FREELANCE: THE MAN ON THE LANCE
“The physical shortcomings of Anglo-American comic books –the newsprint covers … – were redeemed by the presence of probably the greatest Canadian comic book hero of the 1940s – Freelance, a secret agent whose adventures constantly took him deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. Written by a Toronto Telegram editor named Ted McCall and illustrated by Ed Furness, Freelance’s book-length adventures had a breath of authenticity that lifted the character head and shoulders above the rest.” Writ., Peter Harris. The World Encyclopedia of Comics, 1976: 265.
Freelance was the only one of journalist Ted McCall’s creations which was written specifically for a comic book. McCall’s two other creations “Men of the Mounted” and “Robin Hood and Company” both began life as comic strips which then were converted to the comic book format.
After moving Robin Hood and Company into comic books, McCall wanted to add a contemporary adventurer who would fight the Nazi. He first approached Sid Stein the illustrator for Robin Hood and Company to draw this new character but Stein had tired of cartooning and wanted to return to commercial art. He suggested that his friend Ed Furness another commercial artist might replace him on the new project which Furness did.
There are two stories, both given by Ed Furness, about how the name “Freelance” was chosen. One is that McCall chose the name after reading that a mercenary knight was called a free lance. The second is that since both McCall and Furness themselves were working as free lancers, they would name the character “Freelance”.
This team also appeared to follow the time honoured Canadian tradition of making the hero generic rather than Canadian perhaps in the hope that they would be able to sell in the U.S.A. market. Therefore, Freelance had neither a country nor for that matter a past.
Freelance first appeared in July 1941 as a 64 page comic book devoted entirely to this hero’s adventures and containing only one advertisement on the back cover. Furness did the breakdowns throughout the career of “Freelance” The finished art work was initially drawn by Furness. He used a young blonde haired shipping clerk at Sinnott News called Ronny Ullathorne as a model for “Freelance”. Ullathorne later joined the Canadian Navy. However, as Furnesses work load increased the finished art passed from his hands into a period when the finished illustration which included the use of stick on heads was carried out by inexperienced artists. Finally June Banfield and Priscilla Hutchings took over the finished art work with much improved results.
The story opens with “Freelance” piloting a plane into a tropical valley in the Antarctic. There, he greets a lost tribe to whom he had been brought as a child and by whom he had been raised although he had been into the outer world for his education. The elders of the tribe could not give him his identity because of a promise extracted from them by his father who had brought him there as a baby. Thus although he wasn’t identified as a Canadian neither was he said not to be one.
Freelance, in his turn had flown to his guardians to tell them that he must live in the outer world in order to fight the Nazi menace. He left and would never return.
As he flew away from his refuge he spotted a British merchant ship being attacked by a German submarine. He saved the British ship by crashing his aircraft into the U-boat. Taken aboard the merchant ship he went to Africa where, through a series of adventures he would aid the British military then vanish always leaving a jauntily waving stick figure riding on a flying lance. He worked he way into the Middle East, Greece and finally France and Holland. These last countries became his main theatre of operations. In these stories we see the same fast narrative style that characterized McCall’s “Robin Hood” series.
McCall and Furness created Freelance as a solitary fighter, however, Jack Calder, Anglo-American’s Managing Editor told McCall and Furness, as Furness remembered it, that “Freelance” was getting “too smug”, and needed a partner to help him. Given McCall’s tendency in his other creations “Men of the Mounted” and “Robin Hood and Company” towards team action there may not have been much of an argument between Calder and McCall. The “Freelance” team decided on a Long John Silver type character and so was born Big John Collins a modern day pirate complete with peg leg. It should not escape the reader that the “Big John Collins” / “Freelance” partnership bears a striking resemblance to the “Little John” / “Robin Hood” partnership. In order for “Freelance” to meet “Big John Collins”, McCall and Furness had “Freelance” flying to the South Seas in Freelance no. 9, July 1942. He and “Big John Collins” fought each other in their initial encounter but soon they joined forces to fight that common enemy, the Japanese. Furness recalled that the inspiration for this sequence came from the story of the first encounter between Robin Hood and Little John which is not surprising given McCall’s research for his “Robin Hood and Company” strip.
Another addition to the Freelance team was the female Russian agent “Natasha” who was introduced in Freelance no. 11, November-December 1942. Jack Calder wanted to bring a Russian into the story because the Russians had joined the allies against the axis. Both McCall and Furness opposed the idea of introducing a third principal character but Calder insisted and so “Natasha” was born. In spite of the fact that they didn’t like the character, McCall and Furness did create an interesting heroine whose gushing hero worship for “Freelance” was more than offset by her tough self-reliance. “Natasha’s” other asset was June Banfield who was assigned to draw her. Unfortunately, as time passed McCall and Furness slowly wrote “Natasha” out of the story. After Freelance no. 31, August 1946, she disappeared altogether.
Behind the ebb and flow of character changes, the Freelance comic book was itself changing dramatically. It like all wartime Canadian comics began as a black and white. In 1945, the Globe and Mail acquired a colour press and wanting to increase its use suggested to Anglo-American that they convert their comics to colour. Even though the American comics were banned from the Canadian market as a wartime measure to preserve currency, it was still ferociously competitive. Maple Leaf Comics produced a number of titles from Vancouver. Educational Products in Montreal produced Canadian Hero Comics. While Toronto had Anglo-American and Bell Features plus a kalidescope of small companies battling it out. Colour would give Anglo-American an advantage hard to beat and of course it would prepare them for the entry of U.S. comics which would surely occur as the war wound down.
Freelance, Robin Hood and Company vol. 3 no. 27, July-August 1945 became the first Freelance in colour. It was also with this issue that Freelance for the first time shared his magazine with other heroes. He was joined by McCall’s two other creations “Men of the Mounted” and “Robin Hood and Company” both of which had made the transition from comic strip to comic book but who had previously resided in Anglo-American titles Three Aces and Grand Slam. This change, however, lasted only four issues and by Freelance vol. 3 no. 31, April 1946, Freelance had his own comic back. The other creations banished back to their former titles.
In Freelance vol. 3 no. 34, October-November 1946 Freelance achieved another first. He finally had an adventure in the land of his creators – Canada.
Bigger changes were in store for Freelance. The war in Europe was drawing to a close and so there was a need to adapt Freelance to peacetime. McCall and Furness brought Freelance through a transition from fighting Nazi to fighting escaped Nazi war criminals to combating a sinister organization dedicated to, what else but world domination. It was called the SS which stood for Super Six. Who could have guessed that in a few short years the menace would be our former ally, Russia.
McCall and Furness had a vision of an even larger transformation for Freelance. They were attempting to convert him into a detective type character and introduce him, minus Big John Collins into the world of the newspaper cartoon strip. Some test strips were actually drawn. As Furness remembered, “They were impressed by the success in a relatively short time that “Freelance” had enjoyed … and they thought it might take off down there. The idea as I remember now was they were going to turn “Freelance” into some sort of a private eye … they did not have a private eye among their comic at the time, at least not one that was significantly popular.” Negotiations were conducted with McClure Syndication the U.S. but never achieved success. Freelance died with Anglo-American.
Ted McCall left the comic strip/comic book field entirely. He rose in the ranks to become Managing Editor of the Toronto Telegram. Ed Furness went back into commercial art and later founded a successful company. He retired to a hobby of landscape painting.
“Freelance” was arguably the most popular hero of the 1940’s. Some estimates put comic book sales at 60,000 copies per issue. Ed Furness himself estimated (January 15, 1983) that in 1944 the print run was 48,000 copies with about 42,000 sold. George Henderson said: “Freelance was Canada’s most underrated cartoon character. He was superb.” Pete Harris has called McCall’s scripts well rounded and relatively sophisticated for the time, taking a more realistic approach to the war. This seems a reasonable assessment since McCall wrote adventure stories from a young age and we know his “Men of the Mounted” stories were firmly based on actual events. The art work was less successful because of the way Anglo American organized it having several artists on the same story. (See ANGLO-AMERICAN PUBLISHING COMPANY) However, by the time June Banfield and Priscilla Hutchings were drawing it, it was as good as the majority of comic books of the time.
|“Freelance.” Writ., Ted McCall. Illus., Ed Furness & Anglo-American team. Freelance, White interiors|
|1-1, July/Aug. no year.
1-2 ,Sept./Oct. 1941.
1-3, Nov./Dec. 1941.
1-4, Jan. 1942.
1-5, Feb. 1942.
1-6, Mar. 1942.
1-7, Apr. 1942.
1-8, May 1942.
|1-9, July 1942.
1-10, Sept./Oct. 1942.
1-11, Nov./Dec. 1942.
1-12, Jan./Feb. 1943.
2-1, Mar./Apr. 1943.
2-2, May/June 1943.
2-3, July/Aug. 1943.
2-4, Sept./Oct. 1943.
|2-5, Nov./Dec. 1943.
2-6, Jan./Feb. 1944.
2-7, Mar./Apr. 1944.
2-8, May/June 1944.
2-9, July/Aug. 1944.
2-10, Sept./Oct. 1944.
2-11, Nov./Dec. 1944.
2-12, Jan./Feb. 1945.
Freelance/Robin Hood, 3-1, Mar./Apr. 1945. Writ., Ted McCall. Illus., Ed Furness & Anglo-American team. Black & white interiors. “Freelance” “Robin Hood” & “Men of The Mounted” are combined into one title.
Freelance, 3-2, May/June. 1945. Writ., Ted McCall. Illus., Ed Furness & Anglo-American team. Black & white interiors. This issue has only “Freelance”in the title and is composed entirely of “Freelance” stories.
“Freelance” “Robin Hood & “Men of The Mounted” are combined into one title again.
|Freelance/Robin Hood, Writ., Ted McCall. Illus., Ed Furness & Anglo-American team. Colour interiors|
|3-27, July/Aug. 1945.||3-28, Sept./Oct. 1945.||3-29, Nov./Dec. 1945.||3-30, Jan./Feb. 1946..|
“Freelance” and “Robin Hood plus “Men of The Mounted”” split to separate titles again.
|Freelance, Writ., Ted McCall. Illus., Ed Furness & Anglo-American team. Colour interiors|
|3-31, Apr. 1946.
3-32, June/July 1946.
|3-33, Aug./Sept. 1946.||3-34, Oct./Nov. 1946.||3-35, Dec.1946/Jan. 1947.|
This is based on earlier notes written in the 1980’s from analysis of the material and interviews with Ed Furness.
“Freelance (Canada).” Writ., Peter Harris. The World Encyclopedia of Comics, Ed., Maurice Horn. Chelsea House Publishers, 1976: 265.
“The War Years: Anglo-American Publishing Ltd.” Writ., Robert MacMillan. Canuck Comics. Ed., John Bell. Matrix Comics. 1986.
“Iron Man and Freelance”, Writ., John Bell. Guardians of the North: The National Superhero in Canadian Comic-Book Art, National Archives of Canada, 1992: 3 – 4. A catalogue for the exhibit of the same name.
“Whatever Happened to …?” Writ., Peter Harris. Globe and Mail, 23 Oct.1982: Fanfare 7.
In a conversation with Ed Furness on Jan. 15, 1983, he said that Freelance had attained a print run of 48,000 copies in 1944 of which he estimated conservatively that 42,00 copies where sold. He also mentioned that Ted McCall used to come into the office and announce triumphantly that they were out selling the competition.
Telephone interview with Ed Furness June 25, 1987.
Freelance’s first appearance. Freelance Comics, 1-1, July/August 1941. Front cover.
Freelance Comics, 1-2, September/October 1941. Front Cover.
Freelance meets Big John. Freelance Comics, 1-10, September/October 1942: Front cover.
Freelance/Robin Hood, 3-30, January-February 1946: Front cover.
Freelance’s final adventures. Freelance Comics, 3-5, December 1945/January 1946: Front cover.
Freelance in Canada. Freelance Comics, 3-35, December 1945/January 1946: 1.