Aug 21, 2005
Up, Up, and Away... Eh?
"Superman never made
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wayne and Shuster comedy duo. And you would be hard pressed to
any entertainers whose names are as well known or beloved to Canadians
and Shuster. Back in the fifties, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster
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
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
"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
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
So, as far as I can tell, "Superman's Song" probably started the
rolling, or at least created an environment in which balls might
bountifully roll. But it took a lot more than one song to spread
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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,
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
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".
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
origins became something more than mere trivia. It became a
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
him as one of their own where previously they couldn't have given a
Back in 1938, Canadians, though technically a sovereign country,
still thought of themselves as a staunchly loyal colony of the
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
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
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
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,
and Supreme Plasmate
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Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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