The Beginnings of Superheroes...
The American art form...that was created by Canadians!


O.K., that sub-heading is intended to be a bit, ah, incendiary. But it's not altogether untrue, either.

In Canada we have a long history of, well, not succeeding at certain things we try. So, in order, to cover over our failings, we suggest that such failings are cultural. To whit: comic books and comic book superheroes. Long ago I read an article published in the Toronto Star about an exhibit being staged at the Museum of Caricature in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The exhibit was a retrospective looking at Canada's uneven history of superhero comics, from Johnny Canuck and Nelvana, to Captain Canuck himself. The writer of said article concluded by suggesting that the frequent failures of Canadian superheroes wasn't because of  financial and distribution handicaps, but because it just wasn't our bag, that costumed super-types sprang strictly from an American psyche. Canadians were more inclined toward art-house comics like Yummy Fur and others. This is, of course, the same argument used by filmmakers and the like to justify our lack of a commercially successful cinema.

The flaw with this argument is this: the Canadian public is a huge consumer of American pop entertainment. Proportionately speaking, we see more American movies than Americans, and (at least at one point) were such huge consumers of American comics, that Marvel Comics created Wolverineas a kind of tip-of-the-hat to the Canadian readership. Saying that Canadians aren't into superheroes is blatantly untrue and, dare I say it? even elitest -- defining a culture, not by the people, but by the elite (and the elites' failure to win the favour of the people). Not to mention the fact that Canadians like John Byrne and Todd McFarlane are major players in the modern U.S. comic book industry!

Besides, Canadians practically invented superhero comics!!! (Now's the part you were waiting for, eh?)

Firstly, as most people are aware, Superman was co-created in 1938 by Canadian-born Joe Shuster (cousin of Frank -- and if you don't know who that is, ask any Canadian about Wayne & Shuster). In the early days of the Superman comic book, the Canadian connection was even more blatant. Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, originally worked, not at the Daily Planet, but the Daily Star, which Shuster claimed was an intentional homage to the Toronto Star (for which he used to deliver papers as a kid). As well, apparently the skyline of Metropolis was modeled after the Toronto skyline (and let's not forget the Fortress of Solitude, which was originally in the Canadian arctic). Superman is credited as having practically created the comic book superhero genre. Sure, there were a handful of others before him, but he was the most successful, and was largely the first of the "super"-powered characters that would come to define the genre. Superman, I should also hastily point out, was a joint creation between Shuster and American Jerry Siegel (just to be honest).

But wait, there's more.

Hal Foster has been called the father of the adventure strip. When he introduced the Tarzan newspaper strip in 1929 (premiering simultaneously with Buck Rogers), based on E.R. Burroughs' novel, it was the first time comic strips had been used to tell a dramatic, action-adventure story (the genre which pretty well dominates comic books today). He later went on to create the classic Prince Valiant, and his realist, detailed art is still revered to this day. Need I say that Mr. Foster was a Canadian?

But wait, I've saved the best till last!

Comic book superheroes owe their origins to Pulp magazine characters like Doc Savage, Zorro, and the Shadow. But to what -- and to whom -- do the pulp heroes owe their origins? What originated the idea of the mysterious crime fighter? I'm sure the genesis is varied and complex, but what pundits seem to agree on is that the acknowledged archetype for the costumed crime fighters of the pulps was...Jimmie Dale a.k.a. The Gray Seal, who prowled the streets of New York, USA starting waaaay back in 1914. The Gray Seal was created by Frank L. Packard...another Canadian!

(Belated addendum: I recently wrote an essay about Jimmie Dale a.k.a. The Gray Seal for the on-line magazine Rage Machine Books blog -- you should check it out, 'cause it really is a fascinating topic).

Of course, what you notice about all these entries is that they were published by American publishers and none were actually set in Canada...a problem that plagues much Canadian commercial entertainment to this day (and why Captain Canuck is such a welcome relief).

Obviously, these were only part of the foundations of the superhero genre as we know it today...but they were clearly significant foundations, keystones, even. Who knows what might have happened, and what might have become of the medium, if not for the likes of Shuster, Foster and Packard?

So if anyone smugly suggests Canadians don't know how to do superhero comics, or that maybe it's not in our nature, just remember...we helped create the darn genre to begin with!

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