(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).
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.