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…

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