The Canadian Superhero Renaissance

I had the pleasure to sit on a panel entitled the Canadian Superhero Renaissance at Fan Expo Canada on August 23rd, and had to decline participation in the Golden Age of Canadian Comics panel on Sunday, August 25 (Rachel Richey had an important message to relay and I could not justify both of us being away from the Comic Book Lounge booth). With the completion of this year’s Joe Shuster Awards I’ve had some more time to digest the material that came out of those panels and the discussions I’ve seen online.


alpha-flightThere seems to be a lot of discussion on Canadian Superheroes, and whether or not we need them. I’m inclined to say that I think that story and character are what’s always needed, not specifically tailor-made Canadian superheroes. If you have a story to tell about a superhero in Saskatchewan because you know Saskatoon and have stories to tell, then awesome! But I don’t think Canada needs superheroes for the sake of superheroes – especially patriotic ones, unless there’s a good reason for it, say, with the True Patriot anthology where that was the theme of the book… create Canadian superheroes and have fun with it.

I joked at the panel that we need more Superheroes for Cottage Country to protect the fish. Canada is a huge country, made up of regions, and there is definitely room for regional focused Canadian comics, a stereotypical regional superhero gets you… the heroes of Alpha Flight. We have an Alpha Flight, does the world need another? I don’t think we do, to be honest, unless it’s the most captivating, well written and well drawn comic you could imagine. That it correctly references poutine when ordering a meal in Quebec is just plain silly.

captain-canuck.jpgCanada has some interesting superheroes created during the Golden Age, but few standouts since — Captain Canuck is a major exception. Glad to see the potential of the character revived for the tongue in cheek webisodes. Certainly Wolverine and Alpha Flight are Canadian in name, but what matters to you and I is whether or not those comics are any good. The more well known Canadian comics of the last 40 years have been because of the creator involved was Canadian, not because the hero was a Canadian. Cerebus the Aardvark is probably the most well-known Canadian comic, but the series takes place in an entirely fictional world.

Captain America the comic does not sell because it is about a patriotic superhero, it sells when it is a good superhero comic. Sometimes those comics may explore the nature of patriotism and nationalism, but generally the best Captain America comics are just good comics. The Winter Soldier storyline by Brubaker and Epting is a perennial seller because it is a great comic, not because Captain America wears the stars and stripes for our Southern neighbours. Captain America may more easily lend itself to topics that are of interest to Americans, but it rarely descends into parody as most Canadian superhero comics tend to.

Nelvana_oneshotI’m excited about the reprinting of Nelvana stories from the Golden Age not because they are about a superhero that ties into Inuit myths, I’m interested because they are great comics that were created and shaped by Canadian cartoonist Adrian Dingle. I agree with the editors that this is something that people should see, as both an historical and cultural artifact and because they are fun comics that few people have encountered.

Cartoonist Ramon Perez mentioned in the panel that he was working on a murder mystery comic set in historical Toronto, that sounds a heck of a lot more interesting and entertaining than a superhero who has the power to shoot Maple Syrup from his hands. The lead detective in that story could end up becoming the next great Canadian character.

scotttcafTake for example a book like Two Generals, by Scott Chantler. Chantler’s hero is his grandfather, and his adventures are based on his experiences in World War 2 as part of the Canadian (and British) armed forces.  That’s as authentic a Canadian character (although based on a real life person) as you can get. There’s no maple leaf on his forehead, does that make his sacrifices less heroic somehow? I think not.


canada-mapThe best comics in my opinion are well crafted comics. We choose to award those created by Canadians, and while superhero comics are not excluded, they are not the focus — the overwhelming link to all those creators that we honour are that they created comics, not superhero comics or indie comics, or webcomics or kids comics, science fiction or crime, horror or romance —- it’s that the person behind the keyboard, pencil, paintbrush, mouse, etc. is a Canadian.

Bryan Lee O'Malley - Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest HourThe Scott Pilgrim scenario works better I’m afraid. Bryan Lee O’Malley told great comics stories and incorporated Toronto and Canadian-isms into the story. He did not sit down to create a quintessential Canadian comic, he just uses the area he lived in as his setting with landmarks like Casaloma and Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, et al. Like O’Malley and Scott Pilgrim, authors will centre their comics around what they know – the familiar. If you are a cartoonist in Edmonton, Edmonton will be the setting with which you are most familiar.

Remember that Joe Shuster, when drawing Superman, called upon his memories of living in Toronto when crafting the urban landscape of Metropolis. He drew what he knew, and while most have interpreted his drawing of Metropolis as New York City, we Canadians know better because he let us in on the secret that for him Metropolis was Toronto.

superman-action06paulquebec1-749079Michel Rabagliati’s Paul is another type of Canadian hero that gets overlooked. The focus of six volumes (to date), Paul is the product of his times and of his setting (in and around Montreal in the 1960’s to the present), his family and his friends. He’s also based quite strongly on the life of his creator.  Here is fine example of regionalism used properly, the stories are told in Quebec, and would not work elsewhere. He isn’t shoe-horning in cultural references for the sake of it, but because that was his own experience. These were the shows that he watched, the events of his life and the views of his family, friends and neighbours. Paul may not jump around in tights with fleur-de-lys, but he’s another Canadian hero.

I think in that respect Canadian locations work well as the setting, not the primary focus.

TruePatriot_coverTHE RETAILER VIEW?

That was what Fred Kennedy asked me at the Renaissance Panel and I still stand by my answer — people will buy good comics if you create them. I should have also said “and promote them”. Chances are you are not going to get rich, get a tv or movie deal or a new toy line out of your comic book and/or graphic novel. You may, if you are one of the 0.00001% that happens for, but chances are that if you are creating good comics that people will find out about them and pass the recommendation to others.

spectralAs a retailer I want to sell comics. I would rather sell good comics, and above that I’d rather sell GREAT comics. We do what we can to identify what might sell in our stores and order them accordingly – every new concept, new title, new graphic novel that we place orders for without customer advance orders is a risk for us. Sometimes we’ll order a copy or two to try it and see if there is any interest, but we are pretty isolated in that sense, which is why as a retailer I want to know who is doing the book first and foremost, because my familiarity with the creator behind the book will help increase my confidence in the product.

dakotacoverwebIn the August Diamond catalogue, new books in the ‘everything else’ section of previews from Arn Saba (Katherine Collins), Ray Fawkes, Dakota McFadzean and Elaine Will caught my attention because I’m aware of their previous books, that they are Canadian and I ordered accordingly as I know we can promote and sell those books to the customers at the Lounge.

However, if I was a retailer who did not know those creators I would probably pass the section over and would miss them entirely. Retailers need that extra knowledge boost that just soliciting a book in Previews sight unseen won’t help them get.

Northern Giard #1A cover by Jason EdmistonCount me among those that don’t believe that we need more Canadian superhero comics to establish our Canadian identity on the international stage. If one comes along that can do that, wonderful, but I’ve yet to see a Canadian superhero created in the last half century that wasn’t a parody or based on a stereotype. Superheroes can be a means to an end, but when we try to do them generally we end up hitting a brick wall of indifference. A creator would have better luck with a Canadian anti-hero, as those have been much better received. Wolverine (not created by a Canadian) is a successful character because he’s an interesting character, that he’s a Canadian is a bonus for us, and it allows writers to criticize American policies and concepts because he’s an outsider, he doesn’t really espouse a lot of Canadian values other than he likes beer and hockey and lumberjack shirts, well, okay, maybe he’s the rugged Canadian mountain man stereotype….

Would I place my faith in a solicitation for the Maple Baconator from Caribou Comics? Probably not. I’d be curious, and may investigate further, but Maple Baconator by, say (for example), Nick Bradshaw is something I know I could sell to my customers because they know and like the work of Nick Bradshaw. The creator, in this case, is the brand, not the character.

I just don’t see an audience out there demanding great Canadian superheroes. They are demanding great comics, and if a creator they know and have interest in decided to do a Canadian superhero comic, it would be much easier for me, as a retailer, to sell that product than someone coming up with a line of Canadian superheroes.

We actually do have that already – they exist, and if I could sell more Heroes of the North comics I would! They are building a brand. The Northern Guard (featuring updated versions of Canadian golden age heroes) was excellent but was probably a tough sell for retailers and readers because it was published by Moonstone, and before we could build up interest in it, Moonstone pulled the plug on it, but some talented folks worked on the two issues that did appear.

Actually, Northern Guard would be a great book for a kickstarter/indiegogo campaign because I think there are people out there that would want to see it completed.