Invaders from the North

By John Bell

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in comic books and graphic novels. Names that a decade ago were largely unknown among the general public – Alan Moore, Chris Ware, Harvey Pekar, even Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman – are now firmly a part of the mainstream. Bookstores, recognizing the appeal of so many titles marketed as collectibles and series, now have entire sections dedicated to glossy comic reprints, hardcover graphic novels, and Japanese manga books. Once unfairly relegated to the pop culture underground of mere juvenilia or alt-lit grunge, reviewers, critics, and commentators are now jumping on the bandwagon and finding great art, profound social commentary, philosophical depth, and high seriousness even in such mass products as Marvel’s X-Men.

In all of this there is something of an over-correction. However, this is not to say that there isn’t a lot of great work out there deserving of a wider audience. And, as this excellent new survey illustrates, a lot of that work is the creation of Canadians. It is not the case – as the subtitle, in playful comic-book hyperbole, declares – that Canada conquered anything. But comics (or comix, to give them their alt label) have long constituted a kind of marginal or underground culture, which is an environment Canadians are, though not always happily, well adapted to.

Of course Canadian talent has been going south to “make it big” since comics began. As always in the entertainment industry, that’s simply because of the economics of a mass audience. There has, however, also been a strong homegrown comic industry that has produced internationally recognized work in the alternative and small press. This is the tradition author John Bell, a figure with impressive credentials as the “leading authority on the history of English Canadian comic books,” focuses on here, in a history that takes us from nineteenth-century precursors like the Brownies to such contemporary classics as Palooka-Ville (the creation of Guelph-based artist Seth).

For the most part Bell’s text is long on information – names, dates, titles – and short on close analysis. But it’s much more than just a reference book or coffee-table tribute. In the first place there are all the wonderful pictures, many of them of rare material and almost all reproduced in full colour. And then there are the two “Spotlight” chapters that step outside the chronological survey to take an in-depth look at the development of native Canadian superheroes and the work of Chester Brown. These chapters are full of critical insights and observations that demonstrate both thorough proficiency and obvious enthusiasm. Bell’s energy, affection, and expertise combine to make this an original work that scholars, collectors, fans, and enthusiasts of all ages should plan on adding to their library.

Review first published January 20, 2007.

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