What was the catalyst for creating the exhibit, Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity?
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a great collection of Canadian comic books and graphic novels and we wanted to let more people know about it. LAC has collected a large number of comics published in Canada via legal deposit, which is a law requiring all Canadian publishers to give LAC two copies of each item they publish. LAC has also been the lucky recipient of two very significant donated comics collections: the John Bell Collection of Canadian Comic Books and the Bell Features Collection. (Yes, they are both called Bell – it is a source of great confusion).
John Bell is a Canadian comic book historian and retired LAC archivist whose collection contains around 4,000 comics, ranging from 1940s’ Canadian Whites to 21st-century ‘zines. The Bell Features Collection is the corporate archive of the Second World War-era comic book publisher Bell Features, and includes just under 400 of the company’s publications. Although these old Canadian comics have recently returned to the public consciousness through a few well-publicized reprints, many people outside the comic book fan community still know nothing about them. It was great to have an opportunity to help shine more light on them with this exhibition.
Have visitors to the exhibit been surprised by how robust the Canadian comic book industry is?
It seems like it! Many people don’t know about the Canadian Whites. I’ve encountered people who didn’t know Joe Shuster was Canadian, which surprises me a little because I grew up in the era of Heritage Minutes and I thought everyone had seen the one about him. Alter Ego also features some current Canadian comics creators like Chester Brown, Seth, Jeff Lemire, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Guy Delisle, Bryan Lee O’Malley, and Michel Rabagliati. Some of those people have fairly high levels of name recognition – Rabagliati in particular is extremely popular in Quebec and there’s at least a ripple in the mainstream whenever Chester Brown releases a new book. But based on my experience talking to people about this exhibition, it appears that Canadian comics are still a niche market. Most people seem to be getting their superhero stories from the movies these days, as evidenced by the fact that the two Canadian characters everyone does seem to know are Wolverine and Deadpool.
In what way(s) has Canadian identity been reflected in Canadian comics throughout the years?
The first English-Canadian comics published during the Second World War are very patriotic, featuring characters with explicitly or stereotypically Canadian identities, like Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck. My personal favourite is Dixon of the Mounted: he’s a Mountie stationed in the North who chases down Nazi spies in a canoe. I mean, how much more Canadian can you get? The construction of Canadian identity that you see in these comics was very much tied in with the war, so it’s tough and militaristic, and unquestioningly nationalistic. It’s the kind of vision of Canada you might encounter if you listen to Don Cherry.
But things have become more nuanced in the Canadian comics world over the last 75 years as our approach to Canadian history and identity has evolved. I think the Kate Beaton strip we included in Alter Ego (“A History Debate”) captures our changing perspective on history hilariously, with Emily Murphy demanding more female representation, General Wolfe wondering sadly why he’s not considered a hero, and Louis Riel shouting at Sir John A. Macdonald that Macdonald is, in fact, the villain of the piece.
Comics reflect cultural evolution, with more and more creators from different backgrounds sharing their own stories. Though I think there will probably always be “national” superheroes like Captain Canuck – who of course recently made a comeback – we also now have space for Canadian heroes who aren’t wearing red and white maple leaf costumes, like Kagagi, the Indigenous hero created by Jay Odjick. (Kagagi, by the way, has his own animated series. Episodes are in English and Algonquin, with subtitles, and are available on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s website).
Some of the comics featured in the exhibition aren’t about Canadian identity specifically, but still reflect it by drawing on our shared experience of life in Canada. For example, one of the reasons the Paul series is so popular with Québecers is that Michel Rabagliati sets the stories in recognizable locations around Québec. Similarly, I think the Toronto setting is one of the fun features for Canadians of the Scott Pilgrim series. You could hardly call Scott Pilgrim a Captain Canuck-esque patriot, but there’s something about seeing Honest Ed’s in a popular comic that makes us all say “eh!”
Modern-day comics often portray the protagonist as a more of a flawed hero. Why do you think that is?
Most people would probably cite DC Comics’ publication in 1986 of two dark superhero stories, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, as the beginning of this trend. I think our popular culture tends to reflect the times we live in and right now the world seems like a fairly dark and chaotic place. As General Wolfe learns in the Kate Beaton web comic that I mentioned above, our interpretation of history has become more and more complex as we start to take diverse perspectives into account. People who were once portrayed as heroic are now revealed to have been complex individuals with both positive and negative qualities. In this environment, it may be difficult to see where “Boy Scout” type characters like Superman and Captain America fit. The Marvel movies deal directly with this problem by focusing on Steve Rogers’ struggle to find a place in a world that doesn’t mesh with his values.
What happens to the items in the exhibit once it closes on September 14?
Good question! If there were original documents in the show, they would go back to LAC’s vaults at the Preservation Centre in Gatineau. But, Alter Ego is all reproductions and I can’t say for sure what the fate of the display will be. Sometimes LAC’s exhibitions go on tour, but there is nothing confirmed for Alter Ego at this point. The exhibition includes a giant cut-out of Dixon of the Mounted. I’ve been thinking about asking if I can have it for my office.
Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity runs until September 14, 2016 at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. You can learn more about the exhibit on their website.
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