Canadian Nationalist Superheroes

A long, long time ago, I responded to a query from Jeet Heer on the Comix-Scholars list-serve.

He replied: “Any thoughts on why Canadian nationalist superheroes (Nelvana, Captain Canuck) never gain the iconic status of their American counterparts?”

And I wrote:

Off the cuff, I would say that characters like Nelvana and other Canadian Golden Age characters specifically suffered from lower distribution figures than their American counterparts, and a black and white printing format that couldn’t stand up to the influx of American comic books after World War II. Like much of Canadian culture, the Golden Age of Canadian comic books was legislated into existence – in this case, by the 1940 War Exchange Conservation Act. (Forgive me if you already know this story!) When that Act was repealed, American comic books took over again – like most American popular culture and media exports do today (with exceptions like the Barenaked Ladies and Canada Council-funded artists).

Likewise, Captain Canuck doesn’t enjoy the same widespread (or even continuous) distribution the characters like Wonder Woman and Superman do. Starting from an already small population (of comic book readers) and appealing to a small set within that (Canadian comic book readers) hurts your chances of gaining widespread popularity and, hence, precludes the attainment of iconic status. Although Nelvana and Captain Canuck aren’t as iconic as a character like Captain America, they were still deployed as symbols by Canada Post on a 1995 stamp series (Bart Beaty has written more on this phenomenon). Again, the Canadian state stepped in to help the comic book characters get a bit of press.

On the other hand, long-running titles like the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight (now in its fourth volume) have enjoyed greater success both inside and outside of Canada. Canadians don’t need to feel bad that a group of individuals based out of the various regions of Canada (Sasquatch from BC, Snowbird from the North, Aurora and Northstar from Quebec, Guardian from Ottawa, and so forth) is arguably the most popular of the Canadian-themed superhero teams, while Captain Canuck doesn’t begin to rival Captain America in popularity. If anything, that speaks to the highly touted inclusiveness of Canadians, manifested in such precepts as the federal policy of multiculturalism and Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality.” The Alpha Flight team could be interpreted as a multicultural mosaic that works together (with quite a few hiccups, but those are all part of the drama and fun), while Captain American is emblematic of American individualism, perseverance, and work ethic. Captain America’s unflagging devotion to the US, and his flag costume, are bound to meet greater success in the US, whereas Captain Canuck could be seen as a Canadian version that just doesn’t fly (pun intended) with supposedly more inclusive Canadians.

That’s not to say that patriotism is fine for Americans and a failure in Canada. Quite the contrary, one could interpret Alpha Flight as representative of the Canadian nation in the same way that Captain America stands for the American nation. One could say that what makes the comic books distinct from each other reflects what makes the countries different.

Granted, I am lacking a critical lens on the terms “patriotism” and “nationalism,” and individualism versus collective Peace, Order, and Good Government is a drastic oversimplification of social, political, and economic similarities and disparities between the US and Canada but hopefully that is still of some use! I’m writing on Alpha Flight at the moment, so if you agree or disagree with me on this rough hypothesis, I’d be happy to hear your comments.

Then I got in an internet fight in the Globe & Mail comments section, but the real moral of the story for grad students is to answer requests for information! It will give you a chance to write your ideas down and work at expressing yourself more clearly.

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