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By the end of 1979, Richard Comely (now working for a new publisher, CKR Productions) had assembled the team that would be responsible for the most polished work on the Captain Canuck strip: Comely himself as the chief writer, George Freeman as the main artist, and Jean-Claude St-Aubin as both a co-inker and the major colourist. Perhaps their finest effort was "Chariots of Fire," a three-part story that ran in Captain Canuck (Nos. 11-13).

"Chariots of Fire" not only further explored Canuck's origin, but it also represented an attempt to redefine the character by bringing him backward from the 1990s to the early eighties. By reintroducing the aliens that had inadvertently given Canuck his super-powers, Comely was also able to introduce a time-travel device that eventually thrust Canuck back in time to the year 1040, where he ends up helping the Mi'kmaq ["Micmacs" in the comic – Ed.] repulse a Viking invasion. In fact, by having Canuck disappear from the year 1995, Comely was also able to portray the superhero's apparent death and examine the meaning of heroism. In a masterful sequence towards the end of the story, the strip alternates between the struggles of the Earth forces of 1995 to defeat an alien invasion and the efforts of Canuck and the Mi'kmaq to defeat Norse invaders (the eleventh-century portion of the sequence was brilliantly drawn by Freeman in a style that paid homage to Harold Foster's classic Prince Valiant strip). The story ends with Canuck helping the Earth forces of 1995 and then emerging from a time portal into the year 1980.

Unfortunately, just as Canuck arrived in 1980, CKR Productions folded and the Captain disappeared from Canadian and U.S. newsstands and comic book shops. Canuck's loss was much lamented in the comics press, and came at a time when his creators were bringing a new assurance and maturity to the strip. Ironically, the last issue of the comic (No. 14, March 1981) appeared not long before there was to be a major restructuring in the North American comics market that would benefit alternative publishers like CKR. In any event, the latter part of the Canuck strip will remain a benchmark for anyone intending to create a Canadian national superhero. In fact, for many fans, it is doubtful that any artist will succeed in surpassing George Freeman's work for the sheer joy of its unrestrained heroism.

With Canuck's disappearance, more national superheroes were emerging, but not figures that showed the influence of Comely, Freeman and St-Aubin's work. The impact of Captain Canuck would only be felt later in the decade.


The first of these new heroes was Apache Communications' Captain Canada, who, as noted below, was preceded by a number of satirical Captains. Created by the father-and-son team of Geoffrey and Scott Stirling, two Newfoundland media executives, Captain Canada first appeared in 1980 in the St. John Sunday Herald's "Captain Newfoundland" strip. The strip, which was drawn by a U.S.-based artist, Danny Bulanadi, was later collected in the comic book Captain Newfoundland (1981). However, it was not until the publication of a Captain Newfoundland/Captain Canada graphic novel, Atlantis, a few years later that the character was fully developed by the Stirlings.

Like Captain Canuck, Captain Canada wore a red-and-white costume inspired by the flag. Captain Canada (whose alter ego was a young man named Daniel Eaton) was recruited to his superhero duties by the most powerful of the characters in the Stirlings' comic book universe – Captain Atlantis. In fact, Captain Canada was joined by numerous other characters, including a Native superhero Captain Freedom and a Quebecois superheroine Mademoiselle. While Captain Canada was, in some ways, a typically noble superhero – rescuing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles from a giant Japanese robot in an epic battle that destroys part of downtown Ottawa – he was also very unique.

Both the content of the strip and the nature of their promotion of the character distinguished Apache Communications' version of a national superhero. In terms of content, it was clear that the Stirlings were not intent on producing a traditional comic book superhero. Instead, Captain Canada for them represented a means to popularize certain philosophical and religious ideas. While endeavouring to create exciting adventures designed to instill patriotism in kids across the country, the Stirlings also sought to explore complex mystical beliefs and the nature of good and evil. As for their approach to promotion, the Stirlings (who signed themselves Geoffrey Scott) did not focus on the comics market. Instead, taking advantage of their media connections and experience, they tried to bring the character to a larger audience, producing television programmes and arranging for an actor to make public appearances dressed as Captain Canada. However, although their Captain Canada has possibly been seen by more Canadians than most of the country's other superheroes, the character has had little impact on the national-superhero tradition in Canadian comic art.


The second attempt, after Captain Canuck, to create a Canadian national superhero for the eighties led to the emergence of a team of superheroes – John Byrne's Alpha Flight. Byrne was a Canadian artist and writer who had moved to the U.S. to pursue a career in the New York comics milieu. By the late seventies he had become one of the most popular artists in the field. Early in his career, when still in Canada, Byrne had spoken of his desire to create Canadian heroes.(6) Ironically, he had to wait until he was firmly established in the American comics industry before he was able to fulfill his dream. When Byrne finally did turn to the creation of Canadian heroes he brought to the process an explosive, pent-up energy, which resulted in his portraying not one, but numerous characters, including Aurora, Northstar, Sasquatch, Shaman, Snowbird and Vindicator (later Guardian), the character who most closely resembled a national superhero.

Byrne's initial work on Alpha Flight appeared in the late seventies in the U.S. title X-Men, but it was not until August 1983, with the publication of a separate title, Alpha Flight, that he began to explore the characters in earnest. While Byrne was, and is, a consummate professional, Alpha Flight belonged too much to the American superhero tradition to really answer the need for Canadian superheroes – a problem that became even more apparent once Byrne left the title after issue No. 28. However, it should be noted that Alpha Flight remains the longest-running comic book ever to deal with Canadian national superheroes (the title's first series ended in 1994 with issue No. 130; a second series, comprising twenty issues, appeared during the 1997-1999 period). It also has the distinction of having introduced the first openly gay superhero – Northstar – who came out of the closet in issue No. 106 (April 1992).


Byrne's original Alpha Flight was not, however, without influence in the Canadian comic book milieu in the mid 1980s. Mark Shainblum, a young Montreal-based writer and publisher who had been an avid admirer of Captain Canuck, saw Byrne's efforts as an object lesson in how not to create a uniquely Canadian national superhero. For Shainblum, a Canadian hero would have to be different, not just a U.S.-style superhero in a Canadian costume. The most mature vision to date of a Canadian superhero was taking shape.

One thing that contributed to Shainblum's success in fashioning a new approach to the national superhero was his awareness of the tradition that had preceded his own efforts. Shainblum was not only familiar with Byrne's Alpha Flight, he also knew about Nelvana and Johnny Canuck and was in contact with the creators of the Northern Light and Captain Canuck. Furthermore, he was aware of the Stirlings' Captain Canada and Pierre Fournier's satirical character Capitaine Kébec. He had also published, in his science-fiction and comics magazine Orion, a Captain Canuck parody (John Bell and Owen Oulton' s Captain Canduck) as well as material relating to his own national superheroes – a forties-style character named the Red Ensign and a contemporary hero, Northguard.

The first artist to collaborate with Shainblum on the initial Red Ensign and Northguard concepts was Geoff Isherwood. In 1982, Following the demise of Orion, the two creators began to focus on Northguard. However, before their new superhero could take shape, Isherwood broke into the New York comics scene and was forced to end his involvement with the character. Not long after, Shainblum linked up with Gabriel Morrissette, a Montreal-based graphic artist. Together, they would redefine Northguard, jettisoning many of the clichés of the superhero genre and departing from Shainblum and Isherwood's original conception.

From the outset, as they developed the Northguard character (providing him with an identity and a milieu), Shainblum and Morrissette strove to achieve a high degree of authenticity and realism. Consequently, Northguard (whose alter ego was a young student named Philip Wise) would be a believable person, and his adventures would take place in a Montreal that was readily recognizable. Whereas some artists and writers utilized stock urban images, Shainblum and Morrissette travelled thoroughout the city photographing locations, so that when Northguard entered a building it was usually one that actually existed. This commitment to verisimilitude made the strip all the more convincing. However, while Northguard's adventures were more plausible than most superheroes', they were not mundane.

Shainblum and Morrissette's single Northguard story was a complicated, eight-part adventure, which began in 1984-1986 in five issues of New Triumph Featuring Northguard, published by Shainblum's own Matrix Graphic Series, and was completed in 1989-1990 in three issues of Northguard from the U.S. publisher Caliber Press. And while the novel-length story was very much a superhero adventure, it also borrowed heavily from the thriller genre, thrusting Northguard into a murky world of political intrigue involving foreign governments, multinational corporations and a menacing, right-wing organization called ManDes (Manifest Destiny).

The story opens with Wise being abducted and taken to the Vaudreuil headquarters of a Canadian multinational, Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies (PACT). At PACT, Wise learns of both a threatened takeover of Canada by the mysterious ManDes organization and of PACT's development of a revolutionary cybernetic personal-weapons system called the Uniband. Because of his brainwave patterns, Wise possesses the ability to wield the weapon, which, in effect, gives its operator the firepower of an army battalion. PACT endeavours to recruit Wise, asking him to operate the Uniband in the coming battle against ManDes. Wise, a comic book fan, finally agrees, but only if PACT will permit him to operate the Uniband as a superhero – and not just any superhero. Wise is a fan of Captain Canuck and Alpha Flight, so he wants to be a national superhero and wants to wear a flag costume. PACT finally relents and Northguard is born.

As Northguard, Wise finds himself quickly sucked into a vortex of violence. Eventually joining him in the struggle against ManDes and its minions is the martial-arts expert Manon Deschamps, who later adopts the identity of Fleur de Lys, a Quebecois national superhero (probably the most fully realized serious rendition of such a hero to appear to date). Northguard rescues René Lévesque from an assassin at a rally at the Montreal Forum and is then himself rescued by another PACT operative from Soviet and U.S. secret agents. Shainblum and Morrissette show that being a superhero is no easy matter. The bookish Wise struggles to become a warrior – to live out his comic book fantasies – but is soon overtaken by events and is captured by ManDes, which plans to use him and the Uniband as a weapon against PACT and Canada. The superhero-as-saviour is thus transformed into his country's potential destroyer: Phillip and the Uniband will be used to trigger a massive nuclear explosion. At the last moment, though, Phillip gains control of the device and destroys ManDes, becoming the hero that he was meant to be. The story ends with Phillip – sobered and confused by his adventures – spurning a CSIS attempt to recruit him.

By setting their work in the real world and by examining the price of heroism, Shainblum and Morrissette were responsible for what was probably the most sophisticated depiction ever of a Canadian national superhero. Shainblum's writing was restrained and honest and a perfect match for Morrissette's dynamic but realistic artwork. In their hands, the relationship between art and text became symbiotic. Unfortunately, both creators ceased to work on the character in 1989.


Following the demise of Northguard, Canada's national superheroes remained largely dormant until 1992, when they were the subject of John Bell's exhibition Guardians of the North: The National Superhero in Canadian Comic-Book Art (Canadian Museum of Caricature). Guardians of the North, which was the first exhibition to explore a particular theme within the Canadian graphic-narrative tradition, generated an enormous amount of interest in the history of Canada's superheroes and eventually prompted Canada Post to release a special stamp issue in 1995, that commemorated Superman and four national superheroes: Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck and Fleur de Lys. Not surprisingly, all this attention encouraged some creators of Canadian superheroes to contemplate the return of their characters.

In the fall of 1993, Richard Comely relaunched Captain Canuck, giving him a new identity (Darren Oaks) and pitting him against a bizarre international conspiracy. Regrettably, this new hero lacked the panache of Freeman and St-Aubin 's classic version. After appearing in a few comic book issues (published by Comely's Semple Comics) and a short-lived newspaper comic strip, the new Canuck, like his much-lamented predecessor, vanished.

Then, in 1998-1999, Mark Shainblum, the co-creator of Northguard and a contributor to the Captain Canuck newspaper strip, joined with the P.E.I. comic artist Sandy Carruthers (who had also briefly worked on the Canuck strip) in an effort to resurrect and revamp the original Captain Canuck (Tom Evans). Shainblum and Carruthers began work on a full-fledged comic book story featuring their "New Original Captain Canuck." Although the first part of this graphic narrative appeared in a small, promotional mock-up comic (a so-called "ashcan") with very limited distribution (100 copies), the full story has not been completed. Hopefully, this new/old version of Canuck will someday be published in full, as it would be intriguing to see Shainblum bring to Captain Canuck the depth and maturity that had earlier distinguished his portrayal of Northguard.

However, while Shainblum and Morrissette's Northguard represented a first-rate, mature version of a Canadian national superhero, there was another approach to the depiction of such figures. Unlike Northguard (Phillip Wise), who was a very earnest young man, some of his fellow superhero guardians were disrespectful types designed to poke fun at our notions about heroism and national identity.


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