September 23, 2003
D.C. Comics' slouch-hatted Phantom Stranger used to introduce each story with a little Rod Serling-esque speech. I remember this one introduction off by heart. It went something like this:
Men live by their history. It is the source of their identity. Deny a man his past and you are denying his present. Men call me the Phantom Stranger and wonder if I have a past. Not knowing, they doubt. And, doubting my past, they disbelieve my very existence.Now, as many of our discerning readers may already have surmised, The Supreme Plasmate (yours truly) hails from the Land of the Midnight Sun. That's right, Faithful Fiends, I am, born and bred, a Canuck. And the story I want to relate in this editorial is a story about history, and the past, and identity, and, I guess, existence, too -- my existence as a Canadian. It is about a quest that in some ways may seem pretty trivial, but which was important to me. Maybe it will mean something to you too. I don't know. We'll see.
To begin -- We Canadians are an incredibly insecure people. Oh, we pretend we think we're important, but, deep down, we feel very, very...small. Partly, this comes of living beside such a humongous behemoth like the United States. Almost all our television comes from the U.S. Almost all our literature is American. The songs we listen to, the clothes we wear, even our heroes...all American. It's pretty tough to compete. As a result, we spend a tremendous amount of time writing books and essays about "THE CANADIAN CULTURAL IDENTITY". By and large, these efforts involve a lot of hand-wringing, and a lot of reassuring words about how we really do have an identity, we just don't recognize it. For example, among average Canadians it is a truism that Canadian history is boring. Certainly, more boring than American history. Not so, those writers of essays and books reassure us. Our history is every bit as interesting as American history -- whereupon said writers launch into a long, boring list of dates and places and events that no one but a history professor would care about. Thus apparently proving the very opposite point.
Is it any wonder Canadians are insecure?
What those writers fail to grasp, one and all, is that the American history which everyone thinks is so exciting has, shall we say, been "colourfully embellished" . Don't misunderstand me -- certainly, it is based on real events. There really was a Billy the Kid. There really was a Wild West. But neither Billy the Kid nor the Wild West were anything like the way we imagine them, because the way we imagine them is the way they were portrayed in countless Hollywood movies and western dime novels. And I don't think I have ever seen a motion picture "based on a true story" that didn't take major liberties with the truth. In most cases, those liberties involved the addition of the very elements that made the story interesting and exciting.
Remember Tombstone? The climax where Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday gets up out of his deathbed for one final showdown with the main bad guy? Never happened. "But," I hear some of you contesting, "the basic core of the story was true." And so it was. In the end, though, when we say American history is "exciting", we mean it makes a good story, beginning, middle and end. Without countless little liberties taken in a movie like Tombstone, it would not have made a good story. I recall, for example, that in that movie the main band of bad guys all wore red handkerchiefs. I subsequently learned that not only were there no red handkerchiefs to coolly identify the bad guys, but there wasn't even a single, united band of bad guys against which Wyatt Earp and co. were fighting! These are simply details, but they are the details that push our buttons, that make us respond in a way that we don't respond when Professor Howie Droneson (take a moment) is lecturing us about the very same events in a high school classroom.
So, what am I saying? Am I saying Canadian history could be just as interesting as American history if we were willing to take liberties in the telling? Yes. Am I saying that we should lie about our history? No. Lying is wrong. But there is another alternative. Our view of the American identity (and history) isn't just created through "based on the true story" bio-pics. It is equally fostered, believe it or not, through out and out fiction. Everything from Tom Clancy's CIA to Stephen King's Maine are fictional constructs that nonetheless are so convincing as to shape our perceptions of what we think is the real CIA and the real Maine -- the REAL IDENTITY of America. The main reason Canadians lack an identity is because we lack a Tom Clancy and a Stephen King. We lack the sort of writers who are willing to say, To Hell with the truth, let's tell a rip roaring yarn!
And it isn't just compared to the U.S. that we Canadians feel insecure. Everyone on the planet seems to have an identity except us. But, here to, the hand-wringers fail to understand that what they take to be cultural identities are nothing more than fictional constructs -- stories which have been told so often we have come to believe they are the truth. Take Egypt, for example. What do you think of when you think of Egypt? You think of mummies and Pyramids and tombs and camels and desert. Right? Does that reflect the real Egypt? Believe it or not, most Egyptians can go their whole lives without ever encountering a mummy, or a tomb, or even seeing the Pyramids. They ride in taxis, not on camels. They probably encounter the desert about as often as we North Americans encounter the wilderness. All these things are there to be found, but they have been blown out of proportion to create an Egypt having little to do with the real country and everything to do with the overheated imaginations of fiction writers. It may be a lie, but it is a beneficial lie. And one which, told over and over again, comes to be the truth -- if you know what I mean.
This is what we Canadians are jealous of. This is what we want for ourselves.
Like most Canadians, I spent the better part of my life frustrated by this apparent lack of a cultural identity. And then, one day, I picked up a copy of James Oliver Curwood's Wapi, the Walrus (I swear I didn't make that title up!). Curwood was an American writer who wrote (extremely purple) romantic adventure novels in the 1920s and 1930s. I learned later that he had apparently been hired by the Canadian government to set some of his novels in the Canadian bush in hopes they might increase tourism. Not knowing this, I was amazed to find an American author had not only set an adventure in boring old Canada, but that he had written about my home in ways that made it sound like the most mysterious, most thrilling place on the planet. Even stranger, as I read about huskies and dog-sleds, trappers and prospectors, I felt an odd sense of familiarity, of coming home -- what writers sometimes call "resonance". It all seemed so...right.
For the first time, I began to think that, once upon a time, maybe Canadians had had an identity after all, but that somehow it had been lost.
I lacked a name for that identity but I could picture it just the same. Just as the Egypt of romance has its icons, like mummies and tombs (and curses!), so too could I list any number of icons which made up this mysterious Canadian identity. Dog-sleds, Malemutes, gold mines, lumber barons, French Canadian voyageurs (usually singing), whitewater rapids, forest fires, trappers, prospectors, fur traders, missionaries, bush pilots... the list went on and on. And, at the top of it all stood the proud, red-serge wearing figure of... the Mountie.
But though I could picture it all so clearly, I couldn't recall ever having really encountered this Canadian identity except in the vaguest sense over the years. As a kid, I watched a TV show called "The Forest Rangers" about a bunch of kids hanging out in a log fort having adventures while watched over by a Mountie. That was certainly one source of familiarity. Then too there was that Bugs Bunny cartoon set in the Yukon. (You know the one -- the French-Canadian lumberjack, Black Jacques Shellac, pulls the cork out of Bugs' popgun only to have it go off in his face: "Well, monsieu' Rabbeet, Am gonna pool your cork!") And there was Dudley Do-Right, of course. Beyond that I drew a blank.
So I began to research. I looked up books about Mounties and, sure enough, again and again, I found references to this same Canadian identity, usually made in a derogatory fashion, as something best left forgotten -- an unseemly skeleton in the closet. I found myself recalling the 1994 movie, The Shadow, starring Alec Baldwin. In that movie, Margot Lane tried to find out when a New York building called the Monolith had been torn down but instead encountered a bizarre mystery. Everyone seemed to remember that the Monolith was torn down, but, oddly, no one could remember when or why. (The Monolith wasn't torn down, but was rendered invisible -- they had been hypnotised not to see it.) In the same way, every source I consulted took it for granted that there had been a time when this Canadian identity was all the rage, but they were woefully vague about when this rage was. Nor could I find examples of this supposed rage. From time to time, I ran across a collection of Mountie short stories, but always I was disappointed. They weren't what I was looking for. There were Mounties, yes, but not adventures.
I began to wonder if the whole thing was a myth. Maybe there never had been a time when Canada was romantic (the government-financed Curwood aside). Maybe I was a fool to ever have believed there could have been. But then, how did I explain Dudley Do-Right and Black Jacques Shellac? Surely they had to be jokes on something, right?
Then, finally, just when I was ready to give up, I hit the motherload. I found a modern book by pulp-aficionado, Don Hutchison, called Scarlet Riders in which Hutchison had collected together twelve stories about Mounties published in the old Pulps. Not only were those stories everything I had ever imagined (a couple were even written by Lester Dent, who behind the pen name "Kenneth Robeson" was the chief writer of the legendary Doc Savage stories) but in Hutchison's introduction he finally put a name to that mysterious Canadian identity which I had sought for all those long, lonely years.
They were called "Northerns".
And they were big. Big even by the overblown standards of the Pulps. Of course, in their race to compete with rival publishers, the pulpsters didn't spare the horses when it came to diversity. There were pulps for just about everyone, covering just about every milieu, from "modern" adventures set in the Far East to historical thrills in the Wild West. And fairly early, in 1925, someone had the bright idea to try out a magazine featuring stories set in the Untamed North -- in the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada. The magazine was named North-West Stories, later changed to North-West Romances, and it took off like a dogsled on iced skis. Overnight a genre was born -- (really a sub-genre of the Western) -- featuring two-fisted stories inspired by the yarns penned by the likes of Robert Service and Jack London, set in the Canadian North and often detailing the thrilling exploits of scarlet-uniformed Mounties. And, oh, how those gaudy covers loved that blood-red tunic. Again and again they depicted steelly eyed Mounties with blazing guns valiantly rescuing fetching heroines against a backdrop of jackpines and birch. As often as not, with the faithful dog thrown in for back up.
As with all genres worthy of the name, the Northern had its established conventions. Every story featuring a Mountie had to refer to his red serge tunic, never mind that real Mounties didn't wear those dress uniforms while on patrol by the 1930s. And every reader knew how the Mounties wore their side-arms tied to a lanyard around their necks -- nothing could separate them from their revolvers except death! Then, it was a rare story indeed that did not feature some variation on the Force's famous credo, a credo as familiar to wide-eyed readers as The Shadow's "Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men".
"The Mounties always get their man".
Even now, it's hard for me to believe there was a time when Canada meant adventure and romance, when kids dreamed of growing up and joining the famous Force, when the Canadian bush seemed alive with danger and possibilities, the last place on earth that promised freedom and mystery. But that's just how it was. North-West Romances was one of the longest running pulps in pulp history and it was eventually imitated by the likes of Complete North-West Novel Magazine and Real Northwest. Later still, Hollywood got in on the act and, for a time, hardly a month seemed to go by that didn't see the scarlet tunic depicted on the silver screen.
And then, like the pulps themselves, the bubble burst. I don't know why the Northern disappeared. Most likely it was a victim of its own success. It became a cliche and, from a cliche, it became a joke. It became Dudley Do-Right and Black Jacques Shellac. Nowadays a Mountie hero provokes laughter and that's a shame because, like the Western from which it was born, the Northern was a legitimate story-telling form, with its own themes and idioms. The Northern often explored the theme of duty versus emotion as time after time the Mountie hero tracked down a fugitive only to find said fugitive was a) innocent because of mitigating circumstances or b) related to a heroine whom the Mountie had fallen in love with. And just as the Western was often about a lone hero fighting corrupt forces in control of a small town, so was the Northern often about "the chase" -- as a lone Mountie doggedly pursued his quarry sometimes for years through unimaginable hardships until at last he "got his man". Of course, the Western too ran out of steam some time in the 1960s, but at least it is fondly remembered. Not so the Northern -- when it is remembered at all.
But we at PDF remember. It was because of my interest in Northerns that my co-editor "Drooling" D.K. Latta (bless his little Orcish heart) wrote a serial called "The Monster on the Tundra", featuring his albino Mountie, Corporal Kit Thunder. At present we are publishing a second Corporal Thunder serial, "Secrets of the Lost Valley". I hope you find them both as much fun as I did. And even yours truly has attempted to contribute to the canon with the bush pilot adventure of "Pontoon" Jack in Hell Hath the Hindenburg. But, as I hope I've indicated with this editorial, to me these stories mean something more. Of course they aren't a REAL depiction of Canada, just as the Pulps were never a REAL depiction of America, but they serve a purpose just the same. I can't put it into words except to repeat that speech by the Phantom Stranger with which I started this essay:
Men live by their history. It is the source of their identity. Deny a man his past and you are denying his present.It isn't real, no -- but then, sometimes the difference between what was real and what was myth can be exceedingly fine. Consider a story I ran across that apparently was quite popular during the Yukon goldrush. Whether it was true or not is anybody's guess. It goes something like this:
The Yukon gold rush took place on Canadian soil, but the majority of "stampeders" were from the U.S. To ensure that Canadian law was maintained, Ottawa sent in the Mounties who established stations at the mountain passes where one of their jobs was to confiscate guns. At one such station, a particularly troublesome fellow didn't take kindly to a Mountie taking his guns and he let the sergeant know it in no uncertain terms. Belligerently he snarled, "I can't take my guns with me? I can't? Like hell I can't! What happens if I say to blazes with your laws? What happens if I just take back my guns and decide to shoot up this whole damn place just for the hell of it? What happens then?"
The Mountie regarded the man for several long thoughtful moments, without speaking. Then he calmly took up the guns off the desk and handed them back to the troublemaker. In a mild voice the Mountie said: "Let's find out."
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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