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).

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

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 | Leave a comment

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!

A Christmas Superhero Story…

I recently wrote a collection of short stories called Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History — adventure-mystery stories about superheroes. The idea was to imagine a Canadian superhero comic book universe, a multi-generational continuum stretching from the mid-20th Century to today. And so, as part of the collection, I decided to write a Christmas-themed story. And in the spirit of the season, I figure I might as well post it on-line for any as would be interested. Now the point of my collection was to write mostly self-contained tales (after all, they take place years, even decades apart) but some characters bled over into more than one story. In this case, the characters here had appeared in a couple of earlier tales in the book — but I think it’s easy enough to pick up on the threads and the inherent nostalgia of two old friends reuniting after many years. There are usually two ways of writing Christmas tales in the context of an adventure series — sentimental or silly. I decided to try a bit of both with a tale that is both low-key and bittersweet and larger-than-life and, well, comic book-y.

Happy Holidays!

‘TWAS IN THE MOON OF WINTER TIME
or: A Last Christmas for The Loyalist

by D.K. Latta

December, 1982

The vintage silver-grey sedan with the custom-modified bulbous hood pulled up to the curb, the snow beneath the winter tires squeaking slightly as it eased to a stop. It settled there for a moment, the engine clicking quietly to itself as it cooled in the late December air. Then the driver’s door opened and a tall man stepped out, his breath forming fleeting white clouds around his head. Garbed in a heavy long coat, he was handsome with regular, even features and mouse-brown hair.

He stared up at the house before which he had parked. A pine tree on the front lawn was draped with Christmas lights, as were the eaves of the two-storey home. Two plastic reindeer guarded the steps leading to the porch, one listing crookedly from the previous night’s wind.

A gentle dusting of snow drifted down from the afternoon sky, adding to the layers already carpeting the distinctive red Prince Edward Island soil.

“You looking for Santa Claus, mister?”

The tall man turned to see a child of about eight looking stiff as a statue in his heavy blue parka, a striped scarf cinched tightly around his head by a conscientious parent.

“Bit early, isn’t it?” the tall man asked. “He won’t come around till tonight.”

“Nyah,” said the child. “I seen him a few times already. I even wrote to the paper. I figger you were maybe a reporter come to see.”

“Sorry. Not me.”

“Christopher Jeremy Winger!” shouted a voice from down the street. “How many times have I told you to pick up your sled?!?”

The child tried to look toward the voice but was unable to turn his head. So he swivelled his whole body and obediently waddled off in the direction of the shouts.

The tall man chuckled, then looked back toward the house. He was not a man normally prone to nerves, but he felt a fluttering in his stomach. Steeling himself, he strode up the walkway — stopping only momentarily to right the tilted reindeer — and rang the doorbell. After a moment he felt the subliminal tremor of an approaching occupant. And then the door opened.

A plump, middle-aged white woman with hair cut short stood in the vestibule. She was dressed in a turquoise sweater over green pants. Her eyes widened. “Oh. My. Goodness. Michael!”

He smiled. “Hello, Red Ensign.”

~

They embraced, briefly, then she hastily ushered him in and closed the door, tut-tutting as she did. “Don’t want to heat the whole out doors,” she said as if just for the sake of something to say. “And I’m no longer the Red Ensign. Just plain old Margerie Ciccone.”

“You look good,” he said.

“Liar,” she chided.

He shrugged. “You look good for your age, then.”

“I’ll buy that,” she said with a grin on her round face. She had been barely a teenager when they had fought Nazis decades ago, he as The Loyalist, she as the irrepressible Red Ensign. “You barely look a day older.” A slight exaggeration, she realized, but he certainly didn’t look decades older. “I guess I’m not surprised — not knowing you’ve remained active while the rest of the so-called Daring Dominions long since surrendered to age and hung up our fighting togs. You always were stronger, able to recover from injuries faster. Me, I had no ‘super’ powers, just my gymnastics and my chain mail tunic.” Then she squinted up at him. “Mind you, the sideburns are new. Very hip.”

He self-consciously touched the side of his face. “You don’t like?”

“Just promise me you won’t grow a Tom Selleck ‘stache. I think that’d be too weird. Come on in,” she said suddenly remembering her duties as a host. “I’ve got some hot chocolate simmering.”

Kicking off his snow capped boots he followed her down a narrow hall lined with smiling family photographs. They emerged into a living room decked with garlands, snow globes on the mantel over the fire place. The Christmas tree stood before the picture window, only half dressed.

Michael paused by a bookshelf and picked out a hardcover which he turned over to see a picture of his host staring at him from the back. She appeared younger than she was now. He looked at the front, the title: “The Girl in the Red Shirt: The Autobiography of The Red Ensign.” There were other books next to it on the shelf, also with Margerie’s name on them. “You’ve done all right,” he said.

“Can’t complain,” she agreed. Then spying what he was holding, she added, “Though the writing doesn’t pay as much as you might think. My agent never could find me a U.S. publisher, which is where the big money is. The memoirs of a Canadian Masque lacks a certain cachet down there. And it was the sale of the memoirs that opened the door for the rest of my writings. The European sales remain pretty steady, though — especially in Holland. I was in real estate which is what paid for most of this,” she gestured around her at the house.

“Your family?” he asked, realizing the place was quiet.

“The kids and grandkids will be arriving tomorrow — though some of them are coming in from out of town and won’t get here till Boxing Day. And I’m divorced these days so it’s just me for today. How about yourself? Any plans for the holidays?”

“This and that.” He shrugged non-committally — the universal fiction offered by those spending Christmas alone.

“You hear from any of the old gang?”

“I still talk to Double Whammy from time to time, when I can.”

“Well, of course you would,” she agreed. “And Claude?”

He shook his head with a certain ruefulness.

“Sweetgrass?”

He looked away. “No.”

Her eyes twinkled sadly. “I guess I always hoped you two — well, it was just the school girl in me, still holding out for a fairy tale ending.” Realizing things were turning maudlin she patted his arm and said, “Let me grab that hot chocolate, then we can get down to business. I wasn’t sure if any of my old contacts could get hold of you, but I’m glad you came in answer to my call. Because I think I stumbled upon some trouble — of the old kind…”

`

“That house was empty for many months,” said Margerie as the two stood next to the Christmas tree peering at the house next door. “I think the owners over-priced it given the market and its condition. Uh, sorry,” she grinned, “professional reflex. Anyway, about a month ago a new owner moved in. The first thing that struck me as odd was one day I just noticed the For Sale sign was gone — no “Sold” sticker left out for a few weeks. Like it was a snap purchase. Then the moving vans arrived — including an ambulance.”

“Ambulance?”

“The new owner seemed to be an old man, chronically ill. That itself seemed odd. People usually sell their homes when they get old. They don’t buy a new one. And then there were lights at night. As if people were working into the wee hours. But, as I say: the owner’s bed ridden.”

“Odd,” said The Loyalist neutrally. “But odd doesn’t mean dangerous.”

“I’m retired from the real estate game but I still have some friends, so I made a few calls. The owner’s name is John Bland Smith.”

The Loyalist raised an eye brow.

“I know — right?” she said. “That still didn’t take me anywhere though. But I do a lot of volunteering — must be a carryover from my costumed days. I even walked in the first Terry Fox Run last year. As such I spend a lot of time at the local hospital,” she tapped her finger to her nose, “and I know my way around the offices there. I figured a guy that sick has got to have records, equipment and medicine requisitions on file. I did a bit of snooping.”

“Margerie,” he cautioned, “you could get into a lot of trouble doing-”

“He’s Zorgon.”

The tall man paused. “What?”

“Mr. John Bland Smith is actually Professor Emile Zorgon.”

The Loyalist looked out the window at the silent house as snow flakes danced and drifted about like figure skaters on an invisible rink. “I haven’t heard from Zorgon in years. I assumed he was dead.”

“Apparently not. The quintessential mad scientist is still holding on, albeit by the proverbial thread. But you’re right — it’s been so long I’m guessing that’s why he could use his real name on medical records and no one’s picked up on it.”

“Still — why not just call the police?”

“Well, we know what he used to be up to, but I don’t know if there’s any active police jacket on him. Besides, I figured you’d want a crack at him. He was one of your arch foes as I recall. Besides — I’m a bit nervous.”

He looked at her.

“Him buying a house on his death bed and moving in next door to the former Red Ensign? I’m supposed to be believe that’s just a coincidence?”

`

Night draped a soft cloak over the outskirts of Charlottetown, perforated with little holes to allow tiny flakes to spiral to earth. The freshly fallen snow boldly reflected the moonlight, giving the evening a crisp luminescence. It made it an ideal, cheery vista for a Christmas Eve stroll for lovers to wander the streets, catching faint strains of carols wafting from unknown origins.

It was not ideal weather for the man known as The Loyalist to secretively investigate the possible demesne of a notorious villain from decades past. The Loyalist had donned his traditional garb. Not just his long coat, but also a face concealing hood and the powdered wig with a pony tail that enhanced the period motif that accompanied his Masque identity.

He crunched furtively through the snow about the three story house, the lower windows dark. The only glow emanated from a third floor window.

It was entirely possible this was all a mistake or a misunderstanding, he reasoned. Possibly there was simply another Emile Zorgon. Or perhaps Margerie had muddled the files. It was possible that she was too eager to find a mystery to solve, nostalgic for the days when she lived the life of an adventurer. After all, she had mentioned she had retired from her job. He thought she seemed young to be doing that. Perhaps she was experiencing a mid-life crisis.

However he owed it to her to check out her concerns. But not at the expense of a possibly innocent old man’s peace of mind.

There was a convenient three legged TV antenna trestle that formed an impromptu ladder running up the side of the house past the glowing window. Instead of seeking a ground floor entrance, and breaking into the house, he thought he might be able to assess the situation without disturbing anyone inside. He tested the sturdiness of the metal trestle, the cross staves still tangled with brittle, dead vines. Then he started climbing, snow shaking free as he did and raining down behind him almost like sugar from a cake decorating shaker.

The old antenna groaned at one point and he paused. But it held, so he resumed his ascent.

Within moments he had successfully clambered up to a level with the lit window. Holding to the trestle with one hand he leaned over and peered through the window. Using his sleeve he brushed aside snow from the pane.

Inside was a bedroom. A king-size bed was in the centre of the room and under a layer of quilts and blankets rested an old man. Briefly The Loyalist recalled that Mi’kmaq legend said when the creator, Glooscap, slept he used Prince Edward Island to rest his head. They called the country’s smallest province the “cradle on the waves.”

Not that the wizened figure was in any danger of being mistaken for a deity.

His head was bald save for a few lonely strings of dry hair and his features were gaunt. His nose and mouth were covered by a clear plastic breathing mask and an assortment of tubes and wires ran out from under the blankets and linked to various machines that monitored his life signs. A shaded lamp was in one corner of the room, casting a soft glow over the sleeping man.

It had been years since he had seen Emile Zorgon. The memory he had of him was of a robust man with a shock of red hair bursting from his scalp in full mad scientist coiffure. But there was no doubt that, accounting for the years, and the obviously terminal health of the man in the bed, that he could very well be looking at his old enemy. It was enough to make him pursue his investigation to the next level.

He cocked his head, detecting a murmuring voice inside. But the old man appeared asleep and he had thought the room otherwise deserted. There was a steady rhythm to the delivery, indicative of a monologue rather than a conversation. After a moment he relaxed and smiled beneath his mask, recognizing the tones. Someone had left the radio on, perhaps to provide the old man some sense of companionship, and the CBC was doing its annual Christmas broadcast of Allan Maitland reading “The Shepherd.”

He was sorry he was missing it.

He grabbed the window latch and with a flick of his wrist snapped the lock. If he was wrong, he would make reparations. Swinging open the window on its hinges, he flung a leg over to the sill, pushed off from the trestle, and slipped inside the room. He hastily closed the widow, though the drop in temperature would be easily detected.
As he turned toward the sleeping man, he saw that it had been — for he slept no more.

The whites of his eyes had a yellowing tinge and the lids glimmered wetly. The old man breathed laboriously as he stared at the cowled man, the radio murmuring quietly to itself. The old man’s breathing took on a hiccuping aspect that, for a moment, made The Loyalist think he was having a heart attack. Then he realized it was something else.
Chuckling.

“Hello, Emile,” he said levelly.

“Loyalist,” hissed the old man, his voice muffled through his mask, and hushed by the hum of his surrounding machines.

“I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to find you like this.”

“Alive?” croaked the old man. “Or dying?”

The Loyalist shrugged. “Both, I suppose. Or that we’d meet again on Christmas Eve of all times.”

“It’s my Christmas present to myself. I was afraid I’d die before you came.” Sensing the tall man’s confusion, the old man laughed again — though his chortling degenerated into a series of wet coughs. After a moment he said: “Surely you suspected a trap? I couldn’t find you — even after all these years you remain a man behind a mask. But the Red Ensign — she went public long ago, long after she gave up crime fighting. Her I could find. And though her — you.”

Slowly the Loyalist nodded, realizing it made sense. Moving in next door to Margerie Ciccone, employing the deliberately conspicuous pseudonym of John Bland Smith just to arouse her suspicions. Margerie had suspected Emile was up to something — that’s why she had summoned him. She just didn’t realize she was supposed to suspect that. And she had been wrong about who the actual target was.

“To be a trap, you need something to spring it. With all due respect, Emile — you don’t look in much shape to pose a danger to me, or to anyone. I assume you have caregivers — let me guess: ex-cons? Former Nazis?”

The old man shook his head, though even that seemed too much effort for him. “Legitimate nurses. I gave them the night off when my video cameras recorded your car pulling up outside Red Ensign’s house earlier. I told them an old friend would be coming by to look in on me. I knew tonight would be the night.”

“So what do you hope to accomplish with just you and me?”

Again there was the strained half laugh, half cough. “You forget — it’s Christmas Eve. That means there’s always…St. Nick.”

The Loyalist stiffened, hearing a weird clanking behind him. From the dark shadows of the room emerged a bulky shape that moved stiffly, issuing wheezing, rattling noises like an engine. As it moved into the pool of light cast by the lamp he could make out the flash of red velvet, then a bushy white beard.

Above the beard: a face plate of metal with gleaming glass lenses for eyes.

“My robot designs were never very human-like,” admitted the old man. “But the advantage to the Christmas season is if you wrap anything in a Santa Claus suit, people tend not to look too closely even if they glimpse it through the windows puttering about the house.”

“Ho-Ho-hick-Ho-Ho!” echoed the robot mechanically. And then gas spewed from the white beard.

The Loyalist, taken off balance, inhaled involuntarily. Immediately he felt his knees grow spongy beneath him. As he pitched over, his last thought was a wry one: “Well — this was unexpected.”

`

Icy wind whistling in his ears awoke The Loyalist.

If being gassed by a simulacrum of Santa Claus had taken him by surprise, what he awoke to was equally perplexing. He was strapped to some sort of flying sleigh, small rocket nodules along the sides firing jets of flame through the night air as the bizarre vehicle raced across the sky. He twisted and strained against the bonds that held each hand and foot, then craned his head around to see the robot in the Santa suit sitting at the front of the sled, steering.

It worried him that he was no longer surprised by the bizarreness of the situation.

Ruefully he recalled the little boy outside Margerie’s house mentioning having seen Santa Claus in the neighbourhood. He’d have to remember to pay more attention to children in the future. Assuming he had a future.

“Where are you taking me?” he shouted over the wind and the roar of the rockets.

“To-your-death,” rattled the robot, as though the words meant nothing to him. Which they probably didn’t. The Santa robot was just a tool, not a sentient being. “Death-by-immolation-will-occur-upon-impact.”

Presumably that meant the sled was heading for some collision — perhaps with a building, or to crash into the ground once its fuel was expended. Emile Zorgon was definitely Old School, dreaming up ridiculously extravagant, insanely fussy schemes for such rudimentary purposes. How much would building the robot have cost? The sled? How many hours working out the technical details, plotting trajectories? Just so he could crash it in a mad revenge scheme to kill a man he hadn’t seen in years.

The Loyalist cast his eyes about him, briefly hoping this really was outfitted like Santa’s sleigh and he might find a sack of presents that he could raid for something to effect an escape. But no. It was possible Emile had not actually intended the death sled as part of any Yuletide motif.

He studied what was available. One of the rocket nodules was just close enough that, if he could free his foot, he might be able to kick it, either knocking it off or at least twisting its angle. Unfortunately, that would simply bring the sleigh down all the quicker — which wasn’t advisable while he was still bound. What he needed was something sharp or hard that he could use on his straps. But the only thing that wasn’t bolted to the sleigh, he realized, was the robot itself.

Then it occurred to him that, given Zorgon’s poor health, the man couldn’t really have been doing too much hands on work. It must have been the robot who had built the sled, Zorgon directing it with verbal commands; the mad scientist was in no shape to pull levers or even to use a keyboard. So perhaps the robot had been programmed to take orders, at least regarding maintenance of the sleigh. It was a slim chance, but the only one he had.
“Robot!” he barked. “The rear left leg strap is frayed. Replace it immediately.”

There was a whir, a click, and the robot rose from its perch and strode jerkily toward the rear of the sled. Unthinkingly it loosened the strap about his left foot and immediately pulled a spare from a pouch on the side of the sled that The Loyalist hadn’t even noticed. Without giving the robot the opportunity, he lashed out with his free leg. The robot pitched half over the side of the sled, leaning into the backblast from the rocket. The sleeve of its Santa suit burst into flames. Then it reeled about, attempting to gain its footing. The Loyalist, seeing an opportunity, savagely kicked its metal shin, sending the robot pitching over next to him — the flaming sleeve landing across his arm. The Loyalist screamed as the heat singed him, but was rewarded by a loosening of the binding as it burned. With a wrench, he tore his arm free.

He now had one arm and one leg free.

Even as the robot struggled to regain its footing, its defensive protocol kicking in, he used his free hand to unfasten his other arm. Then he employed both hands to wrench the remaining strap off his final leg. He struggled to his feet against the wind and the turbulence. Simultaneously the robot reared up before him, looking like a grotesque effigy of Santa with its inhuman metal face and one arm scorched.

They were flying over downtown Charlottetown, directly over a department store’s roof. With only a couple of metres between sled and surface, now was as good a time as any to bring her down, he knew. He kicked out with all his might, tearing one of the rockets clear off the sled. The vehicle lurched and plunged. Its nose dove into the snow covered roof top, grinding across the surface, the back of the sleigh rearing up. The Loyalist went flying through the air, managing to tuck and roll as he went. He hit the roof hard, but successfully rolled end over end through the padding of fresh snow.

The roof spinning around him, he struggled to gain his feet — just as the Santa robot slammed into him, still operating on a program to kill him. As they stumbled back, wrestling with each other, he felt something crack beneath his boots. Too late he realized the snow was camouflaging a skylight window.

The glass shattered beneath their combined weight and they plunged into the building. He twisted in mid-air, riding the robot down, letting it take most of the impact even as snow and broken glass rained down on them.

The mechanical thing continued to sputter clicks and whirs, lashing out at him with its arms. The Loyalist punched it again and again, pounding its face and chest. “Enough!” he shouted, until finally his fists crashed through its casing, crushing its face. The machine hissed, burbled, and went still.

Shuddering with the exertion, The Loyalist slowly looked up.

He was in the midst of plywood buildings evoking a mock Alpine village with Teddy Bear citizenry propped about. A man in a Santa Claus suit was sitting in a plush, high backed red chair, his mouth agape, his eyes wide, with a child upon his lap wearing an identical expression of shock. Sitting back on his heels The Loyalist realized he was surrounded by mute children and gawking parents all lined up to see Santa Claus one last time on Christmas Eve. He glanced down at the mangled humanoid shape dressed in a scorched and torn Santa suit. Then he looked up at the crowd.

Struggling wearily to his feet, he said, “Remember, kids — don’t be naughty.” As he limped through the dumbfounded crowd he added, “And stay in school.”

~

It took him twenty minutes to get back to Emile Zorgon’s house. For ten long minutes he stood on the moonlit street, snow shyly piling up on his broad shoulders, and stared at the house and its single lit room.

Then he trudged up to Margerie’s door

“I don’t understand?” Margerie said, helping him to sit down on the couch. “You aren’t going to confront him? Let him know he failed?”

The Loyalist had dragged off his hood and the light from the hearth played across his even features. “He’s dying. Emile Zorgon, sad, sick little sociopath that he is, wanted to kill me — so much so that as death loomed for him, he devoted his last weeks or months to laying a trap for me. But all I want is to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone. I’ve accomplished that. I’m alive. His robot is destroyed. And if he’ll die a little easier thinking that he’s killed me — well, I guess I can give him that.”

“Well,” she said, sitting in a chair across from him, “that’s got to be the weirdest Christmas present anyone’s ever given.” Then a wistful expression crossed her round, plump face. “Though I can sympathize with him. I mean, not the wanting to kill people. But the wanting to reconnect with the past. The truth is, even I wasn’t entirely sure if summoning you was just a false alarm — but I really wanted to see you again, Michael. For one more Christmas.”

He smiled at her warmly. “I’ll try and keep in touch more. We can-”

“No, Michael,” she said softly. “This is the last Christmas we’ll have.”

He stared at her, his lips still turned in a slight smile even as a sadness crept into his eyes. “You don’t volunteer at the hospital — do you? You go there for another reason. And that’s why you’ve retired from your real estate job.”

“It was kind of ironic.” She smiled impishly, suddenly unmistakably reminding him of the girl in red chain mail he had known decades ago. “I participated in the first Terry Fox Run for cancer research last year — and eight months later I got my own diagnosis. Still, if it was good enough for Terry, I can’t complain.” She shrugged. “I’ve only got a few months.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, snow flakes gently tapping against the window while the radio softly played carols.

“It’s been an amazing few decades, though,” she said finally. “Back in the day — you were convinced that better things could happen, that Canada had it in itself to be better. I didn’t really understand what you meant then — but you were right. The country has grown, it has matured. I’ve lived to see it. But I feel bad…for you.”

“Me?”

“Because I have to leave you. We all seem to leave you. And you’re left to carry on, bearing the weight of it all.” She cocked her head, listening. “There — that’s you. In the song.”

He frowned, unsure what she meant. The radio was playing The Huron Carol.

“‘Wandering hunters heard the hymn,'” she quoted, a twinkle in her eyes. “You’re the wandering hunter, always out there somewhere in the dark night, always listening for our hymns.” She rose to her feet and held out a hand. “C’mon, Papa Bear, help me finish trimming the tree — I can never reach the top branches anyway.”

He hesitated, then took her hand.

She squeezed warmly and then, suddenly, laughed. “Oh my gosh — do you remember that Christmas? Was it ’40? ’41? You, me and Claude had been following this trail of bank robbers who dressed as Elves…”

Smiling as she reminisced, he let her guide him to the tree for one last Christmas…

THE END

Excerpted from the collection Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History by DK. Latta

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on A Christmas Superhero Story…

Exploring Canadian Identity in Canadian TV

Just a link to my most recent Canadian film/TV rant at Huffington Post Canada — uh, I mean, considered opinion — on Canadian film & TV and cultural identity. Y’know, my usual bedbug. This time inspired by a tweet essay by Karen Burrows.

Posted in Canadian film and TV | Comments Off on Exploring Canadian Identity in Canadian TV

I Went to a Book Reading…and saw a bear.

(I don’t usually write these kind of autobiographical “day in the life” type pieces…so we’ll see how it turns out).

I have a short story in this year’s edition of the annual Tesseracts anthology — the theme, this time around, was superhero stories. And though the book was released earlier in the year, they held the official launch of Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe on July 20th. And in a nice bit of cosmic synergy, Library & Archives Canada in Ottawa is featuring an exhibition on Canadian comic books (and it continues to run until September). So the launch was hosted at the Library & Archives building.

Contributors to the anthology were invited to come and do brief readings of their stories, and to hobnob, etc.

Initially I hadn’t planned on attending: it was a work day; I’d hurt my back a few days before; and Ottawa is a good two hour drive from where I live.

But, equally, I’d never been to a book launch before (and might never be invited to one again!) and I tend to be rather unadventurous in a lot of ways, not one necessarily given to impulsive acts. So I thought — heck, maybe I should just do it, just once, just for fun. Much to my surprise, my boss okay’d the day off (even though I didn’t give him much notice), meaning I no longer had an official excuse not to go — so I decided to attend.

But then it sank in — a reading! Good lord! I’m not the most articulate of speakers (people sometimes ask me where I’m from — implying, I guess, that my diction isn’t the best). So I quickly tried to do a few rehearsals of reading from my story. And even quicker I realized how long it takes to read aloud, and that a five minute reading slot only allowed for a couple of pages (which is why audiobooks can run over multiple CDs). So what to do? Read the first couple of pages? Pick a particularly good section part way through? Or read bits and pieces? That raised the question: what’s the point of a reading? To be entertaining in and of itself? To give a flavour of the prose style? To hook the audience and make them want to read the full story? Or simply to just, you know, be present?

This was particularly tricky with my story since it’s a tale that’s meant to unfold. And it switches perspective multiple times, the story told in different “voices.” A couple of pages wouldn’t necessarily give much sense of either the plot or the style.

So I decided to go for a bit of a Reader’s Digest version (does that analogy mean anything anymore?) — editing the story, but in a way that, hopefully, still seemed coherent to the listener. Starting a page or so into the first scene, then reading a couple of later scenes, hopefully giving a sense of both where the plot was headed and how it was being told — without, of course, giving the whole thing away. I also realized that I didn’t have to read the passages in their entirety, either. It’s not like anyone was going to be reading along and notice if I skipped a sentence or dropped an adjective.

As I say, this was my first reading, so I didn’t know the “rules” or what was expected. Turned out, none of this was unusual. Some of the other authors that night also read starting a few pages into their story. One showed me her text which she had gone through with different coloured pens, cutting a line here or there, editing an extraneous word, all in an effort to preserve the narrative forest even if it required cutting a few verbose trees.

But all that was after I arrived. And the getting there was its own problem.

As I mentioned, I was coming from out of town, and not that familiar with Ottawa. But it was no big deal, I figured. According to my GPS The Library & Archives building was only about five minutes from the highway. It was pretty much just a straightforward, uncomplicated highway drive, then a couple of turns and I would be there. No problemo!

Well…except for the heavy construction you run into once you hit Ottawa — and this being rush hour to boot. It wasn’t just that it added to the time but of course when you’re in a strange city and not sure what’s going on up ahead, it can add to the stress. Am I in the right lane for the turn I’m supposed to make a few kilometres ahead? Should I move over now — or will that move me into the wrong turn-off? Is the road even open or will there be a detour? Still, I stuck to my guns, held the course, and eventually saw the street sign for the street I needed to turn onto.

The Library & Archives building was literally a minute away.

And then my GPS cut-out.

It’s old and doesn’t hold a charge for long — about two hours, I guess (if not for that construction slow down I’d have been fine). So just as I’m getting into a strange city, with multiple lanes and heavy traffic — my GPS is gone. Still, I assured myself, it was no biggy — just before it died it told me I was only a kilometre or so away. Easy peasy, as they say.

Only turned out (unsurprisingly) there were a number of big government buildings on that street, so the one I was looking for wasn’t easy to identify (not when you’re navigating multiple lanes of busy traffic). So I ended up going past it — and now I’m starting to worry a bit. Strange city, etc. So I took the first turn off I could, and pulled into the first public(ish) parking lot I could find, and turned around, intending to drive by again.

This time I did spot the building (thanks to the existing comic book exhibition, there was a big superhero-themed sign out front). But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the building itself. So I pulled into the first convenient parking lot — only to see signs announcing it was for those with permits! Wondering where the public parking was I stopped a lone pedestrian sauntering across the parking lot — who, as chance would have it, was actually the lot attendant; and he was done for the day so he said I was (probably) good where I was.

All in all, my five minutes from the city limits to the Library & Archives building had mutated into about 30 minutes (another writer got delayed about 45 minutes — and she was already in Ottawa!)

The book reading and mingling itself went smoothly. In attendance were fellow contributing scribes Leigh Wallace, Jason Sharp, and Alex C. Renwick (all of whom were based more locally and, coincidentally, comprised a gender-balanced roster of two women — Wallace and Renwick — and two men — Sharp and myself). As well there was Tesseracts Nineteen’s joint editors Claude Lalumière (who also co-edited a previous anthology in which I had a story, Masked Mosaic) and Mark Shainblum (co-creator of such Canadian comic book figures as Northguard and the satirical Angloman). Also in attendance were some representatives and curators of the Library & Archives exhibit (whose names escape me — to be honest, I’m bad with names and the only reason I can conjure up the names of the others is because I can look them up in my copy of Tesseracts Nineteen!) The public who attended were a small but interested group (including some with a connection to one or the other of the speakers — friends and/or family).

The contributors who attended were a good bunch, responsible for some strong stories in the collection: Wallace’s atmospheric and, to my mind, slightly Magic Realist “Bedtime for Superheroes” (though I’m probably applying that label incorrectly), Sharp’s realist noir (with a nifty super power) “Black Sheep,” and Renwick’s grittily melancholic “A Week in the Superlife.” Renwick has been writing (and getting published) for a while, but both Wallace and Sharp, I believe, are relatively newer scribes (I think Wallace suggested this was only her first or second published story) — but you’d never have guessed it.

They were all well written, literary-type tales. I fancy myself a bit more of a pulp writer. If others thoughtfully stitch together well crafted and delicately shaded pieces…my writing is kind of jammed together with duct tape and staples. Like a used car you bought cheap — it ain’t always pretty, and it may ride a bit rough, but it’ll get you where you’re going and, hopefully, you’ll enjoy the trip (and not be too distracted by that occasional smell of burning oil).

(Re-reading a few stories from Tesseracts Nineteen another story that sticks out for me is P.E. Bolivar‘s “The Rise and Fall of Captain Stupendous” — partly because it straddles playing around self-consciously with the superhero tropes while still, at its core, functioning as an adventure/suspense tale; keeping a boot in both camps).

I wrote about my story, “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” (or “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumor?” as it’s spelled in the book) in a previous post but, since this is my blog (like it or lump it), I’ll take a moment to talk about it some more. Claude Lalumière, when introducing my piece, remarked that with both this story, and the story of mine he had published in Masked Mosaic (“The Secret History of the Intrepids”), what I brought to the table (and I’m paraphrasing since I can’t remember the exact phrasing) was a deep understanding of the superhero genre mixed with a sense of Canadiana. And as someone who has been reading and writing about comic books and superheroes for most of my life, as well as (in a separate but parallel hobby) Canadian culture and identity…that’s about the best assessment I could ask for. While others often write prose superheroes tales as basically short stories that play around with themes and tropes associated with the superhero genre, I’m trying to capture the feel of a superhero/comic book — in prose.

(Actually Claude Lalumière once gave me the pithiest assessment of my style when, for my story in Masked Mosaic, he referred to my writing as having a “dry wryness” which I think kind of sums up what I do. And it’s probably a style I actually picked up from old comic books: no matter how serious my story, I’ll occasionally wink at the reader. In the case of “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” it’s essentially serious — but there’s also a bit of tongue-in-cheek).

Readers with an awareness of narrative provenance will recognize a bit of a nod to the old radio hero, The Shadow, in “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” And I’ll admit when writing the opening scene, set at the real life Toronto night club, The Palais Royale, and passing references are made to real life celebrities who supposedly frequent the place, I was thinking more than a little of a scene in the 1991 Hollywood movie, The Rocketeer. I often like to drop pop culture references into my stories as a matter of course — a gimmick I think I originally picked up from American comics, making it especially appropriate in this deliberately superhero-themed story. I toss in references to — among others — ’40s starlet Ella Raines, the comic strip Li’l Abner, vanished businessman, Ambrose Small, and even the 1940s Canadian comic book character, Drummy Young (the latter as an “in joke”). Pop references — a way of grounding the fantasy of superheroes in our reality — were perhaps first really emphasized by Stan Lee and then picked up on by later generations of comics scribes (and really made a signature of some, such as Roy Thomas — particularly as a way of rooting a story in a particular era).

A reason to use pop references is to establish a sense of place. My story is a period tale — but at no point is that actually said or a date actually cited. The reader is meant to infer the time period from the allusions peppered throughout. The story itself is told from the POV of various characters, most of whom don’t know the whole story themselves — so it falls to the reader to assemble the big picture from their little glimpses.

Even though I suggest my writing is “pulpy,” I will lay some claim to attempting subtlety. What I like to think of as an “obvious subtlety” or maybe a “subtle obviousness.” That is: attempting to write something where it’s obvious to the reader what’s going on — even as it’s a bit obliquely stated. It’s a tricky technique. If you’re too obvious it’s just heavy handed, but if you’re too subtle people can misunderstand the story (I came upon an on-line discussion once where someone claimed there was a “plot hole” in the Hollywood movie, The Reader…because the character was illiterate and so couldn’t have written the damning report! So for that viewer, the obvious was too subtle).

So, all in all, traffic and GPS issues aside, it was a fun little excursion. I got to chat with some talented writers, had the experience of reading before a crowd, wandered about the Library & Archives comic book exhibit. As mentioned: it’s running till September — and you can read some more detailed pieces about the exhibit and Canadian comic books here (there are a few different related blog posts, I’ve just linked to one, but you can check out the site for others — and you should). Co-editor Mark Shainblum even mentioned that another story I had submitted to Tesseracts Nineteen, “Rumours of Glory,” had been a tough call, with him and Claude arguing whether they liked it or “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” better. The latter won out, obviously — but it was nice to hear it was a close race. (“Rumours of Glory” is included in my own recently published anthology of superhero stories — just fyi).

Oh, and lest I forget — I saw a bear.

Seriously. I was driving back along the highway and it was a slightly surreal experience since it’s not something I was expecting. I saw a black head poking out of some tall grass, just watching the cars trundle by. At first I thought it was a dog — but there was something incongruous about its shape. I half wondered if it was a man — but it was too hot for someone to be wearing a fur coat with a hood. And then I realized it was a bear. Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely sure if a bear should be that close to urbanized areas, but I guess it’s easy to forget just how much flora there can be outside of cities. After all, there’s nothing strange about seeing a deer, or a coyote, so why not a bear? Hopefully he/she knew enough not to try and cross the highway.

I kind of wonder what animals think of highways and cars. Do they see them as animals, like an endless caribou herd stampeding by? Or as some sort of non-sentient phenomenon, like a river? Animals seem to understand the concept of roads, weirdly enough — hence why birds and deer and, I guess, bears don’t seem to worry the cars will veer off the macadam and come for them.

Yeah — thoughts like that bounce about in my head.

Anyway…that was my experience with a book reading. Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe is available from most book sellers. And, since I’m plugging myself, I’ve recently published my own, single author anthology of superhero stories — a project inspired by my writing pieces for Tesseracts Nineteen and it opening up a creative floodgate.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve long had an interest in superheroes, and equally have long written about and argued for Canadian identity in popular culture (when so many Canadian filmmakers and storytellers often deliberately expunge any Canadianness from their work). So this is me telling a bunch of superhero-themed adventure and mystery stories, imagining there had been a decades spanning Canadian comic book publisher and the sort of plots, and heroes, that might have been created. The stories themselves ranging from mid-20th Century to today. Who knows? — you might enjoy it as well.

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on I Went to a Book Reading…and saw a bear.

Behind-the-Scenes: “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!”

(Continuing my irregular series of posts delving into the creative thinking behind various stories in my superhero short story collection.)

The idea behind “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” was, as with many of the stories in this collection, multi-headed.

Part of the point of the collection was to come up with “Canadian” superhero stories — but not as a joke or as an ironic satire of American cliches. Rather I was literally trying to imagine superhero adventure tales that happened to occur in Canada. As the collection evolved in my head, it took on an added, slightly self-reflective air as I was also partly trying to imagine “what if…?” there had been a Canadian comic book publisher — and so what sort of stories might they have published?

So in trying to come up with some “Canadianism” I found myself thinking about the concept of “Multiculturalism.”

Multiculturalism has been around since, well, since the first Cro-Magnon Man wooed a Neanderthal woman with flowers and a woolly mammoth steak (yeah, if you’re not up on the latest scientific DNA studies, turns out the first Cro-Magnon Man didn’t brain the last Neanderthal Man as people used to believe). But my understanding is that Canada was the first country to actually label and set down as a core cultural principle Multiculturalism with capital “M”. Over the years other counties have followed Canada’s lead and, in many cases, reactionaries have denounced it as a failed philosophy as they see their countries descend into ethnic ghettos and race wars. But since Canada doesn’t appear to be heading down that path, the counter argument isn’t that “Multiculturalism” has failed…it’s that those countries failed to implement it correctly.

But so — if you don’t know too much about Canada — “Multiculturalism” is part of the national myth, half-fact, half-fancy; the stories we tell ourselves about our countries’ identity (like American bucolic picket fences and British stiff upper lips). It was a watershed re-definition of who we are and aspire to be (many-a reactionary — and racist — Canadian quick to point to the 1970s, and Multiculturalism, as the point where Canada started to shape itself into something they no longer recognized).

Anyhoo… So in coming up with a collection of archetypical Canadian ideas for superheroes, I found myself latching onto the name Mosaic (Canada often referred to as a “Cultural Mosaic”) — and dubbing him The Multicultural Man. It was cheeky, even kitschy — but it was part of my intent to be as unapologetically Canadian as, say, American writers are American with characters like Captain America — “The Sentinel of Liberty!” (equally self-consciously hokey, yes?)

But though I had a name — I didn’t really have a power or identity yet.

Since my collection of stories was going to cover multiple decades, I had to decide when it would be set. Since Multiculturalism as a government initiative started in the 1970s, it made sense to locate the story in the 1970s, specifically Toronto, Canada’s biggest, most diverse city (certainly it has evolved into that today, arguably one of the most cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic cities on earth).

This also tied into my earlier point about imagining it as a comic book story. 1970s American comics seemed especially aware of, and keen to reflect, the zeitgeist in a way other decades haven’t been as much. The hippy and Flower Child movement inspired things like The Forever People and The Prez, while the Black Power movement inspired a new push for black heroes, and Blaxploitation cinema inspired comics like Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, and the Martial Arts fad in movies and TV obviously gave a boost to various Martial Arts comics. Women’s Lib inspired a brief flurry of female heroes. Plus there was just a greater (if still limited) ethnic diversity. While Watergate and the Vietnam War inspired various storylines.

So if a 1970s Canadian publisher had existed, and like the contemporaneous American publishers had tried to latch on to cultural trends or themes, it would seem inevitable someone would’ve written a comic called — Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!

I also decided to make it an “origin” tale — something I’d mostly avoided in the collection (because I didn’t want a repetitious collection of stories recycling origin cliches). And doubling down on this “imagine if this had been an actual comic” theme, I decided to make him a hard-luck teen in the mould of Spider-Man and others, with the obligatory love interest, bully, etc. — and an alliterative comic book name (Banning Bannister). Even the idea to slowly lay out the origin — and then rush through the action-adventure plot in the final third was kind of deliberate as that tends to be the pattern of origin stories in comics (and even pilot episodes on TV) since it’s hard to both tell an origin and work in a well developed adventure plot. This knowing nod to comic book staples was also why I called it “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” — as beginning a title with “Enter:” has graced more than a few story titles in comics.

Which was all well and fine — but I still need a power to go with the name Mosaic, didn’t I?

I tried to build on that name. So I came up with the idea of a hero who finds himself mentally linked with different people of different backgrounds, able to draw upon their skills and knowledge when needed. (An interesting sidebar, relating to many initial decision to embrace a sense of Canadiana, was that initially I had intended the hero to have a freak accident on a bus — providing a group of people with whom he becomes psychically linked. But then I thought, well, if I’m to make it more Canadian, Toronto is known for its streetcars (once ubiquitous but phased out in most municipalities in North America I believe). So I decided to put him on a streetcar — and then I recalled a signature feature of a streetcar is that it is powered by electricity…and having the streetcar become momentarily electrified provided an interesting idea for his origin, as brains run on electricity, so you could imagine the electric jolt momentarily linked the passengers. So the origin becomes more interesting and plausible (well…in the ludicrous, pseudo-science way of comic book origins) precisely because I chose to emphasize the Canadian setting).

Anyway…

This brings us to an interesting side point.

Because shortly after I had published my book I sat down to watch the American TV series, “Sense8” (created by J. Michael Straczynski and The Wachowski siblings which had premiered a few months before) — a series about people who find themselves linked with others, able to draw upon their skill and knowledge. I’m aware of how you can often see similar ideas crop up in movies, books, TV, comics, music, and it’s easy to assume a connection. And sometimes there is — and sometimes it’s just a weird coincidence (I’ve noticed thematic similarity between the two Canadian SF TV series, “Killjoys” and “Dark Matter”). Obviously the ideas of telepathically linked people having connections to others dates back decades (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids comes to mind). And in comics, one-on-one links can be seen in Firestorm and the original Omac. Indeed, Firestorm was a character flitting about in my head when I was working on “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” what with it also being a 1970s series about a hardluck teen turned superhero. (As was, in a way, the original Nova — and I’ll confess that a scene in the first Nova issue where young Rich Rider suddenly finds himself able to answer a math quiz probably inspired, more than it should’ve, a similar scene in my story).

But a distinction I would make between my handling of the idea and “Sense8” might make for some interesting philosophical musing.

I would argue in “Sense8” the premise is how having this ability provides strength and comfort to the various characters — making them feel less isolated. The connection mostly manifested in simply the characters with fighting skills helping the characters without (though there were a couple of good scenes where the actor’s acting skill proves useful). And viewed as a metaphor for feeling different, especially in regards to homosexuality (a couple of the characters are gay or transgender) it’s a good message. The characters feeling more confident in who they are.

But equally it can seem like a narcissistic use of the concept.

It’s mostly about how this connection makes these characters feel stronger, more confident, more able to deal with the problems in their lives — but it is mostly about them. It’s less about how this connection might affect how they interact with others. They don’t necessarily become better people as a result of their power. The white cop is seen as a noble, altruistic, (*cough*white saviour*cough) figure from the beginning — it’s not like he learns to be a more tolerant, more selfless character over the course of the season after finding himself linked with women, gays, and non-white personas. The characters that seems to grow the most over the season is the gay Mexican actor — making for, arguably, one of the series’ stronger threads (thanks in no small part to the actor). But I’m not sure his character growth is especially attributable to his Sense8 connection. (This could also be linked to another issue I sometimes have with these stories — not just “Sense8,” but even the X-Men and dating back to the aforementioned Chrysalids — which is that even as a surface reading of the themes is one of battling intolerance and prejudice, it kind of encourages its own fascist theme of Master Races and ubermensches, with the characters identified as being “better” than normal people, and the next stage in evolution; are these stories rejecting ethnic hierarchies…or simply reorganizing who gets to be on top?).

Anyway, how this relates (or doesn’t) to my story, “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” was that I was interested in using the theme in a slightly different way — as a metaphor for interconnectedness, and how diversity is actually a strength. The hero Mosaic becoming, in a sense, a metaphor for Canada as a whole, becoming better, stronger, through multiculturalism. I’ll admit, I stopped short of beginning with the hero as an intolerant bigot who becomes tolerant — I wanted us to like him from the get go — and the story is mostly focused on the superhero/adventure ideas. But certainly that was my intended subtext: he becomes a force for good because of his new powers, drawn from the community. And to follow through on that theme, undercurrents of prejudice, racism, and reactionaryism provide a backdrop for his emergence as a hero.

Did the story work? Did the various themes (tying together comic book tropes, 1970s zeitgeist, and socio-political themes) come together? Find out by reading the collection.

I’ll write about another story next time.

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!”

Behind-the-Scenes Story: “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight”

In my desire to promote my short story collection of Canadian superhero stories that span from the 1930s to today, I’m going to post a few pieces delving into individual stories and some of the creative decisions I made (obviously in the hopes it will intrigue you to actually want to read the finished story — and the book itself).

So for this post let’s trip back to the groovy 1960s — The Silver Age — for the story called…”The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight.”

In many ways “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight” is an odd man out in this collection. First and foremost, that’s because it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek whereas most of the stories are meant to be straight-faced, serious superhero stories (at least as straight-faced and serious as the average comic book or superhero movie or TV show — after all, the entire genre invites a certain twinkle in the eye).

But TSAOTGOE is definitely meant to be out-and-out silly. Except…the plot is still supposed to make a certain amount of sense; likewise the characters and their motivation. So even it isn’t necessarily kneeslappingly hilarious so much as it’s wryly quirky. As I say: tongue firmly in cheek.

This perhaps is represented by the title and central idea — the story involving a hunt for a painting by an obscure, eighth member of the famous real-life artist collective known as The Group of Seven. So either the idea of an eighth member of a group famous for being seven taps you lightly on the funny bone — or it don’t.

And because of my putting my tongue in my cheek, this story was arguably the most unapologetically, unashamedly “Canadian” story in the collection — I just was having fun with it.

The roots of the story started sprouting around 1999/2000 with the American comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which — in a slightly quirky manner of its own — the conceit was to team up various Victorian-era literary figures (Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, etc.) into a kind of prototype superhero team. The idea was so irresistible it instantly led to a big budget movie version (the movie was significantly different from the comic — and generally not well regarded by fans of the comic, but in some ways I actually preferred it to the comic; it had more humanity whereas the comic, written by comics legend Alan Moore, was rather cynical and nihilistic). But even though I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of the comic book — I too found the idea just irresistibly audacious. And, as is my wont, I immediately wondered if something similar could be done using Canadian characters.

And I quickly decided no.

There weren’t enough such characters who had lapsed into the public domain, and even including those that were still owned by their creators, none leant themselves obviously to a superhero romp, did they? Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables? Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz?

So then I turned my attention to a variation on the idea, realizing that what Canada lacked in literary characters we made up for in real life historical figures. Eventually this idea saw print as my story, “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” which was published in the 2013 anthology Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories. In it I imagine an alternate history where some famous Canadian historical figures have superpowers and fight Nazis. It was reasonably well regarded and I was quite happy with the result. (I blogged about it here).

But…my mind still kept coming back to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — almost like my own creative White Whale. I kept wondering if something could still be done using actual Canadian literary figures. Was there an angle I hadn’t considered that would make it do-able?

Then I thought: what if instead of just giving a wink at the reader as I had with “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” what if I went full out and made it humorous? And what if I sidled around the copyright thing by making some characters homages and allusions rather than being actual established characters as they had in League? And still stymied for likely characters, I decided to expand it to archetypes.

For instance, it seemed to me a recurring theme in Canadian literature is novels about some bitter old woman reflecting back on her miserable life (in novels like The Stone Angel and The Blind Assassin) which led to my creating “Bitter” Helga, an old woman who’s a “reverse empath” — able to instill depressing bitter memories into people. French-Canadian “classic” literature often seemed to lean toward rural and historical melodramas, which led to my adding The Trapper to the group (as well as acting as a nod to the Northerns of James Oliver Curwood and Jack London). They joined with the more obvious Fan of Emerald Eaves and Buddy Krevitz to comprise my team — plus a fifth, more outrageous figure just thrown in for fun.

But I still wasn’t sure what to do with them. I still wasn’t sure they worked as a team of heroes. So then I wondered about using them as villains. Y’know, like how superheroes like Batman have themed opponents. That then got me thinking of the campy 1960s Batman TV series and at one point I considered trying to write a campy adventure about a superhero battling a bank robbing gang called the Can-Lit gang (Can Lit being literary short hand for “Canadian literature”).

But now that my mind was settling into the 1960s and thinking in terms of TV and film kitsch, I started thinking about all those ’60s pop spy series like The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE (not to mention comic books like Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and the Secret Six). And suddenly it suggested a new tack. Borrowing as much from the spy idiom as superhero, the Can-Lit gang once more became the heroes, and their name an acronym as befitted the sub-genre (C.A.N.-L.I.T. Squad becoming Crimes Against the Nation: Locate, Investigate and Takedown Squad). And the story simultaneously played around with both Canadian literary archetypes and with 1960s kitsch (Fan of Emerald Eaves now in go-go boots and a mini-dress) and the team gained a newcomer (who could act as the audience’s “in” into the tale) in the form of a more conventional wisecracking spy/detective figure (although he too had a slightly Canadian inspiration — as I was sort of thinking a little of Stephen Young from the 1960s Canadian TV crime-drama, Seaway — though equally I was sort of picturing Marvel Comics SHIELD agent Jimmy Woo, too…though I never specify the character’s ethnicity, so you can picture him how you like).

So now I had a cast, a tone, and a genre. And because I was already making it pretty Canadian because of the literary in-jokes, I decided to go whole hog by wrapping the story around a search for a painting by an eighth member of the Group of Seven! Throw in some twists and turns, and a bit of Lovecraftian lore and — Bob’s your my mother’s brother.

Oh, and lest I forget — there’s yet another layer. Given the story’s placing in a book of superhero tales, I also decided it should reflect aspects of the comic book oeuvre, too. The 1960s was when superhero comics shook themselves up and let their hair down, with more bizarre “freaks” like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, The X-Men and The Doom Patrol, so that’s also alluded to in the story, as a character remarks the CAN-LIT Squad represents a new, more eccentric breed of heroes, and they are called “Canada’s Strangest Heroes” — a deliberate wink at comics fans with long memories who will recall the Doom Patrol were called “the world’s strangest heroes” and the X-Men “the world’s strangest teens.”

So…the resulting story combines a nod to Canadian literary archetypes and icons, an homage to 1960s spy kitsch, and a wink at the transformation superhero comics were undergoing, while working in quirky Canadianisms (like the Group of Seven) — all while still functioning as a fast-paced adventure-mystery story building to a thrilling (if tongue-in-cheek) climax. It is both meant to be read as a silly romp — while equally engaging as an adventure (not unlike those 1960s TV series to which I was alluding).

That’s a lot of plates I was trying to keep spinning — just in that one story. Did I succeed? Find out by buying a copy and reading it for yourself.

Next time I’ll delve into another story from the book…

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes Story: “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight”

Blogging About Canadian Comics

I’ve been on a bit of a kick recently writing about superhero comics — and especially Canadian superhero comics. Traditionally this blog was mostly concerned with talking about Canadian film & TV. But my interests have always been broader, and Canadian superheroes is an off-shoot of my traditional theme of Canadian pop culture.

And, more specifically, I’ve just written a book — a short story collection — telling a bunch of Canadian superhero stories peppered through the last eighty or ninety years. A book called M*sques and C*pes: An Imaginary History (I’ve spelled it with the asterix because I don’t want to glut the search engines — I’m hoping, in time, other reviews might pop up).

But today I wanted to step to the side and draw attention to another blog — They Stand On Guard! It’s a blog I came upon a couple of years ago (admittedly because it posted a piece talking about a prose anthology in which I had a story — Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories — and in which my story, “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” was mentioned as a favourite in the collection!)

They Stand on Guard! basically tries to draw attention to various contemporary Canadian comic book/superhero endeavours — ranging from kickstarter campaigns, releases of volumes reprinting vintage comics, or simply noting appearances of Canadian characters in popular American comics. It’s a personal, privately run blog (I assume) the creator basically just taking this on as a hobby.

And as someone who has been that route myself (with everything from my Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV to my comic book focused, The Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page) I tip my hat to the creator of They Stand on Guard!

Part of the importance of a site like that (and the reason I did my Canadian film site) is because so much of Canadian popular entertainment is basically “indie.” That is, while American popular culture is dominated by corporate engines like Hollywood Studios and comic book companies like Marvel and DC, with entire infrastructures built around them that exist simply to write and talk about what’s going on (from the IMDB to ComicBookResources) in Canada, much of what’s going on can feel like isolated oases where it’s often hard to even know what’s in the works unless you stumble upon it by accident.

It wasn’t until I saw They Stand on Guard! that I was even aware there were various comic book enterprises going on in Canadian. I knew about ChapterHouse Comics — a company that has arisen in the last couple of years and seems to be the first Canadian comic book company since WW II that is genuinely trying to be a “company,” with multiple titles and creators in its stable. But in general these efforts seem isolated — “indie.” So a site that draws them together, collecting them under a single umbrella, is important, just to create an illusion of community — and mayhap, in time, foster an actual community.

Admittedly, the problem with an endless parade of kickstarter and crowdfunding endeavours is you’re not sure how stable these things will prove (a number of times I’ll come upon a reference to a new title — only to discover it only published one issue). And like with the Canadian film biz, I suspect a lot of what fuels the creators is their own desire to be mavericks — the lack of community is precisely what inspires them.

They Stand on Guard! may write about these different projects — but I’m not sure how much the different projects themselves acknowledge each other. If you go to their Facebook pages and websites, do they mention (let alone link to) the others? (And, yes, one could level the same charge against me — but, as I say, I’ve already tried to do my part with my own websites).

I do think community is important. As I mentioned, part of America’s pop cultural success is the sense that film, TV, comics, music, etc. are communities and, yes, an industry.

Certainly years of writing about Canadian film & TV led me to the cynical conclusion that even a lot of people in the Canadian film & TV biz (actors, writers, directors, etc.) didn’t actually care out the “biz” — they just cared about their own individual projects (and the projects of their friends) and everyone else could go jump. OK, that may be a bit harsh — but it was an impression I developed.

But remember that old expression: if people don’t hang together — they’ll hang separately?

Of course part of this includes criticism, reviews, and opining.

To me that’s a necessary aspect of the artistic process — and a sign of a healthy industry. That it’s a big boy (or girl) and can withstand scrutiny. When I write about Canadian film & TV I’ve done so with (I hope) passion, commitment, enthusiasm — but that doesn’t mean my role is that of a sycophant or cheerleader. I’ve written critically about things I don’t like, and I opine (sometimes controversially) about issues (such as race, gender, etc.)

I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s why a lot of my writing over the years seems to have gone unremarked upon — even ignored — by people in the biz despite the fact that the common lament in Canadian film & TV is that no one writes about Canadian film & TV. But maybe they only want people to write nice things.

But my philosophy is that there are no “good” or “bad” reviews — only honest and dishonest ones. If a reviewer/critic has genuinely considered a work, and offers a thoughtful critique of it, largely untempered by malice or bias, then that’s a good review — even if they didn’t like the work. It at least shows they respected the work enough to think about it. As well, a thoughtful — constructive — critique can be helpful to the artist, either by pointing out flaws in their work or, at the least, pointing out where they failed to communicate their ideas to the audience (if the reviewer didn’t “get “it).

That doesn’t mean an artist should blindly accept the first negative opinion they see. Not at all. Maybe the reviewer just wasn’t the target audience. But sometimes a reviewer can articulate what the artist kind of knew all along but didn’t want to admit to themselves. And if seven out of ten reviewers say, for instance, the pacing is too slow — the creator should think seriously about tightening the pacing for their next work. (One of the things that depressed me most about Canadian film was seeing a filmmaker’s first film, and noting how reviewers might all point to the same flaws in the work — and then ten years later, seeing a later work by the same filmmaker…with all the same flaws, with no indication they had even tried to learn from those initial reviews).

At the writing of this I’ve only sold a handful of copies of my book (it’s a slow process, trying to even get people aware of the book — honestly, I’m amazed it’s sold any copies). With luck, a few reviews will start popping up about the book (either on Amazon, or the internet in general). And, yeah, doubtless some reviews will be negative — and I’ll storm, and sneer, and think those reviewers are idiots! But that’s just human nature. The reality is, as I say, even a bad review is good, if the reviewer is fair and honest. And maybe some won’t “get” what I was trying to do, or will object to my perspective, or philosophy — while others might offer some sage observations I was too willful to acknowledge.

And hey, maybe some will even say they loved every page of it!

But it’s part of a process. Any movie, book, comic — or collection of prose superhero tales — is a building block upon which the next one can be laid. And this gets back to my point about They Stand on Guard!

Part of the impetus for my writing this book was because of my long standing frustration with the lack of this kind of Canadian popular entertainment (and Canada’s history of well-intentioned, but generally ill-fated and short-lived superhero comics).

My book spans close to a decade and almost every province and territory, and it tries to imagine what it might have been like if there had been a major Canadian comic book publisher — if I had grown up with such a thing populating the comic racks at my local corner store, marrying the escapist adventure of superheroes with Canadian culture and themes. And even if my attempt is flawed, or fails to be the book I hope it is (honest — I think it’s pretty neat!) maybe it will inspire the next generation.

Because blogs like They Stand on Guard! help to show that there are more possibilities out there…

(Just as an aside, I also came upon a reference to my book on another blog: Superhero Novels — this one devoted to specifically writing about prose superhero fiction. So that’s pretty cool, too.)

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Blogging About Canadian Comics