Reviewing and pondering “True Patriot Presents”…

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

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

Onward…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Leave a comment

Reviewing: True Patriot (“Canadian Comic Book Adventures”)

This is part review/part broader analysis. So I’ll be looking at both the 2014 soft cover TPB, True Patriot, as well as referencing some superhero prose anthologies and some of my own writings in the field. Plus I’ll be reflecting on “Canadian” superheroes — and even toss in an aside about the business model of a particular comic shop! (And this is Part One. Next time I’ll continue the thread by looking at the follow up True Patriot Presents comic). So buckle up:

True Patriot is a comic book anthology TPB of Canadian superhero stories (I’m reviewing it belatedly in 2018 since, y’know, any book you haven’t read is a “new” book). Edited by J. Torres (writer of such comics as Family Dynamic and the graphic novel Scandalous) and initially published independently, the concept continued under the banner of Chapterhouse Comics which produced a follow-up series, True Patriot Presents (which I’ll look at next time).

(And which may have resulted in a hardcover TPB: when I picked up this softcover TPB, there was another, hardcover, True Patriot volume next to it that seemed to have different content).

Now I’ll be up-front that part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my usual graphic novel reviews website) is entirely mercenary: I’ve written some collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m hoping to get people to buy ’em — or at least be aware of ’em. So I figure if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of True Patriot, you might be the sort of person interested in my books, too. (Pretty please!)

A little bit of behind-the-scenes trivia is that I picked this up at The Dragon, a comic book shop in Guelph, Ontario — the framing sequence in the TPB involving a little boy at a comic shop is actually modelled after one of The Dragon’s stores.

I don’t live in Guelph, but I have been in the stores (they have two branches in Guelph!) a few times over the years and it might be an interesting business model aspiring comic shop owners should look into. Instead of doubling down on the Big Bang Theory-cliché of the dark, parochial comic shop catering to mostly males, the Dragon stores are bright, open, cheery places that clearly set out to establish a sense of a family atmosphere; the staff are a little older, professionally dressed, and many are women — a bit different from The Simpson’s slovenly comic shop guy (which is not exactly an inaccurate depiction of some shops I’ve seen). Like most comic shops they’ve broadened their stock — but in addition to the obligatory card and role playing games I associate with other stores, they have a lot more kids books and novelties. When I was there just before Christmas (2017) the owner was helpful and garrulous — he even told me the proper pronunciation of Nelvana! (And if you’re asking: “Nelvana?” just don’t even pretend to have an interest in Canadian comics until you’ve Googled her!) He also tracked down a copy of Beyond: Quest for Meadan for me even though it didn’t show up in his computer (I had wandered off to browse when suddenly he thrust it in front of me! Talk about service!) But just to give you an idea of how bad I am at self-promotion: I never mentioned to him that I had written some superhero story collections, or had stories in the published anthologies Masked Mosaic and
Tesseracts Nineteen. I figured he had better things to do, other customers to see. But I suppose a real go-getter with moxy would’ve told him, maybe seen if he’d be interested in stocking my books (yeah, they’re e-books, but I could make physical copies). But I didn’t want to be an ass (alas!) Anyway, my point is when you hear about a lot of comic shops struggling, the Dragon stores (I assume) are doing okay for themselves.

Anyhoo… On with the reviewing:

Now I’ve written before (in other reviews) that short stories can be problematic in a comic book form (despite the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words), with the limited page count forcing the stories to be pretty minimalist. Or more to the point: creators think the limited pages requires a minimalist story (I mean, Will Eisner’s The Spirit demonstrated you could squeeze a lot into a few pages if you’re so inclined). It just seems to me that when comic books — specifically super hero comics — are wrapped around short little vignettes, they can be uneven.

Plus with an anthology there’s also the conflict when the (possible) intent of the editors/publishers collides with the (I assume) intent of the writers/artists.

With True Patriot the (seeming) editorial intent was to present a world of Canadian superheroes, to kick in the black-painted windows of cultural timidity and let in the light of imagination. To offer a world of Canadian superheroes in a medium — and genre — largely dominated by other countries’ heroes. The TPB is even framed by a sequence of a little boy vainly searching a comic shop for some Canadian comics (with, possibly, an extra subtext of him wanting wholesome All-Ages comics, with the comics he turns his nose up featuring gun-wielding heroes, ninjas, monsters, and buxom babes).

I mean, the cover literally proclaims: “Canadian Comic Book Adventures!” And the introduction by Mike Valiquette cites iconic traditional superheroes like the Fantastic Four, Superman, and Canada’s Captain Canuck, and suggests True Patriot is continuing in that tradition.

But the problem is that many of the stories being offered are more like a spoof of superheroes, or a satire of Canadiana. Which seems a contradiction of the anthology’s very purpose. Essentially an editor says: “Hey, let’s do an anthology showing that Canada can be just as fertile ground for superhero adventures as America.” And some of the creators respond: “I’ve got a great idea how to ridicule that very premise — count me in!”

Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat. Some of the stories do feel as though the creators were genuinely aiming to come up with a viable property. As well, I get back to my earlier point about how the “short” comic book story is problematic. As an example I’m thinking of the Captain America graphic novel, Red, White, and Blue which offered a bunch of short tales by a variety of creators — most of which were quirky or satirical, and very few of which functioned as a superhero adventure told in limited pages.

But in True Patriot there are pieces like “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” (6 pgs, by Faith Erin Hicks) in which a teenage girl superhero (in a deliberately makeshift costume) confronts a collection of villains literally named The League of Villainous Canadian Stereotypes! And “The Bluenoser vs. Gull Girl” (4 pgs. by Fred Kennedy and Adam Gorham — Kennedy is listed as writer, Gorham the inker, so I’m not sure if one of them was the penciller) is another comedic piece using exaggerated Canadian archetypes. “The Grey Owl vs. Bigfoot” (9 pgs. by J. Bone) also goes the tongue-in-cheek route with exaggerated Canadian clichés…but feels a little more good natured, like Bone is having fun revelling in the overt Canadianess more than he’s making fun of it.

I fully understand and can sympathize with a writer bristling at the idea of making something distinctly “Canadian” — but equally I have trouble with creators (in whatever medium) who invoke Straw Man clichés to show how silly it is. In “Superhero Girl vs. Canadian-ness” the whole point of the story is basically just to ridicule the idea of something being overtly Canadian. (Hick’s Superhero Girl has actually appeared in her own collection — but is primarily a spoof/joke on superheroes).

And, to be honest, I just didn’t them that funny for stories that were primarily meant to be humourous.

“Justice Jenny” (6 pgs. by Agnes Garbowska) sidesteps the whole Canadian thing, but equally isn’t much interested in presenting a superhero tale either. Instead it’s a whimsical piece about a little girl who dresses as a superhero during recess and settles schoolyard disputes. It’s cute enough, and reinforces my impression that many of the stories are deliberately aimed at younger readers.

Now before I come across as a complete stick-in-the-mud, probably my favourite story in the collection is “Uh-Oh Ogopogo!” (10 pgs by Howard Wong and Adrian Alphona) which is another humourous piece that isn’t really about an archetypical “superhero”; oh, and there’s lots of overt, tongue-in-cheek Canadianess (a Sasquatch — again! — and Ogopogo, etc.) But it’s suitably quirky and amusing and, in a way, thoughtful (and is another tale wrapped around a kid learning a lesson). I do wonder if its longer page count and use of small panels (fitting a lot on a page) allows it to rise above simply being a vignette.

Among the stories that seem a little more as though they are trying to be superhero-superhero stories are, of course, “Snow Day” (8 pgs. by J. Torres — who, remember, was also the editor of the anthology — and Tim Levins). I say “of course” because it features the Family Dynamic — a Canadian superhero team already featured in their own short-lived All-Ages comic for DC Comics a few years ago! They’re basically a kind of Fantastic Four-like group only even more intrinsically a family (think of the animated movie The Incredibles) Again, it’s mostly slight (fighting a super-villain while helping motorists trapped in highway gridlock) and comedic, but decent enough. The same could be said about “Particle Man” (8 pgs. by Ramón Pérez) which for some reason kind of sticks with me — I suspect partly just because of the striking costume designs, especially of the title character!

“Phase One: Test Flight” featuring Arrowhead (8 pgs. by Jay Stephens) particularly feels like a sincere attempt to create a superhero and draw upon Canadiana, with some teens discovering a lost super suit supposedly built by the real life Avro aviation company (of the Avro Arrow fame). Putting aside my long-standing mixed feelings about the cultural mythologizing of the Avro Arrow (which is a topic for another day), the result is perhaps a little too Iron Man-esque, and also never fully coalesces into a satisfying story (the main conflict is with some bullies — getting back to my point about “All Ages” storytelling). But perhaps for the obvious reason that, as the title (“Phase One”) implies, it’s more intended as an opening chapter. Which at least indicates Stephens did genuinely see it as having legs. In a similar vein, “Whatever Happened to the Red Ensign?” (8 pgs., by Scott Chantler) with some kids watching a newsreel of a WW II era superhero feels like a promo for a character more than a story in its own right. (And FYI: I wrote an earlier post about the use and history of the “Red Ensign” as a Canadian super hero name!)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Arrowhead and The Red Ensign were revived for the subsequent True Patriot Presents comics. (Which I’ll come back to next time).

Somewhere in the middle lie Dominion Jack in “My Way” (8 pgs. by Jack Briglio and Ronald Salas) about a father-daughter superhero duo trying to save the prime minister’s life during a hockey game, interspersed with talk about what makes a Canadian hero. And “Thunder Birch” (6 pgs. by Andy Belanger) which draws heavily upon Indigenous inspiration for a story about a heroine battling a lake monster. The reason I say they are in the middle is because I can’t say they aren’t telling adventure stories and, indeed, with less camp and tongue-in-cheek than many of the other stories — without either really quite feeling like you could imagine them sustaining further adventures (or are even intended to! — though Dominion Jack did return in True Patriot Presents)

Throughout the art styles tend to be fairly cartoony and exaggerated. Styles that add to my impression of the stories (mostly) being light-hearted and aimed at younger readers. But I’m also aware that these are popular and common styles these days, so that may not be a fair inference. Certainly reading the creator bios a number of these contributors have worked on mainstream American comics of horror and even super heroes. The art is mostly good — I’m not saying it isn’t. Just it’s not especially, y’know, super-heroic! Though there is a nice variety in it, which can be an appeal in anthology (from Garbowska’s almost children’s picture book style visuals to Levins more superhero-esque style).

Now here’s where the problem with figuring out the reviewer’s role comes in. Because even I admit my review can basically be summed up as: this isn’t what I was hoping it would be. To another reader it might be precisely what they were hoping it would be.

I’m not really trying to tell you whether this is a good collection or a bad one — I’m simply articulating my reaction to it. (Equally I have no objection to youth-aimed/All Ages comics. Indeed — I encourage them. But equally I can only assess them by how I react to them as an adult or, at best, how I think I might have responded to them when I was a kid). And as I make clear, I’ve long felt the “short”-comic book story format can be problematic; without enough time to develop a plot or the personalities, they are often insubstantial.

Heck, you could love True Patriot to bits — and still find my comments interesting just as an alternate perspective. Equally you could hate True Patriot and still think my review was dumb because you wanted the book to be more satirical of the “Canadian superheroes” theme.

But that’s why you can almost see my piece less as a straight “review” and more like, I dunno, an “analysis” — considering it in a broader context.

In a way, True Patriot shares some commonalities with the prose anthologies Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) and Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016) — both of which were anthologies playing around with the theme of Canadian superheroes (and full disclosure: I have stories in both volumes — I’m not just a pretty face, y’know). Being prose anthologies, with pretensions to literature, most of the stories in those collections weren’t straight-forward superhero adventures either. Some were. But plenty were ironic, or satirical, or deconstructionist, or coloured as far outside the lines of the theme as they could without leaving the page entirely. And so in that sense, True Patriot is in good company.

But I guess I look at it from the point of view (as someone who has spent years writing about and championing Canadiana in pop culture) that as an actual comic book anthology (rather than prose) the opportunity would be for creators to present characters and stories that really were meant to show Canadian characters could muscle their way onto the shelf next to Superman and Spider-Man and Hellboy. A chance for the reader to be like the little boy in the TPB’s framing sequence and thrill to a world of Canadian superheroes.

And I’m just not sure True Patriot really does that — and, more to the point, I don’t think for a lot of the creators that was even their intent.

If someone dismisses the very idea of Canadian superheroes as inherently silly, I can’t help but ask: could True Patriot be used to prove them wrong? — or would they point to it as proof that they are right?

When I wrote my story collections — Screeech! “Wait, dude (I hear you say) do you really think trying to promote your work after dissing this TPB is a good idea? Aren’t the creators who worked on True Patriot and readers who loved it gonna hate you just on principle?” Well, maybe. But maybe not. I work on the idealistic theory that discussion is good, and healthy, and that people can disagree but still realize they’re all working for the same goal. The very reason I’m writing about True Patriot (and had mixed feeling about it) is because I believe in the importance of Canadian popular entertainment (that’s why I write about it so much over the years, about films, TV, and comics — heck, I set up the Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). If reading my review of True Patriot gets you curious about it and you go buy a copy — no one would be happier than me! But that’s because I believe it’s bigger and broader than any one creator or any one project. And I’m naïve enough to think that some of the creators of True North (and those who loved it) might feel the same way (but I’m also aware that a lot probably won’t).

But also I’m citing my writings as part of contextualizing my review. My point is to say that (I think) many of the contributors to True North would agree their stories weren’t really meant to be “serious” superhero stories, or to be imagined sitting on a shelf next to The X-Men. But to some extent that was precisely the intent of my stories: to try and present adventure and mystery stories with superheroes that you could almost imagine having been displayed on the comics racks over the years; to genuinely try and envision a Canadian superhero universe like Marvel or DC have, where the stories really are meant to be exciting and thrilling, and where the setting and the time period are a part of the narrative (my stories occurring in different decades and, to greater and lesser extent, drawing upon their eras for the ideas). I’m mostly pleased with the results, but I’m still waiting for that critical mass of sales where people start posting reviews (for good or ill).

Anyway…

Viewed as an All-Ages romp, suitable for younger readers, True Patriot is certainly not disagreeable. Not if you’re looking for quick, mostly light-hearted little tales. But if you were looking for a collection of superhero adventures, with thrills, and some gravitas, awakening to the storytelling possibilities and potentials inherent in Canada…you might need to keep looking (and no, I’m not going to put in another plug for my books — though you know that’s what I’m hinting at, heh heh).

Next time:…I’ll comment on the first few issues of True North Presents, the spin-off series that does, in fact, seem to aim to be a little more “superhero-adventure.”

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Leave a comment

Behind-the-Scenes: “Lucifer’s Legion”

I have a story up at Crimson Streets Magazine — the on-line (and free to read) webzine specializing in evoking the spirit of the pulp magazine era with tales encompassing hardboiled private eyes, horror, fantasy, SF, and adventure.

My story is called “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion” and mashes up a few genres, including action-adventure, horror, war, and superheroes! You can think of it as kind of “The Dirty Dozen” meets “Predator” (which, y’know, is bit redundant since in a way the movie “Predator” was already sort of the Dirty Dozen meets the Predator!) — but with an added twist of costumed superheroes!

The story’s background is that I wrote a version of it a few years ago — telling a tale of WW II soldiers battling a supernatural monster while on a mission — for an interested editor. But the proposed magazine never materialized. And it was kind of a hard fit for other magazines. Then a while later I embarked on my ambitious (if I do say so myself) Masques Chronicles project, presenting a multi-generations spanning superhero universe. And I thought maybe I could dust off my soldiers-fights-monster story and re-purpose it with superheroes. Since the stories in my Masques Chronicles project were deliberately meant to be rooted in different decades, the WW II setting seemed ideal. So I re-worked the story, adding a bit more (I hope) depth to the characters, giving the story (again: hopefully) a bit more nuance…while also trying to capture an almost cinematic sense of action and suspense, especially in the scenes of the protagonists running about a dark forest, hunting and being hunted by their mysterious enemy.

With the superhero element I wanted to evoke the sense of both archetypal characters (especially from the Golden Age of comics: a tux wearing magician, a .45 wielding cloaked avenger, etc.) while also suggesting these were kind of second-tier misfits, not quite good enough to be legends on their own (one guy’s power is simply telescopic vision). And the group is known as “Lucifer’s Legion” — a deliberate riff on the real-life Canadian-American World War II commandoes: The Devil’s Brigade.

One character (the co-lead) is a French-Canadian “Masque” (the term I use in my Masques Chronicles for superheroes) called Le bucheron (a.k.a. The Lumberjack). See, part of the idea I was playing with in my Masques Chronicles was to confront the oft-argued idea that Canadian ideas and clichés can’t make good grist for pulpy fiction. So I deliberately wanted to see if I could prove it wrong by (sometimes) cheekily embracing an idea that is almost ridiculous…and make it not ridiculous (in the Masques Chronicles I have a heroine called The Beaver…and I think she’s pretty kick ass). So while coming up with my misfit heroes for Lucifer’s Legion I created Le bucheron — a guy whose costume literally involves a plaid shirt and wielding an axe as his signature weapon. Silly? You betcha. But my argument is most superheroes sound silly (Ant-Man? Batman?) until someone comes along and makes ’em not silly. So my challenge for myself was to imagine a goofy idea like a superhero using a lumberjack motif — and, hopefully, a few paragraphs into the story the reader isn’t thinking he’s silly; instead maybe thinking he’s cool, maybe even caring about him a little.

But then as I was finalizing my Masques Chronicles I decided to cut “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion.” I realized maybe I had enough WW II era stories (given the book was meant to present multiple decades, not just the 1940s) and since the other stories took place within Canada, I decided the European-set Lucifer’s Legion was maybe an outlier.

And I guess it was good I did. Because it then made an ideal submission to Crimsons Streets — and I guess the editors agreed!

Did I succeed? Is the story an exciting mix of adventure and horror, mixed up with a little wry humour and a dollop of pathos? Check it out for yourself here and decide (and enjoy the cool illustration by Sheik!). And while there read some of Crimson Streets other offerings, ’cause even if you don’t like mine, there’re stories by other (maybe better!) writers. And if you do like the story, please buy a copy of The Masques Chronicles (Vol 1 & II) or my other offering about WW II era superheroes, The Fellowship of the Midnight Sun Omnibus!

Posted in Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: “Lucifer’s Legion”

Looking at the Martian Races of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Just a little “heads up” for those interested: I have a non-fiction piece in the 3rd issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly, the (free) e-zine about science fiction and fantasy. I wrote about the publication earlier here when I was just a reader. But now I have a piece in it — a bit of whatcha might call “literary analysis” if’n yer hifalutin. I’ve written plenty about film, TV, and comics on-line, and I’ve had book reviews published from time to time, but this may be my first published attempt at this kind of analysis.

The topic? Looking at the John Carter Martian novels of American pulp writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and considering whether the racial dynamics of Burroughs’ fictional Barsoom (ie: Mars) had a more earthly interpretation. Even though Burroughs’ books were written in the early 20th Century, the stories and characters are still kicking around in things like the 2012 Hollywood movie, John Carter, and current comic book series (from, I believe, Dynamite Entertainment) under titles like Warlord of Mars and Dejah Thoris. And I ask: have readers been missing the obvious interpretation over the last nearly 100 years? I say “missing” but it’s possible, even probable, that others have expounded upon the same idea as me — but I just haven’t come upon it, or seen much indication it has influenced how filmmakers, comic books, and paperback cover artists have visualized Mars. Namely: did ERB intend the Red Martians to be North American Indians?

I explore the idea in my piece in Dark Worlds Quarterly #3.

Also in the issue you get the usual nice grab bag of pieces spanning books and films and more, from an essay on the costume designs in the 1975 movie, Logan’s Run, to a rundown of the 1930s pulp adventure stories of one Dr. Bird to an interview with writer Marc Scott Zicree to pieces covering everything from the Christmas tales of Charles Dickens and the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and more.

A little something for everyone 🙂

(But, y’know, read my piece first and then tell/tweet your friends — Dark Worlds Quarterly #3)

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Does Canadian Film & TV Have its Own Hollywood-Style Sexual Predators?

(I originally established this blog primarily to write about Canadian film & TV. In recent months I’ve diversified, both to pontificate about other topics of interest to me, and also because most of my Canadian film/TV musings were going to Huffington Post Canada. As well, I’ve been writing less and less about the topic (the reasons for that probably a topic for another essay). Anyway…this is a piece I wrote back in November for Huffington Post…but it’s ended up back here. I’ve added a post-script at the end to expand upon that. For the moment, here is my thoughts on the recent explosion of sexual harassment revelations coming out of Hollywood…and asking about Canada…)

Weeks ago American movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, was publicly outted as a sexual predator. His fall has been swift and dramatic. And the floodgates seem to have been wedged open as more abusers are being outted in an industry in which stories of sexual harassment (and rumours of the “casting couch”) are as old as the industry.

It’s hard to know how pervasive will be any cultural changes. Some have cynically noted even as Weinstein and actors like Kevin Spacey have been condemned for their behaviour toward white victims, a musician like R. Kelly seems largely unaffected despite a chronicled history of allegations by black women and girls. Stand-up comics who vociferously ripped Hollywood for its complicity are now being asked how long they knew about Louis CK. And comic book creators were (initially) subdued when similar stories arise in their industry. And American president Donald Trump was elected despite his own boasts of inappropriate sexual behaviour!

Ever since the Weinstein stuff blew up, I hummed and hawed about whether I should write anything. I blog about Canadian film & TV from the peripheries: I’m not a journalist. I’ve never been molested or assaulted and have never molested or assaulted anyone. If one has nothing to say, one should probably say nothing. But now that it’s been a few weeks, I figure I can tentatively start to wade in.

Canadian film & TV often flies below the public radar. Reasons range from reporters more focused on Hollywood, to the fact that Canadian movies just don’t do very well (although that’s less true of Canadian TV in recent years) to, I suspect, a cultivated insularness on the part of the industry itself.

But my question is: what’s going on in the Canadian industry?

Is there any reason to think things are better/different here? It’s possible — but is it likely? After all, one of the stories that arguably put the snow ball at the top of the hill was the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. The very fact that the industry flies below the radar might make it even more vulnerable to predators. A Canadian reporter trying to expose a filmmaker who makes movies most people haven’t even heard of might have trouble convincing their editor it’s a headline-grabber. (Significantly, when scandals break — such as the Claude Jutra revelations — they come from Quebec, where entertainers enjoy a higher profile).

There have been a few cracks. Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley went public with some of the dirty linen. Actress Ellen Page wrote a Facebook post calling out Hollywood director Brett Ratner for abusive behaviour. But Page also makes cryptic references to groppings and assault when she was a teenager. Page is a Hollywood actress these days (even using American spelling in her Facebook post) but she began her career in Canada.

Nor is it hard to infer Hollywood scandals bleed over into Canada. I seem to recall Harvey Weinstein’s name in a few articles about Canadian movies over the years (Weinstein having been a key to international distribution at one stage). While harassment allegations have been reported against Andrew Kreisberg who oversees some American series filmed in Canada.

Sexual harassment and assault should and must remain the focus for now. But arguably it’s part of a wider issue of unchecked egotism and narcissism in an industry where the powerless are worried about landing that next job.

So now I’m gonna cite a story. It’s a minor story mentioned in an interview an actress did some years back (but has stayed in my mind). I’m not going to say who because I can’t find it to link to, and I don’t want to put the actress on the spot. Suffice it to say it was a well known Canadian actress (depending on the type of TV shows you watch) telling an anecdote about a busy Canadian director.

This director (apparently) loves strip clubs. When he wasn’t on a set, he was at strip clubs. So if you went to lunch or dinner with him, you knew he was going to take you to a strip club. The fact this director likes strip clubs is absolutely his business. But most women aren’t going to be comfortable at a strip club (as the actress made clear in the interview) and, frankly, neither would a lot of guys. But if you want to hang out with this director (if only to show what a good sport you are, in hopes he’ll remember you when he’s casting his next project — or even to discuss your character’s motivation) you have to do so while he’s ogling naked women.

To be clear: I’m not saying this guy was accused of doing anything illegal. I am saying it seems, well, creepy. At best narcissistic, at worst a deliberate display of dominance.

Now half the people reading this are going to roll their eyes and snort: “Dude, you’re insane conflating dragging co-workers to a strip club with sexual harassment!” And the other half? I think they see what I’m getting at when I talk about power dynamics. Maybe if the people with power were a little more sensitive to those without, it’d be harder for the blatant predators to get away with what they do.

I’m not a journalist, not a reporter. After years of writing about Canadian film and TV, I stepped back from it a while ago. I began to accept that I wasn’t contributing much to the discourse, and even those in the biz — people who frequently lament their lack of media coverage — would be happy to see the back of me. But I still believe there needs to be more coverage of Canadian film and TV — especially now when sister industries are attempting some much needed house cleaning and soul searching.

But where will that coverage come from? Major papers or networks — who barely cover Canadian entertainment at all? There’s TV, Eh? — an invaluable resource, but mostly light information and linking to other articles. There’s Canadaland — the website that helped break the Ghomeshi scandal; but their focus is more media/journalism (I suspect most of their staffers have only a peripheral awareness of Canadian movies and TV shows). And, of course, there’s Huffington Post Canada itself, which might provide a forum for industry folk looking to turn any lights on the shadows.

But above all it needs a public willing to listen and industry folk wanting to be heard.

Post-Script: I wrote this originally intending it for Huffington Post Canada. Between 2013 – 2017 I wrote probably close to a hundred op-ed pieces for that site — sometimes almost twice a week! Basically my intent was just to keep Canadian film/TV in the public eye by writing about it as much as I could (some pieces I think were good and thought-provoking…some just filler). This is the only one that I recall that was not published by them. And I don’t really know why. The most likely explanation is they simply were done with my services, or I had fallen off the roster (I’d been writing infrequently: my last posted piece for them was in April, 2017). Or maybe they worried I had written something actionable. But it does seem curious optics that I write a piece specifically saying we should be talking about this in the public sphere…and that’s the essay they decide NOT to post.

Unfortunately my blog gets only an infinitesimal amount of traffic compared to Huffington Post Canada. But I figured it was worth getting out there. If only to inspire other, better writers and bloggers to pick up the gauntlet.

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My Story in Lackington’s #16

I’m not great at self-promotion (as I’ve mentioned before) but I have a story in the most recent issue of Lackington’s Magazine — specifically #16, the “Trades” issue. Y’see, Lackington’s is a fantasy magazine that specifically builds issues around specific themes. Past issues have included, for example, diseases, music, etc. So #16 is the “Trades” theme, presenting fantasy stories involving labour, work, etc.

I’ve only just got my copy, so I haven’t read it yet, but it includes stories by Kate Dollarhyde (“Lamplighter’s Eve”), Natalie Ritter (“A Summary of Menistarian Law, Composed for the Citizens of Olakia, in Response to Our Current Crisis by Dr. Clemons Indement as received and translated by Joseph Tomaras”), N. Muma Alain (“Yuckl Ogle”), Alexandra Seidel (“The Master of Hourglasses”), and with illustrations by P. Emerson Williams, Carrion House, Dotti Price, Michelle MB, Belinda Morris and Carol Wellart (and overseen by ed-in-chief, Ranylt Richildis).

My contribution is “The Maiden’s Path.”

The idea behind my story was, in a sense, to see if I could write a High Fantasy story (y’know, with magic and swordsmen and kings and the like) that didn’t actually rely on a lot of violence to tell its tale. Could I make it exciting, and have conflict, but without the hacking n’ hewing that I normally put into my pulp-inspired fantasy tales? Well, a story needs a goal, right? Something the protagonist is trying to accomplish (with drama supplied by the obstacles they must overcome). So if the hero couldn’t be a fighter, what heroic undertaking could he be involved in?

And I thought: why not make him an architect (or in the parlance of the milieu — a Master Builder)?

So the story involves a Master Builder who is commissioned to erect a bridge over a river. But complications ensue when he learns the area may suffer from an ancient curse (and further complications are provided by the fact that his employer is a tyrant king who is impatient with delays). Seeking to understand the roots of the curse, he learns something of the history behind a mysterious statue he uncovers. I’d like to think the story is interesting, suspenseful, spooky, bittersweet, quirky, and boasts a clever twist at the end. And that it has the feel of a pulpy adventure tale even if the violence is minimal and the menace more implied.

Did I succeed? Buy the issue and decide for yourself.

(And while I’m plugging things, forget ye not that I have a few ebooks for sale, including a collection of some of my previously published S&S/fantasy tales, as well as some prose superhero collections).

Posted in My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on My Story in Lackington’s #16

Doctor Strange, The Motion Picture: Celebration of the Ugly American (Or: Don’t Drink the Tea, Numbnut!)

As I’ve mentioned before, for years this blog was primarily focused on Canadian film & TV, but I’ve begun expanding my topics because, naturally, I have a range of interests. And recently I’ve been blogging some about comics and superheroes (in part because I experimented with my own collection of superhero prose tales). So today I’m attempting a lengthy consideration of the Hollywood superhero movie, Doctor Strange (which I suspect will annoy people on all sides…kind of like how my Canadian film/TV commentary equally offended pro-Canadian film/anti-Canadian film camps lol). Enjoy…or whatever…

The motion picture, Doctor Strange, came out months ago — but I only saw it recently and want to jot down a few belated thoughts (as they say: any movie you haven’t seen is a “new” movie).

The movie did well at the box office, but engendered some criticism related to racial/culture issues — some intrinsic to the original comic book source, but some injected into the movie by the filmmakers. Along the way I’ll be referencing the comics, the original, 1978 Dr. Strange TV movie, as well as The Shadow (1994) and Kung Fu (1972-1975) and Iron Fist (2017-) — stories about white Americans whose origins are rooted in Eastern mysticism.

But first: just to comment on the movie as a movie.

I: THE MOVIE

Doctor Strange was…okay. But it struck me as kind of reflective of the whole nature/problem with modern Hollywood blockbusters and their huge budgets and endless CGI effects. Like ketchup — these can be used to cover over a lot of problems. Bereft of the special effects, it’s a thin, generic story of bad guys seeking to unleash a vague evil and good guys having to stop them, and where much of the story progression feels workmanlike.

The story (though if you’re reading this you probably know it) is that a cocky American surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in an accident that leaves him crippled. Sinking into despair, he embarks on a journey to Katmandu in search of a mystical cure. He is taken in by a mystical order, trained in the magical arts, and becomes embroiled in a battle to save the world.

And a lot of it can feel a bit, well, lazy — stitching together plot points by the most meagre of threads. Strange learns of this mystical cure simply because he is told of someone who experienced it, a man he apparently just looks up in the phone book or something. And the guy simply tells him the name of the place. Strange then flies to Katmandu where his “quest” seems to involve wandering the streets asking random people if they know the place until he happens to be spotted by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who then takes him to the temple (which is in downtown Katmandu). And barely is he through the front doors then he is shown all sorts of amazing mystical things.

Like — seriously? That all feels like a sequence of events written by writers who just want to get through that part of the story as quickly as possible. And, y’know, maybe they did. Maybe they said: look, the audience knows he goes to the temple — it’s basically just the prologue.

I even quibble about the magical/mystical scenes because, though spectacular scenes of the characters bending reality, turning cityscapes on their side, etc. (stuff which, admittedly, can feel a bit like they just borrowed the effects algorithm from the movie Inception and plugged it into their art program) it’s oddly…repetitive. I mean, that’s the main trick the filmmakers seem to have, repeating it in the movie’s key action scenes. And though I can understand the need to begin with a bang to get the audience’s attention, the movie has nowhere to go from there in terms of blowing our minds.

One scene that does seem as though it’s aiming for the ineffable is when Strange first arrives at the temple and is taken on a hallucinatory mind trip like something out of the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the movie, Star Trek, The Motion Picture. It was one of the more interesting effect sequences precisely because it wasn’t trying to be logical, and so evoked a sense of other-dimensional weirdness (though still seemed a bit dull compared to the landscapes depicted in some Dr. Strange comics). But even it felt perfunctory, like they just plugged in a random bunch of images, and then sped through it…rather than trying to visualize the sense of an other reality that is surely at the heart of Strange’s evolving perceptions. Oh, and it was kind of dumb he’s barely in the door before he’s being shown it. As opposed to it being something he is introduced to after he’s spent some time at the monastery.

And this kind of hints at a theme I’m going to return to: that the movie itself has a slightly impatient, bullish, greedy attitude, like a child who wants to eat his dessert before eating his dinner. The filmmakers are more interested in the flash and pop than what lies under all that.

Still, as I suggested near the beginning — the movie is okay as a fairly consequenceless way to kill a couple of hours. The actors are fine, the special effects good, etc.

So now let’s delve into the controversial stuff.

II: WHITE-WASHING

So there are layers to them.

One was that at the heart of this early 1960s-created property is a white American who goes off to Asian and supposedly masters this Asian mysticism better than any Asian people. On its own, it’s no big deal — it’s just a story. But it’s seen as part of a bigger trend where non-white, non-American cultures are consumed by American movies, books, comics, etc. but refashioned to insure a white American remains the hero. Although it’s worth noting in no way is Doctor Strange really based on or inspired by actual Eastern mysticism; it draws upon the idea of an Eastern temple…but it’s not like comic book creators Stan Lee & Steve Ditko were rooting the magic in actual Hinduism or Buddhism or anything. Indeed, in the early comics Strange is described as a Master of “Black Magic” — hardly an inherently Eastern-sounding label. When the character was first brought to the screens, in the 1978 TV movie starring Peter Hooten, they largely did away with that entirely, with his mentor played by a white Englishman, John Mills, and using Morgana Le Fey (Jessica Walter) — of the Arthurian mythos — as the villain.

Still, the recent filmmakers were apparently cognizant of this potential objection, so their response was to take the wise old Asian mentor from the comics — The Ancient One — and re-cast him as a white woman (Tilda Swinton). Striking a blow for gender equality — but it hardly addresses the racial issue since now it actually reduces the presence of Asian characters in this ostensibly Asia-set mystical order.

Now in one interview, one of the movie’s writers — C. Robert Cargill — basically said they knew they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. And there is some truth to that. Stick with the wise old Asian mentor and people will criticize it as a racial cliché. Cargill even tries to argue any choice would be rife with controversy, from using a Tibetan setting — so infuriating the Chinese — to choosing the specific Asian ethnicity of the character.

But some of that seems a bit like special pleading (even arguments chosen after the fact) since the setting of the temple, and the Ancient One’s ethnicity, was never fully (or consistently) defined in the comics. The filmmakers had a fair amount of creative flexibility (as is obvious by their decision to simply make the character a white Celtic woman!) And dropping the Asian mentor entirely seems like the worst sort of compromise. Indeed, before I even saw the movie I thought one way they could have muted the criticism would’ve been by making the Ancient One a more important, dynamic figure — essentially using Obi-Wan Kenobi from the first Star Wars as a template. Have him be an active heroic figure whose death part way through the film leaves the inexperienced Strange to struggle toward victory (heck, the movie could’ve inspired a whole resurgence of interest in the character in the comics, maybe leading to a The Ancient One: The Early Years mini-series). As it turns out: that’s precisely what they did do…except they did that in conjunction with the race-swapping.

But where the issue becomes more problematic is in the behind-the-scenes stuff. I mean, it’s all very fine to see it as a well-intentioned effort to grapple with modern expectations. But some of the comments gave me pause. For example in the above-referenced interview Cargill at one point laments that no matter what they did, it would arouse the ire of “Social Justice Warriors.” Now you may be lucky enough to have missed the rise of that term (or “SJW”s) but it’s basically a next level iteration of “political correctness” (and terms like “virtue signallers”) — all generally used by right wingers (and alt-righters) to dismiss and disparage liberal or progressive arguments. So to me it’s a little troubling that one of the writers at the heart of a movie being criticized for racial insensitivity is blithely throwing around the pejorative label “Social Justice Warrior” — that doesn’t mean he himself is necessarily a right wing reactionary, but it does make you wonder who the people he hangs around with are.

In other interviews the film’s director/co-writer, Scott Derrickson, justified the race-change by saying that The Ancient One was offensive because he was basically just a Fu Manchu-type (referencing the old pulp fiction super-criminal). But, um, sure — The Ancient One and Fu Manchu are two Asian guys who often wear robes. But saying they’re the same is like saying Professor Xavier and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (or Dr. Evil for you youngsters) are the same (often bald white guys who sit a lot and control a bunch of minions). But most of us don’t have any trouble distinguishing the leader of the X-Men from James Bond’s old foe, do we? Re-reading some of these interviews I realize it’s actually even worse than I recalled. Because Derrickson goes on to say that after choosing to gender-switch the character, he decided against casting an Asian woman because then she’d be The Dragon Lady (the Asian femme fatale/warlord created for the old American newspaper comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, and who is seen as an archetype of the fiercely dominating Asian woman). Which implies Derrickson is against ever casting Asian women in strong roles or as authority figures because that would be, um, racist? He basically seems to be saying he couldn’t make the character Asian because there are only two Asian character types — Fu Manchu and the Dragon Lady.

(Honestly, re-reading those interviews I’m tempted to just scrap the rest of my essay because my jaw is practically flapping down about my knees; I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing. But, ah, what the heck…let’s resume our originally scheduled analysis)

There were little things that kind of twinged with me in the film — perhaps demonstrating how little nuances affect the way you react to things. One was a minor joke in the film. Strange has been invited into the temple and handed a slip of paper with the word Shambhala on it (whether that was meant to be a subtle in-joke or the audience was supposed to recognize its resonance with Eastern mysticism, I’m not sure). Strange asks if the word is his mantra (ie: a word chanted during meditation) and is told: no — it’s the wi-fi password. At that point, it’s a funny joke. Then they take it one step further by having the character add: “We’re not savages.” And, I dunno, suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny, equating lack of wi-fi with savagery (in a movie facing criticism of racism and imperialism). It was an amusing joke that got a bit soured by the filmmakers’ imposing extra significance onto it…and maybe compounds the other issues surrounding the film.

Just to belabour my point (admittedly over a very minor scene): imagine a scene where a white guy sits down to a Chinese meal, picks up two long sticks beside his plate and struggles clumsily to eat his food. The waiter comes over, looks at him skeptically, then takes the sticks from him…and drops them in his glass, revealing they are straws, not chop sticks. Then the waiter puts a knife and fork on the table. That might be amusing. Now finish the scene by having the waiter say “We’re not savages” — and suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as funny, does it?

Anyhoo…

There’s also an interesting thing to consider about the old comics themselves (that’s overlooked by those calling them out for racist imperialism): namely that The Ancient One is alive and a recurring presence in the early comics (the comics began in 1963 and The Ancient One didn’t shake off this mortal coil until, I think, the early 1970s). So although the white American Strange is definitely the main hero, and a master sorcerer, in terms of power and cosmic significance he nonetheless remains subordinate to the Asian Ancient One. So — arguably — the comic initially was less blatantly about a white American dominating a foreign cultural trope.

(One curious rumour I read was that initially Strange would’ve become Asian as he masters the mystic arts — in other words the comic would’ve featured an Asian-looking lead. This has been cited as an example of a progressive idea that was crushed by editorial edicts. But — I dunno. It sounds equally problematic — literal Yellow-Face. Also I can’t help thinking this has been picked up by those who like to diss Stan Lee (the writer) by suggesting the artist (Steve Ditko) was more progressive — but really, looking at the two men’s body of work, is there any reason to think Ditko was more racially progressive than Lee? To be honest, I think the theory started simply because of how Ditko drew the character (giving him “squinty” eyes) — but, honestly, Ditko drew a lot of characters that way. What makes things even more ambiguous is that although the Ancient One is traditionally depicted as Asian — originally the temple is located in India. Suggesting either the original creators weren’t clear on the distinction between Asians and South Asians — or even from the beginning the concept was meant to be ethnically ambiguous).

The whole racial issue, and race-swapping (whether turning non-white characters white, which is usually seen as wrong, or turning old white characters non-white, which is usually seen as more progressive) is, of course, rife with minefields. In that sense I do sympathize with the movie’s writer lamenting they were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. (And though it hardly needs be said, I know some ass is gonna complain so I’ll explain: the reason it’s seen as OK to race-swap a white character more than a non-white character is because white characters are more numerous…plus most traditionally white characters aren’t defined by their race — white was just the default — so it doesn’t alter them to swap their ethnicity 80% of the time. But most older non-white characters were very much defined by their ethnicity so changing them does alter them).

Anyway…

In the comics Strange has an Asian manservant named Wong, who calls him “Master.” In the movie they make Wong (Benedict Wong) a fellow sorcerer, arguably making it a stronger part. But…equally, by making him a fellow sorcerer, but Strange still the dominant sorcerer/hero, it arguably reduces Wong even more — making him simply an also-ran magician, rather than having a unique function in the narrative. In the 1978 TV movie, Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) is still Strange’s servant — but as I recall, is made a more significant, respectable character by serving a function that supplements Strange (almost like a coach in a sports movie). But, obviously, that’s a highly debateable point. I’m just arguing that bolstering a non-white character by making him an echo of the white character doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a better character.

While in perhaps a deliberate counter to the white-washing of The Ancient One, the film takes a traditionally white character, Baron Mordo, and casts black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (now simply Mordo, since the hereditary European title of Baron is less applicable). Here Mordo is presented as Strange’s friend whereas in the comic he’s a villain. However part way through the film I suspected where they were heading: namely re-fashioning Mordo in the manner of other comic book villains who started out the hero’s friend such as Magneto, Lex Luthor, Two-Face, etc. And sure enough, by the end of the film, Mordo has turned bad. So, again, damned if they do/damned if they don’t: they turn a white character black…but he’s a villain.

Now I want to take us in a slightly different direction — one that I’m not sure many commentators on the film have tackled (even those criticizing the racial stuff). And this is reflected in my sub-title about the “ugly American.”

III: AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM!

So the premise of the story is an arrogant surgeon is humbled and reborn as an altruistic sorcerer. Yet, funnily enough, the original comic (published in 1963 and presuming a more juvenile audience than the film) actually seems to tackle the scenario with more sincerity. For one thing, in the movie Strange is arrogant and abrasive…but still basically a decent guy (his biggest failing is his willingness to humiliate a fellow surgeon who misdiagnosed a case). In the comic? Strange is an out-right cad, specifically criticized for his greed and materialism (given recent debates over American health insurance, the movie’s decision to shy away from the profit-driven aspect of U.S. health care, and the way the comic damned Strange’s greed, is perhaps telling). But the point is: comic book Strange isn’t just arrogant…he’s a bastard.

Now I can understand why the filmmakers might have balked at that — worrying the audience (possibly unsure where the story was headed) would lose all respect for/interest in the nominal protagonist before his transformation into hero. (Or, as I say, not wanting to arouse the ire of right wingers by seeming to invest a political message into their film). But in light of later scenes it can equally feel like they weren’t prepared to grapple with the comics’ original point.

So in the original (8 page) comic book story Strange is humbled, broken, and goes to India and ends up at the temple. There he discovers fellow disciple Mordo is planning to kill The Ancient One. Instead of leaving the temple (as he had intended) Strange attempts to warn The Ancient One — despite, at this point, Strange having acquired no mystical power. In other words, his heroism is reflected in his motives, not in his ability to vanquish bad guys (Mordo casts a spell preventing Strange from speaking of what he knows). So not only has Strange become a better, altruistic person, but it is not through self-aggrandizing heroics that he proves himself, but through a more modest nobility. It’s a low-key story (which, admittedly, would be a bit dull stretched out to two hours!) — though also arguably moodier and creepier than the movie (Lee & Ditko obviously evolving the tale out of the horror/supernatural comics they had been producing a few years before).

Contrast that with the movie.

First off, Strange just wanders the streets of Katmandu until catching the attention of Mordo who then simply takes him to the temple, where he is instantly welcomed, offered tea (more on the tea in a bit) and presented with the key to the mystical universe, so to speak. It’s only because Strange is rude and dismissive that he is kicked out. Immediately he starts pounding on the temple door, begging/demanding to be let back in. Mordo then turns to The Ancient One and suggests Strange’s very arrogance is precisely what they need to shake up their moribund little order and so Strange is welcomed back in. Strange gets up to various hi-jinks, makes various sarcastic quips, and practices a forbidden spell. He is given a few token lectures about overcoming his ego…but then in the climax, Strange defeats the villain — by using the very forbidden spell he was told never to use!

Now obviously, some of this could be attributed to simply relying too much on lazy plotting (Strange’s easy entry into the temple) and formulaic clichés (heroes are often wise-cracking rebels who flaunt the rules).

But let’s unpack it.

American surgeon (who is more just arrogant and conceited than he is the outright bastard of the comics) is basically handed everything simply by asking or by throwing a tantrum and he triumphs over the villainy…by ignoring the rules.

In other words, instead of a story about an arrogant man who learns humility as was the theme of the comic — arguably the movie becomes a story about an arrogant American whose very arrogance and sense of entitlement is what makes him a hero. A movie concocted by a co-writer who complains about Social Justice Warriors and a director who seems to think all (fictitious) Asian characters look alike.

So now let’s look at the cultural provenance and how the modern movie compares with earlier takes on the theme.

IV: WHITE GUYS & ASIAN TEMPLES

Part of what stuck in my mind in some of those scenes is the contrast with the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu — also about a white guy who emerges a hero from an Eastern monastery. (Quick disclaimer: Kung Fu has a very special place in heart and psyche. I regard it as a singularly unique experiment in American television: its atmosphere, its surprisingly artful use of cinematography and music, its at-times challenging themes and approach to character nuance; I get a rush of nostalgia hearing the Chinese-flavoured theme music and seeing David Carradine trekking across the dunes. I’m not saying it can’t be criticized, merely I’m not the guy to do it properly).

Kung Fu has been criticized in recent years for some of the same issues as Dr. Strange — but I would offer a defence that the series, at worst, was a reflection of its time rather than some racist outlier (as I think some younger pundits believe). To my knowledge there had never been an American TV series starring an Asian actor to that point (and precious few with even black actors in leading roles). So to suggest that the filmmakers wilfully chose a white guy over an Asian is, I suspect, naive. If they had fought for such an idea, might it have changed TV? Possibly. But it’s equally likely the networks would’ve just passed on the series entirely. The fact that Bruce Lee is the name suggested as the possible alternate star is also mis-characterizing history — at that point Lee wasn’t an internationally famous movie star but just the guy who had played Kato for one season in the Green Hornet.

Indeed, I would argue the decision to make the hero half-white, and so David Carradine could play the role without make-up, was itself a progressive move because it’s not impossible the network executives would’ve been perfectly okay with a Yellow-Face make-up job (Christopher Lee’s last outing as Fu Manchu — in Yellow-Face — was 1969!) I would also point out that Kung Fu wasn’t about a white guy becoming better at an Asian system than the Asian guys. I don’t think there was any indication in the series that Caine was supposed to be uniquely superior to his fellow monks (at least anymore than how any hero of a TV series is supposed to be exceptional).

Anyway, my point about Kung Fu is that if nothing else, the series comes across as entirely sincere in its philosophical ambitions — many of the episodes genuinely exploring moral and ethical dilemmas through its semi-pacifist Buddhist hero in a way that I can’t think of any other series before or since doing. And in the opening episode, we see flashback’s to Caine’s entry into the monastery. Like Doctor Strange it involves scenes of Caine (and others) being locked out of the temple — but in Kung Fu, instead of throwing tantrums and pounding on the doors, Caine proves his worthiness by sitting quietly, meditatively, day after day, rain or shine, until he is allowed in. Then he, like Strange, is offered tea — but he refuses to drink. Why? Because it is disrespectful to drink ahead of your elder. It’s one more test/demonstration of Caine’s humbleness. So you can understand why I (admittedly, facetiously) noted Strange’s blithe drinking of the tea and thought: “Dude — you don’t drink the frigging tea! Everyone knows that!”

Another interesting antecedent of the movie, Doctor Strange, was 1994’s The Shadow, which also parallels Dr. Strange in that it involves an arrogant white American (Alec Baldwin) who is reborn as a hero in an Eastern temple. Except in The Shadow, Lamont Cranston isn’t just a bastard — he’s an evil warlord. But I would argue (and some might say I’m engaging in special pleading) they avoided some of the pitfalls of the Doctor Strange movie because, though we don’t really know why he was chosen for his conversion/redemption, it is mostly thrust upon him (as opposed to him just being a superior white guy) — and he continues his crime fighting in New York (perhaps allowing us to infer he was chosen, not because he was better, but precisely because they wanted to send him to the predominately white New York). There’s also — arguably — more of a sense that Cranston has been reformed/redeemed, that he is truly a different person after his time at the temple in a way that Strange doesn’t seem as much. In other words — there is more a sense of humbleness (including in how he reacts to learning of the death of The Tulku, as though genuinely losing someone important to him…or even when he self-deprecatingly remarks he speaks “just Mandarin” when Margo Lane acts impressed that he speaks Chinese; but I’m probably stretching a bit there).

(One could also note that while the Doctor Strange movie reduced the number of its Asian characters by race-swapping The Ancient One, The Shadow movie gives a prominent role to the Shadow’s Chinese-American agent, Dr. Roy Tam (Sab Shimono).)

Since I’m on the topic of white guys mastering Asian tropes, it’s perhaps worth also noting the recent Netflix TV series, Iron Fist — which was roundly thrashed by a lot of reviewers. Now Iron Fist had a lot of problems. It just wasn’t very good — though I’d buck some common wisdom and argue that with the exception of Jessica Jones, most of the Marvel Netflix series have been underwhelming. But Iron Fist was the most underwhelming-est. (Though I would offer one counter argument: some critics pointed to how star Finn Jones seemed too skinny. But I do wonder if that was deliberate. After all, the cliché of Martial Arts is that it allows a smaller person to beat up a bigger person. And knowing they intended to team the character with the other Netflix heroes in The Defenders — including Daredevil who has no physical superpowers but can also beat up a room full of bad guys — they maybe wanted Iron Fist to look unimposing…precisely to make him seem more bad-ass. But if that was the intent, they failed to convey it in the narrative).

One interesting point I heard made was that when Iron Fist was created in the comics in the 1970s — he was just one of a number of Martial Arts-themed characters. And, indeed, Marvel’s flagship Martial Artist was arguably the Chinese hero, Shang-Chi. So the white Iron Fist was only one variation on a Martial Arts theme. But jump to 2017 and he seems more conspicuous since he stands alone on the field.

But one could argue that Iron Fist (TV) also reflects aspects of Doctor Strange (movie) in contrast with their comics.

In the comic, as I recall, Iron Fist/Danny Rand was (like Caine in Kung Fu) given to spouting a few spiritual homilies and though he arrived in New York seeking revenge…it was tempered by a spiritual outlook. In the TV series, Danny seems, well, like a bit of a self-obsessed narcissist whose very self-focus is what makes him a hero. I’m oversimplifying, of course — there are criticisms of Danny’s bull-headedness (usually from the female characters played by Jessica Henwick and Rosario Dawson who, nonetheless, go along with him in the end) and Danny is supposed to be well-intentioned and goodly-hearted. But I just mean that, in a way, both the TV Iron Fist and the movie Doctor Strange don’t just adopt Asian tropes…but they then seem to deliberately reject the philosophical themes and tenets that the original versions (and series like Kung Fu) at least paid lip-service to respecting.

Dr. Strange, Kung Fu, Iron Fist, and even The Shadow, may well have used the white-guy-becomes-a-hero-by-learning-from-an-Asian-culture…but arguably Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie) and Iron Fist (the TV series) seem to argue these guys improve upon the Asian system with their American can-do exceptionalism, smug Yankee arrogance, and by side-lining Asian people even more.

In other words, these new interpretations don’t just perpetuate problematic clichés…but I would argue make then worse than the originals were. If the way these characters/stories are presented reflect their eras, what does that say about today?

Posted in Comic Books, Science Fiction & Fantasy | 2 Comments

Canadian Super Hero Names: Why the Heck are there all these “Red Ensigns”?

(Another of my irregular posts both looking at the history of Canadian comic book superheroes, and plugging my own contribution to the idiom — the prose story collections: The Masques Chronicles.)

I wrote in a previous post (What’s in a Name?) about how there’s a tendency when creating Canadian superheroes to come up with archetypal concepts and names (whether we’re talking the seminal Captain Canuck or even the American-published Canadian superheroes of Alpha Flight which included characters like Sasquatch and Aurora). Arguably this is to establish them as recognizably Canadian in contrast to the more prolific American superheroes.

But sometimes these names/concepts might seem cryptic if you aren’t familiar with Canada…or if you aren’t familiar with the idiosyncracies of comic book tropes.

An interesting case in point is — Red Ensign!

I’m aware of at least three instances in which the name Red Ensign was assigned to a Canadian superhero. I used a Red Ensign in my collection of prose superhero stories, The Masques Chronicles; Scott Chantler created a Red Ensign for the Chapterhouse anthology, True Patriot (2016); and apparently Mark Shainblum (of Northguard and Angloman fame) along with veteran artist Geof Isherwood toyed with creating a Red Ensign character wa-ay back in the 1980s!

At first glance that might seem like a really weird coincidence.

So let’s unpack the context. Prior to the 1960s and the adoption of the Canadian flag (the red/white/red with the maple leaf in the middle) the commonly used flag to represent Canada was known as the Red Ensign. A red flag with the British Union Jack in one corner (or Union flag I guess — according to a Dr. Who episode it’s only called the Union Jack when on a sailing vessel…something I guess even a lot of Britons don’t know!) and with a coat of arms representing Canada in the middle. Funnily enough, the Red Ensign isn’t exclusively a Canadian term (the red flag with the union flag in the corner was used elsewhere in the former British Empire) but Canadians tend to think of it as theirs (smug bastards that we are). The (Canadian) Red Ensign was, I believe, used unofficially as a Canadian flag (the official one simply being the British Union flag) for decades before it was adopted officially — and even after it was retired in favour of the maple leaf flag, a version of the Red Ensign is still used as the flag of the Province of Ontario.

So that explains the Red Ensign as a Canadian signifier.

Although the story takes a dark turn — apparently the Red Ensign has started to crop up among Canadian Alt-Right and White Nationalist groups, being parasitically co-opted by them in much the same way the cartoon Pepe the Frog was. Which is why, as the kids would say, we can’t have nice things. (The irony is that many of these Alt-Right/White Nationalist groups are actually international in their organization and funding — so wrapping themselves in a “patriotically” Canadian flag is disingenuous). At the moment it hasn’t been fully tainted — as mentioned, a variation remains the flag of Ontario — but it’s worth noting that certain groups are trying to get their grubby little paws on it. Oh, and since we’re on the topic, recently there has been some debate as to whether it’s okay to punch Nazis. I can’t answer that — but I will note that comic book superheroes literally rose to fame on the basis of fighting Nazis! And we just have to look to what’s happened now in the United States, and the U.K. for that matter, to see what happens when you’re polite to Far Rightists and neo-Nazis. End of political digression.

Anyway — back to the less gag-inducing side of the Red Ensign.

But even acknowledging the historical resonance of the Red Ensign, it might still seem curious that it keeps getting optioned as a superhero name. But the thing is: it sounds like a superhero name, featuring as it does two recurring cliches of superhero names.

1) A colour: Scarlet Pimpernel, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle, Black Terror, Chartreuse Fox (okay, a No-Prize — as Marvel used to say — for recognizing that one).

and 2) a military rank: Major Domo (obscure Canadian reference alert), Lieutenant Marvel (almost equally obscure American reference…though I guess it’d be Lewtenat Marvel), Captain…America, Canuck, Britain, Marvel, Atom, Comet, Victory, etc.

I mean, if you have any inclination toward superheroes it’s hard to see the name Red Ensign and not immediately think: “Gosh — look! It’s a snowy owl! It’s a bush plane! No! It’s…The Red Ensign!”

Perhaps equally interesting is how the name seems to suggest similar ideas to different creators. Being the pre-Centennial flag, it lends itself to historical concepts. So Scott Chantler’s Red Ensign — first presented in True Patriot, vol. 1 (2016) from Chapterhouse Comics and appearing in subsequent Chapterhouse publications — has his adventures in WW II, and is presented more as a super soldier, complete with military helmet (so I understand — to be honest, I haven’t yet read the character’s adventures; time and money being what they are at the moment…namely in short supply).

While Mark Shainblum and Geof Isherwood’s unpublished 1980s Red Ensign — at least as referenced in passing in one of John Bell’s history of Canadian comics, Invaders from the North (2006) — is described as being a “1940s-style character.”

Which brings us to the character I know best — namely, my own Red Ensign. And it’s an interesting demonstration of how a character concept evolves, changes, and blossoms.

It all gets back to a short story I wrote in 2014 called “Yesterday’s Man” which I submitted to the anthology Tesseracts Nineteen: A Superhero Universe (2016), edited by the above-mentioned Mark Shainblum with writer and editor Claude Lalumière (Claude also having edited an earlier prose superhero anthology — this time with Camille Alexa — called Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (2013) in which I had an alternate history superhero story published, “The Secret History of the Intrepids”). Anyway, “Yesterday’s Man” was held for consideration, but eventually Mark & Claude accepted another story of mine for inclusion in Tesseracts Nineteen (“Pssst! Have You Heard…The Rumour?”).

But it was from “Yesterday’s Man” that my whole Masques Chronicles project evolved. The premise of the story was that a contemporary superheroine teams up with an iconic 1940s hero to take on Far Right extremists (a premise that turned out to be uncomfortably prescient given the way the world’s gone in the last couple of years). There was a bit of a minor joke that could be seen as either very “Canadian,” or just “realist,” in that the modern heroine only has the vaguest idea who the supposedly legendary hero is (in truth, when Captain America was thawed out in modern times, rather than heralded as a “living legend” most people probably would’ve said: “Who?”) And part of the intent of the story was to hint at an entire decades-spanning Canadian superhero universe through cryptic references and allusions.

And it was from that that I thought: why just hint at it in one story? Why not actually try to explore it through a collection of stories?

Anyway, so for “Yesterday’s Man” I needed to come up with superhero names that sounded like the sort of vaguely corny names one might have devised for 1940s superheroes (during a time of war and patriotism). So the old time hero is The Loyalist (the United Empire Loyalists were those who stayed loyal to the British Empire after the American Revolution and fled to Canada) and oblique references are made to Le nouveau voyageur (ie: The “New” Voyageur) and…The Red Ensign, both characters long dead by the time of the story and only names on the page.

But when I decided to flesh out my so-called Masques Universe, including with stories set in the 1940s, I was faced with the task of actually putting characters to those blithely tossed off names. The development of Le nouveau voyageur is an essay in itself, but for today let’s stay focused on The Red Ensign.

Even with “Yesterday’s Man” I had already half-envisioned The Red Ensign as having been a youthful hero (“ensign” being a lower rank, it suggested a junior character). One who fought bad guys with gymnastics and a quip in the mode of sidekicks like Robin the Boy Wonder and Bucky Barnes (significantly different in the comics than he is in the movies) or lead characters like the 1940s boy-hero, Crimebuster. The “red” of the name also suggesting a bright, bold costume like Robin’s. So The Red Ensign became a jovial, wisecracking boy hero ala Robin, and the youngest member of The Daring Dominions (yet another Canadianism — Canada sometimes called The Dominion of Canada).

But something wasn’t quite right. There was something missing, I felt. Maybe the character was a little too much like Robin and Bucky and the others — less an homage than simply a cliché.

And then I was watching a Canadian sci-fi series called Dark Matter, about a group of characters in deep space. And one of them was played by Jodelle Ferland — a one-time child actress (jaw droppingly brilliant in the otherwise problematic oddity that was the movie Tideland) cast as a wide-eyed teenager. And that triggered something in my brain — and I thought: why not make The Red Ensign a tomboy? (Not that The Red Ensign is much like Ferland’s character in Dark Matter, but sometimes having an actor’s face in my mind nudges a character in a fresh direction).

Not only did this allow The Red Ensign to riff on the boy hero archetype while establishing her own distinct identity, but it actually helped smooth over a bit in one of the stories in which she appeared. Namely, in the story “A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea,” a sub-plot has The Red Ensign taking an interest in the romantic entanglements of two of her adult team mates — something that a boy character might dismiss as just mushy stuff. So in a way, I think the character always wanted to be a girl — but it took me a bit to realize that!

“A Princess of the Forest and of the Northern Sea” is actually one of my favourite stories in the collection (as you can probably tell by the overly florid title) — certainly I consider it one of the keystones of the collection, at least in how I try to tie together various themes, it being the first story (chronologically) that tries to play with a team of heroes, where their relationships and interactions are vital to the narrative (essentially treating them as people as much as heroes) and which tries to use the fantasy of superheroes to explore (if allegorically) certain contemporary issues. I also try the trick of seeming as though the story is about one thing — then veering in the last act to reveal it was always about something else entirely. Though I could well imagine some readers might consider it more bewildering because of all that.

Did I succeed? Did I fail? Heck, buy the book and decide for yourself (it’s included in vol. 1).

Anyway, The Red Ensign herself only appears in I think three stories in the two volume collection (including a later-day story where she is now a middle-aged divorcee in the Christmas-themed story, “Twas in the Moon of Winter Time” — yet another Canadianism, the title lifted from the iconic song, “The Huron Carol”).

So that’s my latest look at the idea of “Canadian” superhero names — and especially why a name like The Red Ensign keeps cropping up (and both the similarities and the differences between the versions).

I suppose one might ask, given the lag between when I first came up with The Red Ensign in 2014 and she finally saw print, and Scott Chantler’s version arose — wouldn’t it have made more sense to re-name her? Well, the problem is — once I’d named her, I kind of liked her with that name, I felt proprietary. Besides, it’s not like I ever envisioned a time when she would need to carry a book by herself or be used in the title (where copyright/trademark might be more relevant). And to be honest, as the whole point of this essay should make clear, there is a tendency for creators to latch onto Canadian-sounding names — sometimes for minor, throw-away projects. I already had a character named Captain Confederation (again: a Canadianism) which I changed to Confederation Man after discovering a satirical short story that used Captain Confederation (though it did allow me to give my re-christened hero a nickname: Con-Man). I couldn’t help thinking if I spent my time constantly re-naming my characters because someone, somewhere, had used it at some point…I’d be re-naming characters from now to judgement day! (Since at that point I had no way of knowing if Chantler’s version was a one-time throw away concept or something he tended to re-use).

Besides, by sticking with The Red Ensign it actually gave me a topic for this blog post, didn’t it? It also allows me to plug not only my books, but to promote Scott Chantler’s character, as well as to throw in a nod to Mark Shainblum, Geof Isherwood and others (maybe encouraging you to Google any number of things I referenced).

So, y’know — everybody wins.

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Dark Worlds Quarterly: looking at the past and present of genre entertainment

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog started out primarily focused on writing about Canadian film & TV — despite my having multiple interests, both personal and professional. The reasoning was (according to something I had read) blogs accrue more readers by focusing on a particular topic. But the fallacy with that, as I see it, is a lot of people reading my blog probably do so just because they were Googling something and a post of mine came up as relevant. And so if they want to read more about that particular topic, well, that’s why there’s a handy category menu to the right, as well as at the bottom of each post.

So in recent months I’ve expanded to writing about various things, including fantasy & SF, comics, and my own fiction writings.

And today I want to draw attention to a new on-line e-zine (available as a free PDF) called Dark Worlds Quarterly. Dark Worlds Quarterly is a non-fiction website/e-zine about fantasy and science fiction — yes, all of it. That’s kind of what makes it fun — it’s a grab bag gathering everything under its umbrella (if you’ll excuse the mixing of metaphors). So in the inaugural issue there’s an interview with comic book writer Don F. Glut (best identified with comics from the 1960s and 1970s), and a two-handed review of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 (it’s literally two reviews laid side by side of each other allowing for two perspectives in a kind of print version of movie critics TV shows dating back to Siskel & Ebert); there’re pieces exploring the works of Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague DeCamp and a piece ruminating on TV’s Doctor Who. And there’s a bit of multinationalism, too. The ezine is Canadian, so there’s a piece asking if there’s such a thing as “Canadian” SF, and another about a French comic, in addition to the more typical American/U.K. material.

It’s not unique to cast such a wide net, but I do think a lot of genre-focused magazines and webzines tend to be a little more narrow in their subject (much as it was suggested blogs should stay focused). So in that sense Dark Worlds Quarterly reminds me of what I used to enjoy about the old (but not forgotten) Starlog magazine — or at least certain eras of it (I’m specifically thinking of the 1990s/2000s) when it would put features about a sci-fi TV series next to pieces about a new comic book, splashy articles about up-coming movies with affectionate retrospectives interviewing some semi-retired genre actor from years gone by. In a way, the appeal of such concoctions is not that you’d be interested in every item, but that once you’d read the items you were interested in, you’d find yourself turning to the less exciting pieces…and sometimes find that was the true gem in the issue!

Not that Dark Worlds Quarterly is trying to be some sort of media magazine. In a way, it’s not unlike blog posts collected in a single issue. The e-zine seems to be basically the product of genre fiction writer, G.W. Thomas, and genre artist, M.J. Jackson (who also provides the appropriately pulp-style covers), who between them contribute most of the articles (with one or two exceptions). And a lot of the pieces (with the exception of things like the Don F. Glut interview) are essentially editorials and opinion pieces…but by two guys who clearly know the field, so they blend opinionated with informative. There’s an element of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (or grumpy middle-aged man) in that there’s some waxing nostalgically about the past (but since I’m a grumpy middle-aged man, I mostly get where they’re coming from) but, surprisingly, married with a recognition that not everything was rosy in the good ol’ days, acknowledging problematic sexism and the like of old pulps and comics. Which, again, fits with my belief that you can supprt something and still acknowledge its flaws (or equally dislike something but still recognize its good points). I mean, that’s basically been the entire philosophy of my Canadian film/TV writing (though I suspect it’s also why I’ve acquired few friends or supporters within that industry).

And, of course, the history is part of the point, I think: Thomas and Jackson aren’t Johnny-Come-Latelies to the genre who think Cthulhu originated in a video game or that George Pérez created Wonder Woman — they know the roots, the provenance. Dark Worlds Quarterly is fun for old timers who already know what Thomas and Jackson are writing about, but equally fun for younger readers who enjoy learning about that stuff (just as I remember enjoying Starlog and similar mags for how they would pull back a curtain on things from before my time).

But, as I say, they aren’t living in the past, many of the pieces tying into trendy films and franchises, if only by exploring the roots of the property (in addition to Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Who, the inaugural issue has pieces tying into recent major motion pictures with essays on the history of Wonder Woman and the French SF comic Valerian — although the essay was completed before the recent film version, so it only mentions a film is coming).

The research is mostly, I assume, common reference sources and, I suspect, prodigious memories. As such, sure, depending on how well you know the topics they might not offer anything too surprising — but again I get back to the variety of subjects, so you probably won’t know it all. Having just recently read Les Daniels’ Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2000) their piece on the rather kinky origins of Wonder Woman didn’t feature much that I didn’t know, but other articles explored topics less familiar to me — like a piece about an aborted attempt in the 1950s to try and turn Tarzan into a shared author franchise ala Conan.

As mentioned, the pieces are mostly part objective article and part opinionated essay, so you may or may not always agree with their points. But you can be informed by the facts, and then chew over the opinions. And even then, they tend to look things over from multiple sides — even sometimes contradictorily so (like a piece about sexploitation in old pulp magazine covers that both affects a modern, Feminist scepticism of it all, even as it is, well, an entire article devoted to lascivious magazine covers — a paradox Jackson himself freely, and good-naturedly, acknowledges). The pieces are just well written, too (and I say that as someone who, though I’ve been writing non-fiction pop culture pierces for years, still struggles to get the words to come out right — as, no doubt, this post is an example!)

I don’t know what the future holds for Dark Worlds Quarterly (though certainly a second issue is already being promoted). Whether they are hoping to turn it into some sort of self-supporting enterprise or whether (given it’s a free download with the only ads being for some of their own works) it’s mostly just done for the love and for the fun, but the first issue was certainly an enjoyable little read.

One disclaimer I should add is that I’m pretty sure Thomas and I, writing in similar genres, have on occasion shared a table of contents. And Thomas actually interviewed me for his own blog — that was how I discovered Dark Worlds Quarterly. This isn’t a tit-for-tat essay though. That interview with me is already on-line and I didn’t mention to Thomas that I was thinking of writing this before hand (though I’ll probably send him a courtesy link).

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Behind-the-Scenes: “The Monster of Gander (Newfoundland, of course)”

This is another one of my (irregular) posts looking behind-the-scenes at individual stories in my collection of Canadian superhero stories — which I’m posting, well, in the hopes you might stumble upon this blog, get mildly intrigued, and buy the book (and then maybe post your own review somewhere, ’cause I’d love to see how more people react to the tales). Originally the book was called Masques & Capes but I’ve actually revised and expanded it into a two volume series titled The Masques Chronicles.

So today — a magician battles a deadly creature in Gander, Newfoundland during World War II!

One of the things I like about Canada — one of its strengths both as a country, and as an “idea” (and a source of stories) is its very diversity. The second largest country in the world, broken up into various regions each with their own histories and idiosyncracies, and then marinated in the philosophy of multiculturalism. People sometimes scoff and say this very diversity and complexity means Canada has no defining identity. I would argue that is Canada’s defining identity.

And so part of the idea in my collection of stories was to deliberately embrace Canada’s diversity and complexity, the stories scattered from sea to sea to sea; I wanted the anthology to feel like a travelogue — and a romp through 20th/21st Century history — as well as being a series of adventures and mysteries. But I also like to mix n’ match things, too. Because, as I say: diversity and complexity is part of what makes Canada interesting.

Which brings us to today’s focus: the ominously titled “The Monster of Gander.”

Set in the 1940s during WW II, as the title implies it’s set in Gander, Newfoundland. At the time, Gander was an important location in terms of air travel (planes being less fuel efficient back then, they needed to stop at Gander before heading off to Europe, or when travelling from Europe into the North American interior). To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of Gander’s historical importance before I saw some CBC TV movies such as Gordon Pinsent’s Heyday! and Above and Beyond (starring Liane Balaban, Allan Hawco, Jonathan Scarfe and Richard E. Grant if memory serves). Since then I’ve realized that if you watch old movies about trans-Atlantic travel, Gander is referenced (such as the Jimmy Stewart movie, No Highway in the Sky).

Something I want to address at some later point in more detail is how little serious research I did for these stories. And I realize that sounds crazy! A collection of stories set in different decades, in different provinces, featuring heroes of different backgrounds — and I’m admitting I did little research? Wha-at??? But see, that was kind of my point. For years whenever I (or others) bring up the idea that Canadian stories can be set in Canada, often the braying response is “NO! It Can’t! There’s nothing interesting about Canada!” (Or my personal pet peeve: the ol’ “I can’t set my story in Canada because I don’t want to write about maple syrup harvesters!” argument). Soooo…I wanted (mostly) to draw upon casual, common knowledge in crafting these tales — to say look at what I could come up with without even trying too hard.

So, anyhoo, early on in the process of assembling these tales, I knew I wanted to do one set in Gander during WW II (I think “The Monster of Gander” was a title that popped into my head early). At one point I considered setting it at the RCAF base, but then decided on a hotel in the area, instead, and wrapping it around what is often called a “base under siege” plot. Snowed in during a blizzard, staff and guests find the hotel has been infiltrated by some unknown creature.

So now I had checked off both my regional and historical boxes with the Gander during WW II setting. But as I mentioned at the start, sometimes it’s nice to mix things up. So the narrator is a local Newfoundland girl, but other characters include international travellers, a black man from Africville (Nova Scotia), and the story’s nominal heroes: a French-Canadian woman and an English-Canadian man.

Now the whole idea behind my stories is mixing up both Canadiana and real world history and culture — with comic book tropes and archetypes. So now let’s look at the story’s heroes and their comic book roots.

Because this story is set during WW II, I wanted to riff on clichés and archetypes from that era of comics. And one archetype was the stage magician crime fighter. I think this began with the comic strip hero, Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician, but also included Fawcett’s Sargon the Sorcerer and DC Comics’ Zatara and I suspect a few others (many of these characters are still around today — or are otherwise represented, such as by Zatara’s daughter, Zatanna — but the mid-20th Century was I think their heyday). Often they shared traits: they were publicly known as stage performers (as opposed to wearing masks or operating in secret), often depicted in tuxedos and with suave mustaches.

So as an homage to this idiosyncratic sub-genre of superherodom, I decided to create my own version. And a story set at a luxury hotel seemed an ideal milieu for a “celebrity” hero (the character could be en route to entertaining the troops). At one point I considered swapping genders and making the magician a woman. But then I settled on the idea of a duo: a male magician and his female assistant (allowing for some reflection on past/present gender roles). I gave him the typical mustache, but went for a white tux as opposed to the usual black, and called him Shamano the Supernaturalist (deliberately riffing on the alliteration of Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, etc.). The slightly cheesy name Shaman-o, of course, for its Indigenous connotation. After all, part of the gimmick in these stories was both to tell stories to be read at face value (taking the characters and their adventures for themselves) but also self-reflectively, as if these really are old Canadian comic book characters. And Canadian pop culture has often drawn upon (or appropriated) Indigenous symbols and themes much more than American culture has. So I figured a “typically” Canadian 1940s spin on the idea of the American stage magician superhero might do something like that. Meanwhile, his lovely assistant is French-Canadian.

But, of course, I wanted to do more than just evoke Mandrake/Zatara/etc. After all, without its own unique spin, an affectionate homage can easily be just an unimaginative rip-of. So there are (hopefully) a few twists on the cliché.

As for the plot itself… As mentioned, it falls into the “base under siege” sub-genre. A group of characters in an isolated location (thanks to a blizzard) find themselves in danger. I tried to write the story in such a way that the threat escalates scene by scene (as first they think a wild animal is outside the building, then they realize it might be inside, then they fear it may be more than just an animal…). But also with some wry wit and some deeper themes.

I sometimes write in an almost cinematic way. And this seemed particularly appropriate in stories meant to riff on comic books (another visual medium). So I deliberately tried to write a few scenes in such a way that they unfold in the reader’s mind like a movie, as the characters come upon troubling scenes, or wander dark halls. Whether that always worked — I don’t know. Perhaps one of the most obviously “cinematic” scenes is when a cluster of people in the lobby hear the elevator activate and watch nervously as it slowly descends to their floor — unsure who or what is inside. It may not entirely work in a written medium, but I gave it a shot — and hopefully the reader will appreciate the spirit of the scene.

And of course beyond all the stuff I’ve articulated here, the story hopefully has some suspense, some wit, a plot twist or two, all while offering a few philosophical kernels to chew on…and is just an enjoyable little confection. At the very least: I’m guessing this is the first story ever written entitled “The Monster of Gander”!

See what you think: it’s included in the first volume of The Masques Chronicles.

Posted in Canadian film and TV, Comic Books, My Superhero book, Science Fiction & Fantasy | Comments Off on Behind-the-Scenes: “The Monster of Gander (Newfoundland, of course)”