True Patriot: in what other book can you find heroes fueled by the power of “1,000 Tim Horton coffees”?
Jacylyn Qua-Hiansen’s review is an additional piece of non-fiction forming part of our larger literary supplement, “Bridging the Literary Border,” which will appear tomorrow in The Puritan Issue 24: Winter 2014.”
In “Superhero Girl vs Canadian-ness” by Faith Erin Hicks, a reporter asks the protagonist, “What makes you a Canadian superhero?” Stumped at first, Superhero Girl finally responds, “I’m from Canada?” “Nope,” the reporter says, turning away. Desperately, Superhero Girl adds, “I’m also really nice? Maple leaves!”
It’s the most overtly self-aware of the comics in the Canadian superhero anthology True Patriot, and it cuts right to the challenge faced by the writers in the anthology. How can they create superheroes that are distinctively Canadian, without resorting to Canadian stereotypes? In his Foreword to the anthology, Mike Valiquette says these are “good Canadian comics” that don’t “[hit] you over the head” with their Canadian-ness. I agree. The stories in the collection are strong, with wonderful tongue-in-cheek references to traditional Canadian icons that poke gentle fun at the notion of “Canadian-ness.”
The individual stories are certainly distinctively Canadian, and are, as Valiquette says, “good Canadian comics.” Scott Chantler’s “Whatever Happened to the Red Ensign?” is perhaps the most moving of the tales. A World War II hero, who disappears after the war and who, according to legend, may also be a veteran of World War I or the ghost of a hero from the War of 1812, the Red Ensign is remarkable for his ordinariness. He doesn’t seem to be imbued with special powers, and it is telling that he has taken on “ensign”—one of the lowest rankings for commissioned officers—for his name. Yet, he is a force of inspiration to the troops. His rallying cry, “Pull together, boys!” highlights his role within a team, propelling a group to victory rather than leading the charge himself. Chantler’s story is about a pair of boys watching a film reel about the Red Ensign. They later learn that he may be closer to them than they realize.
Also powerful is “Arrowhead in ‘Phase One: Test Fight’” by Jay Stephens, which features a First Nations protagonist who discovers a super powered suit. In a striking opening scene, bullies confront the protagonist and one of them says his father owns the land for development. “If your ancestor’s bones are buried under here, [my dad] owns them too!” the bully says before adding, “Why are you still here? Beat it, Tonto!” The racially charged confrontation is emotionally potent; moreover, it endows the superhero part of the story with extra significance, recalling not just the protagonist’s battle against these bullies, but also the situation of First Nations people in Canada, both historically and in the present.
The environment features prominently in many of the stories. In my favourite, the environment is itself the enemy. In J. Torres and Tim Levins’s “The Family Dynamic in ‘Snow Day,’” a family of superheroes must save a city trapped in a traffic jam during a snow storm. “Heroes don’t get snow days,” the father of the family declares, dragging his reluctant superhero sons to the scene. This is, perhaps, the most topically relevant story to many readers during this winter. When the heroes come face to face with the villainous Whiteout, one can’t help but wish the source of our real-life weather were so easy to confront.
Another fun environment-themed story is Fred Kennedy and Adam Gorham’s “Bluenoser vs. Gull Girl.” Bluenoser, the “handsome protector of the Atlantic,” a craggy-faced man in a bright yellow coat and rubber boots, battles the villainous Gull Girl, a woman with gull heads for hands. The battle itself is ridiculous and the resolution hilarious, a satirical superhero battle with the environment at stake.
Other stories are more geared to younger readers, straightforward morality tales about caring for the environment. In Howard Wong and Adrian Alphona’s “Uh-Oh Ogopogo!” a First Nations shapeshifter transforms a careless boy into a beaver to teach him the value of caring for his surroundings. And “The Grey Owl vs. Bigfoot” features a superhero’s quest to save an endangered animal species in a campsite.
Traditional Canadian icons are handled with gentle humour. For example, “Uh-Oh Ogopogo!” includes a group of hockey playing beavers. “Dominion Jack in ‘My Way’” by Jack Briglio and Ron Salas features a father-daughter superhero team that borrows powers from professional hockey players. And in Hicks’ “Superhero Girl vs Canadian-ness,” the protagonist comes face to face with The League of Villainous Canadian Stereotypes, including, among others, The Lumberjack (“We’re really gonna do this?” a skeptical Superhero Girl comments) and my personal favourite, Double Double (identical twins “fueled by the power of 1,000 Tim Horton’s coffees”).
Unfortunately, the works in True Patriot are still limited to a certain tradition of “Canadian” stories. Many of the stories deal with recurring themes—nature, the environment, the power of the small over the strong—that may highlight important Canadian characteristics. However, given the multiplicity of stories within Canada today, True Patriot’s stories are disappointingly narrow in focus. Superheroes both reflect and define a culture’s mythology; the onus therefore on the writers of such stories is impressive. Understandably, no single anthology can hope to be comprehensive. And to be fair, True Patriot never claims such grandiose aims—the subtitle to the anthology is simply “All-New Canadian Comic Book Adventures.”
Still, with such a wonderful concept for a project, I can’t help but wish for more. In such a multicultural country as Canada, and with so many new Canadians, why isn’t there more diversity among the superheroes? In a country that was one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage, in a country that offered government subsidized healthcare long before Obamacare made waves, why can’t our superhero stories go beyond caring for the environment? While the anthology does feature First Nations stories, only one of the stories engages directly with the discrimination First Nations people face. And while it’s to the book’s credit that First Nations stories are part of this superhero narrative, one can’t help but wonder about all the other voices still unrepresented.
Superhero narratives are arguably archetypal rather than topical— Superman and the Avengers battle Evil with a capital “E” rather than the Taliban. Many of the internationally popular superheroes are straight white men, with only a sprinkling of LGBTQ superheroes or superheroes of colour well-known in mainstream pop culture. However, with such a wealth of potential, highly relevant subject matter, and with such a multiplicity of voices that are generally unheard in mainstream superhero culture, True Patriot had the opportunity to use Canadian aspects to radicalize the superhero genre. At the very least, it had the opportunity to use the superhero genre to engage with a wide range of subjects; its ultimate focus on a handful of traditional Canadian elements—nature, hockey, winter—is disappointing. With stories like “Superhero Girl vs Canadian-ness,” True Patriot reveals its attempt to subvert the stereotype of “Canadian-ness,” yet the book overall falls short in fully escaping or subverting this stereotype. Stories like “Phase One: Test Flight” show the potential a superhero narrative has to tackle difficult subjects, and I can’t help but wish that the humour, whimsy, and critical edge evident in other stories in the volume had been used to cover a wider range of topics.
Running throughout True Patriot is “Our Story,” a tale in three parts by J. Torres and Tom Fowler, about a young boy’s quest to find Canadian content in superhero comics so that he can have a superhero mythology that he can relate to. The sections of “Our Story” are punctuated by illustrations of Canadian stamps, featuring the characters in True Patriot stories. The idea is that these, finally, are our stories as Canadians. I am a big fan of the initiative, and I do agree that the creators of this anthology succeeded in telling distinctively Canadian superhero stories.
These are good stories, moreover good Canadian stories, and deserve to be told. Still, I reiterate the words of Superhero Girl in her monologue to the Stereotypes: “Canada has a diversity of voices, different people with different backgrounds who are all Canadian.” Indeed, and I only wish this anthology took the ambitions of their project further. In writing the superhero mythology of a country with such a multicultural population, a country that has been a world leader in LGBTQ rights—not to mention a country dealing with a crack-smoking mayor in a major metropolis—there are many more stories that can be told.