This is part review/part broader analysis. So I’ll be looking at both the 2014 soft cover TPB, True Patriot, as well as referencing some superhero prose anthologies and some of my own writings in the field. Plus I’ll be reflecting on “Canadian” superheroes — and even toss in an aside about the business model of a particular comic shop! (And this is Part One. Next time I’ll continue the thread by looking at the follow up True Patriot Presents comic). So buckle up:
True Patriot is a comic book anthology TPB of Canadian superhero stories (I’m reviewing it belatedly in 2018 since, y’know, any book you haven’t read is a “new” book). Edited by J. Torres (writer of such comics as Family Dynamic and the graphic novel Scandalous) and initially published independently, the concept continued under the banner of Chapterhouse Comics which produced a follow-up series, True Patriot Presents (which I’ll look at next time).
(And which may have resulted in a hardcover TPB: when I picked up this softcover TPB, there was another, hardcover, True Patriot volume next to it that seemed to have different content).
Now I’ll be up-front that part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my usual graphic novel reviews website) is entirely mercenary: I’ve written some collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m hoping to get people to buy ’em — or at least be aware of ’em. So I figure if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of True Patriot, you might be the sort of person interested in my books, too. (Pretty please!)
A little bit of behind-the-scenes trivia is that I picked this up at The Dragon, a comic book shop in Guelph, Ontario — the framing sequence in the TPB involving a little boy at a comic shop is actually modelled after one of The Dragon’s stores.
I don’t live in Guelph, but I have been in the stores (they have two branches in Guelph!) a few times over the years and it might be an interesting business model aspiring comic shop owners should look into. Instead of doubling down on the Big Bang Theory-cliché of the dark, parochial comic shop catering to mostly males, the Dragon stores are bright, open, cheery places that clearly set out to establish a sense of a family atmosphere; the staff are a little older, professionally dressed, and many are women — a bit different from The Simpson’s slovenly comic shop guy (which is not exactly an inaccurate depiction of some shops I’ve seen). Like most comic shops they’ve broadened their stock — but in addition to the obligatory card and role playing games I associate with other stores, they have a lot more kids books and novelties. When I was there just before Christmas (2017) the owner was helpful and garrulous — he even told me the proper pronunciation of Nelvana! (And if you’re asking: “Nelvana?” just don’t even pretend to have an interest in Canadian comics until you’ve Googled her!) He also tracked down a copy of Beyond: Quest for Meadan for me even though it didn’t show up in his computer (I had wandered off to browse when suddenly he thrust it in front of me! Talk about service!) But just to give you an idea of how bad I am at self-promotion: I never mentioned to him that I had written some superhero story collections, or had stories in the published anthologies Masked Mosaic and
Tesseracts Nineteen. I figured he had better things to do, other customers to see. But I suppose a real go-getter with moxy would’ve told him, maybe seen if he’d be interested in stocking my books (yeah, they’re e-books, but I could make physical copies). But I didn’t want to be an ass (alas!) Anyway, my point is when you hear about a lot of comic shops struggling, the Dragon stores (I assume) are doing okay for themselves.
Anyhoo… On with the reviewing:
Now I’ve written before (in other reviews) that short stories can be problematic in a comic book form (despite the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words), with the limited page count forcing the stories to be pretty minimalist. Or more to the point: creators think the limited pages requires a minimalist story (I mean, Will Eisner’s The Spirit demonstrated you could squeeze a lot into a few pages if you’re so inclined). It just seems to me that when comic books — specifically super hero comics — are wrapped around short little vignettes, they can be uneven.
Plus with an anthology there’s also the conflict when the (possible) intent of the editors/publishers collides with the (I assume) intent of the writers/artists.
With True Patriot the (seeming) editorial intent was to present a world of Canadian superheroes, to kick in the black-painted windows of cultural timidity and let in the light of imagination. To offer a world of Canadian superheroes in a medium — and genre — largely dominated by other countries’ heroes. The TPB is even framed by a sequence of a little boy vainly searching a comic shop for some Canadian comics (with, possibly, an extra subtext of him wanting wholesome All-Ages comics, with the comics he turns his nose up featuring gun-wielding heroes, ninjas, monsters, and buxom babes).
I mean, the cover literally proclaims: “Canadian Comic Book Adventures!” And the introduction by Mike Valiquette cites iconic traditional superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Superman, and Canada’s Captain Canuck, and suggests True Patriot is continuing in that tradition.
But the problem is that many of the stories being offered are more like a spoof of superheroes, or a satire of Canadiana. Which seems a contradiction of the anthology’s very purpose. Essentially an editor says: “Hey, let’s do an anthology showing that Canada can be just as fertile ground for superhero adventures as America.” And some of the creators respond: “I’ve got a great idea how to ridicule that very premise — count me in!”
Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat. Some of the stories do feel as though the creators were genuinely aiming to come up with a viable property. As well, I get back to my earlier point about how the “short” comic book story is problematic. As an example I’m thinking of the Captain America graphic novel, Red, White, and Blue which offered a bunch of short tales by a variety of creators — most of which were quirky or satirical, and very few of which functioned as a superhero adventure told in limited pages.
But in True Patriot there are pieces like “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” (6 pgs, by Faith Erin Hicks) in which a teenage girl superhero (in a deliberately makeshift costume) confronts a collection of villains literally named The League of Villainous Canadian Stereotypes! And “The Bluenoser vs. Gull Girl” (4 pgs. by Fred Kennedy and Adam Gorham — Kennedy is listed as writer, Gorham the inker, so I’m not sure if one of them was the penciller) is another comedic piece using exaggerated Canadian archetypes. “The Grey Owl vs. Bigfoot” (9 pgs. by J. Bone) also goes the tongue-in-cheek route with exaggerated Canadian clichés…but feels a little more good natured, like Bone is having fun revelling in the overt Canadianess more than he’s making fun of it.
I fully understand and can sympathize with a writer bristling at the idea of making something distinctly “Canadian” — but equally I have trouble with creators (in whatever medium) who invoke Straw Man clichés to show how silly it is. In “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” the whole point of the story is basically just to ridicule the idea of something being overtly Canadian. (Hick’s Superhero Girl has actually appeared in her own collection — but is primarily a spoof/joke on superheroes).
And, to be honest, I just didn’t them that funny for stories that were primarily meant to be humourous.
“Justice Jenny” (6 pgs. by Agnes Garbowska) sidesteps the whole Canadian thing, but equally isn’t much interested in presenting a superhero tale either. Instead it’s a whimsical piece about a little girl who dresses as a superhero during recess and settles schoolyard disputes. It’s cute enough, and reinforces my impression that many of the stories are deliberately aimed at younger readers.
Now before I come across as a complete stick-in-the-mud, probably my favourite story in the collection is “Uh-Oh Ogopogo!” (10 pgs by Howard Wong and Adrian Alphona) which is another humourous piece that isn’t really about an archetypical “superhero”; oh, and there’s lots of overt, tongue-in-cheek Canadianess (a Sasquatch — again! — and Ogopogo, etc.) But it’s suitably quirky and amusing and, in a way, thoughtful (and is another tale wrapped around a kid learning a lesson). I do wonder if its longer page count and use of small panels (fitting a lot on a page) allows it to rise above simply being a vignette.
Among the stories that seem a little more as though they are trying to be superhero-superhero stories are, of course, “Snow Day” (8 pgs. by J. Torres — who, remember, was also the editor of the anthology — and Tim Levins). I say “of course” because it features the Family Dynamic — a Canadian superhero team already featured in their own short-lived All-Ages comic for DC Comics a few years ago! They’re basically a kind of Fantastic Four-like group only even more intrinsically a family (think of the animated movie The Incredibles) Again, it’s mostly slight (fighting a super-villain while helping motorists trapped in highway gridlock) and comedic, but decent enough. The same could be said about “Particle Man” (8 pgs. by Ramón Pérez) which for some reason kind of sticks with me — I suspect partly just because of the striking costume designs, especially of the title character!
“Phase One: Test Flight” featuring Arrowhead (8 pgs. by Jay Stephens) particularly feels like a sincere attempt to create a superhero and draw upon Canadiana, with some teens discovering a lost super suit supposedly built by the real life Avro aviation company (of the Avro Arrow fame). Putting aside my long-standing mixed feelings about the cultural mythologizing of the Avro Arrow (which is a topic for another day), the result is perhaps a little too Iron Man-esque, and also never fully coalesces into a satisfying story (the main conflict is with some bullies — getting back to my point about “All Ages” storytelling). But perhaps for the obvious reason that, as the title (“Phase One”) implies, it’s more intended as an opening chapter. Which at least indicates Stephens did genuinely see it as having legs. In a similar vein, “Whatever Happened to the Red Ensign?” (8 pgs., by Scott Chantler) with some kids watching a newsreel of a WW II era superhero feels like a promo for a character more than a story in its own right. (And FYI: I wrote an earlier post about the use and history of the “Red Ensign” as a Canadian super hero name!)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Arrowhead and The Red Ensign were revived for the subsequent True Patriot Presents comics. (Which I’ll come back to next time).
Somewhere in the middle lie Dominion Jack in “My Way” (8 pgs. by Jack Briglio and Ronald Salas) about a father-daughter superhero duo trying to save the prime minister’s life during a hockey game, interspersed with talk about what makes a Canadian hero. And “Thunder Birch” (6 pgs. by Andy Belanger) which draws heavily upon Indigenous inspiration for a story about a heroine battling a lake monster. The reason I say they are in the middle is because I can’t say they aren’t telling adventure stories and, indeed, with less camp and tongue-in-cheek than many of the other stories — without either really quite feeling like you could imagine them sustaining further adventures (or are even intended to! — though Dominion Jack did return in True Patriot Presents)
Throughout the art styles tend to be fairly cartoony and exaggerated. Styles that add to my impression of the stories (mostly) being light-hearted and aimed at younger readers. But I’m also aware that these are popular and common styles these days, so that may not be a fair inference. Certainly reading the creator bios a number of these contributors have worked on mainstream American comics of horror and even super heroes. The art is mostly good — I’m not saying it isn’t. Just it’s not especially, y’know, super-heroic! Though there is a nice variety in it, which can be an appeal in anthology (from Garbowska’s almost children’s picture book style visuals to Levins more superhero-esque style).
Now here’s where the problem with figuring out the reviewer’s role comes in. Because even I admit my review can basically be summed up as: this isn’t what I was hoping it would be. To another reader it might be precisely what they were hoping it would be.
I’m not really trying to tell you whether this is a good collection or a bad one — I’m simply articulating my reaction to it. (Equally I have no objection to youth-aimed/All Ages comics. Indeed — I encourage them. But equally I can only assess them by how I react to them as an adult or, at best, how I think I might have responded to them when I was a kid). And as I make clear, I’ve long felt the “short”-comic book story format can be problematic; without enough time to develop a plot or the personalities, they are often insubstantial.
Heck, you could love True Patriot to bits — and still find my comments interesting just as an alternate perspective. Equally you could hate True Patriot and still think my review was dumb because you wanted the book to be more satirical of the “Canadian superheroes” theme.
But that’s why you can almost see my piece less as a straight “review” and more like, I dunno, an “analysis” — considering it in a broader context.
In a way, True Patriot shares some commonalities with the prose anthologies Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) and Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016) — both of which were anthologies playing around with the theme of Canadian superheroes (and full disclosure: I have stories in both volumes — I’m not just a pretty face, y’know). Being prose anthologies, with pretensions to literature, most of the stories in those collections weren’t straight-forward superhero adventures either. Some were. But plenty were ironic, or satirical, or deconstructionist, or coloured as far outside the lines of the theme as they could without leaving the page entirely. And so in that sense, True Patriot is in good company.
But I guess I look at it from the point of view (as someone who has spent years writing about and championing Canadiana in pop culture) that as an actual comic book anthology (rather than prose) the opportunity would be for creators to present characters and stories that really were meant to show Canadian characters could muscle their way onto the shelf next to Superman and Spider-Man and Hellboy. A chance for the reader to be like the little boy in the TPB’s framing sequence and thrill to a world of Canadian superheroes.
And I’m just not sure True Patriot really does that — and, more to the point, I don’t think for a lot of the creators that was even their intent.
If someone dismisses the very idea of Canadian superheroes as inherently silly, I can’t help but ask: could True Patriot be used to prove them wrong? — or would they point to it as proof that they are right?
When I wrote my story collections — Screeech! “Wait, dude (I hear you say) do you really think trying to promote your work after dissing this TPB is a good idea? Aren’t the creators who worked on True Patriot and readers who loved it gonna hate you just on principle?” Well, maybe. But maybe not. I work on the idealistic theory that discussion is good, and healthy, and that people can disagree but still realize they’re all working for the same goal. The very reason I’m writing about True Patriot (and had mixed feeling about it) is because I believe in the importance of Canadian popular entertainment (that’s why I write about it so much over the years, about films, TV, and comics — heck, I set up the Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). If reading my review of True Patriot gets you curious about it and you go buy a copy — no one would be happier than me! But that’s because I believe it’s bigger and broader than any one creator or any one project. And I’m naïve enough to think that some of the creators of True North (and those who loved it) might feel the same way (but I’m also aware that a lot probably won’t).
But also I’m citing my writings as part of contextualizing my review. My point is to say that (I think) many of the contributors to True North would agree their stories weren’t really meant to be “serious” superhero stories, or to be imagined sitting on a shelf next to The X-Men. But to some extent that was precisely the intent of my stories: to try and present adventure and mystery stories with superheroes that you could almost imagine having been displayed on the comics racks over the years; to genuinely try and envision a Canadian superhero universe like Marvel or DC have, where the stories really are meant to be exciting and thrilling, and where the setting and the time period are a part of the narrative (my stories occurring in different decades and, to greater and lesser extent, drawing upon their eras for the ideas). I’m mostly pleased with the results, but I’m still waiting for that critical mass of sales where people start posting reviews (for good or ill).
Viewed as an All-Ages romp, suitable for younger readers, True Patriot is certainly not disagreeable. Not if you’re looking for quick, mostly light-hearted little tales. But if you were looking for a collection of superhero adventures, with thrills, and some gravitas, awakening to the storytelling possibilities and potentials inherent in Canada…you might need to keep looking (and no, I’m not going to put in another plug for my books — though you know that’s what I’m hinting at, heh heh).
Next time:…I’ll comment on the first few issues of True North Presents, the spin-off series that does, in fact, seem to aim to be a little more “superhero-adventure.”