Invaders from the North – John Bell (2006)

Invaders of the NorthI’ve always enjoyed reading books about comic history almost as much as reading comics themselves. Whether it be the trials and tribulations of Superman’s creators (Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero), the indignities endured by Jack Kirby (Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution) or even essays on select comic runs or graphic novels (Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!). But while my reading on comics history has been diverse, it has also been fairly negligent when it comes to the comic legacy of my own native Canada.

Invaders from the North – How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe is a compilation of essays that capture the history of comic publishing here in the Great White North. This includes the faltering starts and stops during the early years (largely due to economic and protectionist measures in those days) right up to the time the book was published. Author John Bell documents the state of comic affairs over the years with near academic precision and the research to match.

Beginning nearly at the same time as the more prodigious American counterpart publications, the history of Canadian comics since the end of the nineteenth century (embryonic newspaper strips) is well covered including even the smallest of publishers, the titles that were available and, for the most part, the individuals or creative teams responsible. The detail is admirable ranging from the better known titles to the most obscure ones that lasted only a few issues.

One of the most Interesting aspects was learning how Canada was not impervious to the anti-comic hysteria rampant in the US during the 50’s and how events here even led to an entire chapter in Dr. Frederic Wertham’s notorious Seduction of the Innocent which triggered the entire debacle. The events here eerily mimicked those in the US.  I never realized that Canada also held senate hearings of our own and much like famed EC comics (and later MAD magazine) publisher Bill Gaines who spearheaded the defence of the comic industry in the US, we had publisher William Zimmerman doing the same here.  The uproar was national news with even Prime Minister Mackenzie King voicing his jaundiced opinion. Sadly, the end result was also pretty much the same with the establishment of our own Comics Code self imposed by publishers as compromise solution. As much as events here shadowed what was happening across the border, the biggest surprise was we even participated in narrow minded comic burning episodes, the most famous occurring at St-Bernadette, a school in Gatineau, Quebec, which is just a few kilometers from where I live now. All fascinating material!

Other chapters plod through the decades capturing all the high points like Dave Sim’s Cerebus, as well as the more esoteric echelons like the underground comix scene, indie creators, the successful Drawn & Quarterly, and of course some of the French language endeavors over the years, some bridging the language divide that seems omnipresent when discussing Canada on any issue.

Nestled among the essays are two spotlight chapters, the first on uniquely Canadian heroes including Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, Nelvana, Canada Jack, Northguard, and all the rest of the more iconic heroes. The second spotlight features Chester Brown, discussing his much lauded Louis Riel graphic novel as well as his earlier Yummy Fur.

With a snazzy Dave Cooper art cover, there are plenty of illustrations, clips, and cover art within. Perhaps the best treasure are the many vintage posed and candid photos of most of the writers and artists discussed in the book, sometimes jarringly reminding me of how time flies having met a number of these artists today.

One issue that was a bit of a sore point was how the book was cobbled from various essays  written over the years that in some cases, if not all, evidently contained previously published material. Read as standalone segments, the essays are informative and concise. But when presented as a compiled tome as was done here the segments contain a lot of overlap and are annoyingly repetitive on some points. A much better job could have been done to edit out those portions already documented in other chapters. Another lesser gripe was how the volume bounces through the history and is not presented in any clear chronological order as one would expect of a historical accounting.

If your views on Canadian comics were confined to nothing more than Captain Canuck and Captain Canada, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn of the vast history captured here. A must read for any real Canadian comic fans, young and old. Something to keep in mind as we scour the shelves at our local comic shops today and come across yet another rebirth of Captain Canuck!

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