True North, Strong and Free: ChapterHouse, Captain Canuck, and the History of Canadian Comics


Captain Canuck #1 Written by Kalman Andrasofsky & Ed Brisson Art by Kalman Andrasofsky & Marcus To ChapterHouse Comics
Captain Canuck #1
Written by Kalman Andrasofsky & Ed Brisson
Art by Kalman Andrasofsky & Marcus To
ChapterHouse Comics

Over the weekend at Fan Expo Toronto, Canadian comics publisher ChapterHouse announced the expansion of their superhero line throughout 2017, the result being a new universe of heroes that readers can jump aboard at the ground floor. As reported on Comic Book Resources, the expansion will unify their existing and new line of hero books under the “Chapterverse” banner, establishing what ChapterHouse bills as “a whole universe for $8 a month.”

From the CBR piece, here’s a bullet point list of ChapterHouse’s upcoming plans and creative teams:

  • The character Fantomah will join the Captain Canuck serial via “Gotham By Midnight” writer Ray Fawkes and artist Soo Lee.
  • Spinoff series “Agents of Pact” focuses on an all-women super team including heroes Red Coat and Kebec from Kalman Andrasofszky and co-writer Blake Northcott.
  • Golden Age Canadian hero “Freelance” will be recreated by “Thunderbolts’” Jim Zub and “Another Castle’s” Andrew Wheeler with art from Vaneda Vireak.
  • “Green Lantern” writer Van Jensen and Eric Kim will create a sci-fi story called “Northern Light” with covers from Miko Maciaszek.
  • Captain Canuck will crossover with Chapterhouse’s Pitiful Human-Lizard character from Andrasofszky and Jason Loo.
  • “Northguard” will continue from current writer Anthony Falcone with Giovani Valletta taking over on a new arc next year.

The announcement comes as Canada’s presence in comics is in the midst of a small resurgence thanks to the efforts of publishers like ChapterHouse, combined with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent appearance on the cover of a Marvel Comic. With digital comics making both production distribution more accessible than ever before, the time might be right to see some classic Canadian characters return alongside new creations. But, wait, you’re probably thinking, “What classic Canadian characters?”

Sure, Wolverine, Deadpool and Alpha Flight have been around for decades, but while they may be Canadian, they’ve been created and controlled by American creators for most of their existences (John Byrne aside). But for many years there were homegrown Canadian characters that thrived in the Great White North, and ChapterHouse is in the midst of resurrecting some of them. If the publisher is successful, perhaps we’ll we more Canadian heroes return and thrive in their own universe? Let’s take a look at some of the history of Canadian heroes, starting with the fascinating reason for their creation.

 

Panel From Grand Slam Comics #52, 1946 Artist Unknown Anglo-American Publishing
Panel From Grand Slam Comics #52, 1946
Artist Unknown
Anglo-American Publishing

In the Beginning…

 

Canada has always been a part of super hero comics, playing a small role in the genesis of the genre itself. The super hero was born with the publication of “Action Comics #1,” which starred Superman, created by Jerry Seigel and Toronto-born Joe Shuster. When Shuster had to draw the skyscrapers and skylines that made up Superman’s city Metropolis, he used dim recollections of Toronto for inspiration.

But even before Superman, Canada had given comics a giant in the form of Hal Foster. Born in Halifax, Foster was a talented artist who emigrated to the US in his 20s whereupon he became the creative force behind the Tarzan newspaper comic strip before making his most significant mark in 1937, when he created “Prince Valiant.” Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until 1975, when he started a gradual retirement that saw him stop drawing and then writing the strip soon after. In a sad coda, while under anesthesia during an operation, he suffered brain damage that resulted in such destructive amnesia that Foster couldn’t recall ever having created or worked on “Prince Valiant.”

 

Nelvana of the Northern Lights Art by Adrian Dingle Bell Features
Nelvana of the Northern Lights
Art by Adrian Dingle
Bell Features

Canadian Whites

In 1940, Canada was suffering under a significant trade deficit with the United States. In order to combat this, the War Exchange Conservation Act was passed. The Act restricted import of goods from the US that were considered non-essential, and comic books landed squarely on that list. With the adventures of Batman, Superman and the Sub-Mariner no longer available, numerous companies sprang up to fill the void.

The major publishers of the era were Anglo-American Publications, Hillborough Studios and Bell Features, all out of Toronto, with Maple Leaf Publishing based in Vancouver. The comics they published became known as “Canadian Whites” due to the fact that the books featured color covers but had black and white interiors.

Maple Leaf struck first with their character Iron Man, created by Vernon Miller, who debuted in “Better Comics #1” in 1941. Bearing a more than suspicious resemblance to a certain pointy-eared, wing-footed hero in Timely Comics, Iron Man was the last of an amphibious race of people who revealed himself to the world to fight the Nazis in WWII. He was the first Canadian super-hero.

Anglo-American had their greatest super hero success with Freelance, who didn’t possess any super powers but was more an adventurer in the mood of Doc Savage. He too fought the Nazis and manages to qualify as a super hero mainly due to his snazzy costume. The company’s more conventional hero was Commander Steel, a wounded veteran whose life was saved by mysterious elixir that granted him super strength and regenerative powers.

Bell Features had a similar hero to Freelance in Johnny Canuck, an adventurer whose big claim to fame was hand-to-hand combat with Adolf Hitler. But he was more a pulp adventurer than super hero, even though his adventures were a hit for the company. Hillborough, however, boasts a more significant place in Canadian comic history when Adrian Dingle created Nelvana of the Northern Lights for the publisher. One of the world’s first female super heroes, Nelvana could fly at the speed of light, possessed telepathic powers and could turn invisible, among other abilites. Nelvana debuted before Wonder Woman, and would prove popular, but not soon enough to save Hillborough, which folded in 1942. Dingle brought Nelvana to Bell Features, where she appeared until 1947.

At the close of the Second World War when the War Exchange Conservation Act ended, American comics flooded back into Canada, and the industry pretty much died as a result, with almost every character disappearing.

 

Captain Canuck #1 Art by Richard Comely Comely Comix
Captain Canuck #1
Art by Richard Comely
Comely Comix

Captain Canuck & Beyond…

The Canadian industry limped along, without mainstream success to a large degree, though there were pockets of influential and groundbreaking work being done in the underground scene over the years. By the 1970s, budding cartoonists such as Gene Day and Dave Sim were beginning to produce major works.

But, when it comes to Canadian super hero comics, the next significant event is “Captain Canuck”. Created by Richard Comely and Ron Leishman, his first issue debuted in 1975. Though not a big enough hit to keep the series from struggling, publishing issues sporadically over the years, something about Captain Canuck resonated with Canadian comic fans. Though his original series ended in 1981, he remained well remembered by fans, and over the years would return, usually with involvement from Comely. The Captain has a variety of abilities, including super-strength, enhanced reflexes and an eidetic memory that enables him to quickly learn and master any fighting skill.

Another hero that premiered and resonated in the early 1980s was Northguard (or Le Protecteur as he was known in French). Northguard was granted powers through wearing the UniBand, a top secret energy weapon developed by a think tank known as PACT. Northguard would fight ManDes (or Manifest Destiny) a sinister cabal devoted to combining Canada and the US into some kind of white supremacist super-nation. Part of the mid-80s move to deconstruction and more complex themes, Northguard grappled with Canadian issues of national identity in the face of encroaching American culture, corporate malfeasance, and extremist groups. Northguard even acquired a sidekick in Fleur de Lys.

But none of these books would thrive for long, and just like the post-war period, Canadian super-hero comics would mostly vanish. Captain Canuck and Northguard retained their cult following, and both had attempts at comebacks in recent years. However, the most recent effort by Chapterhouse to create a dedicated Canadian comic universe has the most robust feel of any in some time. Chapterhouse seems to be dedicated to crafting a line-wide cohesion that could generate enough interest to get readers involved in the line as a whole. And in the era of digital comics, where actual publication and distribution is much less important, and global access can be much more easily maximized, it’s a better bet than ever before. If they hold true to the promise of a “Chapterverse” for only $8 a month, and match that offer with compelling books and a strong overarching narrative, it’s possible that they could wind up succeeding where generations of dedicated and talented creators struggled; to actually create a sustainable, distinct and Canadian super hero universe.


 

Jeremy Radick

Knight Radick, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man....who does not exist. But he is a comic Book geek, cinephile, robophobe, punctuation enthusiast, social activist, haberdasher, insect taxidermist, crime-fighter, former actor, semi-professional Teddy Roosevelt impersonator and Dad.

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