Like a Peter Parker, a Bruce Wayne, or even a Clark Kent, there are men and women with secret identities. And even though they may work with superheroes, they are not, in fact, superheroes themselves. They, in particular, are like many other Canadian writers and artists, but their Canadian-ness does not define the characters they create.
Case in point: Superman. Canadians love to claim the Man of Steel as their own. Although he was, indeed, the product of a co-creation involving a Canadian, Joe Shuster, Superman was “born” in Cleveland. Now ask yourself: Is there anything distinctly Canadian about Superman?
“He is in no way Canadian, and yet Canadians want to claim Superman as Canadian,” states Meaghan Scanlon, content specialist at Library and Archives Canada and co-curator of the exhibit Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity. “This colours the way we see Superman. U.S. fans aren’t aware [that the co-creator is Canadian], nor are other Canadian comic book writers and illustrators asked to interject their Canadian-ness into their characters. As such, they have a sort of secret identity,” she explains.
Secret identity — in particular as it relates to Canada — is one of three aspects of Alter Ego, which runs from May 12 to early fall at the Library and Archives Canada at 395 Wellington St. Admission is free.
Organized thematically, the exhibit also presents Canadian comic books in light of what they mean to our collective identity. This is especially true of WWII comics which, as Scanlon points out, are imbued with a sense of patriotism, i.e., Dixon of the Mounted, who battled Nazis on Canadian soil. Comic books also speak to the individual identity — Canadian individuals writing about ordinary lives — as exemplified in such graphic novels as Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy.
In presenting works from one of the largest institutional collections of comic books in Canada — some of which are drawn from the John Bell collection (former LAC archivist who donated more than 4,000 comics) — the exhibit provides a glimpse into our rich history with this particular art form. Here, a far-from-exhaustive timeline of Canada’s continuing fascination with our identity, secret or otherwise.
In the beginning … North American comic books began in the United States, with historians citing Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics, which was published throughout the 1930s, as being the first “true” comic book. The golden age of comics, however, was inaugurated with the arrival of Superman in 1938.
Like a wall of kryptonite, the Canadian government cut off access to the Man of Steel by limiting luxury goods to Canada at the outbreak of WWII. The upside: it directly led to the birth of a homegrown comic book industry, though with a definite patriotic bent. Debuting in 1942, E.T. Legault’s Dixon of the Mounted battled fifth column Nazis who were active in Canada as saboteurs and spies and routinely saved his distress-prone sweetheart, Ruth Barton.
After Dixon (singlehandedly) defeated the Nazis, U.S. comics streamed back into Canada after WWII, but by then there was a Canadian comic book industry to compete with. Guess who won that titanic struggle! By the 1950s, comics were once again being produced in the United States, and our homegrown industry disappeared.
In the 1960s and 1970s, underground comics and zines emerged, including in Canada. Barrie Phillip Nichol, better known as bpNichol, garnered national and international interest with his hand-drawn visual poems such as Still Water.
A new hope! It came in the form of a red-and-white-masked crusader who proudly wore a maple leaf emblazoned on his belt buckle and who stood in front of an enormous Canadian flag. Though published in 1975, Captain Canuck fought to preserve a 1993 Canada that had become “the most powerful country in the world” (through clean energy and technology no less!) by embodying our very Canadian-ness: “Strength, wisdom, humility, and the ability not to take himself too seriously.”
Sex, violence, menstruation, and gender roles — In the late 1980s, Montreal’s Julie Doucet contributed to a growing movement of long-form comics that, told from an autobiographical perspective, dealt with individual and gender identity issues. In spite of the acclaim of Dirty Plotte and My New York Diary, Doucet quit comics, citing low pay and how all-consuming long-form comic book writing was.
Toronto proudly became the backdrop for international comic book sensation Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life in 2004. The slacker/part-time musician (as exemplified by Canadian Michael Cera in the 2010 film version, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), must undergo a sho¯nen-style struggle to save his beloved Ramona Flowers from the evil exes. This comic in particular helped popularize the Japanese manga craze that has subsequently taken off in North America.
A reprint of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the first Canadian superhero and one of the first superheroines (she debuted before Wonder Woman! — 1941) in 2014 reacquainted the Canadian public with one of the oldest comics printed in Canada during our own brief golden age. Created by Adrian Dingle, Nelvana was the demi-goddess who could fly on the rays given off by the aurora borealis. The Canadian-raised critically acclaimed comic book artist John Byrne may have paid homage to her through one of his characters, Nelvanna, who was similar to the original Nelvana. Nelvanna’s daughter was Snowbird, a member of Byrne’s Alpha Flight, a Canadian superhero team he created for Marvel in 1979.