Behind-the-Scenes: “Lucifer’s Legion”

I have a story up at Crimson Streets Magazine — the on-line (and free to read) webzine specializing in evoking the spirit of the pulp magazine era with tales encompassing hardboiled private eyes, horror, fantasy, SF, and adventure.

My story is called “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion” and mashes up a few genres, including action-adventure, horror, war, and superheroes! You can think of it as kind of “The Dirty Dozen” meets “Predator” (which, y’know, is bit redundant since in a way the movie “Predator” was already sort of the Dirty Dozen meets the Predator!) — but with an added twist of costumed superheroes!

The story’s background is that I wrote a version of it a few years ago — telling a tale of WW II soldiers battling a supernatural monster while on a mission — for an interested editor. But the proposed magazine never materialized. And it was kind of a hard fit for other magazines. Then a while later I embarked on my ambitious (if I do say so myself) Masques Chronicles project, presenting a multi-generations spanning superhero universe. And I thought maybe I could dust off my soldiers-fights-monster story and re-purpose it with superheroes. Since the stories in my Masques Chronicles project were deliberately meant to be rooted in different decades, the WW II setting seemed ideal. So I re-worked the story, adding a bit more (I hope) depth to the characters, giving the story (again: hopefully) a bit more nuance…while also trying to capture an almost cinematic sense of action and suspense, especially in the scenes of the protagonists running about a dark forest, hunting and being hunted by their mysterious enemy.

With the superhero element I wanted to evoke the sense of both archetypal characters (especially from the Golden Age of comics: a tux wearing magician, a .45 wielding cloaked avenger, etc.) while also suggesting these were kind of second-tier misfits, not quite good enough to be legends on their own (one guy’s power is simply telescopic vision). And the group is known as “Lucifer’s Legion” — a deliberate riff on the real-life Canadian-American World War II commandoes: The Devil’s Brigade.

One character (the co-lead) is a French-Canadian “Masque” (the term I use in my Masques Chronicles for superheroes) called Le bucheron (a.k.a. The Lumberjack). See, part of the idea I was playing with in my Masques Chronicles was to confront the oft-argued idea that Canadian ideas and clichés can’t make good grist for pulpy fiction. So I deliberately wanted to see if I could prove it wrong by (sometimes) cheekily embracing an idea that is almost ridiculous…and make it not ridiculous (in the Masques Chronicles I have a heroine called The Beaver…and I think she’s pretty kick ass). So while coming up with my misfit heroes for Lucifer’s Legion I created Le bucheron — a guy whose costume literally involves a plaid shirt and wielding an axe as his signature weapon. Silly? You betcha. But my argument is most superheroes sound silly (Ant-Man? Batman?) until someone comes along and makes ’em not silly. So my challenge for myself was to imagine a goofy idea like a superhero using a lumberjack motif — and, hopefully, a few paragraphs into the story the reader isn’t thinking he’s silly; instead maybe thinking he’s cool, maybe even caring about him a little.

But then as I was finalizing my Masques Chronicles I decided to cut “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion.” I realized maybe I had enough WW II era stories (given the book was meant to present multiple decades, not just the 1940s) and since the other stories took place within Canada, I decided the European-set Lucifer’s Legion was maybe an outlier.

And I guess it was good I did. Because it then made an ideal submission to Crimsons Streets — and I guess the editors agreed!

Did I succeed? Is the story an exciting mix of adventure and horror, mixed up with a little wry humour and a dollop of pathos? Check it out for yourself here and decide (and enjoy the cool illustration by Sheik!). And while there read some of Crimson Streets other offerings, ’cause even if you don’t like mine, there’re stories by other (maybe better!) writers. And if you do like the story, please buy a copy of The Masques Chronicles (Vol 1 & II) or my other offering about WW II era superheroes, The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun Omnibus!

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Leave a comment

Looking at the Martian Races of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Just a little “heads up” for those interested: I have a non-fiction piece in the 3rd issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly, the (free) e-zine about science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about the publication earlier here when I was just a reader. But now I have a piece in it — a bit of whatcha might call “literary analysis” if’n yer hifalutin. I’ve written plenty about film, TV, and comics on-line, and I’ve had book reviews published from time to time, but this may be my first published attempt at this kind of analysis.

The topic? Looking at the John Carter Martian novels of American pulp writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and considering whether the racial dynamics of Burroughs’ fictional Barsoom (ie: Mars) had a more earthly interpretation. Even though Burroughs’ books were written in the early 20th Century, the stories and characters are still kicking around in things like the 2012 Hollywood movie, John Carter, and current comic book series (from, I believe, Dynamite Entertainment) under titles like Warlord of Mars and Dejah Thoris. And I ask: have readers been missing the obvious interpretation over the last nearly 100 years? I say “missing” but it’s possible, even probable, that others have expounded upon the same idea as me — but I just haven’t come upon it, or seen much indication it has influenced how filmmakers, comic books, and paperback cover artists have visualized Mars. Namely: did ERB intend the Red Martians to be North American Indians?

I explore the idea in my piece in Dark Worlds Quarterly #3.

Also in the issue you get the usual nice grab bag of pieces spanning books and films and more, from an essay on the costume designs in the 1975 movie, Logan’s Run, to a rundown of the 1930s pulp adventure stories of one Dr. Bird to an interview with writer Marc Scott Zicree to pieces covering everything from the Christmas tales of Charles Dickens and the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and more.

A little something for everyone 🙂

(But, y’know, read my piece first and then tell/tweet your friends — Dark Worlds Quarterly #3)

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Does Canadian Film & TV Have its Own Hollywood-Style Sexual Predators?

(I originally established this blog primarily to write about Canadian film & TV. In recent months I’ve diversified, both to pontificate about other topics of interest to me, and also because most of my Canadian film/TV musings were going to Huffington Post Canada. As well, I’ve been writing less and less about the topic (the reasons for that probably a topic for another essay). Anyway…this is a piece I wrote back in November for Huffington Post…but it’s ended up back here. I’ve added a post-script at the end to expand upon that. For the moment, here is my thoughts on the recent explosion of sexual harassment revelations coming out of Hollywood…and asking about Canada…)

Weeks ago American movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, was publicly outted as a sexual predator. His fall has been swift and dramatic. And the floodgates seem to have been wedged open as more abusers are being outted in an industry in which stories of sexual harassment (and rumours of the “casting couch”) are as old as the industry.

It’s hard to know how pervasive will be any cultural changes. Some have cynically noted even as Weinstein and actors like Kevin Spacey have been condemned for their behaviour toward white victims, a musician like R. Kelly seems largely unaffected despite a chronicled history of allegations by black women and girls. Stand-up comics who vociferously ripped Hollywood for its complicity are now being asked how long they knew about Louis CK. And comic book creators were (initially) subdued when similar stories arise in their industry. And American president Donald Trump was elected despite his own boasts of inappropriate sexual behaviour!

Ever since the Weinstein stuff blew up, I hummed and hawed about whether I should write anything. I blog about Canadian film & TV from the peripheries: I’m not a journalist. I’ve never been molested or assaulted and have never molested or assaulted anyone. If one has nothing to say, one should probably say nothing. But now that it’s been a few weeks, I figure I can tentatively start to wade in.

Canadian film & TV often flies below the public radar. Reasons range from reporters more focused on Hollywood, to the fact that Canadian movies just don’t do very well (although that’s less true of Canadian TV in recent years) to, I suspect, a cultivated insularness on the part of the industry itself.

But my question is: what’s going on in the Canadian industry?

Is there any reason to think things are better/different here? It’s possible — but is it likely? After all, one of the stories that arguably put the snow ball at the top of the hill was the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. The very fact that the industry flies below the radar might make it even more vulnerable to predators. A Canadian reporter trying to expose a filmmaker who makes movies most people haven’t even heard of might have trouble convincing their editor it’s a headline-grabber. (Significantly, when scandals break — such as the Claude Jutra revelations — they come from Quebec, where entertainers enjoy a higher profile).

There have been a few cracks. Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley went public with some of the dirty linen. Actress Ellen Page wrote a Facebook post calling out Hollywood director Brett Ratner for abusive behaviour. But Page also makes cryptic references to groppings and assault when she was a teenager. Page is a Hollywood actress these days (even using American spelling in her Facebook post) but she began her career in Canada.

Nor is it hard to infer Hollywood scandals bleed over into Canada. I seem to recall Harvey Weinstein’s name in a few articles about Canadian movies over the years (Weinstein having been a key to international distribution at one stage). While harassment allegations have been reported against Andrew Kreisberg who oversees some American series filmed in Canada.

Sexual harassment and assault should and must remain the focus for now. But arguably it’s part of a wider issue of unchecked egotism and narcissism in an industry where the powerless are worried about landing that next job.

So now I’m gonna cite a story. It’s a minor story mentioned in an interview an actress did some years back (but has stayed in my mind). I’m not going to say who because I can’t find it to link to, and I don’t want to put the actress on the spot. Suffice it to say it was a well known Canadian actress (depending on the type of TV shows you watch) telling an anecdote about a busy Canadian director.

This director (apparently) loves strip clubs. When he wasn’t on a set, he was at strip clubs. So if you went to lunch or dinner with him, you knew he was going to take you to a strip club. The fact this director likes strip clubs is absolutely his business. But most women aren’t going to be comfortable at a strip club (as the actress made clear in the interview) and, frankly, neither would a lot of guys. But if you want to hang out with this director (if only to show what a good sport you are, in hopes he’ll remember you when he’s casting his next project — or even to discuss your character’s motivation) you have to do so while he’s ogling naked women.

To be clear: I’m not saying this guy was accused of doing anything illegal. I am saying it seems, well, creepy. At best narcissistic, at worst a deliberate display of dominance.

Now half the people reading this are going to roll their eyes and snort: “Dude, you’re insane conflating dragging co-workers to a strip club with sexual harassment!” And the other half? I think they see what I’m getting at when I talk about power dynamics. Maybe if the people with power were a little more sensitive to those without, it’d be harder for the blatant predators to get away with what they do.

I’m not a journalist, not a reporter. After years of writing about Canadian film and TV, I stepped back from it a while ago. I began to accept that I wasn’t contributing much to the discourse, and even those in the biz — people who frequently lament their lack of media coverage — would be happy to see the back of me. But I still believe there needs to be more coverage of Canadian film and TV — especially now when sister industries are attempting some much needed house cleaning and soul searching.

But where will that coverage come from? Major papers or networks — who barely cover Canadian entertainment at all? There’s TV, Eh? — an invaluable resource, but mostly light information and linking to other articles. There’s Canadaland — the website that helped break the Ghomeshi scandal; but their focus is more media/journalism (I suspect most of their staffers have only a peripheral awareness of Canadian movies and TV shows). And, of course, there’s Huffington Post Canada itself, which might provide a forum for industry folk looking to turn any lights on the shadows.

But above all it needs a public willing to listen and industry folk wanting to be heard.

Post-Script: I wrote this originally intending it for Huffington Post Canada. Between 2013 – 2017 I wrote probably close to a hundred op-ed pieces for that site — sometimes almost twice a week! Basically my intent was just to keep Canadian film/TV in the public eye by writing about it as much as I could (some pieces I think were good and thought-provoking…some just filler). This is the only one that I recall that was not published by them. And I don’t really know why. The most likely explanation is they simply were done with my services, or I had fallen off the roster (I’d been writing infrequently: my last posted piece for them was in April, 2017). Or maybe they worried I had written something actionable. But it does seem curious optics that I write a piece specifically saying we should be talking about this in the public sphere…and that’s the essay they decide NOT to post.

Unfortunately my blog gets only an infinitesimal amount of traffic compared to Huffington Post Canada. But I figured it was worth getting out there. If only to inspire other, better writers and bloggers to pick up the gauntlet.

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My Story in Lackington’s #16

I’m not great at self-promotion (as I’ve mentioned before) but I have a story in the most recent issue of Lackington’s Magazine — specifically #16, the “Trades” issue. Y’see, Lackington’s is a fantasy magazine that specifically builds issues around specific themes. Past issues have included, for example, diseases, music, etc. So #16 is the “Trades” theme, presenting fantasy stories involving labour, work, etc.

I’ve only just got my copy, so I haven’t read it yet, but it includes stories by Kate Dollarhyde (“Lamplighter’s Eve”), Natalie Ritter (“A Summary of Menistarian Law, Composed for the Citizens of Olakia, in Response to Our Current Crisis by Dr. Clemons Indement as received and translated by Joseph Tomaras”), N. Muma Alain (“Yuckl Ogle”), Alexandra Seidel (“The Master of Hourglasses”), and with illustrations by P. Emerson Williams, Carrion House, Dotti Price, Michelle MB, Belinda Morris and Carol Wellart (and overseen by ed-in-chief, Ranylt Richildis).

My contribution is “The Maiden’s Path.”

The idea behind my story was, in a sense, to see if I could write a High Fantasy story (y’know, with magic and swordsmen and kings and the like) that didn’t actually rely on a lot of violence to tell its tale. Could I make it exciting, and have conflict, but without the hacking n’ hewing that I normally put into my pulp-inspired fantasy tales? Well, a story needs a goal, right? Something the protagonist is trying to accomplish (with drama supplied by the obstacles they must overcome). So if the hero couldn’t be a fighter, what heroic undertaking could he be involved in?

And I thought: why not make him an architect (or in the parlance of the milieu — a Master Builder)?

So the story involves a Master Builder who is commissioned to erect a bridge over a river. But complications ensue when he learns the area may suffer from an ancient curse (and further complications are provided by the fact that his employer is a tyrant king who is impatient with delays). Seeking to understand the roots of the curse, he learns something of the history behind a mysterious statue he uncovers. I’d like to think the story is interesting, suspenseful, spooky, bittersweet, quirky, and boasts a clever twist at the end. And that it has the feel of a pulpy adventure tale even if the violence is minimal and the menace more implied.

Did I succeed? Buy the issue and decide for yourself.

(And while I’m plugging things, forget ye not that I have a few ebooks for sale, including a collection of some of my previously published S&S/fantasy tales, as well as some prose superhero collections).

Posted in My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Leave a comment

Doctor Strange, The Motion Picture: Celebration of the Ugly American (Or: Don’t Drink the Tea, Numbnut!)

As I’ve mentioned before, for years this blog was primarily focused on Canadian film & TV, but I’ve begun expanding my topics because, naturally, I have a range of interests. And recently I’ve been blogging some about comics and superheroes (in part because I experimented with my own collection of superhero prose tales). So today I’m attempting a lengthy consideration of the Hollywood superhero movie, Doctor Strange (which I suspect will annoy people on all sides…kind of like how my Canadian film/TV commentary equally offended pro-Canadian film/anti-Canadian film camps lol). Enjoy…or whatever…

The motion picture, Doctor Strange, came out months ago — but I only saw it recently and want to jot down a few belated thoughts (as they say: any movie you haven’t seen is a “new” movie).

The movie did well at the box office, but engendered some criticism related to racial/culture issues — some intrinsic to the original comic book source, but some injected into the movie by the filmmakers. Along the way I’ll be referencing the comics, the original, 1978 Dr. Strange TV movie, as well as The Shadow (1994) and Kung Fu (1972-1975) and Iron Fist (2017-) — stories about white Americans whose origins are rooted in Eastern mysticism.

But first: just to comment on the movie as a movie.

I: THE MOVIE

Doctor Strange was…okay. But it struck me as kind of reflective of the whole nature/problem with modern Hollywood blockbusters and their huge budgets and endless CGI effects. Like ketchup — these can be used to cover over a lot of problems. Bereft of the special effects, it’s a thin, generic story of bad guys seeking to unleash a vague evil and good guys having to stop them, and where much of the story progression feels workmanlike.

The story (though if you’re reading this you probably know it) is that a cocky American surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in an accident that leaves him crippled. Sinking into despair, he embarks on a journey to Katmandu in search of a mystical cure. He is taken in by a mystical order, trained in the magical arts, and becomes embroiled in a battle to save the world.

And a lot of it can feel a bit, well, lazy — stitching together plot points by the most meagre of threads. Strange learns of this mystical cure simply because he is told of someone who experienced it, a man he apparently just looks up in the phone book or something. And the guy simply tells him the name of the place. Strange then flies to Katmandu where his “quest” seems to involve wandering the streets asking random people if they know the place until he happens to be spotted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who then takes him to the temple (which is in downtown Katmandu). And barely is he through the front doors then he is shown all sorts of amazing mystical things.

Like — seriously? That all feels like a sequence of events written by writers who just want to get through that part of the story as quickly as possible. And, y’know, maybe they did. Maybe they said: look, the audience knows he goes to the temple — it’s basically just the prologue.

I even quibble about the magical/mystical scenes because, though spectacular scenes of the characters bending reality, turning cityscapes on their side, etc. (stuff which, admittedly, can feel a bit like they just borrowed the effects algorithm from the movie Inception and plugged it into their art program) it’s oddly…repetitive. I mean, that’s the main trick the filmmakers seem to have, repeating it in the movie’s key action scenes. And though I can understand the need to begin with a bang to get the audience’s attention, the movie has nowhere to go from there in terms of blowing our minds.

One scene that does seem as though it’s aiming for the ineffable is when Strange first arrives at the temple and is taken on a hallucinatory mind trip like something out of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the movie, Star Trek, The Motion Picture. It was one of the more interesting effect sequences precisely because it wasn’t trying to be logical, and so evoked a sense of other-dimensional weirdness (though still seemed a bit dull compared to the landscapes depicted in some Dr. Strange comics). But even it felt perfunctory, like they just plugged in a random bunch of images, and then sped through it…rather than trying to visualize the sense of an other reality that is surely at the heart of Strange’s evolving perceptions. Oh, and it was kind of dumb he’s barely in the door before he’s being shown it. As opposed to it being something he is introduced to after he’s spent some time at the monastery.

And this kind of hints at a theme I’m going to return to: that the movie itself has a slightly impatient, bullish, greedy attitude, like a child who wants to eat his dessert before eating his dinner. The filmmakers are more interested in the flash and pop than what lies under all that.

Still, as I suggested near the beginning — the movie is okay as a fairly consequenceless way to kill a couple of hours. The actors are fine, the special effects good, etc.

So now let’s delve into the controversial stuff.

II: WHITE-WASHING

So there are layers to them.

One was that at the heart of this early 1960s-created property is a white American who goes off to Asian and supposedly masters this Asian mysticism better than any Asian people. On its own, it’s no big deal — it’s just a story. But it’s seen as part of a bigger trend where non-white, non-American cultures are consumed by American movies, books, comics, etc. but refashioned to insure a white American remains the hero. Although it’s worth noting in no way is Doctor Strange really based on or inspired by actual Eastern mysticism; it draws upon the idea of an Eastern temple…but it’s not like comic book creators Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were rooting the magic in actual Hinduism or Buddhism or anything. Indeed, in the early comics Strange is described as a Master of “Black Magic” — hardly an inherently Eastern-sounding label. When the character was first brought to the screens, in the 1978 TV movie starring Peter Hooten, they largely did away with that entirely, with his mentor played by a white Englishman, John Mills, and using Morgana Le Fey (Jessica Walter) — of the Arthurian mythos — as the villain.

Still, the recent filmmakers were apparently cognizant of this potential objection, so their response was to take the wise old Asian mentor from the comics — The Ancient One — and re-cast him as a white woman (Tilda Swinton). Striking a blow for gender equality — but it hardly addresses the racial issue since now it actually reduces the presence of Asian characters in this ostensibly Asia-set mystical order.

Now in one interview, one of the movie’s writers — C. Robert Cargill — basically said they knew they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. And there is some truth to that. Stick with the wise old Asian mentor and people will criticize it as a racial cliché. Cargill even tries to argue any choice would be rife with controversy, from using a Tibetan setting — so infuriating the Chinese — to choosing the specific Asian ethnicity of the character.

But some of that seems a bit like special pleading (even arguments chosen after the fact) since the setting of the temple, and the Ancient One’s ethnicity, was never fully (or consistently) defined in the comics. The filmmakers had a fair amount of creative flexibility (as is obvious by their decision to simply make the character a white Celtic woman!) And dropping the Asian mentor entirely seems like the worst sort of compromise. Indeed, before I even saw the movie I thought one way they could have muted the criticism would’ve been by making the Ancient One a more important, dynamic figure — essentially using Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first Star Wars as a template. Have him be an active heroic figure whose death part way through the film leaves the inexperienced Strange to struggle toward victory (heck, the movie could’ve inspired a whole resurgence of interest in the character in the comics, maybe leading to a The Ancient One: The Early Years mini-series). As it turns out: that’s precisely what they did do…except they did that in conjunction with the race-swapping.

But where the issue becomes more problematic is in the behind-the-scenes stuff. I mean, it’s all very fine to see it as a well-intentioned effort to grapple with modern expectations. But some of the comments gave me pause. For example in the above-referenced interview Cargill at one point laments that no matter what they did, it would arouse the ire of “Social Justice Warriors.” Now you may be lucky enough to have missed the rise of that term (or “SJW”s) but it’s basically a next level iteration of “political correctness” (and terms like “virtue signallers”) — all generally used by right wingers (and alt-righters) to dismiss and disparage liberal or progressive arguments. So to me it’s a little troubling that one of the writers at the heart of a movie being criticized for racial insensitivity is blithely throwing around the pejorative label “Social Justice Warrior” — that doesn’t mean he himself is necessarily a right wing reactionary, but it does make you wonder who the people he hangs around with are.

In other interviews the film’s director/co-writer, Scott Derrickson, justified the race-change by saying that The Ancient One was offensive because he was basically just a Fu Manchu-type (referencing the old pulp fiction super-criminal). But, um, sure — The Ancient One and Fu Manchu are two Asian guys who often wear robes. But saying they’re the same is like saying Professor Xavier and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (or Dr. Evil for you youngsters) are the same (often bald white guys who sit a lot and control a bunch of minions). But most of us don’t have any trouble distinguishing the leader of the X-Men from James Bond’s old foe, do we? Re-reading some of these interviews I realize it’s actually even worse than I recalled. Because Derrickson goes on to say that after choosing to gender-switch the character, he decided against casting an Asian woman because then she’d be The Dragon Lady (the Asian femme fatale/warlord created for the old American newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, and who is seen as an archetype of the fiercely dominating Asian woman). Which implies Derrickson is against ever casting Asian women in strong roles or as authority figures because that would be, um, racist? He basically seems to be saying he couldn’t make the character Asian because there are only two Asian character types — Fu Manchu and the Dragon Lady.

(Honestly, re-reading those interviews I’m tempted to just scrap the rest of my essay because my jaw is practically flapping down about my knees; I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing. But, ah, what the heck…let’s resume our originally scheduled analysis)

There were little things that kind of twinged with me in the film — perhaps demonstrating how little nuances affect the way you react to things. One was a minor joke in the film. Strange has been invited into the temple and handed a slip of paper with the word Shambhala on it (whether that was meant to be a subtle in-joke or the audience was supposed to recognize its resonance with Eastern mysticism, I’m not sure). Strange asks if the word is his mantra (ie: a word chanted during meditation) and is told: no — it’s the wi-fi password. At that point, it’s a funny joke. Then they take it one step further by having the character add: “We’re not savages.” And, I dunno, suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny, equating lack of wi-fi with savagery (in a movie facing criticism of racism and imperialism). It was an amusing joke that got a bit soured by the filmmakers’ imposing extra significance onto it…and maybe compounds the other issues surrounding the film.

Just to belabour my point (admittedly over a very minor scene): imagine a scene where a white guy sits down to a Chinese meal, picks up two long sticks beside his plate and struggles clumsily to eat his food. The waiter comes over, looks at him skeptically, then takes the sticks from him…and drops them in his glass, revealing they are straws, not chop sticks. Then the waiter puts a knife and fork on the table. That might be amusing. Now finish the scene by having the waiter say “We’re not savages” — and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as funny, does it?

Anyhoo…

There’s also an interesting thing to consider about the old comics themselves (that’s overlooked by those calling them out for racist imperialism): namely that The Ancient One is alive and a recurring presence in the early comics (the comics began in 1963 and The Ancient One didn’t shake off this mortal coil until, I think, the early 1970s). So although the white American Strange is definitely the main hero, and a master sorcerer, in terms of power and cosmic significance he nonetheless remains subordinate to the Asian Ancient One. So — arguably — the comic initially was less blatantly about a white American dominating a foreign cultural trope.

(One curious rumour I read was that initially Strange would’ve become Asian as he masters the mystic arts — in other words the comic would’ve featured an Asian-looking lead. This has been cited as an example of a progressive idea that was crushed by editorial edicts. But — I dunno. It sounds equally problematic — literal Yellow-Face. Also I can’t help thinking this has been picked up by those who like to diss Stan Lee (the writer) by suggesting the artist (Steve Ditko) was more progressive — but really, looking at the two men’s body of work, is there any reason to think Ditko was more racially progressive than Lee? To be honest, I think the theory started simply because of how Ditko drew the character (giving him “squinty” eyes) — but, honestly, Ditko drew a lot of characters that way. What makes things even more ambiguous is that although the Ancient One is traditionally depicted as Asian — originally the temple is located in India. Suggesting either the original creators weren’t clear on the distinction between Asians and South Asians — or even from the beginning the concept was meant to be ethnically ambiguous).

The whole racial issue, and race-swapping (whether turning non-white characters white, which is usually seen as wrong, or turning old white characters non-white, which is usually seen as more progressive) is, of course, rife with minefields. In that sense I do sympathize with the movie’s writer lamenting they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. (And though it hardly needs be said, I know some ass is gonna complain so I’ll explain: the reason it’s seen as OK to race-swap a white character more than a non-white character is because white characters are more numerous…plus most traditionally white characters aren’t defined by their race — white was just the default — so it doesn’t alter them to swap their ethnicity 80% of the time. But most older non-white characters were very much defined by their ethnicity so changing them does alter them).

Anyway…

In the comics Strange has an Asian manservant named Wong, who calls him “Master.” In the movie they make Wong (Benedict Wong) a fellow sorcerer, arguably making it a stronger part. But…equally, by making him a fellow sorcerer, but Strange still the dominant sorcerer/hero, it arguably reduces Wong even more — making him simply an also-ran magician, rather than having a unique function in the narrative. In the 1978 TV movie, Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) is still Strange’s servant — but as I recall, is made a more significant, respectable character by serving a function that supplements Strange (almost like a coach in a sports movie). But, obviously, that’s a highly debateable point. I’m just arguing that bolstering a non-white character by making him an echo of the white character doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a better character.

While in perhaps a deliberate counter to the white-washing of The Ancient One, the film takes a traditionally white character, Baron Mordo, and casts black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (now simply Mordo, since the hereditary European title of Baron is less applicable). Here Mordo is presented as Strange’s friend whereas in the comic he’s a villain. However part way through the film I suspected where they were heading: namely re-fashioning Mordo in the manner of other comic book villains who started out the hero’s friend such as Magneto, Lex Luthor, Two-Face, etc. And sure enough, by the end of the film, Mordo has turned bad. So, again, damned if they do/damned if they don’t: they turn a white character black…but he’s a villain.

Now I want to take us in a slightly different direction — one that I’m not sure many commentators on the film have tackled (even those criticizing the racial stuff). And this is reflected in my sub-title about the “ugly American.”

III: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM!

So the premise of the story is an arrogant surgeon is humbled and reborn as an altruistic sorcerer. Yet, funnily enough, the original comic (published in 1963 and presuming a more juvenile audience than the film) actually seems to tackle the scenario with more sincerity. For one thing, in the movie Strange is arrogant and abrasive…but still basically a decent guy (his biggest failing is his willingness to humiliate a fellow surgeon who misdiagnosed a case). In the comic? Strange is an out-right cad, specifically criticized for his greed and materialism (given recent debates over American health insurance, the movie’s decision to shy away from the profit-driven aspect of U.S. health care, and the way the comic damned Strange’s greed, is perhaps telling). But the point is: comic book Strange isn’t just arrogant…he’s a bastard.

Now I can understand why the filmmakers might have balked at that — worrying the audience (possibly unsure where the story was headed) would lose all respect for/interest in the nominal protagonist before his transformation into hero. (Or, as I say, not wanting to arouse the ire of right wingers by seeming to invest a political message into their film). But in light of later scenes it can equally feel like they weren’t prepared to grapple with the comics’ original point.

So in the original (8 page) comic book story Strange is humbled, broken, and goes to India and ends up at the temple. There he discovers fellow disciple Mordo is planning to kill The Ancient One. Instead of leaving the temple (as he had intended) Strange attempts to warn The Ancient One — despite, at this point, Strange having acquired no mystical power. In other words, his heroism is reflected in his motives, not in his ability to vanquish bad guys (Mordo casts a spell preventing Strange from speaking of what he knows). So not only has Strange become a better, altruistic person, but it is not through self-aggrandizing heroics that he proves himself, but through a more modest nobility. It’s a low-key story (which, admittedly, would be a bit dull stretched out to two hours!) — though also arguably moodier and creepier than the movie (Lee & Ditko obviously evolving the tale out of the horror/supernatural comics they had been producing a few years before).

Contrast that with the movie.

First off, Strange just wanders the streets of Katmandu until catching the attention of Mordo who then simply takes him to the temple, where he is instantly welcomed, offered tea (more on the tea in a bit) and presented with the key to the mystical universe, so to speak. It’s only because Strange is rude and dismissive that he is kicked out. Immediately he starts pounding on the temple door, begging/demanding to be let back in. Mordo then turns to The Ancient One and suggests Strange’s very arrogance is precisely what they need to shake up their moribund little order and so Strange is welcomed back in. Strange gets up to various hi-jinks, makes various sarcastic quips, and practices a forbidden spell. He is given a few token lectures about overcoming his ego…but then in the climax, Strange defeats the villain — by using the very forbidden spell he was told never to use!

Now obviously, some of this could be attributed to simply relying too much on lazy plotting (Strange’s easy entry into the temple) and formulaic clichés (heroes are often wise-cracking rebels who flaunt the rules).

But let’s unpack it.

American surgeon (who is more just arrogant and conceited than he is the outright bastard of the comics) is basically handed everything simply by asking or by throwing a tantrum and he triumphs over the villainy…by ignoring the rules.

In other words, instead of a story about an arrogant man who learns humility as was the theme of the comic — arguably the movie becomes a story about an arrogant American whose very arrogance and sense of entitlement is what makes him a hero. A movie concocted by a co-writer who complains about Social Justice Warriors and a director who seems to think all (fictitious) Asian characters look alike.

So now let’s look at the cultural provenance and how the modern movie compares with earlier takes on the theme.

IV: WHITE GUYS & ASIAN TEMPLES

Part of what stuck in my mind in some of those scenes is the contrast with the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu — also about a white guy who emerges a hero from an Eastern monastery. (Quick disclaimer: Kung Fu has a very special place in heart and psyche. I regard it as a singularly unique experiment in American television: its atmosphere, its surprisingly artful use of cinematography and music, its at-times challenging themes and approach to character nuance; I get a rush of nostalgia hearing the Chinese-flavoured theme music and seeing David Carradine trekking across the dunes. I’m not saying it can’t be criticized, merely I’m not the guy to do it properly).

Kung Fu has been criticized in recent years for some of the same issues as Dr. Strange — but I would offer a defence that the series, at worst, was a reflection of its time rather than some racist outlier (as I think some younger pundits believe). To my knowledge there had never been an American TV series starring an Asian actor to that point (and precious few with even black actors in leading roles). So to suggest that the filmmakers wilfully chose a white guy over an Asian is, I suspect, naive. If they had fought for such an idea, might it have changed TV? Possibly. But it’s equally likely the networks would’ve just passed on the series entirely. The fact that Bruce Lee is the name suggested as the possible alternate star is also mis-characterizing history — at that point Lee wasn’t an internationally famous movie star but just the guy who had played Kato for one season in the Green Hornet.

Indeed, I would argue the decision to make the hero half-white, and so David Carradine could play the role without make-up, was itself a progressive move because it’s not impossible the network executives would’ve been perfectly okay with a Yellow-Face make-up job (Christopher Lee’s last outing as Fu Manchu — in Yellow-Face — was 1969!) I would also point out that Kung Fu wasn’t about a white guy becoming better at an Asian system than the Asian guys. I don’t think there was any indication in the series that Caine was supposed to be uniquely superior to his fellow monks (at least anymore than how any hero of a TV series is supposed to be exceptional).

Anyway, my point about Kung Fu is that if nothing else, the series comes across as entirely sincere in its philosophical ambitions — many of the episodes genuinely exploring moral and ethical dilemmas through its semi-pacifist Buddhist hero in a way that I can’t think of any other series before or since doing. And in the opening episode, we see flashback’s to Caine’s entry into the monastery. Like Doctor Strange it involves scenes of Caine (and others) being locked out of the temple — but in Kung Fu, instead of throwing tantrums and pounding on the doors, Caine proves his worthiness by sitting quietly, meditatively, day after day, rain or shine, until he is allowed in. Then he, like Strange, is offered tea — but he refuses to drink. Why? Because it is disrespectful to drink ahead of your elder. It’s one more test/demonstration of Caine’s humbleness. So you can understand why I (admittedly, facetiously) noted Strange’s blithe drinking of the tea and thought: “Dude — you don’t drink the frigging tea! Everyone knows that!”

Another interesting antecedent of the movie, Doctor Strange, was 1994’s The Shadow, which also parallels Dr. Strange in that it involves an arrogant white American (Alec Baldwin) who is reborn as a hero in an Eastern temple. Except in The Shadow, Lamont Cranston isn’t just a bastard — he’s an evil warlord. But I would argue (and some might say I’m engaging in special pleading) they avoided some of the pitfalls of the Doctor Strange movie because, though we don’t really know why he was chosen for his conversion/redemption, it is mostly thrust upon him (as opposed to him just being a superior white guy) — and he continues his crime fighting in New York (perhaps allowing us to infer he was chosen, not because he was better, but precisely because they wanted to send him to the predominately white New York). There’s also — arguably — more of a sense that Cranston has been reformed/redeemed, that he is truly a different person after his time at the temple in a way that Strange doesn’t seem as much. In other words — there is more a sense of humbleness (including in how he reacts to learning of the death of The Tulku, as though genuinely losing someone important to him…or even when he self-deprecatingly remarks he speaks “just Mandarin” when Margo Lane acts impressed that he speaks Chinese; but I’m probably stretching a bit there).

(One could also note that while the Doctor Strange movie reduced the number of its Asian characters by race-swapping The Ancient One, The Shadow movie gives a prominent role to the Shadow’s Chinese-American agent, Dr. Roy Tam (Sab Shimono).)

Since I’m on the topic of white guys mastering Asian tropes, it’s perhaps worth also noting the recent Netflix TV series, Iron Fist — which was roundly thrashed by a lot of reviewers. Now Iron Fist had a lot of problems. It just wasn’t very good — though I’d buck some common wisdom and argue that with the exception of Jessica Jones, most of the Marvel Netflix series have been underwhelming. But Iron Fist was the most underwhelming-est. (Though I would offer one counter argument: some critics pointed to how star Finn Jones seemed too skinny. But I do wonder if that was deliberate. After all, the cliché of Martial Arts is that it allows a smaller person to beat up a bigger person. And knowing they intended to team the character with the other Netflix heroes in The Defenders — including Daredevil who has no physical superpowers but can also beat up a room full of bad guys — they maybe wanted Iron Fist to look unimposing…precisely to make him seem more bad-ass. But if that was the intent, they failed to convey it in the narrative).

One interesting point I heard made was that when Iron Fist was created in the comics in the 1970s — he was just one of a number of Martial Arts-themed characters. And, indeed, Marvel’s flagship Martial Artist was arguably the Chinese hero, Shang-Chi. So the white Iron Fist was only one variation on a Martial Arts theme. But jump to 2017 and he seems more conspicuous since he stands alone on the field.

But one could argue that Iron Fist (TV) also reflects aspects of Doctor Strange (movie) in contrast with their comics.

In the comic, as I recall, Iron Fist/Danny Rand was (like Caine in Kung Fu) given to spouting a few spiritual homilies and though he arrived in New York seeking revenge…it was tempered by a spiritual outlook. In the TV series, Danny seems, well, like a bit of a self-obsessed narcissist whose very self-focus is what makes him a hero. I’m oversimplifying, of course — there are criticisms of Danny’s bull-headedness (usually from the female characters played by Jessica Henwick and Rosario Dawson who, nonetheless, go along with him in the end) and Danny is supposed to be well-intentioned and goodly-hearted. But I just mean that, in a way, both the TV Iron Fist and the movie Doctor Strange don’t just adopt Asian tropes…but they then seem to deliberately reject the philosophical themes and tenets that the original versions (and series like Kung Fu) at least paid lip-service to respecting.

Dr. Strange, Kung Fu, Iron Fist, and even The Shadow, may well have used the white-guy-becomes-a-hero-by-learning-from-an-Asian-culture…but arguably Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie) and Iron Fist (the TV series) seem to argue these guys improve upon the Asian system with their American can-do exceptionalism, smug Yankee arrogance, and by side-lining Asian people even more.

In other words, these new interpretations don’t just perpetuate problematic clichés…but I would argue make then worse than the originals were. If the way these characters/stories are presented reflect their eras, what does that say about today?

Posted in Comic Books, Science Fiction & Fantasy | 2 Comments

Canadian Super Hero Names: Why the Heck are there all these “Red Ensigns”?

(Another of my irregular posts both looking at the history of Canadian comic book superheroes, and plugging my own contribution to the idiom — the prose story collections: The Masques Chronicles.)

I wrote in a previous post (What’s in a Name?) about how there’s a tendency when creating Canadian superheroes to come up with archetypal concepts and names (whether we’re talking the seminal Captain Canuck or even the American-published Canadian superheroes of Alpha Flight which included characters like Sasquatch and Aurora). Arguably this is to establish them as recognizably Canadian in contrast to the more prolific American superheroes.

But sometimes these names/concepts might seem cryptic if you aren’t familiar with Canada…or if you aren’t familiar with the idiosyncracies of comic book tropes.

An interesting case in point is — Red Ensign!

I’m aware of at least three instances in which the name Red Ensign was assigned to a Canadian superhero. I used a Red Ensign in my collection of prose superhero stories, The Masques Chronicles; Scott Chantler created a Red Ensign for the Chapterhouse anthology, True Patriot (2016); and apparently Mark Shainblum (of Northguard and Angloman fame) along with veteran artist Geof Isherwood toyed with creating a Red Ensign character wa-ay back in the 1980s!

At first glance that might seem like a really weird coincidence.

So let’s unpack the context. Prior to the 1960s and the adoption of the Canadian flag (the red/white/red with the maple leaf in the middle) the commonly used flag to represent Canada was known as the Red Ensign. A red flag with the British Union Jack in one corner (or Union flag I guess — according to a Dr. Who episode it’s only called the Union Jack when on a sailing vessel…something I guess even a lot of Britons don’t know!) and with a coat of arms representing Canada in the middle. Funnily enough, the Red Ensign isn’t exclusively a Canadian term (the red flag with the union flag in the corner was used elsewhere in the former British Empire) but Canadians tend to think of it as theirs (smug bastards that we are). The (Canadian) Red Ensign was, I believe, used unofficially as a Canadian flag (the official one simply being the British Union flag) for decades before it was adopted officially — and even after it was retired in favour of the maple leaf flag, a version of the Red Ensign is still used as the flag of the Province of Ontario.

So that explains the Red Ensign as a Canadian signifier.

Although the story takes a dark turn — apparently the Red Ensign has started to crop up among Canadian Alt-Right and White Nationalist groups, being parasitically co-opted by them in much the same way the cartoon Pepe the Frog was. Which is why, as the kids would say, we can’t have nice things. (The irony is that many of these Alt-Right/White Nationalist groups are actually international in their organization and funding — so wrapping themselves in a “patriotically” Canadian flag is disingenuous). At the moment it hasn’t been fully tainted — as mentioned, a variation remains the flag of Ontario — but it’s worth noting that certain groups are trying to get their grubby little paws on it. Oh, and since we’re on the topic, recently there has been some debate as to whether it’s okay to punch Nazis. I can’t answer that — but I will note that comic book superheroes literally rose to fame on the basis of fighting Nazis! And we just have to look to what’s happened now in the United States, and the U.K. for that matter, to see what happens when you’re polite to Far Rightists and neo-Nazis. End of political digression.

Anyway — back to the less gag-inducing side of the Red Ensign.

But even acknowledging the historical resonance of the Red Ensign, it might still seem curious that it keeps getting optioned as a superhero name. But the thing is: it sounds like a superhero name, featuring as it does two recurring cliches of superhero names.

1) A colour: Scarlet Pimpernel, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Black Terror, Chartreuse Fox (okay, a No-Prize — as Marvel used to say — for recognizing that one).

and 2) a military rank: Major Domo (obscure Canadian reference alert), Lieutenant Marvel (almost equally obscure American reference…though I guess it’d be Lewtenat Marvel), Captain…America, Canuck, Britain, Marvel, Atom, Comet, Victory, etc.

I mean, if you have any inclination toward superheroes it’s hard to see the name Red Ensign and not immediately think: “Gosh — look! It’s a snowy owl! It’s a bush plane! No! It’s…The Red Ensign!”

Perhaps equally interesting is how the name seems to suggest similar ideas to different creators. Being the pre-Centennial flag, it lends itself to historical concepts. So Scott Chantler’s Red Ensign — first presented in True Patriot, vol. 1 (2016) from Chapterhouse Comics and appearing in subsequent Chapterhouse publications — has his adventures in WW II, and is presented more as a super soldier, complete with military helmet (so I understand — to be honest, I haven’t yet read the character’s adventures; time and money being what they are at the moment…namely in short supply).

While Mark Shainblum and Geof Isherwood’s unpublished 1980s Red Ensign — at least as referenced in passing in one of John Bell’s history of Canadian comics, Invaders from the North (2006) — is described as being a “1940s-style character.”

Which brings us to the character I know best — namely, my own Red Ensign. And it’s an interesting demonstration of how a character concept evolves, changes, and blossoms.

It all gets back to a short story I wrote in 2014 called “Yesterday’s Man” which I submitted to the anthology Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016), edited by the above-mentioned Mark Shainblum with writer and editor Claude Lalumière (Claude also having edited an earlier prose superhero anthology — this time with Camille Alexa — called Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) in which I had an alternate history superhero story published, “The Secret History of the Intrepids”). Anyway, “Yesterday’s Man” was held for consideration, but eventually Mark & Claude accepted another story of mine for inclusion in Tesseracts Nineteen (“Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?”).

But it was from “Yesterday’s Man” that my whole Masques Chronicles project evolved. The premise of the story was that a contemporary superheroine teams up with an iconic 1940s hero to take on Far Right extremists (a premise that turned out to be uncomfortably prescient given the way the world’s gone in the last couple of years). There was a bit of a minor joke that could be seen as either very “Canadian,” or just “realist,” in that the modern heroine only has the vaguest idea who the supposedly legendary hero is (in truth, when Captain America was thawed out in modern times, rather than heralded as a “living legend” most people probably would’ve said: “Who?”) And part of the intent of the story was to hint at an entire decades-spanning Canadian superhero universe through cryptic references and allusions.

And it was from that that I thought: why just hint at it in one story? Why not actually try to explore it through a collection of stories?

Anyway, so for “Yesterday’s Man” I needed to come up with superhero names that sounded like the sort of vaguely corny names one might have devised for 1940s superheroes (during a time of war and patriotism). So the old time hero is The Loyalist (the United Empire Loyalists were those who stayed loyal to the British Empire after the American Revolution and fled to Canada) and oblique references are made to Le nouveau voyageur (ie: The “New” Voyageur) and…The Red Ensign, both characters long dead by the time of the story and only names on the page.

But when I decided to flesh out my so-called Masques Universe, including with stories set in the 1940s, I was faced with the task of actually putting characters to those blithely tossed off names. The development of Le nouveau voyageur is an essay in itself, but for today let’s stay focused on The Red Ensign.

Even with “Yesterday’s Man” I had already half-envisioned The Red Ensign as having been a youthful hero (“ensign” being a lower rank, it suggested a junior character). One who fought bad guys with gymnastics and a quip in the mode of sidekicks like Robin the Boy Wonder and Bucky Barnes (significantly different in the comics than he is in the movies) or lead characters like the 1940s boy-hero, Crimebuster. The “red” of the name also suggesting a bright, bold costume like Robin’s. So The Red Ensign became a jovial, wisecracking boy hero ala Robin, and the youngest member of The Daring Dominions (yet another Canadianism — Canada sometimes called The Dominion of Canada).

But something wasn’t quite right. There was something missing, I felt. Maybe the character was a little too much like Robin and Bucky and the others — less an homage than simply a cliché.

And then I was watching a Canadian sci-fi series called Dark Matter, about a group of characters in deep space. And one of them was played by Jodelle Ferland — a one-time child actress (jaw droppingly brilliant in the otherwise problematic oddity that was the movie Tideland) cast as a wide-eyed teenager. And that triggered something in my brain — and I thought: why not make The Red Ensign a tomboy? (Not that The Red Ensign is much like Ferland’s character in Dark Matter, but sometimes having an actor’s face in my mind nudges a character in a fresh direction).

Not only did this allow The Red Ensign to riff on the boy hero archetype while establishing her own distinct identity, but it actually helped smooth over a bit in one of the stories in which she appeared. Namely, in the story “A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea,” a sub-plot has The Red Ensign taking an interest in the romantic entanglements of two of her adult team mates — something that a boy character might dismiss as just mushy stuff. So in a way, I think the character always wanted to be a girl — but it took me a bit to realize that!

“A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea” is actually one of my favourite stories in the collection (as you can probably tell by the overly florid title) — certainly I consider it one of the keystones of the collection, at least in how I try to tie together various themes, it being the first story (chronologically) that tries to play with a team of heroes, where their relationships and interactions are vital to the narrative (essentially treating them as people as much as heroes) and which tries to use the fantasy of superheroes to explore (if allegorically) certain contemporary issues. I also try the trick of seeming as though the story is about one thing — then veering in the last act to reveal it was always about something else entirely. Though I could well imagine some readers might consider it more bewildering because of all that.

Did I succeed? Did I fail? Heck, buy the book and decide for yourself (it’s included in vol. 1).

Anyway, The Red Ensign herself only appears in I think three stories in the two volume collection (including a later-day story where she is now a middle-aged divorcee in the Christmas-themed story, “Twas in the Moon of Winter Time” — yet another Canadianism, the title lifted from the iconic song, “The Huron Carol”).

So that’s my latest look at the idea of “Canadian” superhero names — and especially why a name like The Red Ensign keeps cropping up (and both the similarities and the differences between the versions).

I suppose one might ask, given the lag between when I first came up with The Red Ensign in 2014 and she finally saw print, and Scott Chantler’s version arose — wouldn’t it have made more sense to re-name her? Well, the problem is — once I’d named her, I kind of liked her with that name, I felt proprietary. Besides, it’s not like I ever envisioned a time when she would need to carry a book by herself or be used in the title (where copyright/trademark might be more relevant). And to be honest, as the whole point of this essay should make clear, there is a tendency for creators to latch onto Canadian-sounding names — sometimes for minor, throw-away projects. I already had a character named Captain Confederation (again: a Canadianism) which I changed to Confederation Man after discovering a satirical short story that used Captain Confederation (though it did allow me to give my re-christened hero a nickname: Con-Man). I couldn’t help thinking if I spent my time constantly re-naming my characters because someone, somewhere, had used it at some point…I’d be re-naming characters from now to judgement day! (Since at that point I had no way of knowing if Chantler’s version was a one-time throw away concept or something he tended to re-use).

Besides, by sticking with The Red Ensign it actually gave me a topic for this blog post, didn’t it? It also allows me to plug not only my books, but to promote Scott Chantler’s character, as well as to throw in a nod to Mark Shainblum, Geof Isherwood and others (maybe encouraging you to Google any number of things I referenced).

So, y’know — everybody wins.

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Dark Worlds Quarterly: looking at the past and present of genre entertainment

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog started out primarily focused on writing about Canadian film & TV — despite my having multiple interests, both personal and professional. The reasoning was (according to something I had read) blogs accrue more readers by focusing on a particular topic. But the fallacy with that, as I see it, is a lot of people reading my blog probably do so just because they were Googling something and a post of mine came up as relevant. And so if they want to read more about that particular topic, well, that’s why there’s a handy category menu to the right, as well as at the bottom of each post.

So in recent months I’ve expanded to writing about various things, including fantasy & SF, comics, and my own fiction writings.

And today I want to draw attention to a new on-line e-zine (available as a free PDF) called Dark Worlds Quarterly. Dark Worlds Quarterly is a non-fiction website/e-zine about fantasy and science fiction — yes, all of it. That’s kind of what makes it fun — it’s a grab bag gathering everything under its umbrella (if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphors). So in the inaugural issue there’s an interview with comic book writer Don F. Glut (best identified with comics from the 1960s and 1970s), and a two-handed review of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 (it’s literally two reviews laid side by side of each other allowing for two perspectives in a kind of print version of movie critics TV shows dating back to Siskel & Ebert); there’re pieces exploring the works of Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague DeCamp and a piece ruminating on TV’s Doctor Who. And there’s a bit of multinationalism, too. The ezine is Canadian, so there’s a piece asking if there’s such a thing as “Canadian” SF, and another about a French comic, in addition to the more typical American/U.K. material.

It’s not unique to cast such a wide net, but I do think a lot of genre-focused magazines and webzines tend to be a little more narrow in their subject (much as it was suggested blogs should stay focused). So in that sense Dark Worlds Quarterly reminds me of what I used to enjoy about the old (but not forgotten) Starlog magazine — or at least certain eras of it (I’m specifically thinking of the 1990s/2000s) when it would put features about a sci-fi TV series next to pieces about a new comic book, splashy articles about up-coming movies with affectionate retrospectives interviewing some semi-retired genre actor from years gone by. In a way, the appeal of such concoctions is not that you’d be interested in every item, but that once you’d read the items you were interested in, you’d find yourself turning to the less exciting pieces…and sometimes find that was the true gem in the issue!

Not that Dark Worlds Quarterly is trying to be some sort of media magazine. In a way, it’s not unlike blog posts collected in a single issue. The e-zine seems to be basically the product of genre fiction writer, G.W. Thomas, and genre artist, M.J. Jackson (who also provides the appropriately pulp-style covers), who between them contribute most of the articles (with one or two exceptions). And a lot of the pieces (with the exception of things like the Don F. Glut interview) are essentially editorials and opinion pieces…but by two guys who clearly know the field, so they blend opinionated with informative. There’s an element of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (or grumpy middle-aged man) in that there’s some waxing nostalgically about the past (but since I’m a grumpy middle-aged man, I mostly get where they’re coming from) but, surprisingly, married with a recognition that not everything was rosy in the good ol’ days, acknowledging problematic sexism and the like of old pulps and comics. Which, again, fits with my belief that you can supprt something and still acknowledge its flaws (or equally dislike something but still recognize its good points). I mean, that’s basically been the entire philosophy of my Canadian film/TV writing (though I suspect it’s also why I’ve acquired few friends or supporters within that industry).

And, of course, the history is part of the point, I think: Thomas and Jackson aren’t Johnny-Come-Latelies to the genre who think Cthulhu originated in a video game or that George Pérez created Wonder Woman — they know the roots, the provenance. Dark Worlds Quarterly is fun for old timers who already know what Thomas and Jackson are writing about, but equally fun for younger readers who enjoy learning about that stuff (just as I remember enjoying Starlog and similar mags for how they would pull back a curtain on things from before my time).

But, as I say, they aren’t living in the past, many of the pieces tying into trendy films and franchises, if only by exploring the roots of the property (in addition to Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Who, the inaugural issue has pieces tying into recent major motion pictures with essays on the history of Wonder Woman and the French SF comic Valerian — although the essay was completed before the recent film version, so it only mentions a film is coming).

The research is mostly, I assume, common reference sources and, I suspect, prodigious memories. As such, sure, depending on how well you know the topics they might not offer anything too surprising — but again I get back to the variety of subjects, so you probably won’t know it all. Having just recently read Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2000) their piece on the rather kinky origins of Wonder Woman didn’t feature much that I didn’t know, but other articles explored topics less familiar to me — like a piece about an aborted attempt in the 1950s to try and turn Tarzan into a shared author franchise ala Conan.

As mentioned, the pieces are mostly part objective article and part opinionated essay, so you may or may not always agree with their points. But you can be informed by the facts, and then chew over the opinions. And even then, they tend to look things over from multiple sides — even sometimes contradictorily so (like a piece about sexploitation in old pulp magazine covers that both affects a modern, Feminist scepticism of it all, even as it is, well, an entire article devoted to lascivious magazine covers — a paradox Jackson himself freely, and good-naturedly, acknowledges). The pieces are just well written, too (and I say that as someone who, though I’ve been writing non-fiction pop culture pierces for years, still struggles to get the words to come out right — as, no doubt, this post is an example!)

I don’t know what the future holds for Dark Worlds Quarterly (though certainly a second issue is already being promoted). Whether they are hoping to turn it into some sort of self-supporting enterprise or whether (given it’s a free download with the only ads being for some of their own works) it’s mostly just done for the love and for the fun, but the first issue was certainly an enjoyable little read.

One disclaimer I should add is that I’m pretty sure Thomas and I, writing in similar genres, have on occasion shared a table of contents. And Thomas actually interviewed me for his own blog — that was how I discovered Dark Worlds Quarterly. This isn’t a tit-for-tat essay though. That interview with me is already on-line and I didn’t mention to Thomas that I was thinking of writing this before hand (though I’ll probably send him a courtesy link).

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Behind-the-Scenes: “The Monster of Gander (Newfoundland, of course)”

This is another one of my (irregular) posts looking behind-the-scenes at individual stories in my collection of Canadian superhero stories — which I’m posting, well, in the hopes you might stumble upon this blog, get mildly intrigued, and buy the book (and then maybe post your own review somewhere, ’cause I’d love to see how more people react to the tales). Originally the book was called Masques & Capes but I’ve actually revised and expanded it into a two volume series titled The Masques Chronicles.

So today — a magician battles a deadly creature in Gander, Newfoundland during World War II!

One of the things I like about Canada — one of its strengths both as a country, and as an “idea” (and a source of stories) is its very diversity. The second largest country in the world, broken up into various regions each with their own histories and idiosyncracies, and then marinated in the philosophy of multiculturalism. People sometimes scoff and say this very diversity and complexity means Canada has no defining identity. I would argue that is Canada’s defining identity.

And so part of the idea in my collection of stories was to deliberately embrace Canada’s diversity and complexity, the stories scattered from sea to sea to sea; I wanted the anthology to feel like a travelogue — and a romp through 20th/21st Century history — as well as being a series of adventures and mysteries. But I also like to mix n’ match things, too. Because, as I say: diversity and complexity is part of what makes Canada interesting.

Which brings us to today’s focus: the ominously titled “The Monster of Gander.”

Set in the 1940s during WW II, as the title implies it’s set in Gander, Newfoundland. At the time, Gander was an important location in terms of air travel (planes being less fuel efficient back then, they needed to stop at Gander before heading off to Europe, or when travelling from Europe into the North American interior). To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of Gander’s historical importance before I saw some CBC TV movies such as Gordon Pinsent’s Heyday! and Above and Beyond (starring Liane Balaban, Allan Hawco, Jonathan Scarfe and Richard E. Grant if memory serves). Since then I’ve realized that if you watch old movies about trans-Atlantic travel, Gander is referenced (such as the Jimmy Stewart movie, No Highway in the Sky).

Something I want to address at some later point in more detail is how little serious research I did for these stories. And I realize that sounds crazy! A collection of stories set in different decades, in different provinces, featuring heroes of different backgrounds — and I’m admitting I did little research? Wha-at??? But see, that was kind of my point. For years whenever I (or others) bring up the idea that Canadian stories can be set in Canada, often the braying response is “NO! It Can’t! There’s nothing interesting about Canada!” (Or my personal pet peeve: the ol’ “I can’t set my story in Canada because I don’t want to write about maple syrup harvesters!” argument). Soooo…I wanted (mostly) to draw upon casual, common knowledge in crafting these tales — to say look at what I could come up with without even trying too hard.

So, anyhoo, early on in the process of assembling these tales, I knew I wanted to do one set in Gander during WW II (I think “The Monster of Gander” was a title that popped into my head early). At one point I considered setting it at the RCAF base, but then decided on a hotel in the area, instead, and wrapping it around what is often called a “base under siege” plot. Snowed in during a blizzard, staff and guests find the hotel has been infiltrated by some unknown creature.

So now I had checked off both my regional and historical boxes with the Gander during WW II setting. But as I mentioned at the start, sometimes it’s nice to mix things up. So the narrator is a local Newfoundland girl, but other characters include international travellers, a black man from Africville (Nova Scotia), and the story’s nominal heroes: a French-Canadian woman and an English-Canadian man.

Now the whole idea behind my stories is mixing up both Canadiana and real world history and culture — with comic book tropes and archetypes. So now let’s look at the story’s heroes and their comic book roots.

Because this story is set during WW II, I wanted to riff on clichés and archetypes from that era of comics. And one archetype was the stage magician crime fighter. I think this began with the comic strip hero, Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician, but also included Fawcett’s Sargon the Sorcerer and DC Comics’ Zatara and I suspect a few others (many of these characters are still around today — or are otherwise represented, such as by Zatara’s daughter, Zatanna — but the mid-20th Century was I think their heyday). Often they shared traits: they were publicly known as stage performers (as opposed to wearing masks or operating in secret), often depicted in tuxedos and with suave mustaches.

So as an homage to this idiosyncratic sub-genre of superherodom, I decided to create my own version. And a story set at a luxury hotel seemed an ideal milieu for a “celebrity” hero (the character could be en route to entertaining the troops). At one point I considered swapping genders and making the magician a woman. But then I settled on the idea of a duo: a male magician and his female assistant (allowing for some reflection on past/present gender roles). I gave him the typical mustache, but went for a white tux as opposed to the usual black, and called him Shamano the Supernaturalist (deliberately riffing on the alliteration of Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, etc.). The slightly cheesy name Shaman-o, of course, for its Indigenous connotation. After all, part of the gimmick in these stories was both to tell stories to be read at face value (taking the characters and their adventures for themselves) but also self-reflectively, as if these really are old Canadian comic book characters. And Canadian pop culture has often drawn upon (or appropriated) Indigenous symbols and themes much more than American culture has. So I figured a “typically” Canadian 1940s spin on the idea of the American stage magician superhero might do something like that. Meanwhile, his lovely assistant is French-Canadian.

But, of course, I wanted to do more than just evoke Mandrake/Zatara/etc. After all, without its own unique spin, an affectionate homage can easily be just an unimaginative rip-of. So there are (hopefully) a few twists on the cliché.

As for the plot itself… As mentioned, it falls into the “base under siege” sub-genre. A group of characters in an isolated location (thanks to a blizzard) find themselves in danger. I tried to write the story in such a way that the threat escalates scene by scene (as first they think a wild animal is outside the building, then they realize it might be inside, then they fear it may be more than just an animal…). But also with some wry wit and some deeper themes.

I sometimes write in an almost cinematic way. And this seemed particularly appropriate in stories meant to riff on comic books (another visual medium). So I deliberately tried to write a few scenes in such a way that they unfold in the reader’s mind like a movie, as the characters come upon troubling scenes, or wander dark halls. Whether that always worked — I don’t know. Perhaps one of the most obviously “cinematic” scenes is when a cluster of people in the lobby hear the elevator activate and watch nervously as it slowly descends to their floor — unsure who or what is inside. It may not entirely work in a written medium, but I gave it a shot — and hopefully the reader will appreciate the spirit of the scene.

And of course beyond all the stuff I’ve articulated here, the story hopefully has some suspense, some wit, a plot twist or two, all while offering a few philosophical kernels to chew on…and is just an enjoyable little confection. At the very least: I’m guessing this is the first story ever written entitled “The Monster of Gander”!

See what you think: it’s included in the first volume of The Masques Chronicles.

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: “The Monster of Gander (Newfoundland, of course)”

What’s in a Name? Superheroes and National Identity

This is part of my irregular series of posts looking behind-the-scenes at the prose superhero collection, Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History. Obviously I’m hoping to promote the book, but I’m also reflecting on comic book superheroes, cultural identity, and other things that might be of interest even if you don’t buy the book…but I’m hoping you will 🙂

So…what’s in a name?

Part of the idea behind my book was to imagine a Canadian superhero universe. And not simply as a joke or a satire.

Certainly there have been Canadian superheroes deliberately imagined as a kind of Canadian spoof of this largely American-begat genre, including Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Angloman, The Frantics’ Mr. Canoehead and — to some extent — Bernie Mirault’s The Jam (I say “largely American-begat,” but actually Canadians have been influential in its development, as I note in a piece I wrote here).

But for my stories I wanted to tell genuine superhero adventure tales…but set against a Canadian backdrop the way American superhero stories are set against an American one (and, if less frequently, British characters like Paul Grist’s Jack Staff and Marvel Comics’ Captain Britain and Union Jack are set against a British milieu).

At the same time, superheroes have an inherent undercurrent of whimsy (they are characters in garish costumes with physics-defying powers after all) so I was also having a bit of fun with the idea of various Canadian — or Canadian-esque — superhero names (and accompanying powers).

Canada has so little history of comic book superheroes it isn’t uncommon to go for the archly-Canadian theme. After all, two of the most famous of the 1940s comic book characters were Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights (overshadowing the other, less distinctly Canadian-named characters like The Brain, Thunderfist, and The Penguin).

In later years, the desire to establish an iconic Canadian hero led to the most famous example — Richard Comely’s Captain Canuck. As well as Shainblum & Morrissette’s Northguard and Northern Light (of many creators). All of them sporting some variation on a red and white, flag-themed costume.

When American Marvel Comics came up with a Canadian super team, Alpha Flight, it followed suit with various distinctively Canadian heroes, including Guardian/Vindicator (another red and white flag-themed costume design), Shaman, Sasquatch, Snowbird, Northstar, Aurora and even a little person in a black body suit named…Puck! Yet I suspect even they found themselves running out of ideas (or subsequent writers had less familiarity with Canadian clichés — or maybe they worried it was getting too cutesy). So later additions to the team roster included less specifically Canadian-sounding characters including Box, Diamond Lily, The Purple Girl, Flex, Centennial, and others. Not surprising, of course. After all, only a tiny percentage of American superheroes technically feature names (or costumes or powers) that are distinctly American.

But many others draw upon Americana in almost subliminal ways. I think Iron Man’s Tony Stark was intended as an idealized version of Howard Hughes; the Hulk’s origin was inspired by American desert tests of nuclear weapons; Wonder Woman’s costume is distinctly American in motif; while many writers (particularly in recent years) have implied Superman’s decency is directly attributable to his up-bringing in the American heartland (as he fights for Truth, Justice…and the American Way!).

So there’s an instinct to conjure up superheroes with identities rooted in or drawing upon a distinct cultural identity, regardless of the country of origin. And Canadian superheroes are no different.

And there’s a lot of ground to be made up. After all — and this can’t be stressed enough — the number of Canadian superhero comics published (post WW II) probably number less than 50. I don’t mean 50 series — I mean literally 50 individual issues. Even if we add the American-published Alpha Flight into the mix, that might bump it to 150-200 individual issues. While a single American superhero like Spider-Man has probably appeared in two or three thousand issues! American superheroes — and American culture and identity — so dominate the genre (and popular culture in general) there’s almost a feeling you have to aggressively assert a cultural presence to even make a dent in it.

As well, there’s long been this argument that Canada is boring, and that you just can’t tell interesting pulp and adventure stories using a Canadian setting. So part of the reason to be blatantly Canadian when crafting superheroes is to tackle that argument head on, rather than running and hiding from it.

Also — it’s just fun. It’s fun to look around Canada, at its history, at its culture, at its clichés, and to utilize those things in service of that acme of pulpy entertainment: the superhero.

So when I was creating characters to populate my stories, I deliberately latched onto Canadian-sounding names and/or powers. Not just that, but I also tailored some to suit particular regions — as well as particular time periods. Since part of the conceit was to imagine this as though culled from the pages of some Canadian comic book publisher, part of the game was to try and imagine what someone might have created (ie: if there had been a major Canadian comic publisher in the 1940s or the 1960s, what sort of characters might they have created in those decades?). Basically, to borrow a line from the Hollywood movie The Heist, “I imagine what someone smarter than me would do — and then I do that.”

For instance, when imagining some 1940s characters — a time of war and patriotism — I came up with such characters as The Loyalist, Le nouveau voyageur and The Red Ensign. Playing around with comic book cliches of the Golden Age I imagined a crime fighting magician ala Mandrake the Magician and Sargon the Sorcerer…and named my guy Shamano the Supernaturalist (get it? Shaman-o?)

Throughout this collection you’ll encounter characters named Two Solitudes, Mosaic, Confederation Man, Centigrade, Inukshuk Girl, Hal-i-Fax and The Beaver (yup, I went there!) and others. An aspect of coming up with “Canadian” characters is what constitutes “Canadian”? Different people will have different ideas on that. I doubtless came up with themes someone else might insist aren’t reflective of their vision of a Canadian archetype, or wonder why I didn’t employ an obvious cliché. Indeed, I was trying to come up with ideas that were obvious — but not too obvious. Characters the reader might not have anticipated, but once it’s put before them, they go: “Ah…of course!”

Part of the idea I had was that embracing the Canadianness would actually be a creative strength, not a weakness. It would force me to be more creative as I would have to come up with names of national (or regional) significance, and powers to match them. And my intent was to embrace the inherent silliness, even kitschiness, of those names…and then present them in all seriousness, daring you, the reader, to find them silly. After all, any superhero identity is inherently goofy if viewed without a willing suspension of disbelief (Spider-Man? Wonder Woman? The Flash?). I dare you to read “The Hal-i-Fax Monologues” or “The Beaver, the Bear and the Eagle” and not finish the stories thinking these are perfectly credible comic book characters.

In a way, the goal was to latch onto some distinctly Canadian names or themes and then — hopefully — by the end of the story have the reader completely forget about the cultural resonance, the story entertaining just for itself. And as enjoyable for people who know (and care) nothing for Canada as much as for people who were interested in the idea of “Canadian” superheroes. Because, at heart, these are meant to be just like any other (or any American) superhero: the stories more about the characters and the adventures they get embroiled in than the design of their mask or their codename.

Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History available now.

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | 2 Comments

Behind-the-Scenes: The Canadian Film Biz..and Superheroes!

Today: another in my irregular series of behind-the-scenes pieces detailing some of the creative process behind the stories in my collection of Canadian superhero prose tales, Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History. Now, obviously, a writer banging on about the “what” and the “why” behind a tale can be problematic. After all, most of us don’t necessarily want to see what goes on in a kitchen before the food arrives at our table, do we? And it can smack too much of hubris, as a navel-gazing writer waxes on about their inspirations. However as a guy who’s been writing op-ed pieces and reviews of film, TV, comics, etc. for years, it should be clear that I think digging beneath the surface of popular entertainment is part of the process, part of how we appreciate the storytelling.

Equally — I’m trying to promote my book. So writing about it is one way of doing that (maybe you stumble upon this blog, get mildly intrigued by my posts, and decide to check out the book itself). At this point, I’ve received little public feedback on the book (on-line reviews or anything) — pro or con — so I’m still hanging in limbo about whether people liked it/didn’t like/didn’t “get” it/whatever.

So today’s story-du-jour is: “The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle.”

It’s an interesting one because it ties directly into another long time interest/hobby of mine — namely Canadian film. I’ve been writing about Canadian film/TV for years (this blog primarily started out focused on that topic). So it seemed an obvious backdrop for one of my superhero stories.

Or maybe it’s not-so obvious.

Y’see one of the intents in my collection was to use superheroes as a genre — a milieu capable of incorporating multiple themes. Too often superhero stories (in non-comic book mediums) are focused on being about superheroes — as opposed to telling stories in which superheroes happen to be the protagonists. But one doesn’t expect a private eye story to only be about deconstructing the clichés of private eye stories. Likewise, Star Trek episodes aren’t self-reflectively intent on dissecting what it would mean to be a starship captain.

This is kind of the problem with superhero movies — they are often stuck in the rut of being “superhero” movies. Hence why a lot of critics were pleasantly surprised by the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier — as it was less a “superhero movie” and more a political/conspiracy thriller in which the hero wore tights.

In that vein, many of the stories I wrote for my book try to function first and foremost on the level of being adventures, or mysteries, or thrillers — in which the hero is a superhero.

So “The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle” mixes a kind of Gothic mystery (a group of characters are trapped with an unknown adversary on an isolated island) and social satire (the characters are part of a film crew) — in which the protagonist is a superhero. In other words, a similar plot could’ve featured a private eye as the hero, or an amateur detective.

It was also unusual because it’s just very, very, very rare to have stories use the Canadian film industry as a setting. There are a kazillion movies, books, and TV shows that use Hollywood as a backdrop — from comic satires, to mystery thrillers — but next to none drawing upon the idiosyncrasies of the Canadian film biz.

Since part of the creative challenge of my stories was to deliberately draw upon a Canadian setting, I had jotted down notes of “Canadian” things I could use for various tales. And one of the notes was: “set a story against a Canadian film shoot — possibly during the late 1970s-early 1980s boom n’ bust period dubbed Hollywood North” (the stories in my collection being set in various decades).

As a long time observer of, and commentator on, Canadian film/TV I was aware of things that would be slightly different from the Hollywood clichés and so could add flavour to such a story — things which have rarely been employed in a story. So the characters bicker about the need to import American “stars” vs. hiring Canadian actors and the director has made a name for himself directing shlock but is hoping to break out of that box with a respectable literary adaptation (in the 1970s, many of Canadian cinema’s commercial successes were English-Canadian slasher flicks and French Canada’s soft porn films). There are some subtle (and no-so subtle) cultural in-jokes, and nods at the film biz in general.

I didn’t have a plot at first — but I had an idiom. At one point I think I considered a Phantom of the Opera-type tale of some mysterious figure running about a Toronto sound stage. But eventually I settled on a film crew on an isolated island — a nicely archetypal setting for a thriller. It also was another cultural nod, as the setting is a castle on the St. Lawrence River, suggested (albeit only vaguely) by the real life Bolt Castle.

But I needed a hero. When embarking upon my project, I jotted down various notes for plots, settings, super powers, and names, often mixing and matching them when the time came, assembling my stories like literary Mr. Potato Heads. So I might come up with a story by selecting from different columns: milieu, time period, hero, etc.

And one of the superhero ideas I had jotted down was — brace yourself — The Beaver!

Yup — I decided to go there.

I mean, the whole point of my book was to embrace unapologetically a Canadianness, and that included coming up with Canadian-sounding superheroes. But the Beaver? Egad!!! Common sense said stay far away from the water-logged rodent. It’s silly-looking, it’s forever tainted by its association with a slang euphemism, and it’s just too Canadian. The few times people have employed a beaver motif is invariably as a joke (in Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck he encountered a Canadian costumed character called The Beaver — but it was satire).

Those were all the reasons not to do a beaver-themed superhero.

Only here’s the thing: those were also the reasons to do it.

I mean, if it seemed like a problematic idea, if it seemed an impossible task — then wasn’t that a gauntlet I should pick up, if I was going to make any claim to being a creative person? Heck, when they first came up with the idea of Spider-Man apparently the publisher said no one would want to buy a comic about a “spider” hero. And look how that turned out.

So I decided to break the idea down into its core parts. I didn’t have to make a hero to suit other people’s expectations. If the buck teeth and floppy tail are silly — I didn’t have to use them, did I? Most superheroes simply pick and choose what they want from their totemic inspirations. Spider-Man doesn’t shoot webs out of his butt. Batman doesn’t hang upside down (or, um, do anything that’s actually bat-related).

(I think one of my favourite bits of serendipitous inspiration was when I decided that the character should employ beaver motifs, like Batman — with his batmobile, batcave, etc. So I decided on an A.I. computer nicknamed DAM (get it? Beaver…dam?) — and then I realized DAM could stand for Data-Analysis-Mechanism. I mean it practically wrote itself — it was like kismet was winking at me!)

So instead of making my character a humourous creation waddling about in heavy furs with buck teeth — I made mine a slick, credible crime-fighter, drawing a little upon Batman, Aquaman, and even the Martian Manhunter. Oh — and I made her female. Yup, a female heroine called “The Beaver.” If I was gonna role the dice, I was gonna bet it all, baby.

I’d like to think I did what most people would say was impossible. I made a compelling, convincing superhero using a beaver motif. But you’ll have to decide for yourself if I succeeded.

So now I had a setting (an island), a milieu (the film industry), a time period (the late 1970s), and a crime-fighter. I can’t quite remember how the plot fully assembled itself. I think because of The Beaver idea I leaned toward an equally totemic adversary (y’know, Spider-Man v. The Vulture, Batman v. Catwoman, etc.), and settled on a villain called The Bear. At first I considered having the film crew inadvertently disturb some ancient evil on the island (a trusty cliché) but that would undermine any attempt at making it a “mystery” if the villain’s motive is unrelated to the characters. And it would make the film shoot idea extraneous. So — and without giving too much a way — I decided to connect the villainy to the film a bit more integrally.

That was one of the things I most enjoyed about writing all of these stories — letting the ideas drag me along, forcing me to be more creative to justify them. Like going with a Beaver heroine when all common sense said to not. Once I decided to connect the crime to the film shoot, I think it made for a more interesting, more twisty, adventure where the solution arises organically from the events (as opposed to it just being some unrelated monster lurking on the island).

In some respects The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle is among the most plot-heavy stories in the collection — at least in the sense that it’s meant to unfold like an Agatha Christie mystery/thriller, with a collection of characters, some twists and turns, a few tense, moody sequences, some surprise jolts, and — hopefully — an unexpected revelation or two in the climax.

And this creative process I was employing, where I wouldn’t run away from challenging ideas, relates to the heroine herself.

You see, one thing I sometimes do is I “cast” characters. A number of the characters in this book — in my mind — I picture after actors I might happen to have seen in something (and others I’ve cast subsequently). That could make a whole ‘nother essay about who I might cast as the various superheroes. Though just because this is how I picture the characters doesn’t mean that is how the reader has to picture them (sometimes I picture very different actors as the same character!)

Anyway, so while I was in the middle of trying to conjure out of clay my semi-aquatic superheroine, I caught a Canada-Mexico co-production known, among other titles, as The Boy Who Smells Like Fish. It co-starred Douglas Smith, Carrie-Anne Moss — and the American actress-singer Zoë Kravitz. And there are scenes where Kravitz is in a swimming pool. So just when I’m crafting a heroine who bobs about in the river — I’m watching Zoë Kravitz’s head breach the surface of the water. And so I kind of started half-picturing Kravitz as The Beaver.

But even though I was picturing her that way in my mind, I knew I couldn’t describe her that way. After all, Kravitz has brown skin, and I had already decided my story was going to be a period tale (at that point I was still waffling between the 1960s and 1970s) and that the Beaver would be a media-personality in her alter ego (eventually I settled on an actress). It just wouldn’t be realistic to imagine a brown-skinned actress working successfully in Canada at that time (certainly not playing the romantic lead in a major movie). Even today Canadian film is a long way from offering a (consistent) level playing field for actors of colour.

But then my orneriness reasserted itself. The orneriness that made me create a character called The Beaver — when anyone would say that was stupid; that made me chose the Canadian film industry as a backdrop for an adventure — when anyone would say to avoid that milieu. The orneriness that told me if an idea seems difficult or problematic — that’s all the more reason to stick with it.

The easiest path doesn’t always lead to the best stories.

Of course it would be unlikely — but equally it’s a story about superheroes, which are themselves unlikely.

I started thinking about it. Chinese-Canadian Adrienne Clarkson was already a TV personality in the 1960s. Latina actress/singer Céline Lomez was probably the closest thing Canada had to a sex symbol starlet in the 1970s. The late D.D. Winters (later Vanity) would begin her career in the early 1980s. One doesn’t want to sanitize Canadian history by ignoring racial discrimination — but equally, one doesn’t want to play into other narratives (and historical whitewashing) by ignoring the fact that Canada has always had (some) diversity.

So I decided to go ahead and refer to the character as having light-brown skin — though I leave it deliberately vague as to what that means ethnically (since she’s actually an alien, she didn’t have to confirm to a specific ethnic type). So you can picture her as Zoë Kravitz. Equally you could imagine Jessica Parker Kennedy. Or Jessica Lucas. Sometimes in my head she would even morph into Melissa O’Neil — who’s Asian. As I say: I leave it vague.

Part of the fun of this creative process was just embracing ideas and seeing where they take me. By accepting the character as non-white, it opened the door to a minor little scene. At one point a character laments our heroine is the wrong ethnicity for her role and he would’ve preferred a white actress (he doesn’t say it’s “Political Correctness run amok” — because this is decades before the phrase was coined — but he might as well). But when she points out the role’s ethnicity isn’t technically white either — he just shrugs and walks off.

This scene was inspired by on-line complaints I’d seen where (some) people angrily denounced a 2011 version of Wuthering Heights where black actor James Howson was cast as Heathcliff. They whined and whinged, insisting they were only concerned about the integrity of the work. Except — as was pointed out by others — in the original Emily Brontë novel it’s implied Heathcliff isn’t actually supposed to be white, but most likely a Gypsy (or Roma). So if these literary purists were going to complain about a black actor shouldn’t they equally complain about all those other movie versions starring the likes of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes? And if they were okay with WASP actors then isn’t it equally legitimate to cast a black actor? (Indeed, a black actor might better realize the novel’s theme of Heathcliff’s ostracization for a contemporary audience). Needless to say, such logic whizzed right over the heads of those complainers.

The scene in my story is a couple of lines and of only minor importance to the plot (I’m sure many an editor would insist it be excised). But I included it precisely because it was extraneous. Hopefully it adds dimension to the story by making the characters part of the real world, having real world conversations.

As I mentioned near the start of this post, I was trying to write a collection of superhero stories that were about more than just people being superheroes. And that scene was an exchange between characters that arose only because I saw a brown-skinned actress and decided to let that take me where it would. Letting the story, and the characters, direct my writing, not vice versa. (Addendum: there’s actually another, albeit subtler, example of letting the story/characters tell themselves — namely there was an aspect of the heroine I had assumed would be one thing, but by the end of the story I was thinking maybe she was something else. See if you pick up on the same vibe I did 😉

The Beaver, The Bear and The Eagle is available in the collection Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History. Buy it, read it, and see what ya think (and post your own review!)

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: The Canadian Film Biz..and Superheroes!