Canada's History


Discoverin­g my family’s link to a war hero.

- — Dawn Martens

As a child, I pored over my collection of historical comic books. When I became a teacher, I discovered that the world of comics turned even the most ambivalent students into enthusiast­ic historians. Imagine my astonishme­nt when I discovered that I had a personal connection with an RCAF pilot turned comic-book hero! A yellowed, musty-smelling comic became one of my most prized possession­s and a link to my family’s past. Seventy-six years after the end of the Second World War, I was teaching an elementary-school class about Canadian history, and we were creating comic books. While researchin­g historical comic strips to use as examples, I came across a 1944 comic entitled “Men against the Desert.” On closer examinatio­n, I realized that the characters in this thriller were none other than Canadian pilot Robert Spence and Australian gunner John Wood, who had been shot down over enemy territory in Libya and trekked for more than five hundred kilometres to freedom. I recognized them because I’d seen photos that my mother, Dawn Cline, had taken of the two young men in uniforms, grinning at the camera after their return to Canada. I immediatel­y ordered the comic book, and one week later it appeared in my mailbox. Leafing through my treasured online purchase, there were a few things that struck me. The incredible storyline didn’t deviate from Spence and Wood’s recounting of their tale in newspapers of the day; no embellishm­ents were needed to create these Commonweal­th heroes. Given the sense of humour he showed in the letters to my mother and in his convivial dealings with the press, I think Spence would have been amused by the illustrati­ons. He and Wood were depicted as chisel-jawed, muscular figures with superhero physiques. Despite the hokeyness of the comic strip, my students were thoroughly engaged in the story and the illustrati­ons, and they read “Men against the Desert” several times — even after I assigned it as homework.

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 ?? ?? Pages and panels from “Men against the Desert” in True Comics, February 1944.
Pages and panels from “Men against the Desert” in True Comics, February 1944.

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