One of the 'Contes Historiques', drawn by James McIsaac.

James McIsaac was a groundbreaking illustrator of Québécois youth literature. With his locally oriented drawings for works by his compatriots, he was one of the first to counter the Americanization of children's books in Quebec. He also produced a couple of newspaper strips and picture stories which were based on French-Canadian history and its Roman Catholic background.

Early life
Even though generations of Canadian children grew up with his illustrations, James McIsaac's life and career has not been widely publicized. Most of the available information comes from an article by Françoise Lepage in the bilingual academic journal Canadian Children's Literature, published in issue #64 in 1991. He was born Joseph Jean Jacques McIsaac in 1889 in Sainte-Adélaïde-de-Pabos, not far from the largest town of the Gaspésie region, Chandler. Between March 1912 and December 1916, he was an artist for the public works services department of the city of Montreal.

Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste
His career as an illustrator largely took place between 1919 and 1945, when he provided hundreds of illustrations and cartoons to magazines, annuals and books. He was a longtime associate of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal. Starting in 1919, he provided eight picture stories to this publisher's collection 'Contes Historiques de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste'. These were prints containing stories in twelve images about the French-Canadian people and their faith, authored by influential members of the Catholic elite, such as Father Lionel Groulx. Other artists for the collection were Onésime-Aimé Léger, Albert-Samuel Brodeur, Rita Mount, Napoléon Savard, Claire Fauteux, Georges Latour and J.-B. Lagacé. The 'Contes Historiques' were later incorporated in the magazine L'Oiseau Bleu, which the SSJBM published from 1921 to 1940. The magazine's primary goal was to promote local Québec children's literature as opposed to the American-influenced books which dominated the Canadian market. McIsaac had already provided the cover illustration for the pilot issue of November 1920, and he continued to provide (cover) drawings until the January issue of 1934.

'Le Sacrifice d'(Mc)Isaac'.

Laurier Palace Theatre fire
In addition to his artistic career, McIsaac returned to Montreal's public services in April 1921, this time as chief inspector of the fire prevention department. It was during his watch that the tragic Laurier Palace Theatre fire occurred, which killed 78 children on 9 January 1927. 800 children were present during a performance of the comedy 'Get 'Em Young', when a discarded cigarette set the cinema on fire. The ensuing panic and confusion hampered the evacuation, resulting in a terrible amount of victims. In the aftermath, McIsaac declared that his department had indeed inspected the venue's safety as a cinema. One of the inspectors had however failed to inform his boss that the building was also used for stage performances, like on that fateful day. With the investigation concluded, James McIsaac was removed from office by alderman Abraham Desroches on 15 November 1927.

Caricaturist for Le Goglu
McIsaac responded to tragic events of 1927 in his caricatures and cartoons for the magazine Le Goglu, to which he contributed under the signatures Jacques Goglu or JMI Goglu in 1929 and 1930. McIsaac felt he was used as the fall guy during a period of public grief and hysteria. On 18 October 1929, the journal stated that McIsaac did in fact request the Laurier Palace to be closed down because of safety reasons. He hinted that Mr. Desroches had only fired the inspector because he was apparently too cumbersome. The text was accompanied by the biblically themed caricature 'Le Sacrifice d'(Mc)Isaac' ("The Sacrifice of McIsaac"). Four years after the fire, James McIsaac was reinstated in his function, and he kept this post until his retirement on 1 May 1959.

'Les Aventures de Perrine et de Charlot' by Marie-Claire Daveluy, illustrated by James McIsaac (1923).

Further illustration career
During all of these events, McIsaac continued his activities as an illustrator. He was not only a contributor to L'Oiseau Bleu (1921-1934) and Le Goglu (1929-1930), but also to publications like La Ruche Écolière (1927-1930), L'Almanach de la Langue Française (1920-1922), La Presse (as "Jean B") and Le Miroir (1930, as "J.M."). He made detailed pen-and-ink illustrations for fairy tale and story books by most notably Marie-Claire Daveluy, but also by Marie-Rose Turcot, Auguste Cadoux, Justa Leclerc (a.k.a. Marjolaine) and Eugène Achard. 'Les Aventures de Perrine et de Charlot' (1923) by Marie-Claire Daveluy is widely considered the first Québec children's novel, and had illustrations by McIsaac. For a more mature audience, he illustrated works by Lionel Groulx, Edouard Lecompte, Elie de Salvail and Paul Desjardins. Some of his drawings echoed the work of Gustave Doré, like his work for Daveluy's 'Une Révolte au Pays des Fées' (1936), others had Art Deco influences, like Turcot's 'Au Pays des Géants et des Fées' (1937). While certain books illustrated by McIsaac give the impression of a rushed job, the artist overall managed to maintain a stable drawing style throughouth his career. Of course elements of the Quebec architecture and folklore were never far away.

Comic strips
During the 1930s, James McIsaac additionally drew several comics serials for Catholic newspapers like L'Action Catholique, Le Devoir, Le Nouvelliste and the magazine Ma Gaspésie. These were distributed through the Catholic Association of Commercial Travelers, Trois-Rivières Section (L'Association Catholique des Voyageurs de Commerce Section des Trois-Rivières), and adaptations of devout Québec novels. Known strips by McIsaac were 'La Terre Conquérante' (10 August- 4 October 1935), an excerpt of 'Au Cap Blomidon' by Alonié de Lestres (Lionel Groulx), Antoine Gérin-Lajoie's 'Jean Rivard' (5 October - 11 November 1935), 'L'Homme aux Yeux Fermés' and 'Nos Jeunes' (June 1936). At least the 'Jean Rivard' and 'Au Cap Blomidon' adaptations was published in book format by the Association in 1936-1937. Another productive artist for these type of Catholic comic strips was Jean-Jacques Cuvelier.

James McIsaac passed away in Montreal on 24 July 1970 at the age of 81.

James McIsaac in the Wikia la BD de Journal au Québec

Series and books by James McIsaac in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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