Time was, I had to actually go to Canada to experience the adventures of Captain Canuck. The one and only issue that I’d ever seen of the original run—issue No. 3, I think—was picked up in a visitor’s center gift shop during a family trip to Niagara Falls.
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I was 10 or 11 years old, and I had never seen anything like it. It was my first indie comic, my first non-U.S. comic, and I had no context for it. Wherever creators Richard Comely and George Freeman were taking their cues, it wasn’t from the Marvel books that I was devouring like potato chips. They were speaking the familiar language of comics, but as is often the case with Canadian artists crossing to a Stateside audience, with an accent that I couldn’t quite place. It was unfamiliar, but endlessly intriguing. I read the comic to tatters.
Captain Canuck’s self-titled book, put out under the Comely Comix imprint, lasted until 1980, when the venture at last proved financially unsustainable. Since then the Captain’s adventures have been fondly remembered but little seen, despite periodic attempts to revive the character. Now, 30-some years after the original run, IDW has collected stories from those original 15 issues into a slick new trade paperback, Captain Canuck: The Complete Edition. And, at this remove, it’s easier to see what Comely and Freeman were trying to do and to assess how well they were doing it.
Captain Canuck imagines the then-near-future of 1994, with Canada as the prominent power of the free world. The elite Canadian intelligence service known as CISO is our last best hope against terrorists, supervillains and the looming Communist threat (hey, it was the 1970s). Captain Canuck himself, CISO’s top operative and public face, is in reality Tom Evans, a decorated Mountie who finds himself gifted with superhuman strength and endurance after an unexplained UFO encounter. With his sidekicks Redcoat and Kébec, the Captain takes on mad scientists, the Sicilian mob, saboteurs, crooked politicians, neo-Nazis and a criminal mastermind called “Mr. Gold,” who wears his James Bond inspiration a li-i-ittle less lightly than hoped. Late in the series, he foils an alien invasion and even travels in time.
It’s more of a science-fiction piece, with elements of espionage, than a straight superhero book—in other words, not a million miles from Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And like Steranko’s seminal spy-fi romp, Captain Canuck takes a European-influenced approach, incorporating photo backgrounds, filmic storytelling strategies and expressionistic layouts. Jean-Claude St. Aubin’s color work, in particular, takes a sculptural approach more reminiscent of what Spanish artist Pepe Moreno was doing at the time for Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated than the bright, flat primaries of most American comics. Comely and Freeman—drawing sometimes together, sometimes separately—show tremendous growth over the course of the series, progressing from the crude, shaky lines of early stories to a cleaner style evoking both grandmaster Gil Kane and ’70s contempos like Mike Golden.
But always there is an invigorating sense of the artistic reach exceeding their grasp, of increasingly confident artists stretching their abilities to keep up with their ambitions. Pages teem with arrows to direct the eye around frantic layouts, cinematic multipanel spreads are individualized by wonky perspective. Even as the presentation grows more professional, it remains bracingly idiosyncratic.
That goes for the writing, as well. For all that Comely aspired to create an all-Canadian superhero, Captain Canuck retains a personal, even eccentric feel, veering from high SF to secret-agent shenanigans to gritty crime fiction, all of it bound together by the character of Tom Evans—a simple, decent man, self-effacing, diplomatic, reverent, ethical, courageous—literally and figuratively, an overgrown Boy Scout (Tom’s UFO encounter occurs while he chaperones a group of Scouts on a wilderness camp-out). He’s a terrific creation and easy to root for.
In its original context, Captain Canuck was a conscious statement of Canadian identity. The single issues featured backup stories, a lively reader’s correspondence section and informative features about the history of Canadian comics. You won’t find that supplementary material here—but with this collection, Captain Canuck takes his rightful place in that history, in all his rough-hewn, home-brewed charm.
For some of us, the republication of Captain Canuck calls to mind the provincial motto of Québec, Je me souviens—“I remember.” For the rest of you, there’s an Ontario tourism slogan that seems appropriate: “Yours to discover.”
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.