Coming to Canada - Ben Wicks
With federal elections coming in November, there is a lot of noise about Canada's immigration policies coming into question. Some think that those policies are too relaxed and open the doors to people taking advantage of Canada. Perhaps they are forgetting that much of our culture is built from immigrants that land on our shores. If it wasn't for our diversity we would not have much of the science, art and culture would not exist. I will be writing a series of articles about individuals who came to Canada and made a difference to our culture along the way.
The first in the series is an incredible man named Ben Wicks. Many remember him from his comic editorials in many of Canada's news papers throughout the years. I've personally admired his works and thought he brought an identity to the country as no one else has. I also never realized that he is far more than a cartoonist. He was a journalist, animator, TV personality and an accomplished musician!
Alfred (Ben) Wicks was a British immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1957 with his wife Doreen. Ben being an accomplished saxophone player, touring Europe with Leonard Bigg at the time. They arrived with $25 in their pockets and a dream of success.
He quickly found work as a milkman in Calgary and then joining the Canadian Army as a musician, he began studying books on cartooning. It was there he found a list of magazines who would purchase cartoons in a library where he studied. He than began sending out samples of his work to different magazines finding success at the Saturday Evening Post.
In 1963 he traveled to Toronto to explore the chances of growing his career as a cartoonist. He met with Norman Drew a feature cartoonist (The Giants) with the Toronto Telegram. Norman advised him to move to Toronto to pursue his career there. The Wicks moved to Toronto to work for the Toronto Telegram creating the comic strip 'The Outcasts' which was quickly picked up by 50 newspaper across the country.
In 1971 the Toronto Telegram has ceased to operate and Wicks was picked up by The Toronto Star. His cartoon Wicks' were described by comedian Dave Broadfoot as "Those cartoons worked like what is called a 'blackout' on stage a comic idea that lasts 30 seconds with one strong, self-explanatory punch line,". At the height of his cartoonist career his work was running in 84 Canadian news papers and more than 100 American newspapers and magazines.
Ben had been on several TV shows as a guest on the CBC where he would share his story several times, always in great humour showing off his thick cockney accent. Adding to his well known charm. In the 1980's he hosted his own show called 'The World of Wicks'. Also collaborating on several books such as, 'How to Get a Man' with Maggie Simons and 'The Naked Gourmet' with friend Peter Worthington. In addition to his artistic career he was involved deeply in humanitarian causes. He would join several foundations like, 'Can Foundation' that ran the 'Born to Read' program, the 'Regional Maple Leaf' which publishes magazines for children.
A small list of Ben's other achievements are;
1984-1985 Wicks organized 'Cartoonists for Africa' which raised money and awareness of the famine in Ethiopia.
1986 he became a member of The Order Of Canada.
1997 he donated some of his works to Ryerson University.
2007 Wicks memory was acknowledged by the creation of the 'Ben Wicks Award' which is given to talented young cartoons by the 'Regional Maple Leaf Communications'.
Finally in 2000 Ben Wicks passed to Cancer.
I was the first person to employ Ben Wicks when he arrived in Calgary early in 1957. I was a partner in Fisher Trade Services Ltd., a company set up to supply the printing industry with camera-ready art and short run printing projects. An immigrant myself from Britain in 1952, I was trained at the old Luton School of Arts, now Barnfield College, and had just left my job as head of a small art and printing department at Motor Car Supply Company to form a partnership with Art Brown, of Graphic Arts Supply Ltd. Ben had been canvassing all the suitable companies in Calgary, and came into my place one day accompanied by his wife Doreen. I explained we had just started operations and simply couldn't afford to take on staff. Ben promptly offered to work for nothing on a trial period and I was impressed by his persistence and determination, plus his obvious ability to get along with people. He showed me some samples of his work and I was frankly unimpressed, but there was something about him that appealed to me. I was in need of a short holiday as the stress of our start-up was beginning to tell so I decided to take him at his word.
Ben was something of a disaster during his stay with me as he simply hadn't the experience and speed needed to cope with the world of commercial art, but we parted friends after a short time and stayed friends for many years. Ben was godfather to our son Michael John Fisher, and was a frequent house-guest during his early years in Canada. Ben was a professional charmer in the best sense of that word. He was a hard worker and endured all the rejections and disappointments that go with trying to break into the cartoon business with good humour and a ready smile. His cockney accent was his schtick and as the years went by it seemed to grow more pronounced. He readily admitted he couldn't draw worth beans, and I had to agree with him.
I have always been mildly amused by Ben's biographies and chided him that I was never included, and that certain periods of his life were always glossed over with vague references to odd jobs such as milkman and playing in an army band. You could never stay mad at Ben for any length of time. He charmed his way into many successful careers and earned every award given him. We were actually neighbours in the Toronto Don Valley Woods Townhouse development in the 1960s when I was beginning my writing career and we lost touch later, but I followed his career with interest. Ben Wicks was the classic example of a penniless immigrant making good. He did it with a mixture of some talent and a lot of hard work and natural charm.
--John Fisher, 2010
Needless to say this is a man who had a talent, charm and dedication that added to the Canadian identity.
We thank you for coming to Canada Mr. Wicks.