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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Aug 21, 2005

Up, Up, and Away... Eh?

"Superman never made any money
saving the world from Solomon Grundy..."
Crash Test Dummies, "Superman's Song"

Recently, my brother and co-editor, "Drooling" D.K. Latta, had another one of those bizarrely irrelevant yet oddly insightful epiphanies to which he is prone from time to time.  (Don't worry.  We just roll him on his side and make sure he doesn't choke on his tongue.)  As we all know, Superman hid his identity behind a pair of glasses, concealing himself behind the "alter-ego" of mild mannered reporter Clark Kent.  But (mused my brother) what the comic book writers should really have done is had it be that everyone recognized that Clark Kent was the spitting image of Superman -- but it would be for that very reason that they would be certain he was the last person Superman could really be.

Think about it.  I mean, who would be stupid enough to use a pair of glasses for a disguise, then take a job as a high-profile reporter if he wanted to stay hidden!?!  I am reminded of one X-Files episode where aliens paid a visit to some poor human sap, but, to make sure no one would believe his story, one of them was disguised as Alex Trebek.  So, the guy is trying to convince Mulder and Scully he didn't dream the "encounter" and he gets to the part about how one of the aliens looked exactly like Alex Trebek...

Anyway, speaking of super-types....

Back in 1995, the Canadian Post Office published this press release:

"Heeding Canada Post Corporation's call for assistance in promoting 'October is Stamp Month' this year, Superman and four other Canadian Comic Book Heroes will be joining forces on a set of stamps October 2nd. The stamps...will salute the following Canadian Crusaders: Superman, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck and Fleur de Lys. Super hero T-shirts, mouse pads, activities and contests promise to make this October a super month for comic book fans and philatelists of all ages."

If you live outside Canada, that press release probably strikes you as a bit odd.  Superman? A Canadian Crusader? 

Well, my children, therein lies a tale...

The background skinny is this.  Superman first appeared in comics (and thus created the whole concept of the "super hero") back in 1938 when he was published in Action Comics #1.  He was the brainchild of two men: Jerry Siegel was the writer; Joe Shuster the artist.  Both Siegel and Shuster were Jewish Clevelanders but whereas Siegel was born and raised in the US, Shuster was born in Toronto, Canada, moving to Cleveland when he was ten years old. [Thanks goes to John Bruening for emailing me to point out that there is no such thing as a "Clevelandite". Duly noted and corrected, John. ~ Blair the Canadianer] This of course raises an interesting thought.  Since Shuster was born and raised in Canada, doesn't that make him Canadian, even if he later moved away?  And, if he was Canadian, doesn't that mean that Superman was co-created by a Canadian?

Sure, it does.  But the strange thing is this.  That little bit of trivia isn't anything new.  For sixty-seven years it has been the case that Superman was co-created by a Canadian, but no one made much fuss about it, not even north of the forty ninth parallel.  I well remember the hype surrounding the theatrical release of Superman: The Movie (1987) and I don't recall anyone mentioning the "Canadian connection".  Canadian newspapers played up Margot Kidder's Canadian citizenship and trumpeted the fact that the Smallville scenes were shot in Canada; and, for Superman II, I was certainly made aware that the Niagara Falls scenes took place on the Canadian side of the Falls.  But I don't recall anyone referring to Superman as a "Canadian Crusader".  Not then they didn't.

But nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to find a Canadian who won't insist that "Superman is Canadian".  It seemed that, sometime in the last twenty years, practically over night that little bit of trivia -- Shuster's Canadian heritage -- abruptly became part of what we Canucks are pleased to call THE CANADIAN NATIONAL IDENTITY.  And why not?  Superman is a big honking deal -- who wouldn't want to claim a piece of that?

Looking back, however, I'm intrigued to wonder (and, wondering, decided to write this editorial): why the sudden sea change?  For sixty some years no one gave a flying fig about Shuster's Canadian birthright.  Then -- Bam!  (or as Nightcrawler would have it: Bamf!)  Overnight, it became a sort of national shibboleth.  A source of national pride and a secret hand shake both rolled into one.

(Then too, there is another reason why Shuster's Canadian roots should be of importance to Canadians.  You see, Joe Shuster just happens to have been the cousin of the late Frank Shuster, one half of Canada's Wayne and Shuster comedy duo.  And you would be hard pressed to find any entertainers whose names are as well known or beloved to Canadians as Wayne and Shuster.  Back in the fifties, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster achieved fame outside Canada as the comedians who were invited back the most times on the Ed Sullivan Show.  But -- legend says -- though they could have moved on to Hollywood, Wayne and Shuster, at the height of their popularity, moved back to Canada where they spent the rest of their careers -- and their lives -- earning less than Hollywood might have offered, but being treated like the country's most precious non-renewable resource.)

But, to return to my question: why did it suddenly become common knowledge that Joe Shuster (co-creator of Superman) was Canadian?  Or maybe that should be two questions: 1) How did it suddenly become so well known; and b) why did we suddenly care?

To the first question, looking back, I think I can trace the year when it happened.  It was sometime in 1992.  The year before, a Canadian band released their debut album, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, which included a melancholy little ditty called "Superman's Song".  "Superman's Song" instantly became a hit north of the border, getting mucho airplay (not least because of a really clever music video depicting Superman's funeral, complete with oddly realistic fellow superheroes paying last respects) and rocketing the band, Crash Test Dummies, to stardom and a Juno Award.  I can remember when I first heard "Superman's Song" on the radio.  I was pleased as Punch it was done by a Canadian band, but I didn't make any special connection between Supes and the Great White North.  At that point, I didn't know about it.  A few months later, the lead for Crash Test Dummies, Brad Roberts, told an interviewer how he hadn't known about the Canadian connection either when he wrote the song.  It was just a lucky coincidence.

So, as far as I can tell, "Superman's Song" probably started the ball rolling, or at least created an environment in which balls might bountifully roll.  But it took a lot more than one song to spread the gospel and the next source of inspiration came, not from a Canadian, but from what some might say is America's nearest facsimile to a real Superman.  That's right -- Ralph Nader.

In 1992, Nader published a book called Canada Firsts in which he described various things which Canadians could take credit for.  Candidly, he explained that his purpose was to raise Canada's profile because very often, when making a pitch for some social agenda or other, he would point to Canada as having already implimented said social agenda, only to have his audience say skeptically, "So what?  Why should we care what Canada thinks?"

I have no idea how well Canada Firsts sold, but it included a mention of Superman's Canadian pedigree and I would guess that that probably went no small way toward spreading the word up north, Supermanwise.  And it likely served as the inspiration for what I suspect was the main culprit in our tale.

1992 was the 100th Anniversary of the Toronto Star (formerly the Toronto Evening Star) and, as part of the celebration, reporter Henry Mietkiewicz published a lengthy interview with Joe Shuster, his last before he passed away only a few months later.  Mietkiewicz not only revealed Superman's Canadian connection, but really sold that connection with all the shameless hucksterism of a used car saleman.

To be fair, he made a pretty impressive case.  Although Shuster only lived in Toronto until he was ten, as a boy he had worked for The Star and, by his own testimony, that newspaper had served as the inspiration for Clark Kent's Daily Planet, even the name being the Daily Star in the earliest Superman stories.  (It was changed to the Planet when Superman began appearing in newspaper strips, so as to avoid conflict with real papers named The Star.)  Then too, according to Shuster, his drawings of the Metropolis skyline were inspired not by Cleveland, where he lived, or New York, but by Toronto The Good, which at the time was the largest city Shuster had ever experienced.

The Toronto Star has a huge distribution and that single article alone probably could be credited with triggering the whole "Superman is Canadian" thing.  I certainly remember reading it.  But even so, there was more to come.

At about that time, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) began producing a series of government funded mini-documentaries called "Heritage Minutes" -- each one a one minute short depicting some significant historical Canadian person or event.  The Heritage Minutes appeared tucked in between regular TV programs or in theatres before the main feature, their purpose being to teach Canadians a little bit about their own history.  (A lot of them just left me scratching my head, baffled as to what particular person or event they were trying to depict this time.  But the one about the railway telegraph operator who stayed at his telegraph to warn away the incoming train...right up until he died in the great Halifax explosion?  Man!  I mean... Man!)

Among those earliest Heritage Minutes was one set during the thirties, depicting a fresh faced young man rushing to catch a train on his way to visit with his cousin "Frank" up in Toronto.  As he boards the train, he passes a folded piece of paper to his female well-wisher, desperately trying to describe to her some fictional character he has created which he is anxious to share with Frank.  As she watches the train pull out, the girl unfolds the paper to the rousing brass of John Williams' score to Superman: The Movie -- and we see it is a rough sketch of Big Blue himself.

Okay, let's face it.  The use of John Williams' stirring music took a silly bit of trivia and really sold it.  No Canadian could watch (or hear) that Heritage Minute without thinking: "Superman is a Canadian? -- hot damn!"  And, thanks to government support, there weren't many Canadians who didn't see it.

So, to recap:  Starting with "Superman's Song" in 1991, followed by Ralph Nader's Canada Firsts in early 1992, then the article in the Toronto Star, and the Heritage Minutes spot both in 1992, Superman's "Canadian connection" got pretty wide distribution.  So, it was probably mere icing on the cultural cake when, in 1994, the Canadian TV series, "Due South", played "Superman's Song" during one scene, as a sly wink and nudge, recognizing that the series cleancut, seemingly superhuman Mountie owed more than a little to the Man from Krypton -- further cementing the link between Superman and Canada.

And then, of course, the culmination: in 1995, Canada Post issued a set of Canadian superhero stamps "for philatelists of all ages".  While the collection of five superheroes included indisputably Canadian entries like Johnny Canuck, Fleur de Lys, Nelvana of the North and Captain Canuck, it didn't take a Brainiac to know that Superman was the real engine driving this thing.  Johnny Canuck and Nelvana hadn't appeared in print since spats went out of fashion and the French Canadian hero Fleur de Lys, though more modern, was strictly a second stringer.  Captain Canuck could claim a legitimate modern fan-base but even he had written finis to his adventures after a short run back in the 1970s.  No, this was Superman's party and everyone knew it.  Suddenly Shuster's Canadian origins became something more than mere trivia.  It became a cash cow.

I said there were two questions, the first being: how did this "Superman is Canadian" business spread?  As to the second -- why, after sixty some years of neglect, did Canadians suddenly care? -- I have a theory.  (I always have a theory.)  Want to hear it? 

Sure you do.  Ushers, lock the doors.

Something happened between Supes' first appearance in 1938 and 1992, when he was suddenly embraced by Canada.  I think that something was that Canadians changed their view of themselves and Superman so perfectly matched that changed self-view that they suddenly wanted him as one of their own where previously they couldn't have given a tinker's darn.

Back in 1938, Canadians, though technically a sovereign country, still thought of themselves as a staunchly loyal colony of the British.  Their sense of national pride was amply met by their links to Mother England.  But then, the English Empire imploded, forcing us to look elsewhere for that national pride thing.  And we found it in a little contratemps called the Suez Crisis.  Canada acted as an unbiased mediator, successfully preventing a bloody conflict and not incidentally fostering the creation of the UN Peace Keeping Force -- for which the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.  Since that time, Canadians have more and more come to embrace a self-image of Canada as a Nation of Peace Keepers, as unbiased outsiders fighting for justice and peace and all that nice stuff.

Kind of like Superman.

So there you have it -- for what it's worth, a tiny glimpse into the heart of the Canadian psyche. 

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program...

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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