Happy Canada Day. I’ve decided to give you (and myself) a break from my long posts and extensive look into the past of Calvin Ayre, Canadian gambling mogul and fugitive from justice for a time.
Since my wife was born in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” and I was born here in the “true north strong and free”, we’ll be celebrating two national birthdays this week…. just as we celebrate two Thanksgivings and two Christmases (although the dual yule has more to do with two families than two countries of origin).
My Canada Day gift arrived early last week with the release of IDW’s collected Captain Canuck vol. 1. I’ve been a Canuck fan since the day way back in ’75 or ’76 when I found the very first issue in a Mac’s Milk spinner rack. After riding a little farther afield than my mother would have approved of in search fresh comics (comic shops didn’t exist back then), the Captain’s first issue was a precious find with its intense colour, slick paper, and home-grown hero.
It took Comely many months (read that years) to find a way to put out issues at a steady rate thanks to the help of fellow artists Jean Claude St. Aubin (The Victorian) and George Freeman (Digital Chameleon, Leave It To Chance). This first volume reprints issues 4 through 10 and each issue improves on the other in design, colour and story. Issue 4 and 6 feature Freeman’s inks over Comely’s pencils. Freeman gives structure and weight to Comely’s figures, adding a dynamism and consistency they lacked under Comely’s own pen, as seen in issue 5.
The colour easily blew away the mainstream comics of the day. The paint on cell, animation-style process, founded by Comely allows a great deal of flexibility and Comely credits Freeman’s eye for unique colour combinations with much of that success. The process became the basis for Digital chameleon’s later, groundbreaking comic book colour work.
By issue 7, the production process had been streamlined down to Comely as writer/editor/publisher and letterer, Freeman on story/pencils and inks with colour and some pencils and inks by St. Aubin. The redistributed workload allowed the book to soar. Freeman’s cartoony, design oriented style took advantage of Canuck’s iconic look with a subtle but powerful redesign that allowed plenty of space for colour to help tell the story. Canuck now looked less like a man in a costume and more like a national comic hero to be reckoned with.
It all comes together in issue 8's full-length tale "Space Watch Death Watch". The Canuck look has solidified and the stories become sharper and less meandering. Against a backdrop of the Canadian wilderness that could have been painted by the Group of Seven (Harris, or Lismer, perhaps?), Cap shucks the costume in favour of plain, old Tom Evans to visit his brother Mike and his new wife Saskia in their mountain horse ranch. We get to see a little of the man behind the mask here.
We have seen Canuck pray for strength in previous issues, a subtle ode to Comely’s Mormon background which added spirituality to the character without proselytizing yet apparently, negatively impacted sales. Comely moved the character away from overt displays of religion after the early issues but always strove to present a “wholesome” product. Tom Evans was also declared to be part native but that aspect was rearely explored excpet once Cap gets thrown into the distant past and must communicate with an early native Canadian tribe.
(For more on the various themes and values found in the original Captain Canuck run, check out this article and for thoughts on the various conspiracies found in the book's pages read here. Both are part of the Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page.)
We also know from a flashback in issue 4 that Tom and Mike used to be fellow RCMP officers until the day Tom was captured by a UFO (while serving as a Boy Scout leader at a kid’s camp, solidifying his good citizen credentials) and given twice the strength and speed of an ordinary man. (Why bother with the strength of ten men when everyone knows the power of two Canadians are more than enough for any task?). Tom was given a costume to serve as a symbol for his country and the world while Mike ended up paralyzed from a bullet he took for his brother.
To Mike’s surprise his brother is on his feet again with the aid of a crutch. A page or two is spent showing Tom and his family hard at work around the ranch and underlying trouble brewing with the hired help before Tom is called on to don the flag once again.
Richard Comely and Business Manager
Ken Ryan pose with issue 4.
Ken Ryan pose with issue 4.
The magic of issue 8 is the fast but effortless shift from outdoor beauty to glorious outer space action in a space station orbiting the planet. The design of the station looks futuristic yet functional with no time wasted showing off for ornamental effect. Each panel serves to propel the story forward until a rousing zero-G battle ends with Captain Canuck NOT saving the day! The cliffhanger of Cap floating alone on the station as it plummets earthward was worth the price of admission all by itself.
As far as colour goes, its glorious to see the original colours reproduced on high quality stock. Comely scanned the original artwork and colour overlays at the National Archives, where they have lounged since the late seventies and then painstakingly digitized and processed them for reproduction with Freeman. And it’s wonderful to see the linework and colour working together so well.
IDW's Scott Dunbier recently spoke with Comic Book Resources about the Captain Canuck collected editions. I don’t really agree with the assessment that the original books did not look as good as desired due to bad printing. They still stood out from the US books of the time from MArvel and DC. The newsprint allowed the incredible palette to bleed together and flow quite effectively, especially issue when the colour choices grew more wild for a tale of the Captain trapped in a department store, fighting off a well-organized gang.
But I must admit the deep purples and blues of the shadowy tale in Captain Canuck 10, "Masquerade", now leaps off the page in vivid detail allowing a new appreciation for Comely and company’s artistry.
Extras are a kinda minimal with a cursory introduction from Comely (who admittedly may be a little weary of talking Captain Canuck after more than thirty years with the guy) and acouple of Freeman rooughs from back in the day. But we do finally see all the Canuck newspaper strips collected in one place at last (with the rest to be printed in vol. 2, I assume.).
What you wont see in these collections are the tremendous, artistic strides the comic made in it’s first half-dozen issues. Comely’s zine-like first three issues are like a patchwork quilt of design ideas. At times the art looks more like funky t-shirt art than a comic book. The colour is vivid and all over the map and colour photographs are sometimes used as backgrounds. By the time we hit issue 6, all the ideas that competed with each other have meshed into a cohesive, consistent whole. Apparently, Comely plans to print his first three issues in a separate collection, possibly hoping that the IDW collections will increase interest.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the Captain Canuck back-up strips either. There were two short, uninspired Catman stories and the serialized Jonn, a sword and sorcery mini-epic. But the most dearly missed will Aubin’s delightful mini-features: the wacky Chaos Squad and the fantasy-based serial Beyond. It really was delightful work.
In fact, Aubin would do well to release much of his early work. I have waited years to see his wacky Chaos Squad finally have launch their long-promised battle with S.P.A.T. and find out what happened to motley heroes of Beyond! He also has several weeks of his goofy Captain Chinook strip (last seen in the first issue of Mark Shainblum’s Orion magazine way back in 1981). You can also get see Aubin work on another Canadian icon, the RCMP, in The March On Fort Whoop-Up, a graphic novel detailing the birth of Canada's world famous, national police force. there are sample pages and brief history of the project.
The various reincarnations of Captain Canuck since the original run have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, Comely abandoned much of the iconic hero element of the character to bring him down to Earth and lost some of the magic in favour of what he felt was greater realism and connection to the real world.
But don’t worry about that right now. Enjoy the Captain as he was meant to be seen; in brave artwork and bold colour with stories that zip along with lots of creative zing (which definitely helps one skip over or forgive the occasional plot holes).
In addition to the terrific resource that is The Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page, there's a good overview and review of the original series at ComicReaders.com. There's also Comely's official Captain Canuck website and a new version of the good Captain by the Langlois Bros. had a four-issue run several years ago. It's still availbale at www.CaptainCanuckUnholyWar.com.
Meanwhile, thanks to Comely, Freeman, the National Archives of Canada and IDW Publishing, the original Captain Canuck lives again!
Can't wait for Captain Canuck vol. 2!