Friday, August 29, 2008

Volume Three, Number Five

Back in 2003 I wrote an article about Canadian comics for London Ontario's London Free Press daily newspaper. Titled "Comics Need A Shot In The Arm: A Canadian comic book writer makes the case for the developing our own industry" it was published on the front page of that paper's Viewpoint section on Saturday March 1st 2003. Much of what I wrote then is still relevant-at least to me-today so I thought I'd reprint the article here for those of you who didn't have the opportunity to see it the first time.
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I am a Canadian comic book writer. However, due to the fact that there is no comic book industry to speak of in the Great White North, I write for publishers south of the border.

While there are advantages to working for American comics companies-most notably the difference between the American and Canadian dollar-I'd gladly give them all up to be able to work for a Canadian publisher for which I could write stories that are distinctly Canadian.

For the most part Canadian comics creators are very much accepted in the U.S. In many ways, our work is similar to what our American counterparts produce, but the influences of being Canadian in our perspective enables us to tell stories with a somewhat different twist.

"You folks are the same, but different", an editor once told me. "You understand our culture, but aren't hampered with the same baggage we are.".

While this gives us some leeway in what we can create, we still have to produce material to which editors and publishers feel American readers can relate.

For example, my Mister Chameleon character, a former silent film actor who uses his mastery of disguise to battle crime in early 1930s Los Angeles, was born in London (Ontario, Canada) and his fiance, Chantal Lemieux, hails from Montreal. And even though I can add aspects of these characters that reflect their places of origin, it's doubtful I'd be allowed to tell distinctly Canadian stories on a regular basis for fear of alienating my audience.

With extremely rare exceptions, a series set in Canada that features Canadian characters and has a definite Canadian feel and voice won't make it past an editor's desk.

Now, before someone cites Marvel's Alpha Flight or Wolverine as being distinctly Canadian, it should be pointed out that neither of these fit that category. Rather, both concepts are Americanized versions of what is Canadian, filled with cliches and uninformed perceptions of life north of the 49th parallel. And yes, I know that John Byrne, the creator of Alpha Flight was once a Canadian-and even lived in London (Ontario Canada) for a time-but even he has said a couple of occasions he had to keep American readers in mind when developing the material.

I and many other Canadian comics creators who have worked for publishers south of the border feel American comics publishers sell U.S. fans short. American readers have no trouble relating to British comics or Japanese manga, both of which are far more foreign to U.S. culture than a distinctly Canadian comic would be. But given the views of American publishers we are unable to tell our stories in the United States. There was a time though when the situation wasn't so bleak.

During the Second World War there was a small but thriving Canadian comics industry consisting of seven companies that published more than 20 titles during that period. It came into existence thanks largely to the War Exchange Conservation Act passed in December 1940 by the federal government.

Enacted to conserve American dollars, the act restricted importation of non-essential goods from the United States including pulp magazines and comics. Seeing an opportunity to get their hands on the newly available dimes of Canadian children, Maple Leaf Publishing of Vancouver ( British Columbia, Canada) and Anglo-American Publishing in Toronto (Ontario Canada) burst onto the scene in March 1941 with "Better Comics" (Maple Leaf) and "Robin Hood and Company" (from Anglo-American, reprinting an internationally syndicated newspaper strip by Canadians Ted McCall and Charlie Snelgrove).

Within months, other publishers arrived on the scene with a variety of titles for Canadian comics creators to tell their stories.

Some of these titles-known as "Canadian Whites" because their interior art was black and white-featured distinctly Canadian material including "Nelvana" and "Johnny Canuck" from Bell Features and "Men of the Mounted" from Anglo-American. Other series were more international in nature-such as Anglo-American's Freelance-but with the exception of the American strips that were drawn from scripts purchased from American publishers all the material had a definite Canadian feel. Even the American strips had aspects which made them unique to Canada including "Commander Yank" who had a Union Jack emblazoned across his chest.

The Canadian comics industry may have gone on forever if the end of the Second World War had not led to the repeal of the War Conservation Act. While some believe the Canadian comics industry died because the American heroes were more popular the truth was Canadian publishers simply couldn't compete economically. To capture the Canadian market the American needed only to ship a small percentage of their print run.

Some companies did try to compete with their American counterparts, here and in the U.S., but the American publishers were too powerful and by the fall of 1946 Canadian comics featuring Canadian heroes vanished.

There was a brief revival of the Canadian comics industry between 1947 and 1951, when a variation of the War Exchange Conservation Act was law, but this time publishers simply reprinted American comics. The one exception was Superior Comics, which published all new material until 1956. But as Superior's titles were aimed at American readers there were no Canadian heroes between their covers.

Since the end of distinctly Canadian comics in 1946 on occasion there have been attempts to publish comics with a Canadian voice including "Captain Canuck" (Comley Comics, CKR) and "New Triumph featuring Northguard" (Matrix). Unfortunately due to problems unique to each attempt the comics were short-lived.

Today thanks to the financial security provided by the direct sales distribution system a handful of comic publishers operate out of Canada. However, these comics, as were Superior's titles, are aimed more at American readership with none of them speaking directly to Canadian readers in their own voice with their own stories.

History has shown that, if all things were equal, Canadians would prefer to read comics featuring there own heroes rather than American ones. With the direct sales market, Canadian publishers, with indigenous Canadian material, would have a better chance of competing head-to-head against American publishers than they did in the 1940s. And if one of the existing Canadian publishers or a new company decided to publish distinctly Canadian comics, they would have a wealth of material to choose from.

One option might be to revive some of the characters from the 1940s such as "Nelvana" or "Johnny Canuck" from Bell Features or Maple Leaf's "Brok Windsor". If done correctly these and other characters of yesteryear could easily become fan favourites among Canadian readers and probably attract the attention of American comics fans as well. New heroes could also be developed using our myths and legends as inspiration.

Canadian history would be another place to look for ideas. As well as looking in the usual places, such as the two world wars, the War of 1812, the opening of the Canadian West during the 1880s and the brief period of Viking settlement the centuries before European settlement could also be an excellent source of subject material.

CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and the RCMP (and its forerunner, the Northwest Mounted Police) are other places that could be springboards for ideas as could the Canadian military. One series that might be as action-packed as any American series is one where JTF2 is the inspiration.

Finally, there are interesting properties from other media that would translate nicely into comics. TV's "Beachcombers" and the long gone but not forgotten "Forest Rangers" immediately come to mind as does the much maligned 1970s TV series "Starlost". Then, of course, there is "Anne of Green Gables" which would also have international appeal. If fact, any distinctly Canadian comic could have international appeal if handled correctly by the right creative team.

Who would be part of that right creative team? Why, the Canadian comics creators who currently work for American publishers.

As mentioned earlier, many of these creators-myself included-would jump at the chance to work on comics stories that speak with a Canadian voice if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, no current Canadian publisher seems to be interested in going in this direction nor does there seem to be anyone on the horizon, either.

It's a shame really as Canadian comics creators have excellent stories to tell that stem from their being Canadian. These stories would not only interest our nation's comics fans but would be unique enough to make a publisher who wanted to take this approach successful.

The talent and ideas are here. All that's needed is someone to make the venue available.
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That's it for this week. If you'd like to comment on this or any previous installment of E-Dispatches you can do so at my blog at http://dispatchesfromthegreatwhitenorth.blogspot.com . And speaking of blogs while your waiting for the next installment of E-Dispatches pay my buddy The Groovy Agent's blog a visit at http://diversionsofthegroovykind.blogspot.com for insightful and well researched comments on comics of the 1970s. You'll be glad you did.

3 comments:

shsh said...

Hi there!

Thanks for the mention of Northguard in your piece. I really appreciate it. And I agree with your thesis 100%, although, of course there are independent, non-genre publishers like Drawn & Quarterly, but I agree that they aren't especially focussed on Canadian content.

I also agree with your notion of reviving some Canadian pop culture icons like the Forest Ranger Kids (I thought I was the only person in the country who remembered that show!) but I gotta draw the line at the Beachcombers. I actually looked into reviving Rocket Robin Hood (remember him?) but the rights situation was too convoluted and I didn't have the financial resources.

Just today I was arguing with someone about government arts funding, and I was making the point that in pop culture, everything is very asymetrical. When I was writing and publishing Northguard, I was the second or third largest comic book publisher in Canada, competing against DC and Marvel. Where's the balance?

By the way, I've since written another Canadian superhero, Canadiana, created by artist Sandy Carruthers. Her website is temporarily down, but you can see a few pages at www.webcomics.ca/canadiana.

Thanks for listening!

best,

Mark Shainblum
creator of Northguard

Jonathan A. Gilbert said...

Mark;
Nice to see that you posted a comment. I loved Northguard. It stands out as a prime example of what I mean about a good Canadian comic. Any chance of it ever being revived?
Believe it or not there are other folks out there in the Great White North who remember the Forest Rangers kids but unlike you or I are afraid to admit it as it might show their age.
Rocket Robin Hood was a fun show. It was airing again a few years back on Teletoon and was just as much fun then as it was originally.
Question. Is you Canuck Comics book-an excellent book by Mark about Canadian comics history-still in print? If not it should be. I just re-read it last week coincidentally and enjoyed it as much as the first time.
Thanx again for posting, Mark. Feel free to contact me any time. jag

jehingr said...

While I am, for better or worse, 100% American I would love to read comics with that distinctive Canadian voice.