'Jasper', 19 June 1971.

James Simpkins was a Canadian advertising illustrator and comics artist, most famous as the creator of 'Jasper the Bear' (1948-1972). This charming cartoon panel about a funny anthropomorphic bear was a mainstay of Maclean's magazine and syndicated as a newspaper comic by Canada Wide Features. The bear eventually became the official mascot of the Jasper National Park in Alberta. 'Jasper' was translated in several languages and inspired many merchandising products.

Early life and career
James Nathaniel Simpkins was born in 1910 in Winnipeg. His father was a newspaper proof reader. The boy studied at the Winnipeg School of Art, where LeMoine Fitzgerald was his teacher, and began his career as an commercial illustrator for The Beaver, a magazine about Canadian history published by the retailer Hudson's Bay Company. It is nowadays known under the title Canada's History. After serving as an illustrator in the military health service during World War II, he settled in Ottawa. In the 1940s Simpkins worked as an animator for the Office National du Film, aka the National Film Board, where he would stay full-time for 16 years. He sketched animal characters which were used in educational films for schools.


'Jasper the Bear' (1948).

Jasper the Bear
In 1948 Simpkins became an artist for Maclean's Magazine and suggested creating a monthly cartoon panel for them. The editors asked him if he could center these cartoons around a forest animal, preferably something that could be found in Canadian nature. Simpkins created a brown bear, which he named Jasper. However, in print the animal's skin was always coloured black. On 15 November 1948 Jasper debuted in MacLean's Magazine as a single-panel cartoon. Originally he was a normal-behaving bear, but as time passed by he became anthropomorphic. Jasper is often seen teasing, confusing or charming tourists in his national park. When he isn't focused on people, episodes center on the interactions between him, his wife and two cubs. Even during hibernation he still finds a way to provide a funny punchline.

Thanks to the charming art style, gentle jokes and Jasper's cute design the bear became a merchandising phenomenon. His image appeared on caps, cups, balls, plates, spoons, dolls, pins, colouring books, greeting cards, patches and even lighters, produced by toy manufacturer Irwin. Jasper was featured in TV commercials to promote the boy scouts. In 1962 the animal became the official mascot of Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. A statue of him was erected at the top of the Skytram mountain. Other statues can still be seen at various locations in the city. In 1968 the bear also became the mascot of the charity The United Appeal. In 2005 his image was issued on a coin. 

Jasper the Bear by James Simpkins
'Jasper the Bear' (Petit Journal, 1970-71). 

Syndication
The 'Jasper' cartoons also ran in the weekly magazine Fitzhugh and were translated all across the globe. They appeared in Belgian, British, French, German, Italian and Mexican papers and magazines. In 1967 the one-panel cartoons evolved into an actual newspaper comic strip, published and syndicated by Canada Wide Services to publications such as Le Petit Journal. On 23 September 1968 even Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was photographed hugging a man in a Jasper costume. Like many cartoonists who have to whip out new episodes on a steady basis, Simpkins eventually grew tired of the character. In a rather cynical self portrait the artist portrayed himself stuck in a bear trap while observing Jasper from behind his sketch pad. It was particularly a nuisance to him that 'Jasper' overshadowed everything else he ever did and that he received very little of the royalties. In 1972 he retired and terminated 'Jasper' altogether. Reprints kept appearing until Maclean's changed its format from a monthly general interest magazine to a news publication in 1975. 

comic art by James Simpkins

Other cartoon work
In addition to 'Jasper the Bear', Simpkins made monthly medical cartoons for The Medical Post, which were later collected in the cartoon book 'When's The Last Time You Cleaned Your Navel?' (1978). His other cartoons appeared in many Canadian magazines including Weekend, the Standard, The Family Herald and the Montrealer. Most of them were single panel cartoons, but he also made irregular appearing sequential strips about cavemen. By 1962, Simpkins was living in Beaconsfield, a suburb on the Island of Montreal, and began submitting his cartoon panel 'Simpkins' Montreal' three times a week to The Montréal Gazette from 6 August 1962 on. During the 1960s and 1970s he drew cartoons about a beaver called 'Chopper' for Canadian Boy, the house organ of the Canadian Boy Scouts.


'Chopper" (Canadian Boy, 1970).

Illustrator
James Simpkins was also active as a commercial artist and book illustrator, especially after settling in Toronto. In 1955 he also designed a postage stamp, depicting three Canadian hockey players. He illustrated books by Dudley Copland ('Ookpik the Ogling Arctic Owl', 1965), Eleanor A. Ellis ('Northern Cookbook', 1979), Stuart Hemsley ('Beastly Ballads' 1954), Betty Sanders Garner ('Canada's Monsters') and particularly Eric Nicol, and drew advertisements for General Motors and The National Enquirer. 

Legacy
In 1994, James Simpkins received the first Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Toronto Cartoonists Society. He passed away in 2004 at age 93. In May 2016 he was posthumously inducted in the Cartoonist Hall of Fame. His most famous creation 'Jasper' remains a mainstay of Canadian popular culture. 


Self-portrait, 1963.

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