Canadian Super Hero Names: Why the Heck are there all these “Red Ensigns”?

(Another of my irregular posts both looking at the history of Canadian comic book superheroes, and plugging my own contribution to the idiom — the prose story collections: The Masques Chronicles.)

I wrote in a previous post (What’s in a Name?) about how there’s a tendency when creating Canadian superheroes to come up with archetypal concepts and names (whether we’re talking the seminal Captain Canuck or even the American-published Canadian superheroes of Alpha Flight which included characters like Sasquatch and Aurora). Arguably this is to establish them as recognizably Canadian in contrast to the more prolific American superheroes.

But sometimes these names/concepts might seem cryptic if you aren’t familiar with Canada…or if you aren’t familiar with the idiosyncracies of comic book tropes.

An interesting case in point is — Red Ensign!

I’m aware of at least three instances in which the name Red Ensign was assigned to a Canadian superhero. I used a Red Ensign in my collection of prose superhero stories, The Masques Chronicles; Scott Chantler created a Red Ensign for the Chapterhouse anthology, True Patriot (2016); and apparently Mark Shainblum (of Northguard and Angloman fame) along with veteran artist Geof Isherwood toyed with creating a Red Ensign character wa-ay back in the 1980s!

At first glance that might seem like a really weird coincidence.

So let’s unpack the context. Prior to the 1960s and the adoption of the Canadian flag (the red/white/red with the maple leaf in the middle) the commonly used flag to represent Canada was known as the Red Ensign. A red flag with the British Union Jack in one corner (or Union flag I guess — according to a Dr. Who episode it’s only called the Union Jack when on a sailing vessel…something I guess even a lot of Britons don’t know!) and with a coat of arms representing Canada in the middle. Funnily enough, the Red Ensign isn’t exclusively a Canadian term (the red flag with the union flag in the corner was used elsewhere in the former British Empire) but Canadians tend to think of it as theirs (smug bastards that we are). The (Canadian) Red Ensign was, I believe, used unofficially as a Canadian flag (the official one simply being the British Union flag) for decades before it was adopted officially — and even after it was retired in favour of the maple leaf flag, a version of the Red Ensign is still used as the flag of the Province of Ontario.

So that explains the Red Ensign as a Canadian signifier.

Although the story takes a dark turn — apparently the Red Ensign has started to crop up among Canadian Alt-Right and White Nationalist groups, being parasitically co-opted by them in much the same way the cartoon Pepe the Frog was. Which is why, as the kids would say, we can’t have nice things. (The irony is that many of these Alt-Right/White Nationalist groups are actually international in their organization and funding — so wrapping themselves in a “patriotically” Canadian flag is disingenuous). At the moment it hasn’t been fully tainted — as mentioned, a variation remains the flag of Ontario — but it’s worth noting that certain groups are trying to get their grubby little paws on it. Oh, and since we’re on the topic, recently there has been some debate as to whether it’s okay to punch Nazis. I can’t answer that — but I will note that comic book superheroes literally rose to fame on the basis of fighting Nazis! And we just have to look to what’s happened now in the United States, and the U.K. for that matter, to see what happens when you’re polite to Far Rightists and neo-Nazis. End of political digression.

Anyway — back to the less gag-inducing side of the Red Ensign.

But even acknowledging the historical resonance of the Red Ensign, it might still seem curious that it keeps getting optioned as a superhero name. But the thing is: it sounds like a superhero name, featuring as it does two recurring cliches of superhero names.

1) A colour: Scarlet Pimpernel, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Black Terror, Chartreuse Fox (okay, a No-Prize — as Marvel used to say — for recognizing that one).

and 2) a military rank: Major Domo (obscure Canadian reference alert), Lieutenant Marvel (almost equally obscure American reference…though I guess it’d be Lewtenat Marvel), Captain…America, Canuck, Britain, Marvel, Atom, Comet, Victory, etc.

I mean, if you have any inclination toward superheroes it’s hard to see the name Red Ensign and not immediately think: “Gosh — look! It’s a snowy owl! It’s a bush plane! No! It’s…The Red Ensign!”

Perhaps equally interesting is how the name seems to suggest similar ideas to different creators. Being the pre-Centennial flag, it lends itself to historical concepts. So Scott Chantler’s Red Ensign — first presented in True Patriot, vol. 1 (2016) from Chapterhouse Comics and appearing in subsequent Chapterhouse publications — has his adventures in WW II, and is presented more as a super soldier, complete with military helmet (so I understand — to be honest, I haven’t yet read the character’s adventures; time and money being what they are at the moment…namely in short supply).

While Mark Shainblum and Geof Isherwood’s unpublished 1980s Red Ensign — at least as referenced in passing in one of John Bell’s history of Canadian comics, Invaders from the North (2006) — is described as being a “1940s-style character.”

Which brings us to the character I know best — namely, my own Red Ensign. And it’s an interesting demonstration of how a character concept evolves, changes, and blossoms.

It all gets back to a short story I wrote in 2014 called “Yesterday’s Man” which I submitted to the anthology Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016), edited by the above-mentioned Mark Shainblum with writer and editor Claude Lalumière (Claude also having edited an earlier prose superhero anthology — this time with Camille Alexa — called Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) in which I had an alternate history superhero story published, “The Secret History of the Intrepids”). Anyway, “Yesterday’s Man” was held for consideration, but eventually Mark & Claude accepted another story of mine for inclusion in Tesseracts Nineteen (“Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?”).

But it was from “Yesterday’s Man” that my whole Masques Chronicles project evolved. The premise of the story was that a contemporary superheroine teams up with an iconic 1940s hero to take on Far Right extremists (a premise that turned out to be uncomfortably prescient given the way the world’s gone in the last couple of years). There was a bit of a minor joke that could be seen as either very “Canadian,” or just “realist,” in that the modern heroine only has the vaguest idea who the supposedly legendary hero is (in truth, when Captain America was thawed out in modern times, rather than heralded as a “living legend” most people probably would’ve said: “Who?”) And part of the intent of the story was to hint at an entire decades-spanning Canadian superhero universe through cryptic references and allusions.

And it was from that that I thought: why just hint at it in one story? Why not actually try to explore it through a collection of stories?

Anyway, so for “Yesterday’s Man” I needed to come up with superhero names that sounded like the sort of vaguely corny names one might have devised for 1940s superheroes (during a time of war and patriotism). So the old time hero is The Loyalist (the United Empire Loyalists were those who stayed loyal to the British Empire after the American Revolution and fled to Canada) and oblique references are made to Le nouveau voyageur (ie: The “New” Voyageur) and…The Red Ensign, both characters long dead by the time of the story and only names on the page.

But when I decided to flesh out my so-called Masques Universe, including with stories set in the 1940s, I was faced with the task of actually putting characters to those blithely tossed off names. The development of Le nouveau voyageur is an essay in itself, but for today let’s stay focused on The Red Ensign.

Even with “Yesterday’s Man” I had already half-envisioned The Red Ensign as having been a youthful hero (“ensign” being a lower rank, it suggested a junior character). One who fought bad guys with gymnastics and a quip in the mode of sidekicks like Robin the Boy Wonder and Bucky Barnes (significantly different in the comics than he is in the movies) or lead characters like the 1940s boy-hero, Crimebuster. The “red” of the name also suggesting a bright, bold costume like Robin’s. So The Red Ensign became a jovial, wisecracking boy hero ala Robin, and the youngest member of The Daring Dominions (yet another Canadianism — Canada sometimes called The Dominion of Canada).

But something wasn’t quite right. There was something missing, I felt. Maybe the character was a little too much like Robin and Bucky and the others — less an homage than simply a cliché.

And then I was watching a Canadian sci-fi series called Dark Matter, about a group of characters in deep space. And one of them was played by Jodelle Ferland — a one-time child actress (jaw droppingly brilliant in the otherwise problematic oddity that was the movie Tideland) cast as a wide-eyed teenager. And that triggered something in my brain — and I thought: why not make The Red Ensign a tomboy? (Not that The Red Ensign is much like Ferland’s character in Dark Matter, but sometimes having an actor’s face in my mind nudges a character in a fresh direction).

Not only did this allow The Red Ensign to riff on the boy hero archetype while establishing her own distinct identity, but it actually helped smooth over a bit in one of the stories in which she appeared. Namely, in the story “A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea,” a sub-plot has The Red Ensign taking an interest in the romantic entanglements of two of her adult team mates — something that a boy character might dismiss as just mushy stuff. So in a way, I think the character always wanted to be a girl — but it took me a bit to realize that!

“A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea” is actually one of my favourite stories in the collection (as you can probably tell by the overly florid title) — certainly I consider it one of the keystones of the collection, at least in how I try to tie together various themes, it being the first story (chronologically) that tries to play with a team of heroes, where their relationships and interactions are vital to the narrative (essentially treating them as people as much as heroes) and which tries to use the fantasy of superheroes to explore (if allegorically) certain contemporary issues. I also try the trick of seeming as though the story is about one thing — then veering in the last act to reveal it was always about something else entirely. Though I could well imagine some readers might consider it more bewildering because of all that.

Did I succeed? Did I fail? Heck, buy the book and decide for yourself (it’s included in vol. 1).

Anyway, The Red Ensign herself only appears in I think three stories in the two volume collection (including a later-day story where she is now a middle-aged divorcee in the Christmas-themed story, “Twas in the Moon of Winter Time” — yet another Canadianism, the title lifted from the iconic song, “The Huron Carol”).

So that’s my latest look at the idea of “Canadian” superhero names — and especially why a name like The Red Ensign keeps cropping up (and both the similarities and the differences between the versions).

I suppose one might ask, given the lag between when I first came up with The Red Ensign in 2014 and she finally saw print, and Scott Chantler’s version arose — wouldn’t it have made more sense to re-name her? Well, the problem is — once I’d named her, I kind of liked her with that name, I felt proprietary. Besides, it’s not like I ever envisioned a time when she would need to carry a book by herself or be used in the title (where copyright/trademark might be more relevant). And to be honest, as the whole point of this essay should make clear, there is a tendency for creators to latch onto Canadian-sounding names — sometimes for minor, throw-away projects. I already had a character named Captain Confederation (again: a Canadianism) which I changed to Confederation Man after discovering a satirical short story that used Captain Confederation (though it did allow me to give my re-christened hero a nickname: Con-Man). I couldn’t help thinking if I spent my time constantly re-naming my characters because someone, somewhere, had used it at some point…I’d be re-naming characters from now to judgement day! (Since at that point I had no way of knowing if Chantler’s version was a one-time throw away concept or something he tended to re-use).

Besides, by sticking with The Red Ensign it actually gave me a topic for this blog post, didn’t it? It also allows me to plug not only my books, but to promote Scott Chantler’s character, as well as to throw in a nod to Mark Shainblum, Geof Isherwood and others (maybe encouraging you to Google any number of things I referenced).

So, y’know — everybody wins.

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