If one were to poll Americans (and most likely a great deal of Canadians) with only a passing interest in comic books about what their favourite Canadian comic book superheroes were, the top answer would probably be Wolverine, the proudly Canadian Alberta native who operated predominantly in the United States. Other more astute followers of the Marvel Universe might answer with the still kind of American created Alpha Flight, a.k.a. “The Canadian Avengers.” Then, depending on age and the person’s voracious appetite for reading there would probably be the long list of other possible homegrown heroes that would make up the bottom 5% of this hypothetical poll.
The documentary Lost Heroes: The Untold Story of Canadian Superheroes (which plays at The Royal in Toronto this Friday and Saturday in advance of its TV debut on Super Channel on March 4th) aims to draw more attention to the lesser known, and sadly forgotten about history of Canadian comics. First coming into their own during World War II when conservation efforts curbed the importing of many American titles that were deemed non-essential imports, Canada created their own kinds of stories with the “Canadian Whites,” black and white, gorgeously drawn stories of derring-do from such heroes as Cosmo Grant, Johnny Canuck, and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the latter of which beat Wonder Woman to becoming the first female Comic Book superhero.
The Canadian comic has since ebbed and flowed in popularity, but is now seeing a bit of a resurgence especially with regard to reclaiming these lost heroes. Nelvana and Captain Canuck in particular have seen massive career boosts and heightened notoriety with the recent superhero boom south of the border, but director and Montreal native Will Pascoe (who has placed a poster of Captain Canuck on the wall of his 4-year old son’s bedroom) and his team of comic loving producers look to give every potentially forgotten about Canadian butt-kicker, freedom fighter, and do-gooder their proper place in history. It’s a thoroughly fascinating look at how characters that were once top sellers in the country somehow got lost in the shuffle of time across the past seventy years.
Dork Shelf chatted with Pascoe (who has also worked as a writer and co-producer on the hit TV series Orphan Black, writer and producer on Bitten, and a staff writer on The Finder) about the film, the process of researching often lost or forgotten comics, how the American comic industry shaped the Canadian one, and how it became a bit of an international treasure hunt.
Dork Shelf: When you set out to do a film about lost Canadian superheroes, you make it known in the film that a lot of the actual material that has become incredibly hard to find from the World War II era when the Canadian Whites were at their peak in popularity, but what’s your hope for the preservation of these comics and these characters going forward now that the film is complete?
Will Pascoe: There’s a whole generation’s worth of characters and material that’s just kind of been swallowed up and lost because the timing wasn’t right to save it. At least with the internet now, we can help to kind of chronicle these things and the people can still find them and archive them and access them and download them. One of the biggest challenges in making this film was just finding the people who made these comics and finding good quality artwork that still exists. Because you’re right, there was a point when this might not have been a collectable thing and it was more disposable. No one was exactly running around and saying “We need to preserve even just a little slice of this because this is a part of our story and part of who we are. If anything, with this film I hope to open some people’s eyes to the fact that we do have our own sense of pop culture and history, and that going forward it’s great to cherish and recognize these people who were making these comic books from characters in this country that weren’t exactly going to make anyone millionaires, but they were doing it out of this sense of pride for their country and from patriotism and maybe that’s how we always should have equated it.
DS: As a writer you must tend to notice this yourself, but the comic industry much like the rest of the entertainment industry is a cyclical kind of thing that sort of ebbs and flows. Right now we seem to be at a point where the love for all things comics is reaching another peak, but you look back at the 80s and 90s and it didn’t seem so cool to be working exclusively in comics. That seems to have happened in Canada, too, to some extent, but not exactly in the same ways. Was it interesting to kind of explore how those boom periods in Canada were often parallel to perhaps lower points in American comics?
WP: There are definitely some parallels, but one of the things that we realized was when at the end of World War II when the Canadian comic industry kind of collapsed and American comic books creators came flooding back in and Canadian creators couldn’t sustain what they were doing so they moved to the States, it was really most interesting to note that the States at this point started to enter its “golden age” of comics. Comic books became this huge things in the States in the 50s and in Canada there was absolutely nothing worthwhile. There are similarities between the two, but here the industry virtually disappeared with very few exceptions for almost thirty years while the States had a boom.
Part of me likes to think that those Canadians who left partially helped that US boom in a weird, ironic way. In Canada it all sort of dried up. We even went through a period of censorship where comics were seen as corrupting young kids. We couldn’t work that into the film because it was just outside of kind of our outlined mission statement, but even a young Brian Mulroney, who would one day become the Prime Minister of Canada, would become one of the key spokespeople against comic books and how they make kids deranged and how they could corrupt young minds and things like that.
So in Canada that censorship kind of led to a feeling of doom and gloom during what could have been its most fertile period.
DS: When the Canadian Whites were the only real game in town, they were really prevalent, but after that there weren’t four major companies that were dealing in comics, but really maybe only one or two titles of note here and there. That seems like a strange thing for any industry because you compare that to other Canadian industries in entertainment today like film, video games, and book publishing, it seems almost unfathomable that something so relevant to pop culture could all but disappear.
WP: Yeah, it’s true. I think for the most part that was because there was during the war this government created kind of mentality that necessitated this move towards Can-con. Once that artificial government thing was removed and American comics came back in, I don’t know if some publishers just threw up their hands and said they couldn’t compete with the better marketed, more widely circulated, full colour American superheroes that now had this pent up demand behind them after not being available for about five years. In some cases it was almost like they pulled the plug overnight. They kind of read the writing on the wall and said “Let’s just get out now before we lose too much money.”
But you are right that it was virtually overnight, and there were a couple of publishers that said they could get colour back in and that they could compete. Ultimately, though, it just wasn’t financially sustainable, and I think that was because in the States you could run twenty million copies of a Batman comic, sell a million in Canada, and then have nineteen million worth of sales in the US that would already subsidize the shipping costs to Canada pretty easily. But you can’t make twenty million copies of something with Johnny Canuck because you need all twenty million of those to sell in order to make even the tiniest bit of profit. The fact that the Americans could tap into their own huge population to subsidize to make up for whatever losses they might have been making elsewhere kind of made a really uneven playing field.
DS: I’m a huge research nerd and I love following the kind of rabbit hole that you guys go down in this film to create these story threads that really run throughout a lot of Canadian literary history. It’s really comprehensive.
WP: (laughs) Well, that’s part of the reason why the film took three years to make. We kind of dug into a hole where we would find some stuff and it would end up uncovering something else. Then we would go back and look at the film and say “Okay, now we need to fill that hole we just opened up because that’s just too interesting to not go into.”
The film was really a labour of love for all of the people involved, but one of the best things about making the film was that a lot of our information and material came from comic book fans in the community that we could connect with through other people. There were a lot of times where someone would say “I don’t have that issue, but I bumped into a guy once at a convention who knew the great-great grandson of this guy from the 1940s and I think I have his phone number somewhere so you might call him up and see if he has any photographs or anything.” It became this kind of awesomely crazy treasure hunt that became this global effort. People in England and the States were always helping us. Some of them were hardcore collectors, some just had one or two issues of a Canadian comic. It became this worldwide treasure hunt even when it came to just finding out information, and again, like you said, to try and make it part of a larger story you realize that one character leads to another.
You can’t entirely talk about something like Captain Canuck without talking about The Northern Lights and what it was like to be coming out of that dark age of the early 1970s where there was nothing going on. By that same discovery, you can’t just jump from the 1940s right into Captain Canuck because there’s a precursor to that in The Great Canadian Comics. The film became like an accordion, where it can at times become leaner and leaner, or it could just stretch itself out and be a lot broader.
At one point we had a version of the film that was two and a half hours, and the producers said that was a bit too long and that we couldn’t really make anyone in a theatre sit through all of that unless we were sinking the Titanic or something. Fortunately on the website and the DVD we should have a lot of extras of the things that were in the film at one point that we had to pull for time that are still really interesting. Like, we had a whole section on Todd McFarlane, and right now he only has a passing mention in the film as a noteable Canadian artist, but we realized that he never created a Canadian comic book superhero. So even though he’s Canadian and one of the biggest names in the history of the business, we couldn’t really devote seven to ten minutes to him if he never created a Canadian character. We wanted to mention him though as one of those guys who was really talented that just happened to go down to the States in the 1980s because there just weren’t any opportunities for him to get hired doing what he loved doing in Canada.
But the film was always this huge journey of discovery both for us and for ourselves. The more people came out of the woodwork or approached us and said they had an issue of something we hadn’t considered before, the more exciting it got. We would always be going back into the edit to put something in and pull something else out. We just tried to create the strongest story possible that would connect to the topic of Canadian created superheroes and their creators.