by Christoper Doody
Christopher Doody is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Carleton University. His area of research is Canadian literature and book history
For the last few weeks, Canadian media has had a surprisingly large number of stories on DC comic’s new title Justice League United, although the comic was originally solicited as Justice League Canada. Written by Jeff Lemire, the comic moves the Justice League to Canada, where they establish their home base in northern Ontario, and includes a brand-new Canadian superhero, Equinox.
The large amount of focus that Canadian news agencies are placing on this new comic, and the creation of a Canadian superhero, suggests that Canadians desire to see themselves, and their country, represented in comics. Problematically, however, all attempts at Canadian-made comic books have had very short shelf-lives—the “golden age” of Canadian comic books only lasted for five years during WWII, and only as a result of a ban on the importation of American comic books. So while Canadians desire to see more Canadian superheroes, but cannot support an industry of their own, we must rely on the large American comic book creators—DC and Marvel—to represent our country and our superheroes for us.
In this post, I want to briefly consider some of the issues of having an American comic book company represent Canada, specifically Canadian geopolitics, by examining the incredibly successful comic book series Alpha Flight.
Alpha Flight began as a 130-issue comic book series focused on a team of Canadian superheroes published in the 1980s. Despite that fact that Alpha Flight is about a team of Canadian superheroes and is set entirely in Canada, the series was in fact written and drawn by Americans, published by an American company, and explicitly addressed to an American audience. While it may not be unusual for an American comic book company to write about other countries, I am interested in Alpha Flight because of its strong connection to Canadian geopolitics. Importantly, Alpha Flight is a team of nationalist superheroes. Jason Dittmer has defined a nationalist superhero as one who “explicitly identifies himself or herself as a representative and defender of a specific nation-state, often through his or her name, uniform, and mission.” In other words, Captain America is a nationalist superhero because he is considered an embodiment of the United States. Superman, on the other hand, is not a nationalist superhero because he fights for justice, as opposed to representing a single nation-state.
Alpha Flight is an interesting example of nationalist superheroes. Although only Guardian, and later his wife, Vindicator, wear the Canadian flag on their costumes all the members of Alpha Flight consider themselves to be representatives of Canada. This is most clearly seen in a discussion that takes place in issue 39.
Fig. 1: Panel from Alpha Flight 39, page 4.
In this issue, one of the members of Alpha Flight has been taken captive by the current ruler of Atlantis. In determining if they can go and rescue her, Alpha Flight wonders if the rescue attempt would be considered an act of war, since they represent Canada. In this scene, Northstar suggests that they should be able rescue their friend as individuals, but this is quickly dismissed. They no longer have individual agency—their roles have made them actors of the state.
This example is not the exception. The writers of Alpha Flight are explicitly aware that it is a comic book about Canadian geopolitics. Perhaps the most extreme example of this awareness is depicted in the character of Snowbird. Snowbird is a demigod, whose mother is the Inuit goddess Nelvanna, and her powers come from the land itself. Despite this, her powers are shown to inexplicably stop at the arbitrary geopolitical border between United States and Canada. For example, see figure 2, where Snowbird chases Hulk from Canada back into the United States. There is no reason for her powers to stop at this imaginary line, unless she is somehow an embodiment of Canada the state, and not just Canada the landmass.
Fig. 2: Panels from Alpha Flight 29, page 19.
But what Canada is depicted in Alpha Flight? How accurate a representation of Canada, and its politics, is Marvel attempting to create? John Byrne, the creator of Alpha Flight, did a number of interviews when the series was first launched. In most of these, Byrne suggests that he is not trying to faithfully represent Canada, but instead, offer a comic-book version of Canada. He also stated in several interviews that his knowledge of Canada is limited, stating for example, “I don’t consider myself an expert on Canada, so that I could set about to educate the United States about it. I know very little about Canada, really. . . . I’m going to be making it up as I go along.”
All of this would seem to suggest that the Canada of Alpha Flight is a constructed Canada, with very little attachment to the actual nation-state. Despite this, in several interviews, Byrne also lists one of his objectives in writing the comic is to educate Americans about Canada. For example, he notes “If I can show our U.S. readers that there are no pine trees or tundra in Toronto, then I will be happy.” This didactic nature of the comic was echoed by American readers themselves, who wrote letters to the editors, suggesting that they saw the comic as a way to learn about Canada and its politics. To complicate matters, however, Canadian readers would frequently have letters published in the comic as well, often decrying how inaccurate the depiction of Canada in the comic was. It is this complicated depiction of Canadian geopolitics that I am interested in exploring.
I want to focus on the example of Northstar to flesh out these issues. Northstar is most commonly known as the first openly gay character in Marvel comics. And more recently, as part of the first gay couple to get married in Marvel comics. His past, however, is far more controversial. Before joining Alpha Flight, Northstar was a member of the Quebec terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). This terrorist group was in support of Quebec becoming an independent sovereign nation, and was willing to use militant measures to achieve this goal. The terrorist group was active from 1963 to 1970, and was involved in a number of violent acts, killing and harming Canadian citizens. Their attacks culminated in the October Crisis of 1970. During the October Crisis, the FLQ kidnapped two politicians, and killed one of them. As a result of these actions, the Prime Minister of Canada invoked the War Measures Act, which suspended all civil liberties of Canadian citizens. This was the only time this act has ever been invoked during peacetime.
The FLQ members were eventually arrested and the terror ended, but the event is part of a long and complicated history between Quebec and the rest of Canada. This complicated and incredibly charged political situation is summarized by Marvel comics in two panels. This summarization appears in Marvel Fanfare #28, where Northstar’s backstory is fleshed out. The comic reveals that after the October Crisis, and the disbandment of the FLQ, Northstar joined a more violent militant group, called the Cell Combattre. Although Northstar has since renounced his violent ways, he is still a staunch Quebec separatist, who insists that he will never give up his principles.
Northstar’s backstory is engaged in all of the complicated geopolitical issues surrounding Alpha Flight that I have been discussing in this paper. It invokes a real historical event from Canada’s history, but the writer also employs his artistic license to embellish history, by constructing a fake sub-group known as Cell Combattre. While American readers might find this backstory interesting for the development of Northstar as a character, the story’s reception would surely be far different in Canada. The FLQ crisis has had a lasting impact on Canadian history and is still relevant today. For a Canadian reader, it is unlikely that they would be able to as easily accept that Northstar’s renouncement of violence against the state is sufficient for his crimes. More importantly, however, is Northstar’s position as a nationalist superhero on a team of Canadian superheroes. He has openly stated that he is a separatist—in other words, he does not believe in a singular, united Canada. Therefore, how can he represent a nation he does not believe in? He has literally fought against the very nation he is supposedly now fighting to protect.
The writers of Alpha Flight have made a nod at this problem—for example, when Northstar is first invited to join Alpha Flight, we see a shot of him approaching Parliament Hill, and he considers it amusing that he has responded to the call, since no so long ago we would have liked to have seen it blown up. This depiction over-simplifies the politic aims of Quebec separatists in Canada, and downplays the political tension between French and English Canada.
Fig. 3: Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau
The comic’s most inaccurate representation of Canadian geopolitics comes from the depiction of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In Alpha Flight, Trudeau is the Prime Minister who establishes the superhero team Alpha Flight. Problematically, however, Trudeau was also the Prime Minister of Canada during the FLQ crisis, and who invoked the War Measures Act. The idea that Trudeau would both suspend the civil liberties of all Canadian citizens to stop the FLQ, and then would turn around and make one of its members a national superhero is laughable. At least to a Canadian. This example, along with many others, reinforce stereotypes of Canada as pacifist and politically uncomplicated when compared to the United States. If nationalist superheroes have an important place in the national cultural imagination, as the recent news articles on Justice League United suggests, then the examination of the production, and reception, of comic books like Alpha Flight becomes a worthwhile project.
Dittmer, Jason. Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2013. Print. 7.
Sanderson, Peter. “Now Boarding on Alpha Flight.” Amazing Heroes 22 (April 1983): 30-42. Print.
Jennings, Nichols. “A Homegrown Superhero.” Maclean’s 96.25 (20 June 1983): 43. Print.
Byrne, John. “Family Ties.” Alpha Flight Issue 10 (1984): 18-22. Print.