The Canadian Forces Station on The Boulevard in St. John’s seems an unlikely place for comic enthusiasts to gather.
But there they were Thursday evening, discussing the nuances of comic artists’ portrayal of war in a new exhibition called “War in Comics” on display at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Museum until July 1.
The exhibition was organized by Memorial University’s English Department in partnership with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Five artists’ work is on display, including Miriam Katin’s account of surviving the Shoah when she was an infant in Hungary, Scott Chantler’s reconstruction of his grandfather’s service in the Highland Light Infantry, and Jason Lutes’ depictions of the lives of Berliners in 1930s Germany.
St. John’s-based comic artist Paul Tucker collaborated with writer Paul Allor for “Tet” — a story about the Vietnam War and its legacies.
All but St. John’s comic artist Wallace Ryan’s work has been previously published.
Ryan, often referred to as the “godfather of Newfoundland comics,” has on display the first chapter in his latest work-in-progress, “The Narrow Way”.
“The Narrow Way” recounts his grandfather’s experience as one of the First 500 with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during World War I, and it’s a graphic novel that’s been percolating for Ryan since 1986.
After his grandfather died in 1982 and his grandmother followed a couple of years later, the family was cleaning out their house.
Ryan was promised his grandfather’s war diaries and he read them for the first time in 1986.
“When I read through his diary, one of the things I thought was that this would be a cool graphic novel.”
His grandfather, John Joseph Ryan, was a teenager when he enlisted – Regimental No. 38.
He was wounded by shrapnel at Gallipoli and brought back to England to be hospitalized. He returned to active service again in 1916 just in time for Beaumont Hamel, which he survived only to be gassed at Ypres and wounded again by a sniper.
The sniper caused a hand injury that meant he could no longer pull a trigger.
“He was useless to them then,” said Ryan.
The injury also meant two of his fingers were curled inward for the rest of his life.
After he returned to Newfoundland, he worked as a wireless operator on board the S.S. Erik. In August of 1918, the Erik left St. John’s for North Sydney to pick up a load of coal, but the vessel never made it through the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
A German U-boat shelled the Erik, transferred the 17 crew on board into their U-boat and sank the Erik. The men spent the night worrying about their fate, only to be set free off the coast of St. Pierre — transferred onto a fishing schooner and returned to Newfoundland.
“Apparently the Germans didn’t feel like going back across the Atlantic with a bunch of prisoners, which is kind of good because in my research I found out that the sub never made it back.”
Ryan’s grandfather never spoke much about the war with his grandchildren, but Ryan worked with him at Royal Grocery, a business his grandfather started at the end of the war.
After a couple of generations, the family business is now known as Moo Moos Ice Cream and is run by Ryan’s sister.
When his grandfather ran the grocery store, Ryan worked there as a teenager and recalls his grandfather as a calm and easygoing person.
“He never seemed to lose his cool, and I’ll never forget one day I was packing up groceries and I overheard a conversation with him and this other guy … I overheard the guy saying to him, ‘You know, Mr. Ryan, nothing seems to bother you. What is it? You don’t seem to worry about anything.’ And he said, ‘The last time I worried, it was July 1 in the morning just before I went over the top — I have not worried since.’
“That story … stuck with me for some reason. And it became even more apparent when I got hold of his diaries and read his diaries and I got to see some of the stuff that he’d been through, and it just amazed me. It was like a whole different person in a way. The grandfather that I knew was quite different from the grandfather who I found out about in the diaries themselves.”
Ryan said the diaries were so compelling, the graphic novel will be mostly told using his grandfather’s words — other than the first and last chapters, which will be told from Ryan’s perspective.
The first chapter, which is on display at the exhibition, depicts the last time Ryan visited his grandfather before he died.
Ryan hopes when the novel is finished in a couple of years it will make its way into classrooms around the province “where it will do the most good.”