Post-War Canadian Superheroes Part 2: Meaning & Maple Syrup

(Continuing from my last post…) Because there have been so few Canadian superheroes (of the post-Golden Age) and most exist in their own universe, they seem to shoulder grander cultural responsibilities.

In the original Captain Canuck series (which resulted in 14 issues plus a Summer Special) C.C. was a clean-cut, unimpeachable guy — and though able to scrap with the best of them, equally he was not depicted as some cocky brawler eager for a fight. Which arguably represented a Canadian (stereotyped) ideal: he would do what needed to be done — but no more, and took no visceral (or ego-assuaging) pleasure in it the way American superheroes often enjoy fighting. C.C. was also established (over the issues) as fluently bilingual and “part Indian” (so much so that this ethnicity was supposedly visible to look at him, implying more than simply a distant ancestor). For me, as a white, unilingual Anglophone (and a kind of “Trudeau baby”) this made an impact. While Captain America was a blonde, blue-eyed All-American boy, Canada’s heroic ideal — as represented by Captain Canuck — was mixed race and multilingual. And I think it’s significant that (at least my impression is) not too many people fixated on those attributes the way I did. CC has been revised and reimagined a few times over the years, and the idea that he is bilingual, let alone visibly has First Nation ethnicity, doesn’t seem to get brought up by others.

Northguard, meanwhile, reflected a different aspect of the Canadian character. If CC was the heroic, confident man-of-action, Northguard was self-conscious and insecure, a clumsy every man and an ironic dig at the heroic archetype (even as the comic was essentially straight-faced and serious). The first issue of New Triumph featuring Northguard even quoted from the Margaret Atwood essay called “Survival” — one of the most seminal and, I would argue, perniciously destructive essays ever written about Canadian pop culture. Atwood argued Canadian literature eschews the heroic archetype, which (even if unintentional on Atwood’s part) gave carte blanche to later writers and critics to dismiss heroic fiction — such as comic book superheroes — as intrinsically un-Canadian! Northguard looked a bit geeky and was often getting beaten in fights, only saved by his super power. Northguard’s heroism was internal — his altruistic character — but was constrained by his physicality. Based in Montreal, he was a bilingual Anglophone — though his French was deliberately supposed to be a bit clumsy. Northguard was also Jewish — so, like CC, straying outside the more typical WASP mould of superheroes of that era. Though whether that was meant as a statement about Canadian diversity, or simply writing what you know — I’m guessing probably more the latter (co-creator Mark Shainblum is Jewish and Northguard was even drawn by artist Gabriel Morrissette to look a bit like Shainblum I think).

Now with Alpha Flight things become interesting because it was a team, so allowing for more archetypes (and stereotypes). So the initial team included both French-Canadian siblings, as well as a First Nations sorcerer. First Nations’ characters have always been a more visible presence in Canadian stories than they have been in American stories — indeed, another Alpha Flight member, though ethnically white-looking, was supposed to be an Inuit demi-goddess. Even the fact that one of the white character’s had a Polish surname has always struck me as intriguing, given at the time of the team’s inception there were very few American superheroes with non-Anglo-Saxon surnames. Although perhaps equally telling, this racial and ethnic diversity seemed to stop there. It would be a number of years before the team would include other minority figures (and then I think only briefly), while Canada itself — even big cities like Toronto — tended to be depicted as pretty white. Although, equally, the team at times enjoyed a gender parity that wasn’t as common — though not unheard of — in other superhero teams of the day.

How the characters were depicted was interesting at times. As mentioned (in my last post), one of the Francophones — Northstar — was supposed to be an ex-FLQ terrorist (or at least had ties to terrorists), drawing upon actual Canadian history (he would also turn out to be one of the first — maybe the first — gay superheroes in comics). His sister, Aurora (a.k.a. Jeanne-Marie), suffered from a split personality as a result of being raised in a repressive Catholic convent. This could also be seen as rooting the character in a more distinctly Canadian history, as the Catholic church had a powerful hold over Quebec for many generations. So it’s possible that Jeanne-Marie/Aurora’s background wasn’t simply a plot idea, but meant to arise out of Canadian stereotypes. The other side of her personality was as the over-sexed, libidinous Aurora, which also played into stereotypes — but arguably more French-European stereotypes than French-Canadian ones. A later French-Canadian character, Murmur, was also a stereotyped libidinous flirt! The phonetic way accents were portrayed was also based on European rather than French-Canadian cliches, with “z” substituted for “th” (“zat” for “that”) — I would argue a more authentic evocation of a Québécois accent would be to substitute a “d” or a “t(apostrophe)” for “th” (“dat” or “t’at” for “that”).

But despite this genuine attempt to include Canadian stereotypical minorities — Francophones and Native Indians — Alpha Flight had trouble breaking away from the sense they were tokens. Northstar and Aurora (and Murmur in a later, short-lived iteration of the team) were pretty much the only Francophones on the team (despite the team membership changing over time) nor do I recall many (or any!) ancillary French characters (ie: staff or government bureaucrats associated with Department H). Essentially Alpha Flight’s Canada seemed to be mostly Anglophone with the token Francophones (and, of course, French-Canadians in issues that took place in Quebec). Nor was there much indication the Anglophones spoke French! The French characters spoke English, sometimes with exaggerated accents, but there seemed no expectation the Anglophones should attempt to speak French. Even as a young person I found this implausible.

Yup — in a comic book about superheroes battling robots and supernatural beasts, characters coming back from the dead and undergoing metamorphoses, the thing that struck me as unrealistic was a Federal Government run superhero team in which the team leaders like Guardian and Vindicator weren’t bilingual!

The First Nation characters likewise could seem a bit token. Although the team included two Native characters over its run — Shaman and Talisman — they were family, a father and daughter (not unlike siblings Northstar and Aurora) and I’m not sure there were any other Native characters beside them. And one thing that was conspicuously avoided was much dealing with issues and social problems involving First Nations. Shaman was one of the pillars of the team, but I don’t recall much addressing of the poverty or disenfranchisement Natives often face. Now, on one hand one might argue such serious issues can’t easily be addressed in the gee whiz fantasy of a superhero comic. Equally, maybe the problem was that to acknowledge Native issues in a Canadian context would’ve, by implication, opened the door to similar issues in the U.S. — and maybe Marvel Comics didn’t want to wade into that area.

But what did these characters say about Canadian identity? Values? Aspirations? Captain Canuck, Northguard, and Alpha Flight’s Guardian/Vindicator (he/she/and they) all sported costumes inspired by the maple leaf flag, suggesting they represented more than just a person in long johns.

As mentioned, Captain Canuck squarely belonged to a heroic iconism — he was strong and brave and confident. The Canada in which he existed was set a few years in the future and in it Canada was imagined as a super power — complete with a nuclear weapons arsenal. On one hand it was a vision brimming with confidence and faith in Canada — yet equally you could see it as significant that Canada was slightly reimagined from its more accurate role as a middle “soft” power. Captain Canuck basically took the archetype of America (and other countries) and applied it to Canada (there was little reference to America in the comics, Canada existing for itself, rather than as a junior partner to the USA).

Northguard was more meek and mild mannered. An image that always stayed in my mind from that series was when the hero grabs up a Canadian flag and shouts at it: “Mean something!” (New Triumph featuring Northguard #1) It’s a provocative image — but it never really seems to take us anywhere. Despite Northguard trying to save Canada from an evil American secret organization (explicitly racist and fanatically religious) what Canada was, is, or should be was never fully explored or articulated. Northguard was trying to protect his country — but why was never addressed. Indeed, in another issue (NTfN #4) he’s having a discussion with a Francophone character with separatist leanings (and who becomes another costumed character, Fleur de Lys) and she speaks of the “dream” of Quebec independence — while Northguard, though a federalist, offers sympathetic encouragement (and the scene avoids questioning the roots of any kind of “Nationalist” movement). While in the same issue, Northguard’s American ally, Steel Chameleon, is confronted by a sinister CIA agent who criticizes him for protecting Northguard and his colleagues and says he should “act like an American” — to which Steel Chameleon responds: “I always have.”

So in a way, Shainblum seems more comfortable writing about a separatist’s dream or suggesting Steel Chameleon’s heroism is rooted in his American idealism — but Canadian jingoism is harder for him to articulate (equally one could say it’s there between the lines: Northguard’s acceptance of other views — like Fleur de Lys’ separatism — maybe is his Canadian nature). While in Captain Canuck the patriotism is more overt — but the country needs to be fictionalized and re-imagined first.

In Alpha Flight, the original Vindicator/Guardian shifted personalities from appearance to appearance as they tried to settle on who he was and his function. In his very first appearance, as a “bad guy” battling X-Men (in The Uncanny X-Men #109), he is portrayed as arrogant and belligerent. For his next appearance (Uncanny X-Men #120-121) he has been re-imagined as a good-hearted, self-doubting intellectual. By the time of Alpha Flight’s own comic, he has begun to be portrayed as a generic, square-jawed hero type. (Of course, the original character, Mac, was killed off and his wife, Heather, took over the team — but equally it’s hard to attribute any specific cultural symbolism to her either. And Mac came back to life — more than once — with the two trading back and forth as to who should be identified as the team leader in the minds of fans).

A scene I recall from one of the earliest issues (Alpha Flight #2, first series) is when Mac decides to shuck his previous name of Vindicator for the more up-beat name of Guardian. Now the real point of the scene, I assume, was editorial — they just didn’t like the name Vindicator (though I thought it was cool — certainly cooler than the more generic Guardian). In the scene Shaman advises Vindicator his name is inappropriate.

I remember reading that scene and it giving me pause — and I’m still not sure what was meant. Did he mean vindication as in validation? Vindicator feels insecure and so must prove himself, but Shaman argues Canada doesn’t have the same need. But is that true? Or is national and cultural insecurity a part of our identity, and so a flag-themed vindication might just be what the country needs. More importantly the way I considered it (and re-reading the scene it seems a reasonable interpretation) is to see vindication in the sense of an expurgation of sins. Vindicator is reflecting on how his past mistakes weigh on his conscience and says “It’s a lot for me to have to vindicate.” And Shaman counters: “While you may feel you have much to vindicate, Canada does not.” That bit of patriotic feel good jingoism sounds particularly jarring coming from a First Nations character! Maybe Canada’s flag-themed hero should be Vindicator, a hero aware of the country’s sins and transgressions, and seeking to rise above them and lead the way to a better future.

I’ve never met any of the creators involved in these comics, and only ever traded an e-mail or two with one or the other over the years. So I’m simply going by things they’ve written or said in the public sphere when I try to characterize them. Captain Canuck’s co-creator Richard Comely is of a religious bent and of somewhat conservative politics. While Northguard’s Mark Shainblum is also at least modestly religious but I suspect would self-identify as more of a liberal. Both Captain Canuck #6 and Northguard: The ManDes Conclusion #3 even contain scenes that hint at divine intervention (Which is interesting — assuming I haven’t mischaracterized either man or scene — since such things are rare in American comics, yet overall Canada is seen as a more secular country than, say, the USA).

An ironic footnote to Alpha Flight is the comic was created by writer/artist John Byrne (well, technically he co-created the team with writer Chris Claremont in the X-Men). Though born in England, Byrne was raised somewhat in western Canada and is, I think, the only Canadian writer to ever work on the team. But Byrne is of a more conservative mindset (some of his reactionary comments in later years raising a few eyebrows among fandom) and he emigrated to the U.S. In one letters page of his later comic John Byrne’s Next Men (#7) he advises one fan that the solution to Canadians being ineligible for a contest being run in the comic is to “move to the States. I did.” A facetious quip, one assumes. Although in JBNM #10 he advises another reader to vote out the “bozo” government before Canadians are “taxed and socialized into the poor house” (the government in question was the already right-of-centre Conservatives!) So the only writer on Alpha Flight with bona fide Canadian roots clearly developed mixed feelings about the Great White North. In one early issue (Alpha Flight #1, first series) Vindicator’s wife Heather remarks she hadn’t voted for the centre-left Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau — and though she might have meant she supported the left-leaning NDP, it seemed more likely we were to infer she voted Conservative.

The non-Canadian writers who mostly chronicled the adventures of Alpha Flight generally demonstrated a genuine enthusiasm for the “exoticness” of their foreign setting — most making the effort to depict Canada as more than just a 51st State (re-reading Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s 2012 Alpha Flight series I realize just how hard they worked to throw in distinct Canadianisms). But I’ll admit that as much as I salute the various writers efforts over the years to replicate terms and drop in cultural allusions, it always tended to feel like, well, Americans writing about a foreign country they didn’t fully understand. And they, too, often seemed unsure of what bigger themes or values the team should represent — if any. So the characters would speak patriotically about protecting their “country” and the importance of “freedom” but it was all very vague and unspecific jingoism. (Although again I come back Pak & Van Lente’s series — which I’m just re-reading — and finding interesting little Canadian nuances. Like a scene where Guardian brushes off a phone call from the prime minister because he’s busy superheroing; would an American hero be as brusque with the American president?).

Actually Alpha Flight’s Canada was sometimes depicted in a sinister light, often with themes of paranoia and a corrupt bureaucracy underlining stories (particularly the late 1990s series). And Canada could often seem less progressive and liberal than the United States. But many pundits would argue Canada has often been more liberal and progressive. Right wing Americans (and right wing Canadians, too) sometimes refer to the country contemptuously as Canuckistan.

(When Marvel did its Civil Wars cross-title storyline, about an American government decree that superheroes register with the government or face jail time, in an off-shoot of Alpha Flight — the mini-series Omega Flight — we are told that Canada has had registration for years. But one could just as easily have imagined a Canada that didn’t have registration and would regard the American initiative as undemocratic).

So that’s my look at some of the seminal works in modern-day Canadian superhero comics. I didn’t really bother trying to tie it all together in a neat conclusion, because, really, that’s for you to decide what it all means — if anything.

Or as Northguard would say: Mean something!

Which is a good lead-in to me plugging my brand new collection of prose superhero stories imagining a decades-spanning CANADIAN superhero universe — Masques & Capes. Check it out — you might like it 🙂

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