Remembering Lost Heroes

Will Pascoe’s documentary recalls a time when Canadian superheroes ruled the Great White North.

11 mins read

Everybody knows the Avengers and Batman. These costumed crusaders help prop up the multibillion-dollar media empires of, respectively, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics. The powerful do-gooders reside in locales that are sometimes real (like New York) and sometimes fictitious (Gotham City)—but they’re always in the U.S. But why can’t Canada sustain its own characters from Charlottetown and Saskatoon? Will Pascoe’s documentary Lost Heroes explores this question and tracks the often-tragic plight of the Canadian superhero.

Living beside the U.S. presents the main challenge. According to CNN, Marvel and DC account for 80% of the comic book market. So it’s hard to imagine that during World War II, homegrown heroes reigned over our home and native land. The Canadian Golden Age of Comics, as it is now known, came about thanks to government intervention. In December 1940, the feds, responding to a trade deficit with the U.S., introduced the War Exchange Conservation Act, restricting imports of non-essential goods, including fiction magazines and comics, which had become ubiquitous after the 1938 introduction of Superman, drawn by Toronto-born Joe Shuster, and Batman the following year.

Looking to fill the void on newsstands, local publishers sprang up overnight with Canadian-made creations. Goodbye, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne—hello Canada Jack, Commander Steel, Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights! These characters thrived for a few years, but after the war ended, the borders reopened to the likes of DC and Timely, as Marvel was then known. This and the waning popularity of superheroes led to our national defenders hanging up their costumes, largely to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

This was all a revelation to Pascoe, a Toronto filmmaker and screenwriter for sci-fi series Bitten and Orphan Black. A Canadian history major and longtime comic fan, he stumbled upon the information during a digressive Google search. “We’ve had this 70-plus year history of superheroes, but for a variety of reasons they’ve never broken through, and that’s a little bit of a tragedy that we don’t even know our own pulp cultural history,” he says.

This provided the film’s starting point. Pascoe interested Middle Child Films’ Tony Wosk in the project and they in turn partnered with executive producer Kyle Bornais of Winnipeg’s Farpoint Films. which enabled them to tap Manitoba tax credits. (They also enlisted the services of Matt Anas as the editor.) Super Channel was also enthusiastic and gave the filmmakers development money and green lit the project soon thereafter. The production received further support from the Rogers Documentary Fund. Its makers worked on a lean and mean budget, believing they would have to complete the film before selling a second broadcast window.

From the Canadian comics industry’s essential collapse after 1946 through today, many Canuck writers and artists went to ply their trades with American publishers. It’s a scenario Pascoe knows well. Just as Lost Heroes was ramping up, he was hired as a writer on the Fox procedural drama The Finder (created by Canadian ex-pat Hart Hanson) and moved to Los Angeles.

That made it a short trip for Pascoe to go to the legendary San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, where he was joined by Wosk and cinematographer Andrew Oxley. “It’s like Mardi Gras meets New Year’s Eve meets Halloween and prom night all in one,” Pascoe says of the comics and fantasy showcase that annually attracts well in excess of 100,000 people.

Lost Heroes, which is narrated by Canadian Paul Soles, the first animated voice of Spider-Man on TV (1967), opens with attendees being asked to identify Canadian superheroes. They at least know Wolverine, the Alberta-born hero with indestructible bones and claws, who tussled with the Hulk, joined the X-Men, and then leapt to big-screen glory, as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. However, he is a Marvel creation, his Canadian origins serving as exotic back-story. The filmmakers also follow costumed would-be Canadian superhero Red Axe as he tries to stir up interest on the show floor.

The 1950s and 60s were desolate for Canadian crime-fighters, but the movie credits a real-life hero—Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau—with giving the country enough swagger to try again. And so, the mid-70s gave us a couple of notable characters: Captain Canuck, created by Richard Comely and Ron Leishman, and the Northern Light, featured in James Waley’s Orb magazine. They were relegated to short, erratic press runs, although a Captain Canuck revival is underway with a proposed feature film and a rebooted version of the character in an animated web series.

After The Finder was canceled, Pascoe returned home in February 2012 and worked with researcher Hope Nicholson to track down key interviewees. Among these is Golden Age artist Jack Tremblay, who, as a teenager, penciled the adventures of aerial war hero Crash Carson. The film also includes commentary from current Canadian drawers such as Ty Templeton (Spider-Man) and Dale Eaglesham, part of the team that tried to revive Alpha Flight, a Marvel superhero group based out of Canada that was created in 1979 by the Alberta-raised John Byrne. But apparently the crucial American audience isn’t that interested in foreign heroes, and Marvel stopped the series after its latest eight-issue run.

Historians and collectors—a fair number of whom are, perhaps surprisingly, female—are also on hand for their insights and, just as importantly, their vintage comics. Aside from the Comic-Con footage, the crew shot interviewees in front of a green screen, which was later filled with eye-popping panels from the comics they discuss. Animated movement between the background comic frames was added by motion designer Mark Alberts of Toronto’s Electric Square. The crew shot the comics on a still camera with this in mind, rather than risking motion blur.

“I thought a green screen would be a great way to showcase both a creator and the work, era or genre behind them,” Pascoe explains. “I also wanted to keep the images moving, because when your eye’s reading a comic book, it’s always moving. You’re either looking at the pictures or the words or moving to the next panel, and I wanted the film to have that feel. There’s always something new to look at.”

Another major contributor of Golden Age comics appearing on camera was the National Library and Archives Canada. Pascoe went to Ottawa with the fanboy dream of holding a Canada Jack comic or any of the other Canadian Whites—so named because, while the covers are in color, the interiors are black-and-white—but no such luck.

“They wouldn’t let us touch them,” he laments. “They had someone who handled all the comics with gloves on. We’d have to get in as close as we could with a long lens to photograph them. We could only have the lights on them for a certain amount of time. It’s nice to know the National Archives takes these things seriously and treats them with the same respect that they do the constitution or the charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

And there’s the irony. As one can deduce from the film, even though the government recognises the cultural legacy of these comics that flourished for the duration of the War Exchange Conservation Act, today there are no restrictions on the flood of comics coming from the U.S., and no significant postwar comics industry has risen north of the 49th.

“It was like CanCon before CanCon—much like radio stations have to play a certain percentage of Canadian music during the day or television channels have to show a certain amount of Canadian shows,” Pascoe says. “This was one of the first instances of that, but it came out of necessity, emergency and crisis—where we created this inflated, manufactured environment for Canadian superheroes that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.”

Super Channel plans to premiere Lost Heroes in January.

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