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One measure of the U.S. domination of the comics medium during the fifties and sixties is that when Canadian superheroes finally did return during the 1969-1974 period, the first characters were buffoons. It was as if Canadian comics artists and writers recognized the absence of Canadian heroes, but could not quite – after a twenty-year diet of foreign comics – bring themselves to take such figures seriously. Nevertheless, following a spate of outrageous Captain Canadas and other intriguing satirical national superheroes (who will be discussed below), it was evident that there were creators who were bent on depicting national-superhero figures in a more serious fashion. Contributing to this resurgence of interest were the publication of Patrick Loubert and Michael Hirsh's The Great Canadian Comic Books, a book-length study of the Bell Features comics, and the touring of a related exhibition mounted by the National Gallery, "Comic Art Traditions in Canada, 1941-45," which together served to introduce English-Canadian comics creators and fans to their lost heritage. A similar process was also underway in Quebec with the publication in 1973 of the first historical survey of Quebec comics in a special issue of the literary journal La Barre du Jour.(5)


The first of the second generation of serious national superheroes, the Northern Light, was, however, almost stillborn. The first story featuring the character, which appeared in July 1974 in the second issue of Orb, a Toronto-based alternative comic, was written by a U.S. writer T. Casey Brennan, and was originally intended for the American comic-character E-Man. John Allison, an Orb artist, learned of Brennan's unused script and suggested that he and Brennan collaborate on a story. James Waley, the publisher of Orb, welcomed the idea, and Brennan and Allison prepared a two-part story, utilizing Brennan's script, but changing the character's name to the Phantom Canadian. Waley, however, was unhappy with this name and asked Brennan to find an alternative. Brennan eventually proposed the White Light, which was changed, at the suggestion of Waley's wife, Sharon, to the Northern Light.

The difficulties apparent with the christening of the Northern Light, who wore red and white tights with a red cowl, white gloves, and a flowing cape (the latter would be dispensed with in Orb [No. 4]), presaged more serious problems with the original conception of the character. In his first adventure, the Northern Light travels to Mars, where he finds himself embroiled in a struggle between the Martian High Council and a Martian superhero the Lone Guardian, who is responsible for protecting his planet from the evils of humanity. Although the strip featured solid artwork by John Allison, the Northern Light's Martian adventure did not constitute an auspicious debut. Not only was the script stilted and unconvincing, but it also failed to develop the character's Canadian identity. Consequently, the initial version of the Northern Light seemed little more than a second-rate American superhero who happened to have a Canadian name and costume.

The character was salvaged and considerably revamped, however, by the next team to work on the strip – the writer James Waley and the artist James Craig. In the Northern Light's second – and last – adventure, a three-part story begun in 1975-76 in Orb (Nos. 4-5) and concluded in 1977 in the U.S. title Power Comics (No. 4), Waley and Craig gave the character a new identity, transforming him into a powerful national superhero. In fact, as his name suggested, the Northern Light was somewhat reminiscent of his precursor, Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

Originally a disillusioned architect named Ian Davis, the Northern Light becomes a superhero after he and his family are abducted by a group of aliens. The aliens conduct terrible experiments on their captives, and eventually kill Davis' wife and son. Davis himself, however, is rescued before he can be murdered. As a result of the experiments that he has been subjected to, Davis is left with a number of super-powers deriving from the properties of light: the abilities to become one with light (and thus invisible), to burst into uncontrolled radiance and to transport himself on light beams. He also becomes extremely strong. Following his ordeal (which he does not remember until he is later recaptured by the aliens), Davis retreats to a secret fortress in Northern Canada, becoming the prime operative of the security agency Alert.

At the end of his final adventure, the Northern Light, sporting new battle armour, is finally able to confront Conquermind, the alien leader responsible for all the tragedy that has befallen the Davis family. The supercilious alien informs "Canada's superhero" that the experiments on the Davis family and all other alien interventions were merely the results of an educational field trip mounted by a far superior culture. The enraged Canadian then attacks and, against all odds, destroys the would-be conqueror. However, the Northern Light is not able to savour his victory, as his adventure ends with him agonizing over the loss of his family. Like many of the era's heroes, Canada's new national superhero was a tormented soul. Clearly, wielding super-powers in the seventies was a far more angst-ridden experience than smashing the Axis powers in the forties.

Although the Northern Light was the first serious national superhero to emerge after the Golden-Age period, the character's impact was limited by several factors, including the fact that Orb folded before Craig and Waley could really hit their stride. There is, however, little doubt that the Northern Light would have grown in their hands, as Craig's later work in the U.S. superhero-comics field clearly demonstrated his affinity for the genre.

Another development that served to eclipse Waley and Craig's creation was the publication, in July 1975, of Captain Canuck (No. 1). Although Captain Canuck appeared a full year after the Northern Light, he beat the Orb character to the newsstands, as the first issue of Orb to be distributed nationally was not released until November 1975. By that time, Canuck had already established himself as the English-Canadian national superhero of the seventies. In fact, his first appearance can be seen as the beginning of the English-Canadian Silver Age of Comics. Contributing to the success of Captain Canuck was the fact that, unlike Orb, which was published mostly in a black-and-white magazine format, it was issued in colour, in a regular comic book format – the first such comic featuring a Canadian national superhero for almost thirty years.


Like those of the Northern Light, Canuck's beginnings were not all that promising. The Captain was conceived in 1971 by Ron Leishman, a Winnipeg artist who recognized the need for a staunchly Canadian superhero to personify the country's growing nationalism and patriotism. The following year, Leishman met a fellow artist Richard Comely, and the two began to talk about Leishman's idea. Initially, the two artists intended to name their national superhero Captain Canada, but copyright considerations forced them to settle on Captain Canuck. However, before Canuck could be fully developed, Leishman left Winnipeg in 1974, leaving Comely to work alone on the character. A year later, after much travail, Comely self-published the first issue of Captain Canuck. And while, because of its novelty, the comic received a great deal of media attention, the first issue left a lot to be desired in terms of art and script, largely as a result of Comely's inexperience with the comics medium.

Comely persisted, however, and his writing and artwork improved in the next few issues. Furthermore, as a publisher, Comely was quick to recognize the enormous talent of two young artists, George Freeman and Jean-Claude St-Aubin, who approached him in 1976 and offered to work for Comely Comix. Increasingly, from issue No. 3 on, Freeman and St-Aubin would assume more and more of the artwork chores on Captain Canuck, while Comely would concentrate on the scripts.

Unlike his wartime predecessors, Canuck wrapped himself in the flag, wearing a red-and-white costume that sported two red maple leafs. (Of course, Canada's 1965 flag offered far more in the way of costume-related possibilities than the Red Ensign.) Canuck also seemed more aware of the duality of Canada and worked in tandem with Quebecois super-agent Kébec, the first of several French-Canadian associate heroes who have appeared in English-Canadian comics. Furthermore, because of Comely's strong Christian beliefs and his determination to give Canuck a distinctly Canadian identity, the character shunned violence as much as possible. In a sense, Canuck was the appropriate superhero for a middle power that was somewhat distrustful of heroism and very much aware of the limits of power; although it should be noted that the Canuck stories were mostly set in the 1990s, when Canada has become a superpower because of its natural resources!

Canuck, like the Northern Light, acquired his super-powers as a result of an alien encounter. While camping with a group of Boy Scouts, Canadian International Security Organization (CISO) agent Tom Evans wakes in the middle of the night to find that the boys are missing. Evans discovers that the Scouts are being controlled by a group of aliens and then is himself seized by the aliens and exposed to Zeta rays. Neither Evans nor the boys are left with any memory of their close encounter, other than, in the case of Evans, a nagging, dream-like recollection. The boys, however, are still in the aliens' control, while Evans' exposure to Zeta rays has left him with twice his normal strength and speed. CISO decides to transform the super-strong Evans into both a symbol of its power and authority and a showpiece for Canada.

Although Canuck's first adventure served to introduce the character as well as his milieu and associates, the story, involving a Communist invasion of Canada and a mind-control device, was not terribly memorable. And unfortunately, while his second adventure – set partly in a lost Incan city – was decidedly more entertaining and ambitious, readers of the first installment, which appeared in Captain Canuck (No. 3) in the summer of 1976, had to wait until 1979 for the remaining parts of the story. By that time, Comely was laying the groundwork for the latter half of the Captain's run, the period which would see Captain Canuck become one of the finest superhero comics ever published. The search for a Canadian superhero guardian – a Captain Canada – that had begun in the early seventies appeared finally to be over.


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