Behind-the-Scenes Story: “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight”

In my desire to promote my short story collection of Canadian superhero stories that span from the 1930s to today, I’m going to post a few pieces delving into individual stories and some of the creative decisions I made (obviously in the hopes it will intrigue you to actually want to read the finished story — and the book itself).

So for this post let’s trip back to the groovy 1960s — The Silver Age — for the story called…”The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight.”

In many ways “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight” is an odd man out in this collection. First and foremost, that’s because it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek whereas most of the stories are meant to be straight-faced, serious superhero stories (at least as straight-faced and serious as the average comic book or superhero movie or TV show — after all, the entire genre invites a certain twinkle in the eye).

But TSAOTGOE is definitely meant to be out-and-out silly. Except…the plot is still supposed to make a certain amount of sense; likewise the characters and their motivation. So even it isn’t necessarily kneeslappingly hilarious so much as it’s wryly quirky. As I say: tongue firmly in cheek.

This perhaps is represented by the title and central idea — the story involving a hunt for a painting by an obscure, eighth member of the famous real-life artist collective known as The Group of Seven. So either the idea of an eighth member of a group famous for being seven taps you lightly on the funny bone — or it don’t.

And because of my putting my tongue in my cheek, this story was arguably the most unapologetically, unashamedly “Canadian” story in the collection — I just was having fun with it.

The roots of the story started sprouting around 1999/2000 with the American comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which — in a slightly quirky manner of its own — the conceit was to team up various Victorian-era literary figures (Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll, etc.) into a kind of prototype superhero team. The idea was so irresistible it instantly led to a big budget movie version (the movie was significantly different from the comic — and generally not well regarded by fans of the comic, but in some ways I actually preferred it to the comic; it had more humanity whereas the comic, written by comics legend Alan Moore, was rather cynical and nihilistic). But even though I’ll admit I wasn’t a big fan of the comic book — I too found the idea just irresistibly audacious. And, as is my wont, I immediately wondered if something similar could be done using Canadian characters.

And I quickly decided no.

There weren’t enough such characters who had lapsed into the public domain, and even including those that were still owned by their creators, none leant themselves obviously to a superhero romp, did they? Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables? Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz?

So then I turned my attention to a variation on the idea, realizing that what Canada lacked in literary characters we made up for in real life historical figures. Eventually this idea saw print as my story, “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” which was published in the 2013 anthology Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories. In it I imagine an alternate history where some famous Canadian historical figures have superpowers and fight Nazis. It was reasonably well regarded and I was quite happy with the result. (I blogged about it here).

But…my mind still kept coming back to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — almost like my own creative White Whale. I kept wondering if something could still be done using actual Canadian literary figures. Was there an angle I hadn’t considered that would make it do-able?

Then I thought: what if instead of just giving a wink at the reader as I had with “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” what if I went full out and made it humorous? And what if I sidled around the copyright thing by making some characters homages and allusions rather than being actual established characters as they had in League? And still stymied for likely characters, I decided to expand it to archetypes.

For instance, it seemed to me a recurring theme in Canadian literature is novels about some bitter old woman reflecting back on her miserable life (in novels like The Stone Angel and The Blind Assassin) which led to my creating “Bitter” Helga, an old woman who’s a “reverse empath” — able to instill depressing bitter memories into people. French-Canadian “classic” literature often seemed to lean toward rural and historical melodramas, which led to my adding The Trapper to the group (as well as acting as a nod to the Northerns of James Oliver Curwood and Jack London). They joined with the more obvious Fan of Emerald Eaves and Buddy Krevitz to comprise my team — plus a fifth, more outrageous figure just thrown in for fun.

But I still wasn’t sure what to do with them. I still wasn’t sure they worked as a team of heroes. So then I wondered about using them as villains. Y’know, like how superheroes like Batman have themed opponents. That then got me thinking of the campy 1960s Batman TV series and at one point I considered trying to write a campy adventure about a superhero battling a bank robbing gang called the Can-Lit gang (Can Lit being literary short hand for “Canadian literature”).

But now that my mind was settling into the 1960s and thinking in terms of TV and film kitsch, I started thinking about all those ’60s pop spy series like The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE (not to mention comic books like Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and the Secret Six). And suddenly it suggested a new tack. Borrowing as much from the spy idiom as superhero, the Can-Lit gang once more became the heroes, and their name an acronym as befitted the sub-genre (C.A.N.-L.I.T. Squad becoming Crimes Against the Nation: Locate, Investigate and Takedown Squad). And the story simultaneously played around with both Canadian literary archetypes and with 1960s kitsch (Fan of Emerald Eaves now in go-go boots and a mini-dress) and the team gained a newcomer (who could act as the audience’s “in” into the tale) in the form of a more conventional wisecracking spy/detective figure (although he too had a slightly Canadian inspiration — as I was sort of thinking a little of Stephen Young from the 1960s Canadian TV crime-drama, Seaway — though equally I was sort of picturing Marvel Comics SHIELD agent Jimmy Woo, too…though I never specify the character’s ethnicity, so you can picture him how you like).

So now I had a cast, a tone, and a genre. And because I was already making it pretty Canadian because of the literary in-jokes, I decided to go whole hog by wrapping the story around a search for a painting by an eighth member of the Group of Seven! Throw in some twists and turns, and a bit of Lovecraftian lore and — Bob’s your my mother’s brother.

Oh, and lest I forget — there’s yet another layer. Given the story’s placing in a book of superhero tales, I also decided it should reflect aspects of the comic book oeuvre, too. The 1960s was when superhero comics shook themselves up and let their hair down, with more bizarre “freaks” like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, The X-Men and The Doom Patrol, so that’s also alluded to in the story, as a character remarks the CAN-LIT Squad represents a new, more eccentric breed of heroes, and they are called “Canada’s Strangest Heroes” — a deliberate wink at comics fans with long memories who will recall the Doom Patrol were called “the world’s strangest heroes” and the X-Men “the world’s strangest teens.”

So…the resulting story combines a nod to Canadian literary archetypes and icons, an homage to 1960s spy kitsch, and a wink at the transformation superhero comics were undergoing, while working in quirky Canadianisms (like the Group of Seven) — all while still functioning as a fast-paced adventure-mystery story building to a thrilling (if tongue-in-cheek) climax. It is both meant to be read as a silly romp — while equally engaging as an adventure (not unlike those 1960s TV series to which I was alluding).

That’s a lot of plates I was trying to keep spinning — just in that one story. Did I succeed? Find out by buying a copy and reading it for yourself.

Next time I’ll delve into another story from the book…

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes Story: “The Sinister Affair of the Group of Eight”

Blogging About Canadian Comics

I’ve been on a bit of a kick recently writing about superhero comics — and especially Canadian superhero comics. Traditionally this blog was mostly concerned with talking about Canadian film & TV. But my interests have always been broader, and Canadian superheroes is an off-shoot of my traditional theme of Canadian pop culture.

And, more specifically, I’ve just written a book — a short story collection — telling a bunch of Canadian superhero stories peppered through the last eighty or ninety years. A book called M*sques and C*pes: An Imaginary History (I’ve spelled it with the asterix because I don’t want to glut the search engines — I’m hoping, in time, other reviews might pop up).

But today I wanted to step to the side and draw attention to another blog — They Stand On Guard! It’s a blog I came upon a couple of years ago (admittedly because it posted a piece talking about a prose anthology in which I had a story — Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories — and in which my story, “The Secret History of the Intrepids,” was mentioned as a favourite in the collection!)

They Stand on Guard! basically tries to draw attention to various contemporary Canadian comic book/superhero endeavours — ranging from kickstarter campaigns, releases of volumes reprinting vintage comics, or simply noting appearances of Canadian characters in popular American comics. It’s a personal, privately run blog (I assume) the creator basically just taking this on as a hobby.

And as someone who has been that route myself (with everything from my Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV to my comic book focused, The Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page) I tip my hat to the creator of They Stand on Guard!

Part of the importance of a site like that (and the reason I did my Canadian film site) is because so much of Canadian popular entertainment is basically “indie.” That is, while American popular culture is dominated by corporate engines like Hollywood Studios and comic book companies like Marvel and DC, with entire infrastructures built around them that exist simply to write and talk about what’s going on (from the IMDB to ComicBookResources) in Canada, much of what’s going on can feel like isolated oases where it’s often hard to even know what’s in the works unless you stumble upon it by accident.

It wasn’t until I saw They Stand on Guard! that I was even aware there were various comic book enterprises going on in Canadian. I knew about ChapterHouse Comics — a company that has arisen in the last couple of years and seems to be the first Canadian comic book company since WW II that is genuinely trying to be a “company,” with multiple titles and creators in its stable. But in general these efforts seem isolated — “indie.” So a site that draws them together, collecting them under a single umbrella, is important, just to create an illusion of community — and mayhap, in time, foster an actual community.

Admittedly, the problem with an endless parade of kickstarter and crowdfunding endeavours is you’re not sure how stable these things will prove (a number of times I’ll come upon a reference to a new title — only to discover it only published one issue). And like with the Canadian film biz, I suspect a lot of what fuels the creators is their own desire to be mavericks — the lack of community is precisely what inspires them.

They Stand on Guard! may write about these different projects — but I’m not sure how much the different projects themselves acknowledge each other. If you go to their Facebook pages and websites, do they mention (let alone link to) the others? (And, yes, one could level the same charge against me — but, as I say, I’ve already tried to do my part with my own websites).

I do think community is important. As I mentioned, part of America’s pop cultural success is the sense that film, TV, comics, music, etc. are communities and, yes, an industry.

Certainly years of writing about Canadian film & TV led me to the cynical conclusion that even a lot of people in the Canadian film & TV biz (actors, writers, directors, etc.) didn’t actually care out the “biz” — they just cared about their own individual projects (and the projects of their friends) and everyone else could go jump. OK, that may be a bit harsh — but it was an impression I developed.

But remember that old expression: if people don’t hang together — they’ll hang separately?

Of course part of this includes criticism, reviews, and opining.

To me that’s a necessary aspect of the artistic process — and a sign of a healthy industry. That it’s a big boy (or girl) and can withstand scrutiny. When I write about Canadian film & TV I’ve done so with (I hope) passion, commitment, enthusiasm — but that doesn’t mean my role is that of a sycophant or cheerleader. I’ve written critically about things I don’t like, and I opine (sometimes controversially) about issues (such as race, gender, etc.)

I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s why a lot of my writing over the years seems to have gone unremarked upon — even ignored — by people in the biz despite the fact that the common lament in Canadian film & TV is that no one writes about Canadian film & TV. But maybe they only want people to write nice things.

But my philosophy is that there are no “good” or “bad” reviews — only honest and dishonest ones. If a reviewer/critic has genuinely considered a work, and offers a thoughtful critique of it, largely untempered by malice or bias, then that’s a good review — even if they didn’t like the work. It at least shows they respected the work enough to think about it. As well, a thoughtful — constructive — critique can be helpful to the artist, either by pointing out flaws in their work or, at the least, pointing out where they failed to communicate their ideas to the audience (if the reviewer didn’t “get “it).

That doesn’t mean an artist should blindly accept the first negative opinion they see. Not at all. Maybe the reviewer just wasn’t the target audience. But sometimes a reviewer can articulate what the artist kind of knew all along but didn’t want to admit to themselves. And if seven out of ten reviewers say, for instance, the pacing is too slow — the creator should think seriously about tightening the pacing for their next work. (One of the things that depressed me most about Canadian film was seeing a filmmaker’s first film, and noting how reviewers might all point to the same flaws in the work — and then ten years later, seeing a later work by the same filmmaker…with all the same flaws, with no indication they had even tried to learn from those initial reviews).

At the writing of this I’ve only sold a handful of copies of my book (it’s a slow process, trying to even get people aware of the book — honestly, I’m amazed it’s sold any copies). With luck, a few reviews will start popping up about the book (either on Amazon, or the internet in general). And, yeah, doubtless some reviews will be negative — and I’ll storm, and sneer, and think those reviewers are idiots! But that’s just human nature. The reality is, as I say, even a bad review is good, if the reviewer is fair and honest. And maybe some won’t “get” what I was trying to do, or will object to my perspective, or philosophy — while others might offer some sage observations I was too willful to acknowledge.

And hey, maybe some will even say they loved every page of it!

But it’s part of a process. Any movie, book, comic — or collection of prose superhero tales — is a building block upon which the next one can be laid. And this gets back to my point about They Stand on Guard!

Part of the impetus for my writing this book was because of my long standing frustration with the lack of this kind of Canadian popular entertainment (and Canada’s history of well-intentioned, but generally ill-fated and short-lived superhero comics).

My book spans close to a decade and almost every province and territory, and it tries to imagine what it might have been like if there had been a major Canadian comic book publisher — if I had grown up with such a thing populating the comic racks at my local corner store, marrying the escapist adventure of superheroes with Canadian culture and themes. And even if my attempt is flawed, or fails to be the book I hope it is (honest — I think it’s pretty neat!) maybe it will inspire the next generation.

Because blogs like They Stand on Guard! help to show that there are more possibilities out there…

(Just as an aside, I also came upon a reference to my book on another blog: Superhero Novels — this one devoted to specifically writing about prose superhero fiction. So that’s pretty cool, too.)

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Blogging About Canadian Comics

A Canadian Superhero Universe…in Prose

Today I’m continuing in an irregular series of posts about my new book — both in the hopes that these’ll be interesting posts and also, obviously, in the hope that maybe as I delve into it, it might intrigue you to actually buy the book (and then hopefully write about it yourself, either by posting a review on Amazon, or on a message board, or your own blog or website/webzine). One thing I’m going to do is refer to my book as M*sques and C*pes: An Imaginary History — with the “*” representing an “a” and the “and” standing in for “&.” Why? Because I don’t want to glut the search engines with my posts talking about my book — since, as mentioned, I’m hoping (eventually) other reviews and posts might crop up about it. One thing I’ve discovered as someone who has posted a lot on-line (and written a lot of pieces for Huffington Post Canada, for instance) is that if I google my name (narcissistically) to see if anyone is responding to or referencing something I wrote in their own blogs or message threads — that what mostly comes up on the first few pages are simply things I wrote, sporting my by-line.

Although, equally, part of the point of writing this blog is to promote my book (including if someone googles it) — so I’ll do it once: Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History by D.K. Latta. There! I’ve done it! (And for a webpage specifically devoted to it, including with links to where to buy it, go here — though equally you can just go to Amazon (.com or .ca or .whatever) or Createspace and find it there).

Anyway…on to talking about the book itself…

M*sques and C*pes is a collection of all-original prose superhero stories. Part of the gimmick was to imagine a decades-spanning Canadian comic book publisher ala Marvel Comics or DC Comics — something that has never existed in Canada.

And I think it’s fairly unique.

Aspects of my book have been done before, of course. I’m not saying they haven’t. What I am saying is I’m not sure anyone has put these ideas all together.

There have been the American Wild Card books (created by George R.R. Martin) — shared world anthologies where multiple authors have contributed tales about a world where people with super powers exist and at least the first volume deliberately placed the stories in different decades in America. There have been recent Canadian anthologies like Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories and Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe in which various authors contributed tales (myself included) — both books available at bookstores, on-line and off. There have also been prose novel and story collections featuring established comic book heroes like Spider-Man, Batman, etc. Nor am I pretending I’ve read, or even heard of, every example or contribution to the particular sub-genre of prose superhero fiction (though I’ve read quite a few).

So why am I saying my book is “different?” Why am I saying it’s a book I’d like to have read if somebody had written it first?

Here’s what I’ve done:

I decided to imagine a Canadian superhero universe — basically, asking “what if…?” there had been a Canadian publisher like Marvel or DC? Y’know, a comic book publisher that had begun at the beginning of the genre (late 1930s/early 1940s) and continued on until today? Because that’s something Canada has never had! Canadian comic book publishers have generally been short-lived and focused on limited titles. I think the actual number of post-WW II Canadian (superhero) comics probably numbers less than fifty — not fifty titles, I mean literally fifty issues (do the math: the original Captain Canuck ran 14 issues, Northguard 8, Orb 2 or 3, etc…). Even throwing in the American Alpha Flight and we’re still probably looking at less than 200 issues — whereas a single character like, say, Spider-Man has probably accounted for over three thousand comics in the same period!

So I thought it would be fun to imagine a decades-spanning pantheon of heroes. The stories themselves are mostly self-contained, set years apart, most featuring characters unique to that tale — but nonetheless set in the same continuity. As part of this concept, each of the stories is credited as though originating in some old comic (Terrific Tundra Tales #8, Leaf Girl #11, etc.). So, in a way, the stories are meant to be plays within plays, read with the awareness of them being comic book tales.

Except…then I mess with ya. Though the book is mainly a PG-rated affair, there are talks about social issues and even one or two post-coital conversations! Not something you were ever likely to see in an old comic. So you could view these as the “true” exploits that inspired the comic book adventures. And that’s not without precedent. I remember old Marvel Comics where the characters would sometimes refer to their own comic books (maybe complimenting how an artist captured their likeness, or complaining they got the tale wrong — very head-trippy and metatextual).

Some of the stories I wrote are meant to reflect different eras — both historically (The Cold War, hippies, etc.) and also the comic book eras (usually identified as The Golden Age, The Silver Age, etc.). Some stories lean more one way, others more the other, but it’s part of the theme of trying to imagine a decades-spanning comic book universe. In that vein, some of the superheroes are deliberately meant to evoke established archetypes — while others are fairly unique. And sometimes the periods (either the real decade, or the comic book era) are pivotal to a plot, other times it’s just acknowledged by a passing reference to a pop song or a politician.

The Canadian aspect was also crucial. I mean, that was part of the point: to imagine a major Canadian comic book publisher like Marvel or DC and to posit the kind of tales — and perspective — that such a company might have brought to the genre. The whole “Canadian identity” thing has kind of been my pet cause for decades. As someone who has written, inparticular, about Canadian film and TV extensively, a recurring beef with me is how many Canadian storytellers hide their Canadianness, or even when they acknowledge the setting is Canadian, characters conspicuously don’t use Canadian terms or expressions, nor refer to Canadian places or events, the creators sometimes labelling these things as “Anytown, North America” or “Generica.” And this alternately annoys me — and bores the Bejeezus out of me.

To me setting is part of storytelling, and can be used to enrich and enhance the tale, suggesting plot twists or character nuances that wouldn’t arise if the story was just the millionth generic story about a cop in Los Angeles or wherever. Canada is just as good a place for stories — even pulp adventure stories about superheroes — as anywhere else. At least — that’s what I’m trying to prove with this collection. Not just by acknowledging the Canadian setting, but seeing how that influences the plots (such as a story during the Cold War told from the perspective of a middle power country). So, yeah — there’s a bit of a mission fuelling this book.

However…that doesn’t mean the Canadian aspect is always front and centre. Indeed the book is constantly being torn in multiple directions, serving different masters — the comic book idiom and the Canadian identity thing (as well as just being, hopefully, entertaining page turners). Are these mostly superhero stories that just happen to be set in Canada — or are these Canadian stories filtered through the superhero milieu? Answer: both and neither.

But what it means is I wasn’t hiding from the Canadian setting. I simply accepted it and then saw what emerged from that acceptance. In the same way that many American and British stories draw upon their settings in ways that can border on subliminal — but that Canadian storytellers are often discouraged from doing (many a Canadian writer/filmmaker/songwriter/etc. has bragged — literally bragged — that you can’t tell their work is set in Canada).

So in some stories the Canadian milieu might fuel the plot — in others it’s barely even alluded to. It just depended on what the tale needed.

With that said, I did deliberately create a lot of superheroes with distinctly Canadian monikers — but that was part of the game. To embrace the Canadianness — and see what emerged from that. Honestly? I think there are some pretty cool characters in this collection.

Another aspect that might be controversial is that I didn’t avoid letting the stories occasionally slide into socio-political areas — either literally, or as allegories. To me storytelling is partly about dealing with the real world — even if in a blatantly fantasy form of super beings in garish costumes. To me some of the best fantasy — from Star Trek to, yes, superhero comics — are ones that are willing to get their hands dirty grappling with issues. If you’ve actually read actual superhero comics — little in these stories should surprise you. But if your idea of superhero adventures remains the Super Friends or something than, yeah, you might be nonplussed at times. That doesn’t mean the stories are “preachy,” per se — they are first and foremost meant to be entertaining escapism. But the heroes are, in their way, meant to be real flesh and blood characters — and real flesh and blood characters sometimes grapple with real dilemmas.

But what I would argue makes this collection most different from many other superhero prose story anthologies (at least those I’ve read) — is that the stories are meant to be superhero stories; mystery-detective tales, action-adventure romps (while also touching on character and social issues). They’re trying to capture in prose what you’d expect to read in a comic book or see on the big screen. As part of the “game” of imagining a comic book line, I wanted the stories to feel like they really were individual adventures in a much vaster canon of stories.

A lot of prose superhero collections often eschew that, preferring to be ironic, or deconstructivist. Which is fine — there have been some great stories like that. But I’m also not sure why there’s a type of superhero story you expect to see in a comic/TV show/movie — and a different type in prose. I’ve read more than one superhero prose anthology and just longed for a few stories in it in which a hero solving a crime, or saving the day, actually was central to the plot.

After all, the impetus for this book was to make the case for a Canadian superhero universe, to argue that there could have been a major comic book company churning out just these sort of adventures for decades. That doesn’t mean some of the stories aren’t introspective or ironic or deconstructivist — or tongue-in-cheek. Some are! But equally they are meant to be read and enjoyed as exciting thrillers and pulpy adventures — set against an unaplogetically Canadian backdrop.

I enjoyed writing it. Hopefully you’ll give it a try and enjoy reading it.

Over the next few days and weeks I’ll blog more about it. I’m thinking maybe I’ll even post pieces exploring a few individual stories in the collection — what it’s about, what inspired the tale, what I hoped to accomplish with it. Now, admittedly, this can be problematic — an author waxing on about his/her creative process can maybe turn off readers, undercut the fun of the reader trying to work out the themes for themselves, or simply make the author seem like an ass. But, equally, I’m trying to promote the book and encourage people to buy it, and the best way to do that is to post about it. My hope is that over the ensuing weeks (or months) others will buy it and be inspired to write about it (for good or ill) but for now — if I don’t blog about it, no one else will. Besides, by focusing on individual tales and characters within the collection, maybe it’ll intrigue you in a way that the less specific description of the overall collection won’t…

So check back here from time to time, won’t ya? (Or better yet — just buy the darn book and form your own opinion and write or blog about it — for good or ill).

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on A Canadian Superhero Universe…in Prose

I Published a Book — Here’s Why…

Okay — so I wrote a book. And published it. Well…self-published.

Now before we get too far, let me just add that I’ve had short stories (mostly SF and fantasy) published in various magazines, webzines, and book anthologies. Stories accepted for publication by real editors who paid me real money to publish my writing and which, on occasion, received nice notices from real readers. Whether I’m an “okay” writer, a “good” writer, or even — if less likely — a “great” writer, the reason I decided to embark on this self-publishing venture was simply because I was following a muse and had an idea for a book that I suspected would be a tough sell to an editor.

So today I’m gonna talk about the what n’ why (and hopefully it’ll be a little bit interesting and not overly navel gazing — stress on “not overly” as, let’s face it, there’ll be some navel gazing).

The book is called Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History and it’s a collection of adventure and mystery stories spanning most of a Century (hence: “history”) involving…superheroes. And it’s set in Canada, naturally — simply because where else would I set it? I had a lot of fun working on it over the last year or more — the most fun I’ve had in years, frankly — but it was also challenging in a lot of ways. That’s because I was, to use an analogy of which I’m fond, spinning a lot of plates at once; the whole book, and many of the individual stories, operating on multiple levels.

Now I’m old enough to remember when self-publishing — or “vanity press” as it used to be called — was the ultimate “no no.” Of course even then there were exceptions; mavericks who would self-publish and catch the eye of a legitimate publisher and land a book deal. Plus there was always the irony that in book publishing, to self-publish was seen as a creative failure, whereas in the comic book world, to self-publish was seen as the mark of the true artiste, not beholden to the corporate giants (part of that may have been because there were far fewer comic book publishers, so the business was more obviously controlled by a very small elite publishing a very limited type of stories).

Anyway — that’s changed a lot. Self-publishing is now quite common, in some cases almost seen as simply a dry run for a work before it gets picked up by a major publisher (Terry Fallis’ “The Best Laid Plans” was self-published — and subsequently was picked up a major publisher, won awards, and was even turned into a TV series). Gary Pearson, a successful TV writer, elected to self-publish his comic novels I suspect because, even with his resume, he was having trouble breaking into the prose field.

In some cases self-publishing might be the recourse of last resort for works that aren’t very good and have been turned down by every real publisher.

But, equally, a writer might have written a perfectly good, perfectly enjoyable work — that just didn’t stand out from the hundred other manuscripts an editor had to sift through that month. There are a lot of fantasy quest sagas and military SF series being self-published — genres already heavily represented in the mainstream publishing world.

Or maybe a writer just couldn’t get his/her foot in the door, flummoxed by the arcane rituals and obstacles (sometimes deliberately) put up to weed out would-be writers. They couldn’t find an appropriate publisher. They couldn’t locate the name of a good agent (I knew a writer who spent literally years just trying to land an agent!) Or the publisher for which they’d spent weeks prepping their pitch suddenly announces it’s closed to submissions for the next year while the editors sort through the accumulated slush pile. Perhaps they just didn’t have the patience of Job that’s sometimes needed, even if you have a good book (I believe Frank Herbert’s “Dune” — a classic work of SF — was supposed to have been rejected by over two dozen publishers; that’s a lot of perseverance on Herbert’s part, especially if you assume the turnaround at each publisher was a few months!) And so on.

Maybe the writer has a thing about “vision” and even if they could get their work accepted, didn’t want to compromise aspects they suspected an editor — with an eye on “marketability” — would demand they alter or remove.

And maybe…they just wanted to write something a little quirky, that they hoped would find a small, niche readership, but they suspected a lot publishers (with their eye on the commercial potential) wouldn’t want to roll on.

In my case it was a few of those things.

Since I was writing about Canadian superheroes, I set my sights on Canadian publishers (I think the book is perfectly accessible whether you’re Canadian, American, Japanese, etc. — but I just didn’t think an American publisher would be especially intrigued by a pitch that went: “A collection of Canadian superhero tales — cool, huh?”) Yet the Canadian publishing field is limited and I was having trouble finding any likely target, what with reading windows that might be months away, guidelines that didn’t seem especially encouraging toward the subject matter I was working on and, perhaps even more insurmountably, guidelines stating they weren’t interested in short story collections — period.

So in my case, this is not a book that was rejected by every editor of discerning taste — I was pretty much stymied trying to even find someone to look at it!

But the thing is — I liked my idea. I became excited about the possibilities, the concept. And it was me trying to make the case I’ve been making for years as a blogger — that you can use Canada to tell populist stories!

And, in short, I wanted to write a book that, I suspect, I would have loved to have read!

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I think this is an unusual book. Remember how I earlier mentioned that a lot of self-publishing can involve people simply writing in established genres? Tolkien-esque fantasy, Starship Troopers-esque military SF, Twilight-esque y/a romantic horror, hard-boiled crime dramas, etc. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure those others feel that they are bringing something to their genres, that they have a distinctive voice. But equally I think most of them would agree they are trying to add to an existing genre.

But I genuinely felt that I was trying to do something I had never seen before in print (or anywhere — comics, film, TV, etc.)

And I’ll explain why…next time…

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on I Published a Book — Here’s Why…

What Makes a “Realistic” Superhero Story? – Stan Lee v. Alan Moore (and maybe Zack Snyder’s take on superheroes is truer to the base than critics want to admit — whew, long title!)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I’m kind of on a comic book kick at the moment — partly inspired by my own writing (I have a story in the prose anthology Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe, as well I’m working on another, more audacious project to be unveiled shortly*) and partly just by a lot of the current buzz around superhero themes in pop culture (including the controversy over Batman vs. Superman). So this piece is a bit long and rambling and — at times — a bit contradictory. But, hopefully, if you’re interested in the topic at all, it will offer a few kernels of food-for-thought. So…onward:

(*first, though — that “audacious” project is now available: my months-in-the-works story collection, Masques & Capes — a collection of superhero prose stories; check out the webpage about it here — you might be intrigued).

A theme that can crop up in superhero stories — prose, comics, or film/TV — is the “realistic” superhero story. That is, the story trying to make the characters and the situations more real.

But what is realistic when considered in the context of the blatant unreality of a superhero? After all, even the less sci-fi/fantasy heroes are implausible (in real life Batman would have next to no impact on street crime and would probably be dead — or crippled, or in jail — within a week).

It sort of occurs to me that you could define the concept by two templates.

One is: what if superheroes were real people?

Two is: what if real people were superheroes?

The distinction, I would argue, is more than semantical. For the former we could point to the 1960s work of Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee — co-creator of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and zillions of others. For the latter, we could reference Alan Moore, co-creator of the seminal Watchmen.

The distinction between the two approaches I would argue is this:

What if superheroes were real people starts from the conceit that superheroes, as we know them, exist, and so it simply seeks to flesh them out — embellishing upon their motives, giving them feet of clay and neuroses, fleshing out the normal aspects of their lives (work, school, relationships). But it accepts the convention that there are these fundamentally decent people who have wacky powers and dress in bizarre costumes to fight crimes. It simply seeks to give them more foundation and depth. It tries to take the superhero fantasy and lend it an aspect of reality (and soap opera).

Whereas what if real people were superheroes starts from a more negative, cynical space. It says human beings are fundamentally flawed, even ugly, creatures and, therefore, if they had powers and adopted costumes, these would simply exacerbate these flaws. It essentially asks us: if your neighbour/boss/in-law/kid-you-went-to-school-with developed super powers — would you really think they would instantly become a moral paragon of goodness? (I suppose a sidebar to this is characters who are physically ineffective and so the story isn’t so much questioning the character’s ethics, as his efficaciousness, like my point about “if Batman existed”). It takes the real world and tries to graft on superhero themes and tropes.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and both can — and have — led to great stories over the years (in comics, film, etc.) But I do think there has been too much intellectual weight and legitimacy given to the latter approach — the cynical, what if real people were superheroes idea. Because, ironically, it tends to give too much weight and gravitas to the fantasy aspects. Far from being “more” realistic, it tends to over-emphasize the fantasy by turning superheroes into a kind of world building fantasy exercise where fantasy issues and abstract dilemmas overwhelm real concerns.

As an example, when Stan Lee (and co) started to revolutionize comics with Spider-Man, it was by emphasizing and developing the mundane reality around the super heroics. I’d make the argument that Spider-Man was the first comic in which there was an actual supporting cast of friends and family and co-workers (earlier comics had supporting characters — but they were largely utilitarian, servicing aspects of the action/adventure plot: police commissioners who could provide the hero with clues; girlfriends who could be rescued or from whom they need to hide their identities, etc.) But Peter Parker and his life was as important to the comics as Spider-Man was. And Peter was a noble, heroic guy — but he had feet of clay. He could lose his temper, be rude or snarky, was certainly mercenary (he made a living selling photos of Spider-Man). People who know Spider-Man only through Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield are only seeing shallow versions of the complex character in the (better issues of the) comics. And when he grappled with dilemmas — his aunt’s health problems, paying bills, or brooding over issues like the Vietnam War or campus unrest — these were issues that were not reliant upon the hero having super powers.

Whereas in Alan Moore’s “realistic” The Watchmen — the story and themes are almost entirely focused on being superheroes, despite the fact that superheroes don’t actually exist and, in all probability, never will. One of the problems I had with The Watchmen was there was very little in the way of a reality to surround and buffer the fantasy. The superheroes (or mostly ex-heroes) didn’t really seem to have friends, or jobs, and they spent most of their time brooding and reflecting upon what it meant to be a superhero. And Moore’s tendency to want to play up the darker, cynical side of “real people being superheroes” instead of presenting complex, well-rounded characters, tended to reduce them to being the sum of their neuroses, hang ups and perversions. As much caricatures as the archetypes Moore was trying to deconstruct. (One could even extend this to other themes in The Watchmen — namely the Cold War and nuclear war, which was definitely a “real world” issue…but even then, Moore tackles it in, arguably, a fantasy way with the climax drawing upon a fictional archetype, namely an old “Outer Limits” episode).

You could argue Moore’s approach was that of a man who grew up with superheroes, became jaded, but had so imbibed that world he still wanted to explore its seamy, “realistic” underside but now from an adult perspective (you could liken it, in a slightly facetious way, to people drawing erotic/porn using Disney characters — trying to hold onto their childhood icons while redefining them for their adult impulses). Whereas you could argue that Stan Lee’s approach was that of a man who knew superheroes didn’t exist, so he wanted to use superheroes as a way of exploring the real world.

Both styles had enormous influence on the next few generations.

Lee’s “what if superheroes were real people” became the new template — perhaps first picked up by Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol (criminally neglected for many years) but became more of the norm for everyone. Consider the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern (teamed with Green Arrow) in which the fantasy heroes were sent off on an array of adventures exploring real world issues of poverty, racism, environmentalism, etc. — sometimes as allegories, sometimes literally. And superheroes were generally presented as the basically decent heroes people thought of them as being — even as their real lives could be complicated and messy, dealing with work conflicts, romantic tribulations, and even alcoholism! Superman — often cited as an example of the most unrealistically Pollyanna of heroes — in the hands of writers like Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin, Gerry Conway and others remained a noble, squeaky clean paragon…but was fleshed out with undercurrents of melancholia (a twice-orphaned Kryptonian marooned on earth who had erected an entire secret hideout as a shrine to his lost homeworld) and wasn’t above getting embroiled in childish wars of pranks with his obnoxious co-worker, Steve Lombard.

But the “what if real people were superheroes” idea, ironically, led to the genre moving further away from the realism it purported to represent. Instead of superhero stories being used as a metaphor for real world issues, and the super heroes as substitutes for average Joes (like the readers) grappling with relatable dilemmas, there seemed more emphasis on superhero stories as stories about…superheroes. I suspect it’s more than a coincidence that the post-Watchmen era also coincided with the rise of the crossover epic trend — where Marvel and DC would unleash epic sagas involving the destruction of the multiverse, clones, or Hell erupting onto the streets of New York. The “smart” deconstructionist writers would deal seriously with the repercussions of Thor and the Hulk knocking buildings over in downtown New York, wagging their fingers at the readers and reminding them that if — IF — super powered beings like those existed, there would be collateral damage and, gosh darn it, that’s something we have to deal with! And stories where once superheroes served as a metaphor for real issues seemed to tilt over into stories where the real issues became metaphors for superheroes. I remember an X-Men prose novel (I think one of the Mutant Empire trilogy by Christopher Golden) where a character angrily laments that although politicians are willing to address issues of racial and sexual discrimination, they ignore anti-mutant prejudice! But surely anti-mutant prejudice is supposed to be a metaphor for real prejudice — not used to dismiss concerns over real prejudice.

And all the while the writers and their fans insisted these new versions were more sophisticated, more intelligent than earlier ones. In the TPB Supergirl: Many Happy Returns the theme is to contrast the supposed childishness of the classic Supergirl with the more sophisticated then-current Supergirl — whose stories involved Chaos Streams and otherworldly demons and, and…other weird stuff. While the revived Animal Man was given a real world political subtext involving animal rights — but fans and critics seemed far more impressed by the fantasy conceit of Animal Man discovering he’s a comic book character!

Now, obviously — the argument can be made these are still allegories and metaphors. When Marvel did its Inferno crossover saga in the late 1980s — where Hell literally erupts on earth — then-Daredevil writer, Ann Nocenti, used it as kind of the culmination of a theme she had been developing about the decay and corruption that already existed in New York.

And Marvel’s Civil War was supposed to be an allegory for the post 9/11 debates about civil liberties vs. security. But viewing it from a distance (as I haven’t read it — though I’ve read comics surrounding and referencing it) I would argue that, as an allegory, it was getting pretty far afield from the actual issues (if only because it was too specific to matters involving superheroes).

When I first read Mark Waid & Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (set in a future where various established heroes, like Superman and Batman, find themselves ideologically opposed to each other) I really liked it — not the least for Ross’ photorealistic art. But, I’ll admit, after subsequent readings I find it falls into that trap of being pumped up on its own self-importance, as if it’s a philosophical tome for the ages — when it’s almost entirely a story about superheroes arguing about being superheroes. Kingdom Come is, in a sense, about the demigod-like superheroes realizing they have to learn to empathize with us normal human beings — lesser beings, we can infer.

The earlier generation of heroes (as exemplified by Lee) didn’t need to learn that because we understood that, fundamentally, they still were human beings. The super powers were just there to make the stories more fun.

Arguably a distinction between Mark Gruenwald’s seminal Squadron Supreme epic (also about heroes vs. heroes in an ideological battle) when contrasted with Kingdom Come is that Gruenwald’s story is still rooted in that earlier Stan Lee approach of rooting the characters in a kind of relatable humanity.

And maybe the fundamental difference between Stan Lee’s approach and Alan Moore’s approach (and the legions of writers each man inspired) is that Lee wanted us to relate to and empathize with the heroes. Peter Parker was us — albeit us with super powers and a sassy mouth. But Moore saw the heroes as something other — whether to be admired, despised, or deconstructed, they were characters we observed and analyzed from a distance. (To cite a passage from Moore’s 1980s Miracleman/Marvelman run: “They are Titans. And we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls.” and “(we will) never know their pain. Their love. Their almost sexual hatred…”) And so, for instance, in Kurt Busiek’s Marvels (also illustrated by Alex Ross) the story is told entirely from the pont of view of an everyman observing the superheroic icons at a distance. While Busiek’s subsequent run writing The Avengers seemed to involve an inordinate amount of scenes of characters reflecting on how cool the Avengers are!

Now the funny thing is it might seem like I’ve wandered a bit — since I’m now conflating Alan Moore’s cynical deconstructionist “realism” with Kurt Busiek’s fannish idolatry (though Moore explored that side too with his “homage” comics like Tom Strong). And I probably have wandered, since I’m just writing this stream-of-consciousness style, and seeing where it takes me. But in a way, it’s because I think they both have their roots in a similar source — embracing the tropes and archetypes of the superhero genre almost too literally, rather than seeing superheroes as another way of simply telling a story about people.

It makes me wonder if all the controversy over filmmaker Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is misdirected. Critics — including long time comics fans — complain Snyder has fundamentally misread and misunderstood comic book heroes. But has he? Or is decrying Snyder (who, after all, is apparently a long time comics fan, even having adapted Moore’s The Watchmen to the big screen) tantamount to people complaining Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party…as opposed to recognizing that Trump is simply the ultimate realization of the last few years of right wing reactionaryism and propaganda: the Damian Devil-child incubated by the American right?

Because although people complain about Snyder’s approach to the heroes, and his cavalier attitude towards violence and brutality (and I should quickly mention I haven’t seen BvS:DoJ — but I have seen other Snyder films, including Man of Steel, and read reviews of BvS, both pro and con) isn’t the real issue that his approach isn’t about empathizing with the characters’ fundamental, universal humanity? Snyder’s films are about iconic demigods and explore the ramifications of such beings knocking over buildings in the downtown core. When people complain there is no humour in Snyder’s films (as there is in Marvel films), I would argue they don’t mean they simply want gags and one-liners — what they mean is they want some relaxed, human interaction (I can’t recall much dialogue from Snyder’s The Man of Steel — most of the lines/scenes seemed structured for their iconic posturing, rather than as simply exchanges between relateable human beings).

One could make a slightly tongue-in-cheek comparison between Trump and Snyder, with both men facing criticism from intellectuals about the underlining dark, fascistic message they promote, while their sometimes reactionary fans (paranoid Snyder fans accusing negative reviewers of being in the pocket of DC rival, Marvel Comics) see them as offering a vision missing from modern politics — and superhero movies.

But, as I say: Snyder’s approach isn’t really that out-of-step with the “great” comic book writers of the last couple of decades. Nor even the way some other cinematic versions have approached them.

Consider TV’s critically acclaimed Daredevil: in the second season of which much of it was wrapped around serious, adult discussions between two implausible vigilantes about the limits of vigilantism — and the rest of the season involved a lot of ninjas and how his ex-girlfriend was some dark being of prophecy.

But on the other spectrum, there was TV’s Jessica Jones, where a story about a villain with mind control powers was quite effectively a metaphor for sexual harassment and stalkers, and where the human emotions (though reacting to larger-than-life dilemmas) were clear, relatable human emotions.

As a kid, I remembered reading Superman comics (I’m talking Bronze Age/pre-Crisis) and assuming that, in amid the blatant escapism and fantasy, I was supposed to relate to and like Superman. But in later post-Crisis stories, I felt uncomfortable because it seemed more like I was being asked, not to like Superman, but to worship him. Other characters would constantly talk about how great he was, how inspiring, how noble, and how they were almost privileged to be in his presence. Off hand I don’t really recall a lot of scenes like that in the comics when I was a kid. Yes, it was all there, subtextually — we understood that Supes was a great guy — but without the deification (heck, sometimes other heroes used to chide Superman for his “establishment twang”). Likewise, even Batman these days is presented as intimidating and striking awe even in his fellow JLA members — as opposed to a guy in a bat-suit who probably keeps his low-fat lunch in the JLA fridge with the label “Batman’s — don’t touch” taped to it.

(Of course there’s another aspect, vis a vis the Superman I grew up with contrasted with the re-booted Superman that established the contemporary template in the mid-1980s. Namely — I’m Canadian. And the Superman I grew up with seemed very much an alien Kryptonian living on earth. But the re-booted Superman was explicitly made to be American, and with subsequent writers (both in the comics and pundits commenting on the comics) making the point that Superman’s innate nobility and greatness stemmed directly from his midwestern American upbringing. So the Superman I grew up with, being alien, I perceived as representing “universal” values — while the re-booted Superman seemed to represent American “exceptionalism.” But, y’know, that’s probably a whole ‘nother essay).

I started out contrasting the “what if superheroes were real people” idea with the “what if real people were superheroes” but, in a way, as my musings have rambled over the last few paragraphs, I suppose you could say we’ve ended up somewhere else (though still related). Of saying when we read superhero stories (or when someone writes a superhero story) do we want to relate to the hero, and identify with him/her (despite the wild powers and garish longjohns) — or do we want to observe them from a distance, either by cynically deconstructing them, or admiring them as almost god-like superior beings?

And which is healthier? I know people who would sneer at the idea of “identifying” with superheroes, seeing in it weird, arrested adolescent power fantasies. But surely we are identifying with the character — the powers and adventures are just the fun sideshow. But the observing from a distance is, in its way, even more problematic, particularly as — as I’ve suggested throughout — it sets up a literal world of “super” beings vs. “normal” beings, where we are constantly expected to identify certain people as innately “better” than others or, in the case of cynical deconstructions, where we readers are supposed to identify as superior to the characters we’re reading about. In other words, does it demand less, rather than more, empathy and humanity from the reader?

I mean, when you look at some of the current crop of superhero movies — especially Batman vs. Superman — but even others, such as the Chris Nolan Batman movies (which were commercial and critical successes) do people empathize with the heroes? Whether you’re a fan or a detractor, do you come away identifying with the heroes and their dilemmas — or are you simply observing them, either from the point of view of worshippers or of iconoclasts? (I’ll be honest, as with Snyder’s Man of Steel, I have a hard time remembering a single line of dialogue — a single “human” scene — Christian Bale had in any of the Batman movies).

So this ended up rambling about, and is obviously prone to the fallacies and simplification that occur any time you try to draw some bigger meaning or theme from something like superheroes which encompass decades of comics, movies, TV shows, and hundreds — even thousands — of creators. I’ve cherry picked examples and probably contradicted myself a few times.

In the past when I’ve written opinion pieces, people who disagree with me then rebut me by saying I’m an “idiot” and I “don’t know” what I’m talking about (even when, as here, I’m citing multiple examples, so clearly I know something) — even as their counter arguments are even more Swiss Cheese-hole-y. But the point I try to stress is I’m not arguing right/wrong — nor am I trying to convince others I’m right. What I’m interested in doing is essentially musing out loud, pointing out perspectives I haven’t necessarily seen expressed too much in other pieces. I’m grappling with ideas, attempting to articulate my view of them, and then tossing them out there. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s 60/40 or 40/60.

I’m mostly just trying to offer up some food for thought.

(Another reminder — well, plug — for my superhero book, Masques & Capes!)

Posted in Comic Books, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on What Makes a “Realistic” Superhero Story? – Stan Lee v. Alan Moore (and maybe Zack Snyder’s take on superheroes is truer to the base than critics want to admit — whew, long title!)

EXCITING FICTION! in Tesseracts Nineteen & Perihelion Magazine!

I tend not to use my blogging and internet “presence” (such as it is) for too much self-promotion — which is kind of stupid since that’s kind of what 80% of it is used for by people! But I’ve just felt self-conscious and preferred to write about things outside myself (reflecting on Canadian film & TV, comic books, etc.) But every now and them I realize I’m shooting myself in the foot (commercially-speaking) and a little narcissism can be healthy.

So today I’m going to draw attention to a couple of stories I’ve recently had published. One is in the latest annual Tesseracts science fiction anthology (Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe) and the other is in the science fiction webzine Perihelion Magazine. Basically I’m hoping to draw any random reader’s attention to them, steering some to Perihelion (where the story can be read for free) or to actually buy a copy of Tesseracts Nineteen. And to provide — for those as are interested in the creative process — a bit of a “writer’s commentary.”

(I’m also adding this extra plug for my story collection, Masques & Capes — a collection of superhero prose stories; check out the webpage about it here — you might be intrigued).

The Perihelion story — published title is “Run Program” — has a bit of a sentimental aspect, because if you check it out you’ll see it’s credited to D.K Latta (which is moi) and Jeffrey Blair Latta. Blair was my brother who passed away a few years ago.

You see, the core idea for the story started with him. He had this idea for an elegant, minimalist little sci-fi nail-biter about a man in some sort of vehicle on a deserted moon who finds himself in trouble when he gets locked out of the vehicle’s control systems and it starts running wild. He had been sort of inspired by the Harlan Ellison story, “Life Hutch,” which was a single character thriller about a lone man trapped in a small room, trying to out-think a murderous robot.

So my brother had mulled this idea over for a number of years, but it had never full come together enough in his head for him to actually start writing it. Finally, at a point when I was doing some more writing than he was, he tossed it to me and suggested I see if I could do anything with it — whether a fresh perspective might find the “in” into the concept.

Because we both shared “pulp” sensibilities, I too found the deliberate minimalism a bit hard to wrestle with (though agreeing that it could make a great story) so when I took a run at it, I juiced it up a bit — still about a character trapped in a runaway vehicle, but embellished with a few other voices, and adding on extra plot complications to raise the stakes and, hopefully, heighten the suspense. I also decided to link it a bit with an older story I had written called “Swam” (which was first published in a magazine called Challenging Destiny and which is re-posted on-line here). “Swarm” was my attempt at an Old School “classic” sci-fi adventure story involving a character wearing a suit that was part environment suit and part body armour designated a Kel 427. I think it was my brother who suggested his idea of a man trapped in a rogue vehicle might link up nicely with the Kel suit idea, so I gave the character in “Run Program” a later generation Kel 600 (but otherwise, it should be mentioned, you don’t need to read one story to understand the other).

Once I was finished, I liked the result. So did my brother.

I then sent it out a couple of times but it was rejected. And then as happens, I got distracted by other things and the story kind of fell to the bottom of my list of things to submit (and the rejections instilling in me a lack of confidence in the story). Some time after that my brother passed away. Then a few months ago I looked the story up again, and decided — darn it! — I still thought it was a good like suspense tale. And so I decided to put it back into play and send it out for consideration again.

And, fortunately, the editor at Perihelion Magazine seemed to agree it was a nice little tale. And even more fortunately, agreed to giving my brother a posthumous credit as co-writer.

See what ya think of it.

As for my Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe story…

Each year there’s often some sort of unifying theme, and as that sub-title implies, this year’s theme was “superhero” stories in prose form.

It’s not exactly a common sub-genre in prose, but arguably appropriate given superheroes have never been more mainstream — not only are comics increasingly edging their way into the mainstream (the Twitter feeds of respected journalist will include analyses of the latest political issues — mixed in with unself-conscious pop references to comics and comments about the latest episode of TV’s The Flash) and superhero movies and TV series have never been bigger, or more respected.

According to an intro to the collection, co-editor Claude Lalumière (who assembled the aggregation with Mark Shainblum) had been pitching this idea to the Tesseracts anthology people for years — and just to prove his interest isn’t just a passing whim, he’d earlier co-edited (with Camille Alexa) another superhero anthology, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013, Tyche Books).

And full disclosure: I have stories in both collections. In Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories my story was “The Secret History of the Intrepids” (which the blogger at They Stand on Guard referred to as his/her favourite story in the collection). My story in Tesseracts Nineteen is called “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” (or “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumor?” as it’s spelled in the published book).

Its evolution is kind of interesting (at least, I think so). I don’t want to give too much away about it, but the core idea was a concept that had been bouncing around in my head for, literally, years, involving a mysterious superhero/crimefighter whose origin is linked to a mishap that involves a mid-20th Century radio actor. The inspiration was the old Shadow radio series, in which an invisible crimefighter defined by his voice seemed a perfect use of the non-visual radio medium. I also have a fondness for the idea of superheroes with finite, even limited abilities — and then seeing how that could be developed into a crimefighting power (from The Flash, whose basic power is just that he moves fast, to even, say, Dazzler!) So I liked the idea of playing with a crimefighter whose ability might seem ineffectual — and then showing how effective it could be, if used right (and yes, I’m being vague — you’ll have to read the story).

If memory serves, I half thought the idea of a radio-actor-turned-crime-fighter might make an interesting pitch to CBC Radio back when they still did radio drama (and don’t get me started on their boneheaded decision to shut down the radio drama department, because I’m trying to keep my commentary PG). My idea — then — was to set it in modern times with a plucky female reporter who discovers an antique radio in a garage sale…

The other idea behind the story was another superhero concept I’d had for years (I’ve read a lot of comics and I do some fiction writing — trust me: I have a lot of ideas for superheroes!). This involved a hero who was a famous radio announcer in his alter ego, so he would whisper while in costume to disguise his voice, leading to him being called The Rumour. I just liked tipping the secret ID thing on its head by imagining a hero who was more likely to be “outted” by his voice than by his face.

So when I decided to try and put my original idea of a radio actor on paper and submit it to Tesseracts, I decided to appropriate the Rumour name from the other, unrelated character (don’t worry — I’ve come up with another name for him!) And I located the story back in the mid-20th Century (because of the radio drama connection) allowing me to pepper in a few cultural references to suggest the period,

I’d recently been trying a slightly different approach to writing — stemming out of my “pulp fiction” inclinations. And that was a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing. Instead of carefully blocking a story out in my head before typing the first word, I was deliberately pushing myself by kind of starting the story before I necessarily had everything nailed down in my head. My theory was the story might be fresher, more unexpected for the reader if even I didn’t know where it was headed! That’s a slight exaggeration, of course: most of the stories I wrote like this did still end up pretty much as I conceived them. But it allowed for a few twists and turns and unexpected characters along the way.

Anyway, so when I sat down to write “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?” I had a basic idea of how it would begin, how it would end, the general thrust and themes of the story…but there were also a lot of vague things in the middle. I started writing it from the POV of a mobster relating how ill-fortune befell him thanks to the title character — largely because it was the easiest “in” into the story.

But a few paragraphs in I felt a bit like a hypocrite. And the reason was because I don’t generally like stories told from the POV of the bad guy! Don’t get me wrong — I’ve read great stories using that approach. And I have written stories like that, including ones I’m proud of. But in general, I regard it as problematic…despite being an enormously popular approach in horror and crime stories; the “scumbag gets his/her comeuppance” theme. It’s easy for the writer to do, and can be fun creating a “voice” for the personality, but the problem is it gives the reader no one to root for or to empathize with. It’s just a few thousand words (or half an hour in a TV or radio anthology) of an unpleasant person having unpleasant things happen to him.

And, as I say: it’s kind of lazy. And yet here I was doing it myself! What’s more, because of where I knew the story would end up, I figured I needed another person narrating the end.

And that’s when inspiration struck!

Why not switch narrators — repeatedly? Why not tell the tale through a variety of narrators?

So start with the mobster, as I was — then switch to another POV, then another.

And suddely the story started to take off in my mind. It would be creatively more fun, since I would have to craft different “voices” for each narrator (no point in switching narrators if everyone talks the same, right?) It also suggested an approach to the plot itself, since to justify switching narrators it made sense that they’d have different pieces of the puzzle to relate (rather than simply having them all be privy to the same information). So the story itself became a little more oblique. The characters only had their pieces of the puzzle, and it was the reader who would see the whole picture as it slowly formed.

And it actually made the name of the character — and the title of the story — far more clever. Since it meant the entire story is being presented as, essentially, a rumour — as different characters pass on bits and pieces of information, some of which even they only heard second hand.

I think the finished story became much more interesting, clever, and fun — both to write and, hopefully, to read — and just because a couple of paragraphs in I realized I didn’t want to write an entire story from the POV of a mobster!

As George Peppard used to say in “The A-Team”: “I love it when a plan comes together!”

Anyway, so that’s more than you probably wanted to know about the creative process behind “Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumor?” (available now in Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe) and “Run Program” (available for free at Perihelion Magazine). Plus…don’t forget “The Secret History of the Intrepids” (in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories).

And just to tease those as might be interested…I’m working on my own, secret project involving superheroes and Canadiana, so check back to this blog from time to time for news!

Posted in Comic Books, Radio and Audio drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on EXCITING FICTION! in Tesseracts Nineteen & Perihelion Magazine!

Post-War Canadian Superheroes Part 2: Meaning & Maple Syrup

(Continuing from my last post…) Because there have been so few Canadian superheroes (of the post-Golden Age) and most exist in their own universe, they seem to shoulder grander cultural responsibilities.

In the original Captain Canuck series (which resulted in 14 issues plus a Summer Special) C.C. was a clean-cut, unimpeachable guy — and though able to scrap with the best of them, equally he was not depicted as some cocky brawler eager for a fight. Which arguably represented a Canadian (stereotyped) ideal: he would do what needed to be done — but no more, and took no visceral (or ego-assuaging) pleasure in it the way American superheroes often enjoy fighting. C.C. was also established (over the issues) as fluently bilingual and “part Indian” (so much so that this ethnicity was supposedly visible to look at him, implying more than simply a distant ancestor). For me, as a white, unilingual Anglophone (and a kind of “Trudeau baby”) this made an impact. While Captain America was a blonde, blue-eyed All-American boy, Canada’s heroic ideal — as represented by Captain Canuck — was mixed race and multilingual. And I think it’s significant that (at least my impression is) not too many people fixated on those attributes the way I did. CC has been revised and reimagined a few times over the years, and the idea that he is bilingual, let alone visibly has First Nation ethnicity, doesn’t seem to get brought up by others.

Northguard, meanwhile, reflected a different aspect of the Canadian character. If CC was the heroic, confident man-of-action, Northguard was self-conscious and insecure, a clumsy every man and an ironic dig at the heroic archetype (even as the comic was essentially straight-faced and serious). The first issue of New Triumph featuring Northguard even quoted from the Margaret Atwood essay called “Survival” — one of the most seminal and, I would argue, perniciously destructive essays ever written about Canadian pop culture. Atwood argued Canadian literature eschews the heroic archetype, which (even if unintentional on Atwood’s part) gave carte blanche to later writers and critics to dismiss heroic fiction — such as comic book superheroes — as intrinsically un-Canadian! Northguard looked a bit geeky and was often getting beaten in fights, only saved by his super power. Northguard’s heroism was internal — his altruistic character — but was constrained by his physicality. Based in Montreal, he was a bilingual Anglophone — though his French was deliberately supposed to be a bit clumsy. Northguard was also Jewish — so, like CC, straying outside the more typical WASP mould of superheroes of that era. Though whether that was meant as a statement about Canadian diversity, or simply writing what you know — I’m guessing probably more the latter (co-creator Mark Shainblum is Jewish and Northguard was even drawn by artist Gabriel Morrissette to look a bit like Shainblum I think).

Now with Alpha Flight things become interesting because it was a team, so allowing for more archetypes (and stereotypes). So the initial team included both French-Canadian siblings, as well as a First Nations sorcerer. First Nations’ characters have always been a more visible presence in Canadian stories than they have been in American stories — indeed, another Alpha Flight member, though ethnically white-looking, was supposed to be an Inuit demi-goddess. Even the fact that one of the white character’s had a Polish surname has always struck me as intriguing, given at the time of the team’s inception there were very few American superheroes with non-Anglo-Saxon surnames. Although perhaps equally telling, this racial and ethnic diversity seemed to stop there. It would be a number of years before the team would include other minority figures (and then I think only briefly), while Canada itself — even big cities like Toronto — tended to be depicted as pretty white. Although, equally, the team at times enjoyed a gender parity that wasn’t as common — though not unheard of — in other superhero teams of the day.

How the characters were depicted was interesting at times. As mentioned (in my last post), one of the Francophones — Northstar — was supposed to be an ex-FLQ terrorist (or at least had ties to terrorists), drawing upon actual Canadian history (he would also turn out to be one of the first — maybe the first — gay superheroes in comics). His sister, Aurora (a.k.a. Jeanne-Marie), suffered from a split personality as a result of being raised in a repressive Catholic convent. This could also be seen as rooting the character in a more distinctly Canadian history, as the Catholic church had a powerful hold over Quebec for many generations. So it’s possible that Jeanne-Marie/Aurora’s background wasn’t simply a plot idea, but meant to arise out of Canadian stereotypes. The other side of her personality was as the over-sexed, libidinous Aurora, which also played into stereotypes — but arguably more French-European stereotypes than French-Canadian ones. A later French-Canadian character, Murmur, was also a stereotyped libidinous flirt! The phonetic way accents were portrayed was also based on European rather than French-Canadian cliches, with “z” substituted for “th” (“zat” for “that”) — I would argue a more authentic evocation of a Québécois accent would be to substitute a “d” or a “t(apostrophe)” for “th” (“dat” or “t’at” for “that”).

But despite this genuine attempt to include Canadian stereotypical minorities — Francophones and Native Indians — Alpha Flight had trouble breaking away from the sense they were tokens. Northstar and Aurora (and Murmur in a later, short-lived iteration of the team) were pretty much the only Francophones on the team (despite the team membership changing over time) nor do I recall many (or any!) ancillary French characters (ie: staff or government bureaucrats associated with Department H). Essentially Alpha Flight’s Canada seemed to be mostly Anglophone with the token Francophones (and, of course, French-Canadians in issues that took place in Quebec). Nor was there much indication the Anglophones spoke French! The French characters spoke English, sometimes with exaggerated accents, but there seemed no expectation the Anglophones should attempt to speak French. Even as a young person I found this implausible.

Yup — in a comic book about superheroes battling robots and supernatural beasts, characters coming back from the dead and undergoing metamorphoses, the thing that struck me as unrealistic was a Federal Government run superhero team in which the team leaders like Guardian and Vindicator weren’t bilingual!

The First Nation characters likewise could seem a bit token. Although the team included two Native characters over its run — Shaman and Talisman — they were family, a father and daughter (not unlike siblings Northstar and Aurora) and I’m not sure there were any other Native characters beside them. And one thing that was conspicuously avoided was much dealing with issues and social problems involving First Nations. Shaman was one of the pillars of the team, but I don’t recall much addressing of the poverty or disenfranchisement Natives often face. Now, on one hand one might argue such serious issues can’t easily be addressed in the gee whiz fantasy of a superhero comic. Equally, maybe the problem was that to acknowledge Native issues in a Canadian context would’ve, by implication, opened the door to similar issues in the U.S. — and maybe Marvel Comics didn’t want to wade into that area.

But what did these characters say about Canadian identity? Values? Aspirations? Captain Canuck, Northguard, and Alpha Flight’s Guardian/Vindicator (he/she/and they) all sported costumes inspired by the maple leaf flag, suggesting they represented more than just a person in long johns.

As mentioned, Captain Canuck squarely belonged to a heroic iconism — he was strong and brave and confident. The Canada in which he existed was set a few years in the future and in it Canada was imagined as a super power — complete with a nuclear weapons arsenal. On one hand it was a vision brimming with confidence and faith in Canada — yet equally you could see it as significant that Canada was slightly reimagined from its more accurate role as a middle “soft” power. Captain Canuck basically took the archetype of America (and other countries) and applied it to Canada (there was little reference to America in the comics, Canada existing for itself, rather than as a junior partner to the USA).

Northguard was more meek and mild mannered. An image that always stayed in my mind from that series was when the hero grabs up a Canadian flag and shouts at it: “Mean something!” (New Triumph featuring Northguard #1) It’s a provocative image — but it never really seems to take us anywhere. Despite Northguard trying to save Canada from an evil American secret organization (explicitly racist and fanatically religious) what Canada was, is, or should be was never fully explored or articulated. Northguard was trying to protect his country — but why was never addressed. Indeed, in another issue (NTfN #4) he’s having a discussion with a Francophone character with separatist leanings (and who becomes another costumed character, Fleur de Lys) and she speaks of the “dream” of Quebec independence — while Northguard, though a federalist, offers sympathetic encouragement (and the scene avoids questioning the roots of any kind of “Nationalist” movement). While in the same issue, Northguard’s American ally, Steel Chameleon, is confronted by a sinister CIA agent who criticizes him for protecting Northguard and his colleagues and says he should “act like an American” — to which Steel Chameleon responds: “I always have.”

So in a way, Shainblum seems more comfortable writing about a separatist’s dream or suggesting Steel Chameleon’s heroism is rooted in his American idealism — but Canadian jingoism is harder for him to articulate (equally one could say it’s there between the lines: Northguard’s acceptance of other views — like Fleur de Lys’ separatism — maybe is his Canadian nature). While in Captain Canuck the patriotism is more overt — but the country needs to be fictionalized and re-imagined first.

In Alpha Flight, the original Vindicator/Guardian shifted personalities from appearance to appearance as they tried to settle on who he was and his function. In his very first appearance, as a “bad guy” battling X-Men (in The Uncanny X-Men #109), he is portrayed as arrogant and belligerent. For his next appearance (Uncanny X-Men #120-121) he has been re-imagined as a good-hearted, self-doubting intellectual. By the time of Alpha Flight’s own comic, he has begun to be portrayed as a generic, square-jawed hero type. (Of course, the original character, Mac, was killed off and his wife, Heather, took over the team — but equally it’s hard to attribute any specific cultural symbolism to her either. And Mac came back to life — more than once — with the two trading back and forth as to who should be identified as the team leader in the minds of fans).

A scene I recall from one of the earliest issues (Alpha Flight #2, first series) is when Mac decides to shuck his previous name of Vindicator for the more up-beat name of Guardian. Now the real point of the scene, I assume, was editorial — they just didn’t like the name Vindicator (though I thought it was cool — certainly cooler than the more generic Guardian). In the scene Shaman advises Vindicator his name is inappropriate.

I remember reading that scene and it giving me pause — and I’m still not sure what was meant. Did he mean vindication as in validation? Vindicator feels insecure and so must prove himself, but Shaman argues Canada doesn’t have the same need. But is that true? Or is national and cultural insecurity a part of our identity, and so a flag-themed vindication might just be what the country needs. More importantly the way I considered it (and re-reading the scene it seems a reasonable interpretation) is to see vindication in the sense of an expurgation of sins. Vindicator is reflecting on how his past mistakes weigh on his conscience and says “It’s a lot for me to have to vindicate.” And Shaman counters: “While you may feel you have much to vindicate, Canada does not.” That bit of patriotic feel good jingoism sounds particularly jarring coming from a First Nations character! Maybe Canada’s flag-themed hero should be Vindicator, a hero aware of the country’s sins and transgressions, and seeking to rise above them and lead the way to a better future.

I’ve never met any of the creators involved in these comics, and only ever traded an e-mail or two with one or the other over the years. So I’m simply going by things they’ve written or said in the public sphere when I try to characterize them. Captain Canuck’s co-creator Richard Comely is of a religious bent and of somewhat conservative politics. While Northguard’s Mark Shainblum is also at least modestly religious but I suspect would self-identify as more of a liberal. Both Captain Canuck #6 and Northguard: The ManDes Conclusion #3 even contain scenes that hint at divine intervention (Which is interesting — assuming I haven’t mischaracterized either man or scene — since such things are rare in American comics, yet overall Canada is seen as a more secular country than, say, the USA).

An ironic footnote to Alpha Flight is the comic was created by writer/artist John Byrne (well, technically he co-created the team with writer Chris Claremont in the X-Men). Though born in England, Byrne was raised somewhat in western Canada and is, I think, the only Canadian writer to ever work on the team. But Byrne is of a more conservative mindset (some of his reactionary comments in later years raising a few eyebrows among fandom) and he emigrated to the U.S. In one letters page of his later comic John Byrne’s Next Men (#7) he advises one fan that the solution to Canadians being ineligible for a contest being run in the comic is to “move to the States. I did.” A facetious quip, one assumes. Although in JBNM #10 he advises another reader to vote out the “bozo” government before Canadians are “taxed and socialized into the poor house” (the government in question was the already right-of-centre Conservatives!) So the only writer on Alpha Flight with bona fide Canadian roots clearly developed mixed feelings about the Great White North. In one early issue (Alpha Flight #1, first series) Vindicator’s wife Heather remarks she hadn’t voted for the centre-left Liberal Party under Pierre Trudeau — and though she might have meant she supported the left-leaning NDP, it seemed more likely we were to infer she voted Conservative.

The non-Canadian writers who mostly chronicled the adventures of Alpha Flight generally demonstrated a genuine enthusiasm for the “exoticness” of their foreign setting — most making the effort to depict Canada as more than just a 51st State (re-reading Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s 2012 Alpha Flight series I realize just how hard they worked to throw in distinct Canadianisms). But I’ll admit that as much as I salute the various writers efforts over the years to replicate terms and drop in cultural allusions, it always tended to feel like, well, Americans writing about a foreign country they didn’t fully understand. And they, too, often seemed unsure of what bigger themes or values the team should represent — if any. So the characters would speak patriotically about protecting their “country” and the importance of “freedom” but it was all very vague and unspecific jingoism. (Although again I come back Pak & Van Lente’s series — which I’m just re-reading — and finding interesting little Canadian nuances. Like a scene where Guardian brushes off a phone call from the prime minister because he’s busy superheroing; would an American hero be as brusque with the American president?).

Actually Alpha Flight’s Canada was sometimes depicted in a sinister light, often with themes of paranoia and a corrupt bureaucracy underlining stories (particularly the late 1990s series). And Canada could often seem less progressive and liberal than the United States. But many pundits would argue Canada has often been more liberal and progressive. Right wing Americans (and right wing Canadians, too) sometimes refer to the country contemptuously as Canuckistan.

(When Marvel did its Civil Wars cross-title storyline, about an American government decree that superheroes register with the government or face jail time, in an off-shoot of Alpha Flight — the mini-series Omega Flight — we are told that Canada has had registration for years. But one could just as easily have imagined a Canada that didn’t have registration and would regard the American initiative as undemocratic).

So that’s my look at some of the seminal works in modern-day Canadian superhero comics. I didn’t really bother trying to tie it all together in a neat conclusion, because, really, that’s for you to decide what it all means — if anything.

Or as Northguard would say: Mean something!

Which is a good lead-in to me plugging my brand new collection of prose superhero stories imagining a decades-spanning CANADIAN superhero universe — Masques & Capes. Check it out — you might like it 🙂

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Post-War Canadian Superheroes Part 1: Supermen & Snowshoes

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since my last post! I don’t know which is more depressing — that it’s been so long, or that after years of writing passionately & provocatively about Canadian film & TV…I’m pretty sure no one noticed I was even gone 🙁 Anyway, this blog was primarily set up to write about Canadian film & TV, but my interests are broader than that and I’m expanding the themes a bit here with some posts about comic books and Canadiana!

I’m in the process of working on a “special” project* of my own, so as part of laying the groundwork for that, I thought I’d post this piece looking at the history (mostly post-war) of Canadian comic book superheroes. Obviously, this is my layman’s analysis, and I haven’t necessarily read every comic in each series…

(*First though: that “special project” is my new story collection, Masques & Capes — a collection of Canadian superhero prose stories; check out the webpage about it here — you might be intrigued).

Canadian comic books (and therefore Canadian superheroes) enjoyed a brief Golden Age in the 1940s. War time import restrictions cut off the popular American comics of the day, creating a vacuum for Canadian publishers to fill.

The common narrative spun is that after the war, when the American comics came flooding back in, the Canadian comics couldn’t compete with the “better” American products and were wiped out like bugs against a car’s windshield. But I’ve heard it was less clear cut than that. That toward the end of the war, some Canadian publishers made deals with American publishers to distribute the American comics because it was cheaper than making their own, netting them bigger profits. So they cancelled many of their original titles (letting go their staff of writers and artists) in favour of these American reproductions. When the borders opened up again and the American publishers no longer needed their Canadian partners — the Canadians no longer had enough original titles to compete. (If that sounds familiar, think of how the Canadian TV networks prefer to mostly show American series — because it’s cheaper and so their profits are greater).

That doesn’t even deal with the fact that even in America comics publishing proved a risky enterprise (in the 1940s there were scores of comic book publishers — by the 1960s only about a half dozen). My point being that the death of the Golden Age of Canadian comics might not simply be because the comics couldn’t compete artistically, but because of problematic business decisions made by the publishers and the volatility of the market itself.

In recent years a few hardcover reprints have been published to try to preserve the old comics for the modern generation, with lavish volumes devoted to Johnny Canuck, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, and Brok Windsor. You could also check out the documentary Lost Heroes.

In the ensuring decades there was little stirring in Canadian comicdom.

That changed in 1975 with Captain Canuck — arguably one of the most successful failures in comicdom, or the most failed success. By that I mean in an empirical sense, the comic wasn’t that successful — yet it remains the touchstone for Canadian (superhero) comics, resulting in innumerable attempts at reboots (and rumours of reboots) over the years (including a current, on-going series).

Captain Canuck was notable precisely because it didn’t just try to play on the same level as the American comics — it tried to do them better. Expensive paper, extra features, and multi-tone colour rather than going the cheap n’ easy route of most indie comics. And what sometimes gets lost in looking at Captain Canuck — and attributing its iconic status to simply the significance of a flag-themed Canadian hero — is the comic was actually pretty good. Oh, it had its teething pains and could be uneven — but so were American comics at the time. One of its strengths was that co-creator and chief writer Richard Comely seemed almost to have less interest in writing a superhero comic than in drawing upon spy and detective story roots, meaning the plotting (and the accompanying scenes) were a little different from a lot of superhero comics — while still being comfortably a part of that genre.

Plus, in that rare synergy of fate (that meant a young man named John Lennon and a young man named Paul McCartney would happen to meet as teens) almost at the beginning Comely (a decent artist) hooked up with Jean-Claude St. Aubin and George Freeman (both exceptional artists). Think of the odds: the second largest country in the world, the population spread from sea to sea to sea, with no recent history of professional comic book publications…and these three guys find each other! The three men were able to swap hats in various disciplines (pencils, inks, colours, letters, writing, editing) pushing the comic onto a whole new artistic level. The thing about Freeman, once he became the chief artist on the comic, wasn’t simply that he was a good artist, but he was a distinctive, stylish artist, lending the series a unique visual identity.

But I don’t want to get too bogged down on one title, but rather to look at overall themes and trends. Around the time of Captain Canuck another indie Canadian comic — Orb Magazine — came along with its own superhero, Northern Light. While American Marvel Comics created their first Canadian superhero in Wolverine, simply to guest star in a couple of Hulk comics. And from little acorns do big trees grow, because Wolverine was quickly made part of a newly revived X-Men comic (mostly because Len Wein, who created Wolverine, was kicking off the “new” X-Men). This led to a later effort to fill in Wolverine’s background with the creation of an entire Canadian superhero team: Alpha Flight! By now (the 1980s) indie comics were become the rage and this led to another Canadian hero — Northguard!

And those remain the three central touchstones when talking about modern Canadian superheroes: Captain Canuck, Alpha Flight and Northguard (who, like Captain Canuck enjoys a notoriety somewhat disproportionate to his actual publication success).

Now what’s interesting is the recurring themes and motifs associated with these characters. Admittedly, Northguard co-creators Shainblum and Morrissette were clearly well familiar with Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight, but it’s unclear how much Captain Canuck might have influenced Alpha Flight’s creation.

But what’s interesting is the tendency with all to shy away from the traditional “lone wolf” vigilante of American comics. Captain Canuck was a government agent — essentially a super Mountie. Alpha Flight worked for the Canadian government. While Northguard operated under the auspices of a corporation. (I believe Northern Light was also associated with an organization). And Northguard — like Captain Canuck — was as much a spy/espionage series as a superhero one.

Now what’s arguably even more intriguing is a tendency toward rooting the stories in the Canadian culture and with a little more political realism and sophistication in all three series. Perhaps the creators felt they were not just telling generic superhero adventures, but had an entire national landscape to draw upon (yes — even the American writers on Alpha Flight). Or maybe it’s an indication that Canadian culture IS its political culture. That given Canada shares so many similarities with the U.S., the place where the distinct identity is more sharply defined is in its politics.

So while American comics often dealt with mad scientists and bank robbers, Captain Canuck faced villains whose plans include stirring up Western alienation while forming a political party (Captain Canuck #6) and Northguard has to prevent the assassination of Quebec Premiere Rene Levesque (New Triumph featuring Northguard #1), and while Captain Canuck battled super-capitalists and communist spies, Northguard tackled racist American evangelical extremists.

Meanwhile in the American-produced Alpha Flight the characters were often butting heads with the political expediency of their government overseers. And team member, Northstar, was explicitly identified as having been formerly associated with the Quebec separatist terrorist group, the FLQ. Were there any 1970s/1980s American superheroes who were identified as being an ex-’60s radical or a member of the Black Panthers? (Admittedly, maybe an American writer can write sympathetically about radicals and extremists in another country, even as they might balk at doing that for stories set in their own country, where the issues are more “real” to them).

So you could argue there was a recurring theme of a slightly more grounded, politically realistic approach to these Canadian superheroes than in contemporaneous American comics.

Equally a lot of these series — notably Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight — attempted to represent the entire Canadian landscape. Again, presumably because the country was a largely unexplored terrain for superhero stories. Instead of setting the stories in a single city — real or fictitious — the adventure crisscrossed the entire county, from coast to coast to coast, sometimes drawing upon aspects of Canadian history and mythology. In Captain Canuck he fell through time in one story and ended up caught between Mi’kmaq and Vikings (archaeologists have found evidence of Vikings in East Coast Canada) while in Alpha Flight one story involved a supernatural evil connected back to the lost Franklin expedition. (Give the American writers of Alpha Flight their due — however imperfectly they represented the country, they made a real effort).

What is also interesting is to ponder how these fictional characters reflect the national identity. After all, superheroes sometimes assume a kind of iconic status, representing ideas (and ideals) beyond simply just an individual in a costume. Take Captain America, for instance. While Superman is sometimes said to fight for “the American Way!” (the origin of that phrase has been unclear to me — listening to 1950s radio episodes of Superman, the tag line was often Superman fights for “truth and justice” with NO reference to this so-called American Way).

To Be Continued…

(And another reminder/plug about my book, Masques & Capes).

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Another Great Canadian Babes List (2014)

And now we return to that frivolous but oh-so culturally imperative theme — Hot Canadian Babes!

About two years ago I posted a list of 33 Hottest Canadian Babes (specifically actresses rather than models or other celebrities). Part of the impetus was my feeling (rightly or wrongly) that often such “Canadian” lists could seem a bit skewed only to actresses with a big Hollywood profile, presumably because those were the roles with which the judges were familiar. In other words, they often seemed like lists of the Most Beautiful Canadians…Who Work in Hollywood. Whereas I wanted to use a more level playing field as someone who watches both American productions and Canadian ones, giving just as much weight to an actress who’s rarely set foot out of Canada as to a Hollywood starlet. And really, my point is just to get people thinking (since any two people will come up with different lists and often all it might take is one good role to change your perception of a performer).

Anyway, so I thought maybe I’d return to the topic (not the least because according to my tracker, the old pages still get regular visitors). But two years isn’t necessarily a lot of time for the old list to become invalid or entirely new faces to emerge, so maybe think of this as an addendum to the old list (in other words, I’m deliberately not including people from the 2012 list — you can still check them out here).

So, the criteria: this is about physical attractiveness, but a factor in that is inevitably talent and/or that ineffable thing called charisma. As I said last time, it’s about whether you’d like to see ’em in a scene, and not just walking down a red carpet.

Oh, and just as a follow up to my previous list, and a few actresses who might have landed a few noteworthy roles since then: Kandyse McClure arguably had one of her best, more emotionally complex roles in the first season of Hemlock Grove — though it is a horror series, so be warned (she comes to a grisly end). I mentioned I hadn’t seen Jessica Parker Kennedy in too much, but since then I’ve seen her in a few things, and have been impressed with her range (light comedy to drama). She is a regular in the U.S. R-rated cable series, Black Sails — though her character was poorly treated for some of it (can’t say I liked those scenes much). Finally, I had included singer Fefe Dobson last time as a kind of wild card, before seeing her in the movie Home Again — well, she was perfectly good in that (even receiving an acting nomination I believe).

Now, on with the list (in no particular order) — drum roll, please…

Kristin Lehman

Kristin Lehman – I remember first noticing Lehman in a short-lived U.S. series called Strange World and with her slightly exotic looks she always makes an impression. As the star of the current crime-drama Motive she also nicely shows she can hold centre stage.


Laurence Leboeuf

Laurence Leboeuf – a leading actress for awhile, even as a teenager, Leboeuf has always been a classically pretty girl, but recently she seems to be putting enough years behind her that she’s seeming like a beautiful woman in series like 19-2.


Jessalyn Gilsig

Jessalyn Gilsig – It’s maybe easy to forget to think of Gilsig as beautiful because, y’know, a lot of her characters can be off-putting. Sure, she was a squeaky clean school teacher in Boston Public, but she was also a foul-mouthed woman-from-his-past in Nip/Tuck, the somewhat unstable Mrs. Shuster in Glee, and currently can be seen as a Viking maiden prepared to deal with whatever (figurative) Devil can advance her cause.


Genelle Williams

Genelle Williams – Williams is an example of how one role can re-position a performer in your eyes. After catching her as the willful janitress in the medical drama Remedy suddenly even in things where she has a relatively thankless, undeveloped role (such as Bitten) she holds my attention.


Cherie Maracle

Cherie Maracle – an actress (and singer) who I remember first noticing in the sitcom Blackfly and recently re-caught my attention again on the opposite Thespianic extreme in the gritty soap/drama Blackstone, playing a character who is, as they say, a piece of work — but give Blackstone its due, characters are rarely one-dimensional. I tend to think of Maracle as having a bit of Carrie-Anne Moss thing going for her.


Patricia McKenzie

Patricia McKenzie – McKenzie has an alluring presence but also a kind of innate likeability in a lot of her roles.


Supinder Wraich

Supinder Wraich – I haven’t seen Wraich in too much. She stars in the conspiracy-thriller webseries Guidestones and I’ll admit, I’m not really a fan of the series — but Wraich’s presence makes it a bit easier to sit through. But only time (and future roles) will tell how good she is.


Evelyne Brochu

Evelyne Brochu – Brochu has being amassing a string of “serious” films on her CV such as Inch’Allah and Cafe Flore but
probably her most mainstream exposure (particularly for an Anglophone audience) is in the cult sci-fi series, Orphan Black, where she played the girlfriend of one of the clones (trust me, that sentence makes sense).


Yanna McIntosh

Yanna McIntosh – More known as a well-regarded stage actress, McIntosh’s film and TV work too often tends to be in small and supporting parts, but can often leave you thinking you’d like to see what she’d do with something more substantial.


Emilie Ullerup

Emilie Ullerup – Ullerup has played a variety of roles from butt-kickers to more demure characters, and often seems to shine as characters trying to keep on top of situations that are getting away from her — whether as a Swedish junior pilot not always sure what’s going on in Arctic Air or as a zombie hunter saddled with an unstable partner in A Little Bit Zombie.


Francoise Yip

Francoise Yip – Yip also amassed some Hong Kong action film roles, as well as her North American roles, though to date has only had a few North American leading parts, such as the indie film Motherland.


Jessica Lucas

Jessica Lucas – another example of an actress who has been classically pretty for a while, but in a kind of teen sort of way. But while watching the recent movie, Pompeii, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking I might’ve enjoyed the movie more if Lucas had played the heroine, as opposed to the heroine’s hand-maiden — which has got to be a good sign.


Camille Sullivan

Camille Sullivan – I sometimes think that part of Sullivan’s allure is that she often plays attractive women who aren’t trying to be attractive (if that makes sense).


Jadyne Wong

Jadyne Wong – a kind of impulsive addition to this list, as I haven’t seen Wong in much — but, hey, that can be the point, too. She seems to have slight bent toward comedy (in the sitcom Spun Out she actually got me to chuckle once or twice — and given I don’t much care for Spun Out, that’s saying something). She has a husky voice that sounds like she should be dubbing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — and I mean that as a compliment! Giving a quirky individualism to a pretty face.

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The Wrong About “The Right Kind of Wrong”

(And no — I don’t know why there are no paragraph breaks! Technology sucks!)
Canadian film seems to go through phases. Much to my surprise there’s been a recent spat of something that used to be a fairly rare beast — mainstream movies! Movies that might draw upon a few Hollywood/international actors, but are more willing to admit they are Canadian.

Among the best of the recent batch is the witty caper movie, The Art of the Steal, with Kurt Russell, Kenneth Welsh, Jay Baruchel, Kevin Dillon, Terence Stamp and others
But as much as it’s important to promote and celebrate the good efforts — when it comes to writing essays, there’s more grist in looking at those that didn’t quite win the cigar. Among that latter category is the romantic comedy, the unfortunately named The Right Kind of Wrong.
Movie reviews are, by necessity, pretty perfunctory things. A reviewer offers an opinion in a few hundred words. But I sometimes like to dig deeper. In a sense to apply a bit of the workshopping and critical assessment to the final film that should’ve been applied before they started shooting.
So I’m going to look at the Right Kind of Wrong and offer more in-depth consideration. Since the movie currently has a 15% critics rating at Rotten Tomatoes (and 43% audience rating) I’m sure even those who put it together are aware it’s worth entertaining some constructive critiques.
The Right Kind of Wrong is a romantic comedy about a blissfully content underachiever, played by Australian actor Ray Kwanten — well, content except his ex-wife (Kristen Hager) left him months ago, and has made him a public laughingstock having penned a hugely popular blog detailing all his faults (called WhyYouSuck). Then one day he spies a woman (Sara Canning) and decides to win her. The fact that he fell for her before they had even exchanged two words is less a complication than the fact that he spies her — at her own wedding!
Now before analyzing/criticizing a movie you have to be careful. You have to respect the story they are trying to tell, and not simply criticize it because you wanted a different story. And TRKOW is based on the novel Sex & Sunsets by Tim Sandlin, which I haven’t read, further restricting how far we can consider changes.
Still, with that acknowledged, let’s dive in.
I suppose maybe the first, basic thing is it’s a “comedy” — and I just didn’t find it that funny. Amiable at times. Maybe a chuckle here and there. But not laff-riot enough that the gags could carry it on their own. In a movie like TRKOW, the jokes have to support — or are supported by — a plot and characters that hold your attention.
I do think the central premise is flawed — a romance based on a guy obsessively pursuing a (married) woman before he’s even spoken to her! As the central driving motivation upon which the entire narrative is built — it’s dubious. (Apparently in the novel the hero was supposed to be a bit, well, crazy — a fact the filmmakers leave out, presumably because it would make it less a mainstream rom-com and more a quirky indie film).
And there’s a fine line between a hero who’s lovably determined — and one who is a creepy stalker, obsessively pursuing a woman who has repeatedly told him to leave her alone!
A big problem with TRKOW is that I didn’t find the characters interesting — or especially likeable. But even I’m not sure if I didn’t find them likeable because they weren’t interesting, or they weren’t interesting because I didn’t find them likeable. But I think part of that relates to the fact that there isn’t really much going on besides the romantic comedy/triangle stuff.
Even romantic comedies often have some secondary plot, one that both can caulk up the windy bits in the script, but also one that helps to define and establish the characters so that we come to like and care about them. In the case of TRKOW we’re expected to be wholly committed to their romantic futures in the first five minutes — this is particularly problematic with Canning’s character since even the hero doesn’t really know anything about her at first!
In TRKOW pretty much every scene relates to the characters/romance.
Now obviously either extreme can be bad. I’ve seen movies where the problem is the plot is too unfocused. “Romantic comedies” where so little attention is paid to the romance it barely registers!
There’s also an inherent shallow superficiality to the characters and, by extension, the movie. A fact made doubly awkward given the movie hammers away at themes about integrity and principle as though it thinks it has some deep meaning. The hero is content with his life as a dishwasher — he has no aspirations, and though he has friends, he doesn’t really contribute anything. While Canning’s character is supposed to do feistily rebellious things like steal newspapers to protest “the man” or lead a local tour of quirky spots around town (including giving the finger to developers). Actually that latter aspect hints at some potential — but never really delivers. Ultimately her acts of defiance seem more about making her feel good about herself than contributing to social change.
Toward the end, Canning discovers her husband has threatened an innocent family with deportation to get his way. She’s upset — but then her dialogue veers into some odd speech about easy vs difficult actions, as if she’s angry because her husband’s actions reflect laziness. When surely the issue was, um, he was threatening to deport innocent people just to get his way!!!
And while focusing on the main characters, and being uninteresting and/or unlikeable, part of the problem I think relates to the unwillingness to rock the boat of narrative cliches.
And this all ties into the War on Intelligence!
The hero is supposed to a lovable good ol’ boy. Yet he’s also supposed to have written a (failed) novel and his best friend runs a small publishing house and whose wife is a painter. So wouldn’t that suggest a certain type of person? A — dare I say it? — an intellectual?
This is something I’ve noticed in other movies — movies where they want to make the hero a writer, or professor, or artist, or something…but then balk at actually depicting him as having any characteristics that might make him seem too intellectual to their target audience. I’m not sure we see the hero even reading a book in the movie, let alone believe he could — or would — write one. Writers like ideas. They like words. They like language. It should be reflected in the character.
Another problem is Canning’s character’s husband and his friends. They are appalling. And I think that’s a problem on a few levels. One, it’s always a bit of a problem in a story if you have to rely on one-dimensional characters to keep the story floating, and maybe relates to my point about superficiality. Two, does it really work in a “comedy” to have characters who are so reprehensible? Thirdly, surely in a romantic triangle you want to make the rival agreeable so we can at least wonder who will end up with whom (I had the same complaint about My Awkward Sexual Adventure). As well, since the heroine fell in love with the other guy first — it reflects on her. (In TV’s Smallville, Lana Lang’s relation with the borderline psycho Whitney really didn’t speak too well of her character).
And perhaps a good illustration of this integral shallowness is a sequence involving a hang glider.
The hero is agoraphobic, something his ex-wife detailed in her blog for all to know. Convinced that if he can just prove one of the aspersions cast upon him to be false, he will win Canning’s heart, he sets out to overcome his fear of heights by taking up hang gliding.
Now, to be fair, this leads to what was probably seen as the movie’s signature slapstick scene — so I understand to the filmmakers it was important.
But here’s my problem: the whole point of the blog is that the ex-wife isn’t really wrong — her catalogue of his failings and foibles is pretty much right on the money. But in order to prove himself to his true love, instead of our hero vowing to change any of his actual bad habits — he focuses on overcoming the inconsequential and non-character defining agoraphobia.
He focus on a superficial obstacle that just reinforces the superficiality of the characters.
And I guess while I’m dwelling on the hang glider scene: earlier in the film the hero is beaten up by a gang of kids (putting aside whether that’s funny in the context), this then leads to the some other characters trying to scare the leader of the kid gang by warning him the hero is a dangerous drug dealer (which leads to other complications). Yet then it’s that same kid who mischievously hits the hero with a slingshot during the hang glider scene. But if he was worried the hero was a dangerous criminal — would he be firing slingshots at him? It’s a minor point — nitpicking, even. But it’s from such little (in)consistencies that the bigger story starts to fray. And the fact that it bothered me probably is indicative I was no longer willing — or able — to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride.
I could go on.
Kwanten is personable enough, but Canning I didn’t find was able to rise above her role to make me care about her character, or to hope the hero ended up with her. (And speaking as a guy — if I’m not interested in the female love interest, surely that’s a flaw in a romance!) If only because I watch the Canadian-version of Being Human, I was disappointed Kristen Hager didn’t have more to do. Will Sasso and Catherine O’Hara make decent impressions in supporting parts, though the scene stealers are two precocious kids played by Mateen Devji and Maya Samy.
Ultimately, for a motion picture, TRKOW comes across like a lot of those terribly mild Lifetime Channel/Hallmark Channel rom-coms that Canadians churn out fairly regularly — albeit with slightly more money, but maybe less charm.
Now, obviously, no one — the filmmakers included — should take my post as anything more than the observation of one viewer, who saw the film once (and might well reassess it if I saw it a second time).
However, I don’t think The Right Kind of Wrong has done well, commercially or critically, so the filmmakers might do well to consider some of the criticism, to see what — if any — of the comments resonate with them and can be factored into their next project.

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