Henderson’s interest in promoting comics as a valid art form. Following an exhibition of his most valuable comics at Hart House in November 1966, Henderson talked of establishing a permanent comic art museum. His vision was briefly realized in 1971, when the Whizzbang Gallery opened a few doors south of Memory Lane. “We’re not out to appeal to the man on the street,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We’re only interested in people who care about our popular culture.” During its opening, one guest confided to Henderson that “this is the first party I’ve ever been at where the other guests didn’t think I was some kind of nut for liking comic books.”
By the 1980s, Henderson wearied of the comic-book market. He noticed that, as the years passed, kids’ enthusiasm changed from the stories inside the comics to their financial worth. Most of his income came from movie memorabilia, especially posters and lobby cards. The sheer volume Henderson carried led the Globe and Mail to call Memory Lane “a branch of the Smithsonian that the Smithsonian doesn’t know about.” The store occasionally experienced runs on particular items, such as Ronald Reagan material during his 1980 presidential run.
Henderson passed away in 1992. After of succession of cinema-related businesses, the site currently houses Coal Miner’s Daughter. Henderson’s legacy of treating comics seriously lingers on in Mirvish Village via The Beguiling.
Additional material from the June 15, 1966, November 28, 1966, February 17, 1968, October 2, 1971, and April 4, 1982 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 23, 1966, June 29, 1968, and April 28, 1969 editions of the Toronto Star.