By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 2, 2008
In his day, Bob Banks drew more illustrations seen by more British Columbians in more diverse places than any other artist.
If you rode the bus, his cartoons graced the Buzzer bulletin.
If you flew on CP Air, his artwork enlivened the placemat resting on every tray for every meal served.
If you subscribed to Pacific Yachting magazine, his illustrations brought the sea to the printed page.
If you read annual reports from the big forestry companies, you likely looked on the artistic renderings of Mr. Banks.
If you were a student, his illustrations graced such textbooks as Captain of the Discovery: The Story of Captain George Vancouver.
And if you lived in the province during the centennial celebrations of 1958, 1966, 1967 and 1971, you undoubtedly saw his rendition of a character named Century Sam.
His creations became familiar – famous even, though he did not.
At 85, the North Vancouver resident still draws daily, remaining part of the work force while his two sons enjoy retirement.
“I love doing what I do and I'm never going to retire,” he vows. “I'm just going to drop dead over the drawing board.”
From age 4, all he has wanted to do is draw. He grew up on East 6th Avenue in Vancouver, sandwiched between Victoria and Commercial Drives, where he remembered the streetcars had unforgiving wooden benches, unlike the padded seats to be found on the cars on the wealthier west wide of the city.
Drawing and painting transport – cars, trucks, planes, ships – became a lifelong pursuit.
The neighbourhood was popular with immigrants, the sons of whom would grow up to become judges and the like. Mr. Banks, a carpenter's son, would draw their portraits for the cover of The Advocate, the publication of the Law Society of British Columbia.
Mr. Banks learned mechanical drafting at Vancouver Technical Secondary School, where his cartoons appeared in the 1939 yearbook.
After two years at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Banks enlisted in the navy, soon after transferring to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The closest he got to being sent overseas was a posting to Newfoundland. He rose in rank to flight lieutenant.
He trained as a bomb aimer, a position for which there were not many openings after the end of hostilities. He remained in the reserves, ready to serve as a desk jockey should the Cold War ever heat up.
A stint at the Vancouver School of Art after demobilization gave him the formal training for what has been his livelihood for more than six decades.
“You had to be versatile to survive,” he said. “You had to do just about everything.”
Because he could read blueprints, he got assignments to paint ships such as tugs and barges even while they were still being built in dry dock.
In 1954, he approached the editor of The Buzzer about doing one-panel gag cartoons to enliven the transit publication. The newsletter, available aboard buses and streetcars, had been launched in 1916 to foster customer loyalty as B.C. Electric competed with private jitney operators.
The cartoons portrayed such gentle humour as an off-duty driver bursting through a front door at the end of the workday to announce, “I'm home early tonight dear – every passenger had the exact fare ready!”
(Over the years, The Buzzer became enough of an icon to be ripe for parody. Local anarchists printed a version, called The Buzzard, during one of the colourful fare protests of the early 1980s.) The Buzzer gig lasted 22 years. “It was pretty dull after I left,” Mr. Banks said. “I don't mean that in a nasty way. It was mostly just schedules.”
In 1956, two years before British Columbia was to celebrate the centennial of its founding as a Crown colony, Mr. Banks's best-known creation was unveiled. Century Sam was the brainstorm of Lawrie Wallace, the civil servant who would become known as Mr. B.C. Mr. Banks drew a pixie-like prospector in a tattered hat, checked red shirt and yellow vest, an image that appeared on coasters, brochures and felt pennants, as well as in newspaper promotions for the province and such private enterprises as Greyhound bus tours and Lucky Lager breweries.
“He was a cute little geezer,” Mr. Banks said. To give the old feller some company, the artist later created Centennial Sue as a companion.
Some actors also portrayed the character at centennial events. The best known was Sid Williams, whose memorable portrayal of the resilient miner was later honoured by the naming of Century Sam Lake outside Courtenay on Vancouver Island.
Century Sam was so successful he was revived for the centennial of the union of British Columbia with Vancouver Island (1966), for Canada's 100th birthday (1967) and for the centennial of the province's joining of Confederation (1971).
The artist thinks of his creation as being a distant ancestor of the 2010 Olympic mascots Miga, Sumi and Quatchi.
Mr. Banks has a story he likes to share.
He and his wife were visiting the Bayshore Hotel some time in the early 1970s when he spotted a tall, lean man with wavy hair drinking a cup of coffee. He was surprised to see Norman Rockwell in town. The prolific artist, whose covers for the Saturday Evening Post won him mass popularity, was joined by his third wife, Molly, with whom he was about to embark on a cruise to Alaska.
Mr. Banks invited the couple to join him on a driving tour of nearby Stanley Park.
The quartet were in the hotel's parking lot when a stranger approached the two wives. He asked whether the tall man was the famous illustrator. Assured his quarry would welcome a handshake, the stranger stepped forward while offering his open hand to Mr. Rockwell.
“I'm Charles Schulz,” he said. “I draw Peanuts.”
The creator of Charlie Brown shook with the illustrator of The Four Freedoms, pressing together two of the great instruments of 20th-century illustration.
Mr. Banks gave them a moment together.
“What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, fellows, I do the Buzzer cartoons?!'”
2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.