Ben Wicks, Canadian Cartoonist, Author and Literacy Advocate

10 December 2004

   You won’t find the distinctive art of the late Ben Wicks in the comics pages any more, you won’t find his writing in the editorial pages, but you will find the extraordinary cartoons of the creative genius in a series of literacy books and promotions, helping both young and old to learn the indispensable skills of reading.

    Ben Wicks was born in 1926 in London, England. His parents were of the working class. His father and his mother, a typesetter and a cleaning woman, were both employed at The Mirror newspaper. After London was bombed during WWII, the young Cockney-accented young man quit school, jumping into work. His first job was as a shipping clerk at 14 years old. *(1)

    The future held a number of jobs for Ben, a small, wiry man with lots of charm and spunk: window cleaner, janitor, purse maker, electrician’s helper, clog maker and many others. He and his wife, Doreen, emigrated to Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1957 with only $25 to their names. While she worked as a nurse, he worked for a short time as a milkman, then joined the Canadian army, serving as a musician for three years. Earlier, Ben had taken a not-so- successful evening art school course. Apparently, he had trouble with drawing; he was told that he should give up art and find something different. *(2)

    Not one to easily surrender a good idea, Ben gave cartooning a shot when he was nearing the end of his military duty. He studied the techniques of drawing and of marketing his work, and sent off his initial efforts to the Saturday Evening Post. The prominent magazine must have recognized his talent immediately - they were interested in purchasing three of his cartoons. Their only stipulation was that they did not buy the art of an unknown source and needed references. Ben complied, but not in the fashion the magazine would want. As noted on regionalmapleleaf.com, he took “about five minutes to fake some letters of reference.” His career as an outstanding cartoonist had begun.

    With little kids in tow, the Wicks family moved to Toronto in 1963 to enable Ben to accept a job with the Toronto Telegram. His cartooning blossomed. He developed a comic strip entitled “The Outcasts” that appeared in 52 Canadian newspapers, and cartoon panels that ran in almost 200 newspapers internationally. Ben's popular style was distinctly recognizable, and his sense of humour as unique and funny as the man himself.

    The co-author of several books, Ben collaborated with Maggie Siggins on the satirical “How to Get a Man” and with Peter Worthington on a cookbook, “The Naked Gourmet”. Both feature Ben’s delightful artwork. He also joined with his daughter, Susan, on a series of kids’ books.

    The “Katie and Orbie” series encompassed issues of the environment and conservation in an enjoyable, entertaining form. The books were so popular that “Katie and Orbie” became a television series narrated by the renowned actor Leslie Nielsen. Initially on PBS, it is still shown on a number of tv channels.

    Books authored by Ben himself include "Ben Wicks Canada," "The Boys Came Marching Home," "Ben Wicks Book of Etiquette," "Book of Losers" plus others including collections of his cartoons. Ben also hosted a talk show on Canadian television in which he interviewed the international celebrities of the day, such as actress Ingrid Bergman and mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

    A staunch literacy advocate, Ben created the I.Can Foundation and website to promote reading world-wide. He wrote books, some of which were distributed free to hundreds of thousands of school children across Canada, including Born to Read, Elementary Safety Book for Children, Drug Facts for Young People and the Teenage Survival Handbook. Through the sponsorship of magazine publisher Regional Maple Leaf, annual contests are held for writers/artists to create updated versions of the important books. (See link below to find information about upcoming events and the artists/writers for the last several years.)

    Canada’s highest honour for Ben's earlier humanitarian efforts was awarded to him in 1986. He was bestowed the Order of Canada for his work with Oxfam, with exposing the misery of Biafra War on the people of Nigeria and for organizing "Cartoonists for Africa" to fundraise during the Ethiopian famine.

    Ben's wife was also a great humanitarian. Doreen founded "Gems of Hope", a charity that collected and sent medical equipment and supplies to needy countries around the world. She travelled the globe by herself, even to dangerous and war-torn areas. She was devoted to helping people in need, making sure supplies arrived at their intended destinations. Doreen received the Order of Canada for her work in 1989. She was appointed a Citizenship judge in 1997. *(3)

    Ben Wicks died at age 73 on September 10, 2000, after a nine-month battle with an aggressive form of skin cancer. Doreen died at age 68 on March 1, 2004 from cancer.

    Along with their three children, Vince, Susan and Kim, and eight grandchildren, Ben and Doreen Wicks leave behind legacies of deep concern for their fellow men and women, and charities that carry on to help others in dire need. Their works are wonderful gifts to the world, not only at Christmas, but any time of year.

    Through Ben Wicks' vision, the joy of reading, and the lifetime of learning that reading brings, continues to be shared around the world.

The Ben Wicks "Born to Read Club". Go ahead and join - there might be something of interest for you:
http://www.benwicks.com/

Read more about Ben Wicks and his work:
*(1) http://www.obits.com/wicksben (No longer active)

Read about the Ben Wicks contest and more about the cartoonist:
*(2) http://www.regionalmapleleaf.com/benaward/default.htm

Information about Doreen Wicks (Scroll down to "Curtis" section and look for "A One Woman Relief Agency":
*(3) http://www.ogs.on.ca/ (Information on Doreen Missing)

A listing of Ben's books:
http://www.collectionscanada.ca/3/10/t10-319-e.html

Born to read
© Susanna McLeod 2004
TheCartoonists.ca  
 
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)