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.

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