Last month in Montreal, I had the pleasure of dining with three talented illustrator/authors, all members of the SCWBI’s (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’) Eastern Canada Chapter: Julie Prescesky, Julien Chung, and Emilie Pepin. Chatting with these super people, discussing their craft and book doings in bilingual Quebec, led me to think about Canada and superheroes. A visit a few days later to Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, the bookstore operated by the innovative, influential Canadian Drawn & Quarterly Press, also brought superheroes to mind. That is where I first paged through The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History (2015). Its compiler, Jon Morris, has created a wonderfully entertaining and informative book—springboarding in part from his longtime website. This volume is filled with wry, detailed comments and full-color, original illustrations of mainly U.S. superheroes who never achieved popularity or had limited, mostly-forgotten fame. Readers young and old will laugh out loud about the abilities and adventures of heroes such as Captain Tootsie, Kangaroo Man, Fat Man, and Thunderbunny. Yet not every “caped crusader” in this volume is just a figure of fun.
As Morris himself notes, some of these characters–such as Canada’s heroine “Nelvana of the Northern Lights”—have great historic and cultural importance. Rooted loosely in Inuit legend and life, demi-goddess Nelvana appeared in print to fight World War II enemies even before the USA’s battling “Wonder Woman” debuted. Nelvana also preceded Canada’s other World War II super fighters, Sergeant Jack and Johnny Canuck. (Since then, of course, Canada’s superhero ranks have swelled to include the 1980s and 1990s Alpha Flight roster and—most famously—the X-Men’s Wolverine.)
Nelvana’s black-and white adventures, which appeared monthly between 1941 and 1947, were recently compiled in one volume by editors Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey. Their comments in Nelvana of the Northern Lights (2014) spotlight how some of author/illustrator Adrian Dingle’s stories and language unfortunately use stereotypes prevalent in the 1940s. The Inuit (called “Eskimos” by Dingle) are often depicted as childlike and susceptible to drink, while the Japanese (and even other non-combatant Asians) are labelled the “yellow peril” and sometimes drawn as caricatures. Still, readers warned about Dingle’s cultural “tone-deafness” will be fascinated by his 1940s take on technological wonders and the visual sophistication of his illustrations. Varied perspectives and frequent frame-breaks uniting images occur often in his boldly-drawn pages. These techniques create narrative momentum and interest even as 21st century readers may smile at now-outdated scientific threats and rescues. Nelvana’s superpowers of telepathy, invisibility, flying at light speed, and metal melting are used to overcome such dangerous weapons as . . . radio waves.
Jon Morris also notes that some “regrettable” superheroes failed just because they appeared at times and in venues where they could not find appreciative audiences. He counts the 1990s “Squirrel Girl”–she of the bushy tail, chipper disposition, and relative speedy strength of squirrels—among such misplaced characters, some now being rebooted for new readers. I shall return to 2015’s “Squirrel Girl,” now being written by a Canadian, at the end of this post. But first I want to highlight the more extensive superhero creations of award-winning Canadian author/illustrator Jeff Lemire. Tween and teen readers may already have seen some of them, and 2016 will be bringing more. (Older teens may also have read or want to read Lemire’s separate, darker six volume series about mutants who are not superheroes, Sweet Tooth [2009 – 2013].)
In Justice League United, Volume 1: Justice League Canada (2015) (a compilation of Justice League United comics #0 – 5 ), writer Lemire has collaborated with artist Mike McKone. They reboot popular superheroes from the DC universe and set their adventures in Ontario, Canada as well as outer space! Returning heroes include Green Arrow, the Martian Manhunter, Star Girl, Supergirl, and Animal Man. Even more interesting, Ontario-native Lemire has created a young, brand-new Canadian superhero to join this newly-reforming league. Sixteen year-old Miyahbin Marten is a Moose Cree, one of Canada’s First Nation peoples. She lives in far northern Monsonee/Moose Factory, Ontario, and inherits her cyclical super powers from Earth and her tribal ancestors. Miyahbin, depicted interacting with her respected grandmother as well as friends, accesses her powers by proclaiming the Cree word her grandmother has taught her: “Keewahtin,” which means “northern wind.”
Lemire travelled to Monsonee over several months, working with young people there to get his depiction of contemporary Cree culture and lives “right.” His afterward in Justice League United describes his experiences and includes drawings by the Cree youngsters who inspired him. This inspiration extended to artist McKone, who based the costume for “Equinox”—the superhero name Miyahbin assumes—on Cree ceremonial garb. In a Native Peoples magazine article, Moose Factory residents describe how exciting it is to see their community, including its youth center and abandoned missile base, depicted in a DC international publication. This specificity and cultural accuracy make Equinox a far cry and welcome antidote to the stereotypes that flaw Dingle’s groundbreaking Nelvana. I look forward to future issues (and compilations) of Justice League United, where Lemire says an older Equinox will take on a leadership role.
Equinox is not the only reason, though, for this volume’s success. Illustrator McKone’s smartly-angled panels of different sizes, judiciously using tightly-focused close-ups for dramatic impact, impel each issue’s excitingly rapid pace. Superimposed small panels sometimes spotlight individual characters in crisis. Occasional full-page, wordless or nearly wordless-pages further highlight moments of high conflict, inviting readers to feast our eyes. Working with a roster of skilled inkers and colorists, McKone also effectively varies the color and font of exclamations during the League’s adventures, and also cues readers to changes in scene by consistently linking color palette to place. For instance, an evil alien scientist’s lair is consistently colored a sickly green, while whites, blues, and cool greys feature in the Canadian near-arctic.
Along with creating believable dialogue for young Mihaybin, her grandmother, and the youthful Star Girl, Lemire adds interest to the League’s adventures by creating an ongoing, half-joking rivalry between Green Arrow and Animal Man. Animal Man mocks the seemingly endless variety of arrows the archer carries, while Green Arrow veers between fake and possibly some real disdain for Animal Man’s superpower—his ability to take on characteristics of nearby creatures. This involves a nice bit of self-mockery on Jeff Lemire’s part, as before writing this volume, the prolific Lemire authored an acclaimed “reboot” of the 1980s superhero Animal Man. He collaborated with artists Travel Foreman and Dan Green on 29 comic book issues now collected in five Animal Man compilations (2012 – 2014).
That highly-praised “reboot” series poses something of a problem for me as both reader and reviewer. I think Lemire does an incredible job depicting the family relationships of Buddy Baker (the stunt man who becomes Animal Man), including developing the characters of his 9 year old son and 5 year old daughter, yet some of the art work unfortunately (from my point of view) lives up to its back cover blurbs. Many pages are “horror-tinged” and “visually pushing the envelope at every turn.” Rather than feasting my eyes on those pages, I tend to avert my eyes! So, I would caution even adult readers who might share my sensibilities about Animal Man’s intermittent but frequent gruesome images. Would teens who enjoy horror movies—and are permitted to view movies rated “R” for violence—enjoy the Animal Man series? Probably. . . but I would not give it a blanket recommendation for all teens, even older ones. On the other hand, Lemire’s Sweet Tooth series, while it depicts a bleak and violent dystopic future, does get my recommendation for older teens. Its six volumes, illustrated as well as written by Lemire, are visually as well as narratively compelling, making noteworthy use of wordless pages along with sparse, naturally-inflected dialogue. This series detailing the experiences of a human boy with antlers is a fine follow-up for readers of Lord of the Flies, as well as such post-apocalyptic works as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Stephen King’s The Stand, or David Brin’s The Postman.
Sweet Tooth is outside any of the shared DC or other comic book universes—a creator-owned work by Jeff Lemire. He has written and illustrated other wholly original works, including a trilogy about small-town, hockey-obsessed life in Ontario, Essex County (2008 – 2011). Its first volume won a 2008 Alex award, given by the ALA (American Library Association) to works written for adults also holding great appeal for teens. Lemire’s original, time-spanning, futuristic love story Trillium (compiled in one volume,2014) will also appeal to teens, some of whom may also enjoy the mysteries in the psychologically suspenseful, multilayered Underwater Welder (2012), even though that work about fathers and sons will resonate most, I think, with parents and parents-to-be. Next up, I am looking forward to the first compilation of Lemire’s original series about a boy android, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen: Descender, Volume One: Tin Stars (2015), scheduled for publication next month. Collecting issues 1 – 5 of this Vertigo publication, Descender has already been optioned for future movie production!
September, 2015 will also see the first compilation of the rebooted superhero Squirrel Girl, written by award-winning Canadian Ryan North and illustrated by Erica Henderson. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Volume One: Squirrel Power (2015), with its just off-to-college heroine, is already popular and a source of some controversy, with many readers of its individual issues praising their self-reliant, upbeat heroine while others find her flat and unbelievable. I intend to discover my own truth there . . . and I would like to hear your reactions, too. Also on my current browsing list is a library copy of Drawn and Quarterly Press’ brand-new, huge anniversary anthology: Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels (2015). It contains works by many significant contributors to literature gone graphic, including pieces by some Quebecois author/illustrators, translated from their original French, recommended last month by my Montreal colleagues at dinner. O Canada!