Post-War Canadian Superheroes Part 1: Supermen & Snowshoes

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since my last post! I don’t know which is more depressing — that it’s been so long, or that after years of writing passionately & provocatively about Canadian film & TV…I’m pretty sure no one noticed I was even gone 🙁 Anyway, this blog was primarily set up to write about Canadian film & TV, but my interests are broader than that and I’m expanding the themes a bit here with some posts about comic books and Canadiana!

I’m in the process of working on a “special” project* of my own, so as part of laying the groundwork for that, I thought I’d post this piece looking at the history (mostly post-war) of Canadian comic book superheroes. Obviously, this is my layman’s analysis, and I haven’t necessarily read every comic in each series…

(*First though: that “special project” is my new story collection, Masques & Capes — a collection of Canadian superhero prose stories; check out the webpage about it here — you might be intrigued).

Canadian comic books (and therefore Canadian superheroes) enjoyed a brief Golden Age in the 1940s. War time import restrictions cut off the popular American comics of the day, creating a vacuum for Canadian publishers to fill.

The common narrative spun is that after the war, when the American comics came flooding back in, the Canadian comics couldn’t compete with the “better” American products and were wiped out like bugs against a car’s windshield. But I’ve heard it was less clear cut than that. That toward the end of the war, some Canadian publishers made deals with American publishers to distribute the American comics because it was cheaper than making their own, netting them bigger profits. So they cancelled many of their original titles (letting go their staff of writers and artists) in favour of these American reproductions. When the borders opened up again and the American publishers no longer needed their Canadian partners — the Canadians no longer had enough original titles to compete. (If that sounds familiar, think of how the Canadian TV networks prefer to mostly show American series — because it’s cheaper and so their profits are greater).

That doesn’t even deal with the fact that even in America comics publishing proved a risky enterprise (in the 1940s there were scores of comic book publishers — by the 1960s only about a half dozen). My point being that the death of the Golden Age of Canadian comics might not simply be because the comics couldn’t compete artistically, but because of problematic business decisions made by the publishers and the volatility of the market itself.

In recent years a few hardcover reprints have been published to try to preserve the old comics for the modern generation, with lavish volumes devoted to Johnny Canuck, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, and Brok Windsor. You could also check out the documentary Lost Heroes.

In the ensuring decades there was little stirring in Canadian comicdom.

That changed in 1975 with Captain Canuck — arguably one of the most successful failures in comicdom, or the most failed success. By that I mean in an empirical sense, the comic wasn’t that successful — yet it remains the touchstone for Canadian (superhero) comics, resulting in innumerable attempts at reboots (and rumours of reboots) over the years (including a current, on-going series).

Captain Canuck was notable precisely because it didn’t just try to play on the same level as the American comics — it tried to do them better. Expensive paper, extra features, and multi-tone colour rather than going the cheap n’ easy route of most indie comics. And what sometimes gets lost in looking at Captain Canuck — and attributing its iconic status to simply the significance of a flag-themed Canadian hero — is the comic was actually pretty good. Oh, it had its teething pains and could be uneven — but so were American comics at the time. One of its strengths was that co-creator and chief writer Richard Comely seemed almost to have less interest in writing a superhero comic than in drawing upon spy and detective story roots, meaning the plotting (and the accompanying scenes) were a little different from a lot of superhero comics — while still being comfortably a part of that genre.

Plus, in that rare synergy of fate (that meant a young man named John Lennon and a young man named Paul McCartney would happen to meet as teens) almost at the beginning Comely (a decent artist) hooked up with Jean-Claude St. Aubin and George Freeman (both exceptional artists). Think of the odds: the second largest country in the world, the population spread from sea to sea to sea, with no recent history of professional comic book publications…and these three guys find each other! The three men were able to swap hats in various disciplines (pencils, inks, colours, letters, writing, editing) pushing the comic onto a whole new artistic level. The thing about Freeman, once he became the chief artist on the comic, wasn’t simply that he was a good artist, but he was a distinctive, stylish artist, lending the series a unique visual identity.

But I don’t want to get too bogged down on one title, but rather to look at overall themes and trends. Around the time of Captain Canuck another indie Canadian comic — Orb Magazine — came along with its own superhero, Northern Light. While American Marvel Comics created their first Canadian superhero in Wolverine, simply to guest star in a couple of Hulk comics. And from little acorns do big trees grow, because Wolverine was quickly made part of a newly revived X-Men comic (mostly because Len Wein, who created Wolverine, was kicking off the “new” X-Men). This led to a later effort to fill in Wolverine’s background with the creation of an entire Canadian superhero team: Alpha Flight! By now (the 1980s) indie comics were become the rage and this led to another Canadian hero — Northguard!

And those remain the three central touchstones when talking about modern Canadian superheroes: Captain Canuck, Alpha Flight and Northguard (who, like Captain Canuck enjoys a notoriety somewhat disproportionate to his actual publication success).

Now what’s interesting is the recurring themes and motifs associated with these characters. Admittedly, Northguard co-creators Shainblum and Morrissette were clearly well familiar with Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight, but it’s unclear how much Captain Canuck might have influenced Alpha Flight’s creation.

But what’s interesting is the tendency with all to shy away from the traditional “lone wolf” vigilante of American comics. Captain Canuck was a government agent — essentially a super Mountie. Alpha Flight worked for the Canadian government. While Northguard operated under the auspices of a corporation. (I believe Northern Light was also associated with an organization). And Northguard — like Captain Canuck — was as much a spy/espionage series as a superhero one.

Now what’s arguably even more intriguing is a tendency toward rooting the stories in the Canadian culture and with a little more political realism and sophistication in all three series. Perhaps the creators felt they were not just telling generic superhero adventures, but had an entire national landscape to draw upon (yes — even the American writers on Alpha Flight). Or maybe it’s an indication that Canadian culture IS its political culture. That given Canada shares so many similarities with the U.S., the place where the distinct identity is more sharply defined is in its politics.

So while American comics often dealt with mad scientists and bank robbers, Captain Canuck faced villains whose plans include stirring up Western alienation while forming a political party (Captain Canuck #6) and Northguard has to prevent the assassination of Quebec Premiere Rene Levesque (New Triumph featuring Northguard #1), and while Captain Canuck battled super-capitalists and communist spies, Northguard tackled racist American evangelical extremists.

Meanwhile in the American-produced Alpha Flight the characters were often butting heads with the political expediency of their government overseers. And team member, Northstar, was explicitly identified as having been formerly associated with the Quebec separatist terrorist group, the FLQ. Were there any 1970s/1980s American superheroes who were identified as being an ex-’60s radical or a member of the Black Panthers? (Admittedly, maybe an American writer can write sympathetically about radicals and extremists in another country, even as they might balk at doing that for stories set in their own country, where the issues are more “real” to them).

So you could argue there was a recurring theme of a slightly more grounded, politically realistic approach to these Canadian superheroes than in contemporaneous American comics.

Equally a lot of these series — notably Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight — attempted to represent the entire Canadian landscape. Again, presumably because the country was a largely unexplored terrain for superhero stories. Instead of setting the stories in a single city — real or fictitious — the adventure crisscrossed the entire county, from coast to coast to coast, sometimes drawing upon aspects of Canadian history and mythology. In Captain Canuck he fell through time in one story and ended up caught between Mi’kmaq and Vikings (archaeologists have found evidence of Vikings in East Coast Canada) while in Alpha Flight one story involved a supernatural evil connected back to the lost Franklin expedition. (Give the American writers of Alpha Flight their due — however imperfectly they represented the country, they made a real effort).

What is also interesting is to ponder how these fictional characters reflect the national identity. After all, superheroes sometimes assume a kind of iconic status, representing ideas (and ideals) beyond simply just an individual in a costume. Take Captain America, for instance. While Superman is sometimes said to fight for “the American Way!” (the origin of that phrase has been unclear to me — listening to 1950s radio episodes of Superman, the tag line was often Superman fights for “truth and justice” with NO reference to this so-called American Way).

To Be Continued…

(And another reminder/plug about my book, Masques & Capes).

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