POW! BLAM! ZOWIE! eh?

A new book unearths the hidden curiosities of Canadian comic book art.

By 1942, Hitler’s days were filled with worry. While Germany had no trouble picking off smaller nations such as Poland, Holland and Belgium, the Third Reich now confronted an alliance of three major powers: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Already at Stalingrad the once invincible Wehrmacht had met its first serious defeat and the painful and bloody retreat from the east had started. Another major headache for Hitler, at least according to one Toronto-based publication, was the superhero Johnny Canuck—“Canada’s answer to Nazi oppression”—who was “devoting his time to the destruction of Hitler’s war material factories in the Berlin area.”

Dressed in an austere military uniform with a sash cutting across his square torso, Hitler castigated his staff. “Ach! Fools,” the Fuhrer complained, “you promise arrest, but dot svine Canuck goes on destroying our war machine!” Frustrated, the dictator then took his complaint to the people, addressing the nation in a radio speech. “Peoples of der Reichtag,” Hitler sputtered in an odd mixture of English and pidgin German. “Ve haff been informed through der Gestapo that John Canuck is now in der country … he must be found! I vill giff 10,000 marks for him … dead or alive!!”

But before Johnny Canuck could be captured, he socked Hitler in the jaw and quickly escaped back to Canada. Meanwhile in England, Churchill and his war cabinet were in awe of all the Canadian hero was doing for the war effort.

The battles between Johnny Canuck and Adolf Hitler appeared in Dime Comics in 1942, in a series of stories by Leo Bachle, a 16-year-old cartoonist. Exuberant and absurd, deeply felt and dopey, these comic book stories show us the drama of world politics refracted through adolescent Canadian eyes.

Superhero comic books, although they base their psychological appeal on childhood power fantasies, are almost always nationalist allegories. Just as in the Middle Ages the king’s body was a microcosm for the nation he ruled, so in modern times the superhero’s mighty strength is an embodiment of national will. Johnny Canuck spoke to the self-flattering belief that Canada’s efforts were crucial for defeating Hitler.

The link between superheroes and nationalism is one lesson that can be gleaned from John Bell’s Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe. Despite its bombastic title, Bell’s book is, at least in the chapters dealing with the superhero genre, a chronicle of failure. Bell speaks of “the somewhat quixotic search for distinctly Canadian superheroes.” “Quixotic” is le mot juste. No Canadian superhero has ever been successful for a sustained period or left a mark on the popular imagination, although there have been many rolls of the dice.

Time after time, Canadian publishers conjured up superheroes that supposedly embodied the national spirit. Aside from Johnny Canuck, there is Nelvana of the Northern Lights (a white goddess in a mini-dress who protected the Arctic from “Kablunets, Nazi allies armed with Thormite Rays”), Captain Jack (an all-round athlete who battled Nazi saboteurs), Northern Light (a science fiction hero whose enemies were space aliens), Captain Canuck (who also fought space monsters as well as complex international banking conspiracies) and the similarly monikered Captain Canada (originally known as Captain Newfoundland, he defended the royal family from giant Japanese robots).

All these characters have their goofy charm, but let’s face reality: none of them is a superhero of the first rank. They are not fit to hold the cape of Superman or Batman. They don’t even have what it takes to be a sidekick to Wonder Woman or Captain America. Creating a Canadian superhero is rather like growing bananas in Nunavut. With enough ingenuity and willpower you can do it, but is it worth doing?

There is something about Canada that resists superheroes. Even John Bell is forced to acknowledge this fact, although it clearly pains him. He is a fan of the superhero genre and his chapters on Johnny Canuck and the other Canadian caped crusaders brim over with boyish enthusiasm, a quality missing in the rest of his rather sober and fact-dense book.

Despite this ardour, Bell is well aware of how marginal and esoteric his subject is. As he notes, heroes like Johnny Canuck only existed because of a quirk of wartime economic planning. To protect Canada’s trade balance during World War II, the government forbade the importation of fiction periodicals, creating a temporary niche for Canadian publishers of pulp fiction magazines and comic books. When normal cross-border trade resumed, the market for Canadian comic books collapsed. Later, in the 1970s and after, a few fly-by-night independent publishers tried their hand at launching characters like Captain Canuck, with only limited and intermittent success.

Like many nationalistic Canadian comics fans, Bell takes pride in the fact that Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman, was born in Toronto. But Shuster was ten years old when his family moved to the United States, so he is really no more Canadian than Saul Bellow or Pamela Anderson.

Moreover, Superman, like the superhero genre he spawned, is a profoundly American idea. Superman was created at a turning point in American history, during the Great Depression. Economically debilitated, the U.S. was isolationist, but in a few short years it was ready to recover its strength and become the world’s leading superpower. Just as wimpy Clark Kent threw away his business suit to emerge as Superman, America was a great power waiting to flex its muscles. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman’s creators, were second-generation immigrant Jews. As such, they had multiple reasons for identifying with American nationalism; deep in their bones, they felt that only a superpower could defeat Hitler.

Ingrained in the superhero genre is a sense of America’s invincibility, its inherent goodness and its world historical destiny. For this reason, national heroes from other countries (be they Captain Canuck, Britain’s Jack Staff, Italy’s Capitan Italia or Israel’s Shaloman) always seem either satirical or half-baked. Despite the faltering war effort in Iraq, the U.S. is the world’s only superpower and for that reason it is the only country that creates confident and commercially successful superheroes.

Lacking a comic book industry, the Soviet Union never created a superhero, although there was the burlesque character Octobriana, created in the late 1960s or early 1970s by underground artists either in the USSR or Czechoslovakia (like much in Soviet history, the exact provenance of Octobriana is disputed). Interestingly, superhero comic books are starting to take off in India. The Indian industry has been dominated by stories from history and Hindu sagas, but recently American superhero knock-offs have gained in popularity. In China, as in neighbouring Japan and Korea, comics tend to be a mixture of genres: romance, science fiction, sports stories and adventure. Some of these stories do have aspects of the superhero tale, so it is possible we will see national superheroes emerging from East Asia.

Reluctantly, Bell concludes that the dream of a Canadian national superhero might have to be abandoned and that the future of comics lies in the more mature work created by contemporary graphic novelists such as Chester Brown and Seth (the pen name of cartoonist Gregory Gallant). Brown’s graphic novel Louis Riel sold more than 20,000 copies in hardcover and is now used in many university courses. Perhaps the best chapter in Invaders from the North is the one arguing for the centrality of Brown’s work in contemporary comics. Seth’s wistful nostalgia-laden meditations (published in such magazines as Toro, The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine) also have an enthusiastic, and international, audience.

Although Bell’s book is a survey of the history of Canadian comic books, it is really structured like a biography, tracing the slow growth from infancy to youth, followed by long-drawn-out maturation. The childhood of comics was the early 20th century, when comic strips were dominated by talking animals (Arch Dale’s The Doo Dads) and misbehaving brats (Palmer Cox’s The Brownies, cute kids who gave their name to Kodak’s Brownie camera). World War II saw the vigorous adolescence of comics, filled with feverish fantasies of derring-do. (As we have seen, Leo Bachle was all of 16 when he started drawing Johnny Canuck.)

Like many rowdy teenagers of the era, comics met with adult resistance and restrictions: in the late 1940s, Parliament passed a law forbidding crime comics. (Brian Mulroney, then ten years old but already on the make, won gold stars from the grown-up world for giving speeches denouncing bad comics. Even as a prepubescent he was eager to please the powers-that-be and later attached himself to the anti-comics conservative politician Davie Fulton.) In youthful revolt, comics went through a rebellious phase in the 1960s, with counterculture heroes such as Harold Hedd experimenting with drugs and polymorphic sex.

The long-delayed adulthood of Canadian comics came in the early 1990s, when a cohort of artists used the form for personal expression. Aside from Seth and Brown, the important figures were Julie Doucet (an artist with a remarkable ability to plop her subconscious right on the printed page with surrealistic strips about cities drowning in menstrual blood and lewd beer bottles hitting on young women), Ho Che Anderson (whose comic strip biography of Martin Luther King was notable for its unvarnished honesty in dealing with race and sex) and David Collier (an artist who has recreated in comic book form the old Canadian persona of the backwoods yarn spinner).

As a tale of growth and maturity, the history of Canadian comics has the elegant coherence of a biography. Journalists and publicists never tire of saying that comics are no longer just for kids and have now come of age. Yet, in some ways, the biographical model is flawed. As Wordsworth liked to remind his readers, the child is father to the man. None of us escapes our childhood. Certainly this is true of comics, which carry a heavy burden from the past. The best current cartoonists are constantly finding inspiration in the comics of an earlier age. If comics have grown up, that does not mean they have left their history behind them.

This obsession with the past can be seen stylistically: Chester Brown’s characters have the roughhewn simplicity of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie; Seth’s elegant brush work calls to mind the cocktail party sleekness of The New Yorker, circa 1927; Julie Doucet’s heavy use of black ink, which fairly overflows on her pages, calls to mind the starkness of early 20th-century woodcut books; in trying to capture Martin Luther King’s world, Anderson evokes the photorealistic illustrational style of the 1950s; David Collier’s cross-hatching, which gives his pages the gnarly authenticity of tree bark, harkens back to such early cartoonists as Clare Briggs and J.R. Williams.

But beyond this surface borrowing of old styles, Canadian cartoonists have a more substantial relationship with the past. This is clearly evident in the works of Seth, who provides the introduction to Bell’s book. Seth is obsessed with the history of Canada’s popular culture. This is a half-forgotten realm of dime novels about fur traders and Mounties, travel books about the North, cornfield elocutionists, pretend-Indians like Grey Owl, superheroes like Johnny Canuck and folk songs about lumberjacks. The cover of a 1945 comic book perfectly captures this world: “Eskimos … Mounties … Trappers.”

Seth has conflicted feelings about this Niagara of Canadian kitsch. Like a child whose parents are interesting failures, Seth is half-ashamed of the past while also defensively protective of it. This ambivalence can be seen in Seth’s most recent story, “George Sprott, 1894–1975,” which was serialized in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. The eponymous hero of this story is a bit of a fraud. Sprott travelled very briefly to the North when young and spent a lifetime milking his experience for all it’s worth, giving lecture tours about his Arctic adventures and hosting a television show called “Northern Hi-Lights.” Sprott is also a cad, with little regard for the Inuit lover he long ago impregnated and abandoned.

Despite his phoniness, Sprott is not without redeeming qualities. He can be a charming talker, especially when talking to his beloved niece. Sprott’s lectures, however flimsy their basis in reality, feed a genuine hunger for information about Canada’s North. Sprott’s niece knows his flaws, but loves him all the same. He is all she has. Seth seems to feel the same way about Canada’s pop culture past: it ain’t spectacular, but it’s ours and it deserves to be remembered.

Bell’s book should be praised as part of this larger effort to recuperate Canada’s vernacular culture. It is likely to remain the definitive history of Canadian comics. The book is not without its flaws. The writing varies in tone: many chapters are dryly factual, while the chapter on the national superhero is embarrassingly exuberant. An archivist by profession, Bell has a professional fondness for bibliographic minutiae, leading him to provide more details about publishing history than the general reader requires.

There are a few factual errors. He seems to think that the Caniffites Journal is still being published, when it went defunct in 2003. (And, in point of fact, the magazine was so obscure, with a readership of less than a hundred, that it hardly seems worth mentioning in a general history.) Instead of tracing the histories of obscure fan magazines, Bell should have devoted more time to comic strip artists who were published in large newspapers, such as Jimmy Frise, Doug Wright and Lynn Johnston. These cartoonists, whose work has appeared in major newspapers all over Canada, only get cursory attention in the book.

These flaws are outweighed by many solid strengths. The book is based on a lifetime of research. No one has dug into this topic with the same diligence. It is clearly written and well structured. Physically, it is a handsome book, well designed and with many cartoons reprinted in full colour. Hitherto, Canadian cultural historians have been remarkably elitist, paying far more attention to obscure poets and painters than to books and magazines that had hundreds of thousands of readers. Bell’s book is to be welcomed as part of a larger movement to recover Canada’s lost popular culture.