Reviewing and pondering “True Patriot Presents”…

I’m going to comment on, and review, some of the anthology comic True Patriot Presents.

But my review comes from a particular angle: namely whether the stories (and the comic) succeed as a Canadian answer to American superhero comics. Which seemed to be how the series was marketed: an assemblage of homegrown Canadian super hero stories to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with American examples of the genre. As well, I have a selfish, mercenary agenda. I’ve written my own (prose) Canadian super hero stories — notably The Masques Chronicles, as well as The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun. And I figure if you’re the sort of person Googling for reviews of True Patriot Presents, you might be the sort of person interested in my stories. (And also I vary the spelling from “superhero” to “super hero” for the simple reason of not knowing how people might type it in during a websearch!)

Onward…

Spinning out of the TPB True Patriot (sub-titled: Canadian Comic Book Adventures — which I reviewed last time) came the on-going (digital-only, I believe) anthology comic, True Patriot Presents. My criticism of the True Patriot TPB was a feeling a lot of the contributors weren’t actually interested in presenting, y’know, super hero “Adventures,” preferring to satirize or otherwise shrug off the concept (some, not all). But with True Patriot Presents the focus seems much more on trying to tell superhero adventures. Over the early issues (I’ve only read the first four) we see a variety of characters, some returning from the TPB, some new, some in one-off shorts, some in serialized tales.

The Grey Owl returns for a one-issue story (#1) in a crossover of sorts — as it guest stars one of the Family Dynamic (who also appeared in the TPB) — and is by Family Dynamic writer J. Torres and Grey Owl creator J. Bone. The True Patriot stories seem to have (to varying degrees) an All-Ages vibe (ie: aimed at younger readers than, say, contemporaneous Batman comics, while ostensibly still appealing to grown-ups) and this story especially reflects that as it is whimsical and gentle-hearted, but definitely feels aimed at children.

Fred Kennedy returns with a one-time origin of Gull-Girl (#1), maintaining the sense of tongue-in-cheek he used in “The Bluenoser vs. Gull-Girl” with the villainous (or at least anti-hero-esque) Gull-Girl’s origin seeming partly a spoof on Superman’s origin. But then he contributes to the second issue the far more straight-faced Crude (#2), as if Kennedy (joined by artist Dave Bishop) is now warming to the idea of genuinely trying to create a Canadian superhero/fantasy property (rather than spoofing it). At first I was enjoying the story, thinking how Kennedy was essentially going the comic book archetype route (creating a character deliberately riffing on an established cliché) with what was obviously a kind of Man-Thing/Swamp Thing concept — only with a gender-switch (the character’s female) and involving crude oil rather than swamp muck. Unfortunately, by the end of the origin tale, that’s all we really have: some familiar clichés (industrial accident, tragic muck monster, sinister corporation) with little sense Kennedy has come up with anything fresh or is putting his own thumb print on it. It’s an origin story, and only a few pages, so really all he’s trying to do is get his pieces on the board — it’s what he does with it that will decide things. But it’s worth remembering that arguably the strength of characters like Man-Thing and Swamp Thing was the strange and surreal adventures writers like Len Wein and Steve Gerber and Alan Moore crafted for them more than the original concept.

Probably the centrepiece of True Patriot Presents is Jay Stephens’ Arrowhead (#1-up), both in that its instalments seem to get the most pages, and it’s featured in all of the early issues. It’s clear Stephens does genuinely see this as a viable adventure-hero property, and it doesn’t lack for incorporating ideas (at one point citing various real-life Canadian weird/paranormal incidents and suggesting they are connected ala some X-Files like conspiracy). There’s the Arrowhead suit found by some teenagers, sinister conspiracies, mind control, and more. But it can feel a bit like he’s busy lathering new ideas into the pot because he’s not entirely sure how to serve it up. What I’m getting at is that there’s more emphasis on where the story’s headed than where it is. Ostensibly Cody is our main character — but even after four instalments he has little personality/presence.

Dominion Jack also returns from the TPB with an even more straight-forward action-adventure three-part story (#2-4) than he had in the TPB. Unfortunately the results were muddled, both in terms of the visuals by Dominic Bercier (which I found both confusing and, frankly, ugly — in quite a contrast to the art in the TPB by Ronald Salas which was going for a semi-realism) and in terms of Jack Briglio‘s script. On one hand it tries to be ambitious (throwing in a super-villain who used to be his best friend, plus a flashback origin sequence) even as that’s the problem: it feels like the reader’s been thrown in the deep end without water-wings, like this is some long standing character who we are supposed to already know and care about. (To be honest, I’m still a little confused about Dominion Jack’s powers — though I think they’re like the idea I used in my story “Enter: Mosaic, The Multicultural Man!” which I talk about here — this commercial plug brought to you by The Masques Chronicles!)

A new addition to the roster is the two part Fantome (#3-4) story by Meaghan Carter. It’s a fairly generic heroine (in terms of powers/personality) and a cartoony, undynamic art style in service of a simple plot — however! — I actually thought it improved a bit in the second chapter. At least, the art, though still cartoony and not exactly super-hero-y, seemed more dynamic, with better storytelling composition. So it was likeable in a breezy, fun way (seeming very much “All-Ages”). But again it suffered from the simple fact that there wasn’t enough to it (in terms of character, plot, or ideas) to really say whether I’d want to read any further tales. And by the end, Carter has actually introduced three super-heroes!

This seems a recurring thread among many of these stories: a desire on the part of the creators to just kind throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and to create a kind of “instant superhero universe.” Rather than focusing on the characters and the stories they are writing about — as if they’re more attracted to the idea of a super hero comic. This is hardly unique to them, or Canadian comics. Arguably the idea of a super hero universe has become so much a part of comics (as witness the modern movies and TV shows emulating the idea of shared universes) the idea of “just add water/instant super-verses” are quite common when creators do their own independent comics. But it can also feel like they’re putting too much emphasis on the form rather than the substance (I’m thinking of things like Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and others — series which, to be fair, are critically acclaimed). To put it another way, it’s as if instead of trying to create and develop interesting characters with interesting plots, they just toss in more tropes whenever the plot seems stalled.

Now obviously a big problem with my critiques is that the creators are working with a limited page count, restricting what they can do with the characters. It’s hard to introduce an interesting character, develop his/her personality and supporting cast, and unfold an interesting plot — all in 5 or 8 pages.

I’ll also be brutal and say that the art in a lot of them was problematic in that it was mostly rough and sketchy. That isn’t to say it isn’t without talent or appeal: Stephens, Carter, etc. clearly have skill. But to put it bluntly, little of it seems like the sort of art you’d see on Spider-Man or Green Lantern. Part of it I suppose might be economic. Just as Canadian movies can’t hope to match the budget of a Hollywood film, indie comic artists can’t really afford to spend days working on a single page, carefully detailing and modelling figures, meticulously filling in complicated vistas, not if their page-rate is a fraction what someone working on a best selling super hero comic is being paid.

And it should be acknowledged that someone might counter: they shouldn’t be like Spider-Man or Green Lantern! That the whole point of Canadian comics (and Canadian super hero comics) is that they should be different, quirky, experimental. And that I’m just demonstrating a sad, Philistine attitude if I’m constantly comparing them to American models. Which, y’know, is a point of view, obviously.

But I’m just being pragmatic. I’m reminded of an interview I read with a Canadian comic book creator (I can’t remember who at the moment, but he was someone who made quirky, indie, black & white, “personal” sort of comics) who seemed genuinely angry that his comics didn’t sell as well as Superman! And he seemed to blame his lack of success on an anti-Canadian bias (both within and without Canada) as opposed to recognizing that, um, his comics were nothing like Superman so it’s unsurprising they didn’t have the same mass audience. In much the same way Canadian filmmakers will make Artsy, indie films — then complain they aren’t making the same profits as Jurassic Park or Star Wars movies!

If True Patriot Presents is meant to show that Canadians can make super hero comics as good as Americans than it’s fair to ask whether the comparison holds up. Because if the sales aren’t that great, if a fandom doesn’t arise behind them — then that very lack of success will be used in the future to argue there’s no market for Canadian superheroes when, y’know, maybe the problem was simply the execution, rather than the Canadianness.

Obviously — I come at this with an agenda and a bias. I’ve spent years writing about, arguing about, and defending the notion of Canadian pop culture (whether movies, TV shows, or comics; I’ve recently collected some of my film/TV essays in a book — plug! plug!) and so I’m looking at True Patriot Presents not just as a quirky little anthology comic, but at what impact it could have on the idea of Canadian comics (superheroes, commercial, mainstream, etc.) into the future.

Still, these are mostly initial and introductory stories. They could well blossom into great things with a few more adventures under their belts. But I guess my quibble with that is you kind of need to catch the readers’ attention at the start in order to get them to want to stick around for later.

I’m not trying to be a complete wet blanket. I do think there was some charm to Fantome. And Arrowhead is certainly sparing no horses in trying to create a fast-paced conspiracy yarn. And there’s nothing about most of the properties here that would suggest they couldn’t evolve into interesting features. But there’s a real sense a lot of the creators are having fun rather than knuckling down and approaching it as a serious commercial assignment. (And if you’re working in the short comic book story format, I might suggest familiarizing yourself with how others have tackled and exploited the format, such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit, or Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter, or, well, really the long history of short back up tales in mainstream super hero comics).

I also want to address the whole “All-Ages” thing. I have no objection to youth-aimed/All Ages comics. Indeed — I encourage them. At the same time, All-Ages comics can be problematic (I’m thinking in general, not just True Patriot). Part of the marketing impetus for them is the need to cultivate kid comic book readers who can grow into the adult comics readers of tomorrow. But I almost wonder if All-Ages comics are still a victim of the navel-gazing self-reflectiveness that have made other comics such a parochial medium. What I mean is: are All-Ages comics made for and enjoyed by young readers? — or are they made for what the creators think young readers want but are mostly just read by adult readers who enjoy them as nostalgia-tinged kitsch? Because thinking back to when I was a kid, I’m not sure I actually would’ve enjoyed modern All-Ages comics as much as the creators assume a kid would. The deliberately cartoony art styles often employed on modern All-Ages comics I think I would’ve found off-putting (and the storytelling/composition often confusing) — I mean, even as a kid I enjoyed “good” (ie: realist) art. And the campy, superficial plotting/characterization probably would’ve left me restless.

Now since I mentioned part of the reason I was writing this review was to draw attention to my own superhero (prose) story collections (figuring if you’re Googling to find reviews of True Patriot Presents, you might be the sort of person interested in my stories) I want to make some points:

Obviously whether my stories are any good is only something you, dear reader, can assess. But the intent of my stories was to try and tell super hero adventure/thrillers, featuring original creations, and set in Canada (sometimes drawing explicitly upon historical periods and regions, sometimes not so overtly). Some of my characters I think are interesting and intriguing — but some are, I suspect, precisely like what I’m criticizing about True Patriot: rather generic personalities with commonplace abilities. But that gets to the whole “plot” idea. Because I was genuinely trying to come up with interesting stories, plots with beginnings, middles, and ends, and a few twists along the way. Obviously, I had an advantage in that writing a 6000 word story allows more latitude than a six or eight page comic. But if you’re wondering precisely what I mean when I talk about these things (characters/powers, personalities, plots) you could try my books and see what you think. Is there a different approach? No? Better? Worse? Am I fooling myself thinking there’s a distinction? After all, even I said I think Dominion Jack and my character, Mosaic, have similar powers — did I make use of the idea better? Worse? Same?

Obviously — I’m too close to it to be unbiased. Only you can decide that.

True Patriot Presents is a Digital-Only series available from Chapterhouse Comics (and sites like ComiXology)

The Masques Chronicles (and The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun) are available from Amazon (my webpage about them is here).

Belated Afterthought Department: As should be obvious when I post opinions, I’m essentially musing out-loud — intellectually spit-balling if you will. I’m just articulating my visceral take on something. And my comments about All-Ages comics was because I’m genuinely curious about the demographics, and who is buying them vs. who it’s assumed is buying them. I don’t know, hence why I’m just musing about it.

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