Bob Banks photograph from The Buzzer Blog.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 10, 2009
The illustrations flowing from the prolific pen of Bob Banks interrupted the tedium of riding the bus, altered the monotony of sitting in class, made lighter the perusing of a corporate report heavy with numbers.
His style showed a deft comic touch. While much of his work cannot be described as funny in a kneeslapping manner, it should be kept in mind his assignments included textbooks and bus schedules. He did not always have much with which to work.
One of his creations became a ubiquitous symbol of a golden era in the promotion of British Columbia as a tourist destination.
In 1956, a civil servant named Lawrie Wallace conjured a fictional prospector to represent the province on the pending centenary of its founding as a mainland Crown colony. It fell to Mr. Banks to bring the character to life.
Century Sam wore a tattered hat, a kerchief around his neck, a yellow vest, and a checked red shirt. He had a chin-strap beard and eyebrows permanently arched in happy wonderment.
The pixie-like prospector appeared on coasters, brochures and felt pennants, as well as in printed advertisements promoting Greyhound bus tours and Lucky Lager breweries.
“He was a cute little geezer,” Mr. Banks said last year.
To give the grizzled feller some company, the artist conjured a Centennial Sue as a companion.
Century Sam proved so popular he was revived on several occasions by the ruling Social Credit government, for whom self-promotion was almost a sacrament. The gold panner also appeared for the centennial celebrations of 1966 (union of the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island), 1967 (formation of the Dominion), and 1971 (entrance into Confederation).
Last year, the artist said he considered his rendition of Century Sam to be a distant ancestor of the 2010 Olympic mascots Miga, Sumi and Quatchi.
His interest in illustrating began at age 4 as he grew up in the working-class Grandview neighbourhood of Vancouver. He liked to draw the streetcars that rolled along Commercial Drive, which he would later recall having hard wooden benches unlike the padded seats to be found on the cars on the wealthier west side of the city.
Transport of all types — cars, trucks, planes, ships — would became a lifelong subject of his art.
The neighbourhood would also provide inspiration of another sort later in his career. The striving children of the area’s immigrants would grow up to become lawyers and judges, the most notable of whom was Angelo Branca. Mr. Banks, a carpenter’s son, would draw their portraits on the cover of The Advocate, the publication of the Law Society of British Columbia.
He learned mechanical drawing at Vancouver Technical School, where his cartoons appeared in the 1939 yearbook. After graduation, he briefly attended the University of British Columbia before enlisting in the naval reserve. He later transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He trained as a bomb aimer, though the closest he got to be sent overseas was a posting to Newfoundland. He rose in rank to flight lieutenant.
After demobilization, he enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art, getting formal training in what would become a career lasting six decades.
An ability to read blueprints won him early assignments in painting barges and tugboats even as they were under construction in dry dock.
In 1954, he made a cold call on a potential client. The result changed his life. Mr. Banks thought his cartoons might enliven the otherwise dreary contents of The Buzzer, a palm-sized publication distributed from metal trays on the interior walls of buses and streetcars. The publication had been launched by the B.C. Electric Railway Co. in 1916 to foster customer loyalty in an era when the competition included private jitneys.
For 22 years, his simple illustrations enlivened a newsletter read by thousands seeking temporary relief from the humdrum nature of their commute.
Mr. Banks also illustrated textbooks for the J.M. Dent book publisher; provided marine drawings for Pacific Yachting magazine; offered a variety of graphics for CP Air, including art for placemats when trays were not in the upright position; and, covers for the Law Society’s journal, a gig that lasted 20 years.
His corporate clients included forestry giants such as Domtar, Canfor, MacMillan Bloedel, and Crown Zellerbach. His passion for drawing and painting transportation vehicles found expression in commissions from BC Rail and Air Canada.
“You had to be versatile to survive,” he said. “You had to do just about everything.”
His illustrations were likely seen by more British Columbians than those of any other artist. While one of his creations — Century Sam — became famous, the creator did not.
Mr. Banks liked to tell a self-deprecating story about his lack of status. One day, he spotted the illustrator Norman Rockwell enjoying a cup of coffee at a hotel restaurant. Mr. Banks invited the artist, famed for his Americana covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, to join him on a motor tour of nearby Stanley Park.
In the parking lot, another man interrupted to introduce himself as Charles Schulz. The creator of Charlie Brown shook hands with the illustrator of the Four Freedoms.
Mr. Banks gave them a moment together.
“What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, fellows, I do the Buzzer cartoons’?!”
In the past year, Mr. Banks enjoyed a minor revival. He was again invited to draw for The Buzzer. As well, two of his animal prints were included in a show at the Heaventree Gallery in Vancouver last November.
Robert John Banks was born on March 2, 1923, at Vancouver. A resident of North Vancouver, he died at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on May 17. He was 86. He leaves two sons, three grandchildren, and a sister. He was predeceased by his wife, the former Elma Hanbidge, whom he married in 1947 and who died in 1990. He was also predeceased by a brother, a sister, and a grandson.