Northern Lights - Canadian science fiction

Superman #1, the first comic devoted to one character, Summer 1939
A red-caped visitor from another planet per- forming super-heroic deeds. A starship exploring strange new worlds. Coining the term 'cyberspace'. These essential and well-known science fiction elements are all branded with distinct maple leaf ingenuity, and along with other representations of this most imaginative of genres, breed an extensive array of fantastic collectibles from novels, to comics, to action figures, to films and both live action and animated programs.

Yes, Canadians have a proud and lengthy history within the fantastic and futuristic kingdom of science fiction. However, to begin requires a clarifying of terminology. Science Fiction itself is defined as, "a literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background, as well involving the imagined impact of science on society". And how to determine "Canadian" in this instance? For this article, -Canadian- will represent a Canadian involvement or theme, in terms of personage or locale, with the creation of a specific science fiction component. With these terms now explained and the guidelines set, we are ready to explore. On that note,10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1..

The Canadian aspect launches into science fiction at the hand of James De Mille, who may rightly be seen as the patriarch of Canadian science fiction. DeMille, a Professor at Dalhousie University who established Canada's first university department of English, penned a story titled "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder". Written during the 1870's, the work is largely considered to be Canada's first science fiction novel. It is a story about a utopian society, and concerns the strange adventures of a sailor lost among an unknown race of cannibals called the Kosekin at the South Pole who consider death to be the greatest of all blessings. Laced with social satire, the novel was done in a timely vein as Jules Verne's works of fantasy began appearing in 1863. "A Strange Manuscript" was first published in 1888, eight years after the author's passing, jointly by Chatto & Windus in England and then Harper & Brothers of New York who serialized it in Harper's Weekly. The work has since been reprinted by McClelland and Stewart in 1969, by McGill-Queen's University Press in 1986, and Bakka Books in 2000.

Other prominent Canadian science fiction authors include William Gibson, Paul 'Spider' Robinson, and Robert J. Sawyer. Gibson, though born in the United States, has resided in Vancouver since age 19, in 1971, and has done his short-story and novel writing from there. It was he who first used the word 'cyberspace', and his first novel, 'Neuromancer', has won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award. The prolific writer Spider Robinson was the first Canadian-born author to win a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America, in 1977 for his novella 'Stardance' (co-written with his wife Jeanne), and the first Canadian to assemble and edit an anthology of science fiction, titled "The Best of All Possible Worlds", which appeared in 1980. Robert J. Sawyer is an expert on science fiction in all its varied mediums, providing insightful views through articles, lectures and interviews in addition to his own award-winning writing.

Other Canadian science fiction anthologies include the "Tesseracts" series, "Ark of Ice: Canadian Futurefiction", and "Northern Stars". Several mainstream Canadian novelists such as Margaret Atwood ('A Handmaids Tale') and Timothy Findley ('Headhunter') have also delved into the science fiction genre.

First Edition of Captain Canuck comic, 1975 autographed by artist Richard Comely
The graphic-panel art form, commonly known as the 'comic-strip' or 'comic book', also has a profound Canadian influence. Toronto born artist Joe Shuster co-created 'Superman' with writer Jerry Siegel, based on a character from a 1933 short-story of Siegel's, "The Reign of Superman". In June 1938, DC-National Publications launched Volume 1 Issue 1 of a new title, "Action Comics", and Superman is shown to the public for the first time. Superman appears on the colour cover, hoisting a green sedan over his head, and also provides the lead story consisting of 13 pages within a 64-page anthology of assorted comic stories. Page 1 provides the origin of the character, while Lois Lane and the 'Daily Star' newspaper are introduced within the adventures. Superman became a mainstay of Action Comics, and appeared again on the covers of issues 7-10, 13,15 and 17. In January 1939, Superman appeared as a newspaper strip, running until 1966. During the summer of 1939, based on sales success, DC promoted the character while at the same time introducing an innovation in the industry having an entire comic book devoted to a single character. Yes, when "Superman #1" appeared it was groundbreaking. Superman now also had the distinction of being the first hero-character being featured in more than one comic magazine. An issue of "Action Comics #1" or "Superman #1" can fetch upward of $50,000 US on the market, in addition to being a "priceless" part of popular culture history.

Superman launched an exciting new universe for comic books, and inspired a twentieth century mythology. If not for the Krypton orphan who became a 'more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound' man of steel, where would Batman, Spider-Man, or Wonder Woman be today? Superman brought about film serials, live-action and animated television series, a feature film and three sequels, and a host of toys. In large part, it is thanks to the eye-catching ink work of Shuster who created the instantly recognizable red-and-yellow shield, the blue tights, and the flowing red cape that the character garnered such far reaching appeal.

The first Canadian superhero produced in Canada is 'Iron Man' (distinct from the 1960's Marvel hero of the same name). Artist Vernon Miller drew the character, who first appeared within Better Comics #1 as produced by Maple Leaf Publishing of Vancouver in March, 1941. Iron Man is the lone survivor of a South Seas civilization destroyed by an earthquake. He lived alone in a sunken palace then returned to the surface world to fight Nazis and pirates with super strength and the ability to leap tall heights. Though drawn in Canada, Iron Man lacked a distinctly Canadian identity. In July 1941, a second Canadian-bred superhero was introduced 'Freelance', by Ed Furness and Ted McCall. Freelance battled the Axis menace all over the world, though he did not have any particularly Canadian attributes.

In August 1941, the Canadian superhero world was given the feminine touch, and a heroine well immersed with Canadian traits. 'Nelvana of the Northern Lights' appeared in Triumph-Adventure-Comics, and is the first to be given national distribution. The character has her origins in an Inuit legend about a woman, Nelvana, the daughter of Koliak, King of the Northern Lights. Nelvana protects the people of the north by wielding her light rays and becoming invisible to combat villainy. Her costume, suited for Northern adventures, consisted of a fur-trimmed mini-dress with a knee-high boots and matching gloves, plus a cape and a headband. Nelvana is able to fly and can travel at the speed of light on a giant ray of the Aurora Borealis, and can call upon other powers of the Northern Lights, including Koliak's powerful ray, which can melt metal and disrupt radio communications. In addition to making herself invisible, she can alter her physical form, and can use her magic cloak to transform her brother Tanero from light form to human. She can also communicate telepathically with her brother. She is apparently immortal. Her alias is Alana North. The comic was created by writer and artist Adrian Dingle, who created the entire series through to 1947, save for one issue. Dingle was inspired by the myth of Nelvana as told to him by Group of Seven artist Franz Johnston, who recounted the legend while the two were on a trip to the Arctic.

Devotees of comic art can see and appreciate other Canadian influences. In October 1974, the Marvel Comics Group publishes issue #180 of "The Incredible Hulk" where the behemoth character travels to Canada on a special mission. In the last pages of the book, the Hulk battles the Canadian Weapon X, a yellow spandex-clad metal claw-wielding cigar-smoking enhanced man called "Wolverine". The next issue features an exciting cover depicting a battle between Wolverine and the Hulk. Wolverine, whose alter-identity is simply "Logan", hails from the snowy wilds of Northern Alberta. In the summer of 1975, Marvel re-vamps their "X-Men" series (first launched in October 1963 yet had lost popularity by the early 1970's) and includes Wolverine as a regular cast member in 'Second Genesis' Issue 1. Another Canadian character appears in X-Men 109 in February 1978 with James MacDonald Hudson, whose alter-identity hero role is Weapon Alpha/Guardian, comes to reclaim the renegade Wolverine and return him to Canada. The encounter leads to a follow-up story in X-Men 120 where Guardian is joined by additional Canadian characters and this in fact begins an entire spin-off series for Marvel, titled "Alpha Flight" wherein each hero is Canadian. Alpha Flight #1 "Tundra" appears on magazine racks in August 1983. The first-series continues until 1994, producing an excellent 130 issues, and even includes some X-Men/Alpha Flight combined (or 'cross-over') special editions, some annuals, and a spin-off, "Northstar".

Rare cover artwork depicting the two Canadian components of "Star Trek" together in their original series uniforms; William Shatner (Kirk) and James Doohan (Scotty)
"The Northern Light" appeared as a hero within Orb magazine through 1974 and 1975, and again in Power Comics in 1977. The Northern Light comes about when a naturalist architect is abducted by aliens and has experiments performed on him which leave him with super powers revolving around the properties of light energy (similar to the Green Lantern from the United States). The costume involves red tights with white boots and gloves, a red cowl and flowing red cape.

In July 1975, Winnipeg comic artist Richard Comely launched "Captain Canuck". This comic book was produced on higher quality paper, multi-tone colouring and longer stories revolving around a hero boasting a maple leaf on the cowl and utility belt of his red and white costume as a super-heroic government agent who battled the forces of evil across Canada, and around the world. Former RCMP officer Tom Evans was the alter-ego of Captain Canuck. Captain Canuck's partners included Kebec and Redcoat Randon, as well as a Native American character, Joseph Stardance. The first series ended in 1976, only to be re-launched in 1979 and continue through 1981, then appear again in 1993. Comely also drew and published "Star Rider and the Peace Machine" in 1982, a two-issue tabloid comic about a future involving super-capitalist conquest.

Other Canadian prominent comic artists include Dave Sim, who founded Aardvark-Vanaheim Comics, and draws the highly successful "Cerebus the Aardvark" series (launched in 1977). Sims and Cerebus currently stand as the longest-running and most influential, original comic in Canadian history. Sim is also the first Canadian to draw a graphic novel, appropriately titled 'Cerebus' and released in 1991. Todd McFarlane, a former artist of 'The Amazing Spider-Man', co-founded Image Comics, and in 1992 created his own character and series, "Spawn" whose tremendous success led to a feature film and action figure line. MacFarlane now stands as the most commercially successful Canadian artist of the 20th century, and among the world's richest.

Canadian science fiction is evident within animation as well. "Rocket Robin Hood" was an animated series produced first in Toronto, then in New York, and lasted three seasons (52 original episodes), from 1966 until 1969. With its exciting theme song, it is the first cartoon series based on the Robin Hood legend to be televised. Rocket Robin Hood and his band of Merry Spacemen wear traditional Robin Hood-esque garb and operate from Sherwood Asteroid in 3000 A.D. and battle the evil Sheriff of N O T T, and Robin's weapon of choice was his electro-quarterstaff.

A more advanced and groundbreaking program came with "ReBoot", which began production in 1994, and is stands as the first computer-animated television series in the world. The program revolves around the computer-graphic world of Maniframe, where characters such as Dot and Matrix are people who "live" inside a computer. ReBoot began on Canadian children's specialty channel YTV and has inspired a line of toys and two feature-length made for television movies.

Cover of "Golden Fleece," the first published novel written by prominent Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer. First Edition, December 1990
Live-action teledramas also sport a Canadian identity. First coming to mind is "Star Trek", a landmark 1966 NBC series about the adventures of a starship exploring the galaxies. Canadian actor William Shatner played the role of Captain James T. Kirk as commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise, while fellow countryman James Doohan acted as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. The original series inspired an ongoing film franchise, as well as several spin-off programs. Shatner went on to become a popular novelist with his "Tek" series, and 'Scotty', as played by Doohan, became one of the more enduring characters, and Doohan was one of three of the 'Classic Trek' cast members to appear on the sequel series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

In July 1986, Toronto Trek (or, 'TorTrek') holds its first meeting as a Star Trek Convention in Toronto. In April 1989, a Star Trek fan club is founded as the Canadian flagship of the International Federation of Trekkers, the 'USS Hudson Bay of Toronto', and in November 1997, a Star Trek Fan Club is formed in Barrie, Ontario with the name USS Sentinel which becomes USS Agamenon, and is now recognized as USS Tigershark of Richmond Hill. During the fall of 1996, on the occasion of the original series' thirtieth anniversary, Star Trek exhibits were hosted in both the McLaughlin Planetarium and Ontario Science Centre. There is also an interesting website called 'The Star Trek Canadian Connection' found at http://ccr.ptbcanadian.com

Another Star Trek reference appears in Canada on a gigantic scale. On June 10, 1995, a giant thirty-one foot long, fifteen-foot tall, five ton Starfleet Constitution Class Starship model is unveiled at the town of Vulcan, Alberta. The Constitution Class is the type to which the U.S.S. Enterprise belongs, and the Alberta ship bears the registration FX6-1995-A (FX6 being the identifier for the Vulcan airport, and 1995 being the year of construction. The model rests atop a nine-foot tall, forty-cubic-yard base of solid concrete, and plaques mounted on the base greet visitors in English, Vulcan and Klingon. The ship is located at the Main Entrance to the town. Vulcan also hosts the VulCon Star Trek Convention, and Spock Days Rodeo.

Other science fiction programs include the CBC series "Space Command" which began in March 1953 and continued through May 1954. The show featured original science fiction stories for a child audience, following young astronaut Frank Anderson through the varied divisions of the command base providing stories which offered both dramatic action and an education about known conditions in outer space. James Doohan also starred in this series. Interestingly, CBC was the first North American network to air the British produced 1973 76 series "Space: 1999" about the adventures and trials facing a group of astronauts at Moonbase Alpha. As well in 1973, CTV began telecasting "The Starlost", a program about the last survivors of 2790 Earth drifting through deep space on a giant 400-biosphere spaceship, the Ark. The series was based on a premise by renowned science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who went on to write a novel from the original pilot episode, the novel being titled "Phoenix Without Ashes". The series lasted sixteen episodes and was last telecast in February 1974. Also, Canadian actor Lorne Greene played the leading role as Commander Adama in the television series "Battlestar Galactica", and as well, William B. Davis the Cigarette Smoking Man (Cancer Man) from "X-Files" hails from Canada.

One important television series that merits discussion is "Prisoners of Gravity". Airing original episodes from 1987 until 1992 (139 installments in all), this stylish documentary program hosted by Rick Green featured interviews with over 600 authors, directors, animators, comic artists, and futurists. The innovative, eye-catching thirty minute program was telecast by TVOntario and reached PBS stations as well. Trapped aboard a television satellite, Rick would play the role of 'pirate broadcaster' while discussing a theme in science fiction.

Canadians have made an impact within science fiction cinema as well. Actors such as Michael J. Fox ('Back to the Future' trilogy), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the 1970's 'Superman' films), Christopher Plummer ('Star Trek IV'), Keanu Reeves ('Johnny Mnemonic', 'Matrix'). Canadians also played parts in two classics of the genre, with Donald Sutherland sparring alien spores in the remake of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', and Leslie Nielsen facing off against Robbie the Robot in 'Forbidden Planet'. Those behind the camera hold a Canadian patriotism as well. Cult films such as 'Scanners' and 'Videodrome' came to us from David Cronenberg, while Iven Reitman directed 'Heavy Metal: The Movie', an animated feature based on the wildly graphic art magazine, and also brought 'Ghostbusters'. James Cameron wrote and directed "The Terminator" and "T2: Judgement Day" as well as directing "Aliens" and "The Abyss", while Norman Jewison provided "Iceman" and "Rollerball".

Additional connections exist for the Canadian fan of science fiction. Bakka, Toronto, Canada, is the world's oldest science fiction specialty bookstore. The bookstore expanded in 2000 to become a publisher in the form of Bakka Books; three titles appear in their catalog to date. Silver Snail, a two-story mecca for comic lovers in Toronto has been operating for twentyfive years. In 1993, Canadian superhero art was featured in an exhibition entitled "Guardians of the North: The National Superhero in Canadian Comic Book Art", at the Canadian Museum of Caricature in Ottawa. Canada Post unveiled the Canadian Crusaders Stamp Series in September 1995. There were stamps to Superman, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck and Fleur de Lys. The first day cover had a stylish cachet featured a striking rendition of Northguard, Fleur de Lys' partner.

Title card to the animated television series "Rocket Robin Hood"
On October 17, 1997, 'Space: The Imagination Station' began telecasting, and is Canada's first all-science fiction channel featuring classic and new programs, as well as a wide variety of films. Their inaugural foray onto the airwaves was showing 'Forbidden Planet'. (*To those well acquainted with science fiction lore, in the 1965 tv series 'Lost In Space', the ship Jupiter 2 carrying the Robinson Family, Major Don West, the Robot, and stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith, leaves Earth for Alpha Centauri on October 16, 1997 an odd, if interesting, coincidence.)

The Merril Collection within the Toronto Public Library boasts over 32,000 books and 25,000 periodicals as well as graphic novels, audiovisual materials and fantasy/roleplaying games all about science fiction. This collection began in August, 1970 with an agreement between Judith Merril, a prominent science fiction author/editor, and the Toronto Public Library. Merril donated her collection of science fiction, fantasy, and associated non-fiction which contained around 5,000 items. This collection was first named The Spaced Out Library (SOL), and a reference collection of "contemporary speculative literature, including science fiction, certain aspects of fantasy fiction, satire, surrealist, and other speculative, future oriented, and conceptually experimental work, whether in fiction, poetry, drama, essay, or other forms as well as critical and bibliographic materials relating to science fiction and the associated areas of contemporary speculative writing" serving both scholars and the public.

The collection was located in two prior locations, with an ever increasing number of items, before finding a home in 1995 at 239 College Street, Toronto. In 1990, the collection was renamed 'The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy'. Throughout the years the collection continued to expand to its present size of 57,000 items and in its new "state of the art" building, the Merril Collection's book stacks are temperature and humidity controlled to prolong the life span of the materials and preserve them for future generations. The attractive reading room displays original science fiction art, current periodicals, recent acquisitions, and changing exhibits of materials. The Merril Collection is recognized as Canada's major collection of speculative fiction and one of the world's finest popular culture collections. It is unique in that it is also Canada's only collection of this type that is open to the general public and to the academic community. In 1995 Merril co-sponsored an exhibition on Canadian science fiction and fantasy "Out of this World" at the National Library of Canada. The Merril Collection also published their own newsmagazine for a time, "Sol Rising".

There are 'home-grown' awards as well, to recognize Canadian achievement in all aspects of science fiction, namely the Aurora Prix Award, and the new Sunburst Award. And for those who enjoy conventions on a grand scale, there is the SFX Canadian National Science Fiction Expo which also includes the Canadian Comic Book Expo and the Canadian National Anime Expo.

Canadian science fiction as an entity is represented in print and on the internet. 'Realms Magazine' began in July 1996 as an eight-page bi-weekly tabloid newspaper, lasting two years and producing fifty issues. Realms returned in September 2000 as a national science fiction magazine, featuring articles on science-fiction, fantasy and horror from "a distinctly Canadian point of view". Realms currently is "the first and only bimonthly mainstream publication of its kind in the country." Issue #4 went to glossy pages inside, and was the first issue available across the U.S. The websites devoted to Canadian science fiction include The Science Fiction Canada site at www.sfcanada.ca Made In Canada, the Homepage for Canadian Science Fiction at http://www.geocities.com/canadian_sf/

There exists a healthy Canadian connection to science fiction. A trip to the local comic store, turning on the television at the right time, or a mouse-click visit to specialized websites lets one know that while science fiction is a world without borders, a certain 'maple leaf' infusion makes itself known. Wether a Superman action figure, a photo of Captain Kirk in his gold tunic with phaser-pistol at the ready, a mint issue of Captain Canuck, a videocassette of a favorite episode or film with that 'spacey' feel, or a book that lets your imagination soar with the stars, they all are collectibles which conjur a sense of the fantastic, yet, also bring along a sense of hometown pride. Canadian content will continue to thrive within science fiction with the vigor of a comet racing across the night-sky, for the Great White North will always produce imaginative visioneers who dare to dream and can share the magic through writing, artwork and film.

If you would like to talk more Sci-Fi, you can contact Ian at (416) 935-6439.