I write a lot about Canadian film and TV. But my interest is in Canadian culture and identity in ALL popular entertainment.
Which brings us to the wacky world of four-colour fun -- the comic book!
I've only gradually become aware of how much is happening within the world of Canadian super heroes recently. No seismic shifts, perhaps, but some intriguing tremors are shaking The Land God Gave to Cain.
Canada has never had a robust tradition of mainstream comics. Yet you can't really blame that on a lack of readers. Nor on a lack of talent -- from Hal (Prince Valiant) Foster to Joe (Superman) Shuster all the way to today, there have been successful "American" comics pros who actually hail from Canada.
A quick re-cap ("for those who came in late"): Canada had a comic book Golden Age in the 1940s, with characters like Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights still referenced to this day. The 1970s and 1980s say sporadic attempts to mount relatively mainstream super hero comics, but with little commercial success, though characters like Northguard and, especially, Captain Canuck continue to enjoy some pop cultural recognition.
Ironically the most successful "Canadian" comic -- was American! Alpha Flight spun out of the mega-successful X-Men franchise and with 130 issues in its original run, plus subsequent revivals and guest spots, it pokes a hole in the claim that Canada can't be used for fantasy/adventure stories and can't sell internationally.
So what's been happening recently -- and why?
The why may be explained by the new publishing models that have arisen in recent years, making it easier to set up small press publications (or do digital editions), as well that most unexpected player -- crowdfunding!
As for what:
Captain Canuck was revived as an animated mini-webseries -- at least, a new incarnation of the concept. And apparently this will give rise to a print series coming in 2015. As well, the original comics have been reprinted in assorted collections.
Vintage Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics have at long last been collected in a book -- comics largely unseen since they were first published in the 1940s! And with a Johnny Canuck collection in the works.
There's a recent documentary called Lost Heroes about the history of Canadian comics. While for years The Decoder Ring Theatre has produced low-budget tongue-in-cheek radio drama adventures of The Red Panda.
Since even in the United States short-lived comic book companies far outstrip those that survive, recently there have been attempts to circumnavigate the medium itself by exploring super hero themes in a purely prose manner. (American publishers have done the same, ranging from the Wild Cards anthologies to novels featuring Batman, Spider-Man and others).
In 2013, editors Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa released the prose anthology, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories, from Tyche Books. And in the name of full disclosure I'll admit that I have a story in the collection. In fact, since I piss off some people with my critical reviews and piss off other people with my Quixotic insistence that entertaining adventure stories can be set in Canada (as opposed to needing to be set in the U.S.) this is your chance to strike back. Buy the book, then go on blogs and comments sections and facebook and tell everyone what a terrible writer I am.
Hmmm, I hear you say, this sounds a little bit like when Tom Sawyer used reverse psychology to trick people into painting his fence.
Maybe a little. But I was paid up-front so I get nothing out of it if you buy a copy. But the overall quality of the stories is quite high -- currently rated 4.42 (out of 5) at Goodreads.
The book impressed enough people because Lalumiere is back at it (this time with co-editor -- and Northguard co-creator -- Mark Shainblum) putting together a super hero themed collection for an up-coming edition of the annual Tesseracts science fiction anthology, tentatively called Superhero Universe (don't know if I'll have a story in it, so I can't be accused of self-promotion).
If I have a self-imposed mission in life, it's promoting the idea that Canadian culture/cultural identity and pop/mainstream entertainment (including "genre" fiction) can co-exist as effortlessly as peanut butter and chocolate. So I'll offer a link to something I wrote which is a couple of serialized prose adventures about Canadian super heroes (it was posted on a webzine my brother ran years ago). It's been a few years since I re-read the stories myself, so maybe I'll regret drawing attention to them. If you hate the stories, fine. But that's on me as a writer -- not because Canada and super heroes are incompatible.
Meanwhile with U.S. publishers, not only does Alpha Flight still crop up and Wolverine continues going great guns, but DC Comics has offered up the Canadian-set Justice League United. And there have been short-lived efforts such as Moonstone's Northern Guard (which, granted, only ran a couple of issues).
But I'm not saying every Canadian comic published in the last 75 years has been great -- or even good. But defeat isn't when you get knocked down, it's when you refuse to get up again.
There is the danger of the boom n' bust cycle. The whole kickstarter idea seems great now, but it can lead to cynicism if too many creators start soliciting funds and then produce sub-standard work. A few decades back there was a boom in American "indie" comics, but it imploded because the quality stuff got buried beneath the mediocre material.
And perhaps a problem plaguing Canadian comics (like Canadian film) is that there are too many captains and not enough sailors. Individual creators trying to promote their individual work -- rather than build an "industry." And maybe a few too many comics that want to be embraced as mainstream "American-style" super hero comics -- but prefer to be "quirky" or "self-parodying" or what-have-you. And the creators wonder why they aren't scoring Spider-Man's sales figures.
Still, that's me being analytical, to add a little gravitas to this post.
With new comics being attempted, vintage collections being offered, an increased Canadian presence in American comics, and Canadian super heroes bleeding over into webseries and prose fiction -- is it possible we might be on the cusp of a new "Golden Age?"
As the comics might say: "To be continued!"
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