A review of “Beyond: The Quest for Meadan”

A review:

Beyond: The Quest for Meadan 2015 (SC TPB) 64 pages

Written by Richard Comely, Jacqueline St. Aubin, Jean-Claude St. Aubin. Illustrated by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, George Freeman.

This collection includes new material, plus reprints stories originally published in Captain Canuck (1st series) #9-12, 14

The comic book medium is full of sagas that get resolved in somewhat compromised circumstances. Perhaps the creative team departs a story in mid stream, leaving it for another writer to bring it to a resolution (perhaps with only the vaguest idea where the original writer had been headed) — or perhaps the dangling threads of a cancelled series are tied up in an entirely different character’s comic.

Which brings us to…Beyond!

Okay, not exactly up there in the annals of “unfinished classics,” perhaps. Beyond was a sword & sorcery series occupying the back pages of the Canadian super hero comic, Captain Canuck, toward the end of that series’ early 1980s run. In a deliberate contrast to the super hero/sci-fi flavour of the lead series, Beyond was Hugh Fantasy and its serialized saga was left unfinished by Captain Canuck’s then-cancelation.

Jump ahead over thirty years and Captain Canuck himself has been revived by Chapterhouse Comics, a Canadian comic book publisher attempting to shoulder its way into the market with a multitude of titles and properties. A multitude which includes this graphic novel/TPB — Beyond: The Quest for Meadan — which collects the original chapters from Captain Canuck, an unpublished instalment intended for Captain Canuck’s 15th issue…and 15 brand new pages to wrap up the storyline.

Now before I get into the proper review, I should provide full disclosure. Reading the collection’s introduction by writer Richard Comely, I came upon a weirdly familiar passage — and then I realized it was familiar because I wrote it! Yup! I’m quoted in the book (from an entry on Beyond I wrote for my Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page). Talk about…surreal. (Occasionally people have cited me in on-line articles, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been quoted in print before).

Anyhoo…onward…

Beyond stands as a mixed bag — both in terms of the original material, and in terms of this collection. For one thing, you have to consider it in terms of its original presentation as a short back up series. Beyond was a quirky and impressive tour de force of imagination — not just in terms of super hero comics, but even in comparison to the (few) fantasy comics around at the time (such as Conan, Doug Moench’s Weirdworld stories, and a few others). However collected here it can feel a bit abrupt at times — with sometimes clumsily expositional dialogue as it rushes breathlessly from one plot twist to another. It’s best read like a collection of some old newspaper adventure strip, recognizing the goal was just to keep the pages flipping. (It’s good they maintained the original chapter breaks rather than editing them into a seamless “graphic novel,” as it reminds the reader the story was meant to unfold episodically).

Beyond threw together errant knights, pan-like goat men, armoured pig-men (called, appropriately, pigmees), evil wizards, man-eating giants, and other bizarre creatures, told with a mixture of serious drama and tongue-in-cheek silliness, of action-adventure heroics and fairytale logic (including characters undergoing mysterious metamorphoses). It was Lord of the Rings by way of Alice in Wonderland.

The saga begins abruptly with the village of Meadan swallowed by mysterious darkness, leaving only three survivors: Lady Elodil, the beautiful, strong-willed lady warrior — interesting both in (A) that she’s a fighter at a time when fantasy heroines tended either to be damsels in distress or, on the opposite extreme, hyper-aggressive she-devils-with-a-sword and (B) she’s a black woman in a genre not exactly known for racial diversity; Fen, a more demure girl; and Rion, the cynical pan-like goat man. And they immediately encounter the wise dwarf Sanydynar and the knight, Sir Brant — the latter struck blind by the same evil that stole the trio’s village. The five set off to confront Ghi-Baal, the evil wizard responsible for their misfortunes.

And it just gets weirder from there.

Visually I can’t say enough about the original chapters. Drawn by Jean-Claude St. Aubin, whose contribution to the main Captain Canuck series was mostly as inker, colourist, letterer, etc., on Beyond he showed he was no slouch with a pencil…nor in the imagination department. And versatile, to boot. St. Aubin was there for the heroic archetypes of Sir Brant and Lady Elodil…and the whimsy of snail men and weird monsters…and the intersection of the two with the pigmees who somehow managed to be comically absurd and yet also serious and expressive. (And there was even an unusual hyper-realism to some of it: Brant, with his salad-bowl haircut, bristly mustache, and finely rendered armour and mail, looked like he’d actually stepped out of the Middle Ages rather than being re-conceived for contemporary fashions). And all of it was set against this fantasy landscape (I’ve often said that visuals are more important to creating mood in fantasy comics than in conventional super hero comics). And there was some interesting composition — such as the landscape broken across multiple panels that opens chapter two, to the stylish arrangement detailing Brant and Elodil’s almost-kiss in chapter four, to the way the pages are broken into two parallel sequences in chapter three. Sometimes short-chapter comics encourage narrative experimentation to make the most of the fewer pages, such as is seen most famously in Will Eisner’s the Spirit or Goodwin/Simonson’s Manhunter.

And let’s not forget the rich colour. Sure, it can seem a bit muddy in spots (especially in this reprinting) but it was ground-breaking stuff at the time. Go ahead, compare and contrast it with any Marvel or DC comic from that era and you’ll see what I mean.

But over-praising a story can be just as damning as criticizing it (by raising expectations too high). So I reiterate the series had its short-comings, too — at least in part a result of trying to cram a lot into limited pages.

There’s also a big problem, not with the original stories — but with how Chapterhouse has represented them. Namely: pages are missing from the original stories! The final two pages are missing from the opening chapter (which as it was only eight pages to begin with means 25% has been cut!). This is the most glaring omission as it makes for a confusing cut to chapter two — it also loses, arguably, an important line in defining the relationships when Sanydynar remarks the mismatched group is meshing together like a team. Page 6 is missing from chapter two — its omission hurts the flow of the story less, but it was a nice action page establishing Lady Elodil as Sir Brant’s equal in a fight. And the last page is missing from chapter four — a revelatory splash page where we first see Vertibas (a character for whom they had been questing). Why these pages were cut — I don’t know. Was it an editorial decision? (If so, they were poor ones) Was it simply goofs in assembling the pages for reprinting? Or were they cut for space consideration? (The TPB includes house ads, character profiles, and a map…most of which could’ve been cut to allow for more story pages). Given this was a collection some 35 years in the making, and its success (or failure) would determine whether new adventures of Beyond get the greenlight, you’d think they’d take a bit more care.

Anyway, on with my review of the material itself…

The original Beyond saga stopped in mid-plot — with one chapter completed but unpublished, and the rest of the story unwritten. Now, decades later that lost chapter has been included, plus with a brand new 15 page conclusion written by Richard Comely and illustrated by George Freeman.

Unfortunately, this is where things get problematic. Both men have a legitimate claim to the series — Comely scripted the first few chapters, and Freeman acted as editor. But I think there’s no doubt St. Aubin was a driving creative force (and his wife, Jacqueline, assumed the scripting from Comely). But neither of the St. Aubins seem to be involved with these new pages. And the original story was conceived over three decades ago anyway. In short: I suspect Comely & Freeman might be coming at the material with only a vague memory of what was intended originally.

At least it feels that way. The story moves in directions that don’t entirely seem consistent with what went before. And instead of keeping the focus on this intimate little band, the story expands to make it part of some bigger conflict of armies (perhaps to give the climax more of an epic feel). Conversely, maybe Comely & Freeman did remember where the story was headed…and maybe are cramming material into their fifteen pages that was meant to be developed over more pages (in chapter six, a passing reference is made to a missing good wizard named Argos — yet they find him with little effort in the concluding section).

And by the end, it feels like some things aren’t really explained. I wonder if that’s because they wanted to leave things still dangling for a sequel. Or maybe I’m just dense. In the end Rion says he still doesn’t understand why they were spared when Meadan vanished and is cryptically told: “You haven’t figured that out yet?” I can’t decide if that was supposed to be enigmatic or whether they assumed the explanation was obvious.

Plus Freeman’s art lacks the dynamic composition of St. Aubin’s pages (Freeman using a lot of medium and long shots). That may be due to trying to cram a lot into the limited pages — or possibly a stylistic choice, perhaps aiming for the reserved elegance of someone like P. Craig Russell. I mean, it’s still attractive work (I am, after all, in general a George Freeman fan).

The result is a mixed bag. The new conclusion at least allows the story to be a story (no one would’ve reprinted it as an “unfinished saga”). But after over three decades, it can feel a bit disappointing. But this is hardly unique to Beyond. As I began this review saying: there’s a long history of this in comics, often to equally mixed effects (an example that jumps to mind is Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes brilliantly enigmatic Omega the Unknown given a fairly conventional conclusion penned by Steven Grant; or even Jack Kirby’s attempted conclusion to his own New Gods saga 15 years later with the Hunger Dogs).

And maybe I bring that three decade baggage with me. To a modern reader, reading this for the first time as a single volume, it’s an enjoyable romp full of whimsy and imagination. And while I may quibble about the climax — it’s certainly briskly-paced and with lots of action. And it’s probably especially fun for younger readers, the saga having a pleasing “All-Ages” vibe.

SPOILER TIME: Mostly I write reviews for people who haven’t read a book (but are thinking about it) but equally I like to expound on things for those as have read it, and are interested in someone else’s take. So I just wanted to comment on the “new” ending to the saga and the choices Comely et al made and how they line up with what was implied before.

For one thing, chapter three seems to end with the pigmees breaking with Ghi-Baal, hinting at complications to come…but for the conclusion the pigmees are once again loyal to Ghi-Baal. Meanwhile Sanydynar is revealed to be a villain in disguise, which was certainly foreshadowed in earlier chapters. However I wonder if the original plan was to have him be revealed as Ghi-Baal himself, rather than as simply someone working for Ghi-Baal (the incongruous shadow Sanydynar casts — page 3, panel 3, chapt. six — looks like Ghi-Baal’s silhouette). Which might have made for a better revelation (rather than throwing in a whole new element in the climax). A mystery throughout the saga is why Ghi-Baal targeted Meadan in the first place…the implication being there was something significant about the town; a theory further reinforced by Ghi-Baal’s seeming fixation on capturing Elodil, Fen and Rion (townfolk) but seeming to have less interest in Sir Brant (a passer-by). And given Fen’s mysterious metamorphoses, and Elodil’s equally unexplained manifestation (though it’s unclear from the visuals if she changes, or she animates inanimate objects) I wondered if the point would be the town was some wellspring of magical energy that Ghi-Baal was trying to tap — perhaps he had to eliminate the town in order to access its magic, but so long as anyone from the town was free, they would inherit the energy (hence why Fen and Elodil suddenly find themselves exhibiting magical abilities they didn’t previously possess). And despite the romantic tension hinted at between Elodil and Brant, nothing comes of it in the end. All of this is neither here nor there. Just me idly musing on ways the story could’ve gone (and might well have been intended to go, if not for the unintended three decade hiatus).

END SPOILERS.

I should just throw in a personal plug. Part of the reason I’m reviewing this here (as opposed to my graphic novel review website) is also for a bit of self-promotion. I’ve put together a few collections of (prose) Canadian superhero stories and I’m thinking if you’re the sort of person tooling about the internet looking for reviews of Beyond (a Captain Canuck back up feature) you might be the sort of person interested in my stories. So — plug, plug. I put the collections together but have had some curious and weird reactions to them. This included a Canadian comic book publisher who expressed interest in publishing my stories and with whom I traded e-mails for months, the editor repeatedly assuring me they were definitely going to publish them…until it became obvious to me that nothing was going to happen (and I still don’t know what was going on behind-the-scenes). Anyway, I’m still trying to reach that magic sales number where people start posting reviews (’cause I’m really interested in knowing how people react to the stories). Anyway…that’s me throwing in a little “ad” for my books.

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My Story in Strange Economics

Now and then, in the name of self-promotion, I dig a little behind-the-scenes into some story I’ve recently had published. I initially did this to promote my superhero book collections (plug-plug) but I also write about stories published elsewhere. Depending on your interest in writers writing about writing, these pieces may be boring…or they may pique your curiosity to seek out the tales in question.

So, today: “Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel” which appears in the recently published SF anthology Strange Economics (an Ichythosaur is a pre-historic sea beastie, but I’m guessing you know that).

Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel is actually a story I wrote a few years ago. You know how some writers say you should keep sending a story out, even if it gets rejected? And how, deep down inside, you figure that’s probably stupid, because if it keeps getting rejected it must not be very good? Well, I guess sometimes the advice is correct. After all, each rejection just represents someone’s opinion, nothing more. Heck, I’ve had stories that have been rejected multiple times, but which various editors will tell me would’ve made the final cut if they had had one extra slot in the publication, or once or twice I’ve been told there were “heated” arguments among the editors in defence of my story. The demarcation between being published and being rejected can be, it seems, gossamer thin at times.

Of course if you’re going to keep sending a story out, despite multiple rejections, it helps if there aren’t any egregious issues with it (ie: if multiple editors cite the same flaws it probably behooves you to listen to ’em) and, equally important, that you like and believe in the story yourself. Which is the case with Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel (admittedly, I partly just dug the title!).

Sometimes it can just be a matter of finding the right niche, the publication/editor who is looking for that thing you were doing. In fact, Have Ichthyosaur was actually the second story I found a home for after years of rejection within the last twelve months, in part because a publication was looking for something particular (that other story was the fantasy tale “The Maiden’s Path” which finally saw print in Lackington’s Magazine, which I write about here — and, to a slightly lesser extent as it had undergone significant rewrites, my pulp adventure story “Last Stand for Lucifer’s Legion” which saw life in Crimson Streets and I delve Behind-the-Scenes here).

This time the niche in question was an anthology entitled Strange Economics, edited by David F. Shultz and available at Amazon and elsewhere — a collection of SF and Fantasy tales revolving around economics. Multi-author short story collections are a popular field, allowing readers to sample a variety of voices and styles between a single cover (or like getting a DVD boxed set of Twilight Zone episodes). But it helps to have a theme: dragon tales, first contact stories, etc. So Strange Economics settled on the theme of commerce and economies in different imagined times and far flung settings, ranging from hard SF to magic, from grimly serious to whimsical and humourous.

Of course, as always with such “themes” the trick isn’t just how the authors play within the confines of the subject matter…but how they tweak it, twist it, and push it to its Outer Limits (pun intended).

In the case of Have Ichthyosaur, Will Travel it’s partly a story about economics…but it’s about a lot of other things: human nature, the environment, conspiracies. It tries to be both wryly satirical, slow brewing suspenseful, quirky, poignant, and, ultimately, unsettling. Viewed one way — and without giving too much away — it could be viewed as a kind of cynical take on Jurassic Park (or The Lost World — Doyle’s original, that is, not the Jurassic Park sequel) imagining a future where Dinosaurs are reintroduced to the modern world and become big business. We see this through the eyes of a journalist, Marco, who covers the story as it unfolds over weeks and months, but he also begins to perceive hints of another, darker scandal lurking underneath…

But I don’t want to say too much (you’ll have to read the story).

As I mentioned, the story first saw genesis some years ago, but the finished version also boasts some up-to-date rewrites. The editors suggested the opening scene could use some punching up. I initially quibbled, since the low-key, deadpan opening scene was deliberate. But I dutifully took another swing at it and tried to come up with something a little more punchy. Lo and behold, yeah, I think the new version works better — it kickstarts the story, adding more energy and drama. Not just to the one scene, but rippling through later scenes, too.

At the same time, because I wrote the story awhile ago, there are ways I’ve perhaps changed and, if anything, become more cynical. A central figure is a mysterious business tycoon, Everett Colan — I say central although he only appears in a couple of scenes, but his shadow falls over the entire story. I describe him as being young middle-age but with white hair and dressed all in black; I think I was sort of picturing Anglo-Canadian actor Nigel Bennett (bleached hair circa Forever Knight) garbed in Leonard Cohen’s wardrobe! Originally I was envisioning him as a suave, all-powerful uber-businessman, part Tony Stark, part James Bond villain-type (though whether he’s malevolent or simply morally ambivalent is something you’ll have to learn reading the story). But I think I’ve become even more cynical about such tech-bro oligarchs — the Elon Musks, Mark Zuckerbergs, and others of their ilk. I think Tony Stark (and James Bond villains) have fooled us into thinking they are a lot smarter, a lot cooler, and a lot more on the ball than they actually are. And I think this affected the rewritten opening scene, where Colan becomes a little less austere than he was in the original draft, and a little more showy and gauche (I mean, he’s still more Tony Stark, intellectually, than any real-world counterpart).

Anyway…see what ya think of the story. As I say: it tries to run the gamut (in just a few thousand words) of being wryly sardonic and darkly serious, and hopefully offers fresh twists on the dinosaurs n’ people theme. I mean, heck, given the revival of Jurassic Park with the Jurassic World movies, the story might appeal to you if you like those movies (I mean, purely thematically — it’s a socio-political short story, not a summer action movie!)

And even if you don’t like my story, there are plenty of others on display in the book by writers undoubtedly better and more talented than I. So you’re bound to find a few tales that’ll be worth a re-read down the line. I’ve only started on the anthology myself, so I won’t offer any overall opinion. But just the first two stories alone give a sense of the variety on display. “The Slow Bomb” by Neil James Hudson is a melancholic SF tale positing an eerie technology involving slow weapons, like a planet-devastating bomb that can be dropped…but won’t actually impact for decades, so whole generations of humans can grow up with this doomsday literally hovering over their heads. On the opposite end is “The Rule of Three” by Steve Dubois a humourous urban fantasy story where a small magic shop run by real witches and fairies finds itself struggling when a global franchise big box magic store moves into the neighbourhood.

Something for everyone I reckon.

So check out Strange Economics, edited by David F. Shultz.

(Oh, and while you’re here: check out my books of Canadian superhero adventure, S&S, and the non-fiction collection of my often controversial Canadian film & TV essays!)

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

The First Superhero — Jimmie Dale, the Gray Seal?

As readers of this blog know, among my varied interests are superheroes and pulp fiction, as well as Canadian pop culture. Interests that converge in the character of Jimmie Dale, created by early 20th Century Canadian writer Frank L. Packard.

Jimmie Dale — The Gray Seal! — is widely considered the prototype of the masked mystery man hero…and by extension, the superhero archetype. And I have an essay about the character on-line at the Rage Machine Books blog (it was initially on Dark Worlds Quarterly, the webzine/e-zine about SF, fantasy, pulp fiction put out by Rage Machine, but has been moved so I’ve up-dated the link!) If you’ve never heard of Jimmie Dale/The Gray Seal you should check out my piece — I think you’ll find it fascinating and eye-opening. And even if you have, I think I offer a few observations and inferences you might find intriguing (as I consider both how the character is like later characters in the genre…but also unlike them).

Dark Worlds Quarterly (and the Rage Machine blog) also has other nifty pieces (including recent postings about SF writer Edmond Hamilton and a piece looking at an early Batman comic co-written by a couple of well known SF writers!). My relationship with DWQ is kind of through the back door as I was initially interviewed by them for a piece, but subsequently they’ve accepted a couple of essays by me (including an essay considering the possible racial metaphors in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian books).

Anyway, if you’re interested in Jimmie Dale, superheroes, pulp fiction, or Canadian roots of western pop culture check out my piece.

(Oh, and shameless plug: I’ve also written my own available fiction, including some story collections about Canadian superheroes).

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

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 | Comments Off on Reviewing and pondering “True Patriot Presents”…

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 | Comments Off on Reviewing: True Patriot (“Canadian Comic Book Adventures”)

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.

Posted in Canadian film and TV | Comments Off on Does Canadian Film & TV Have its Own Hollywood-Style Sexual Predators?

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?

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