The road from Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto, to Wayne and Tanis’ Letterkenny, and out to the farthest reaches of Essex County has turned into a Heart of Darkness journey… of sorts. This is still Canada, remember? There was, at long last, some heroism, but nothing yet that could credibly be called evil. For that, we’ll have to go abroad, and back in time a few decades, to the grim-darkest depths of the 1990s.

You know this place: everything is XTREEEEEEEME!!!! and everyone thinks in Frank Miller internal monologue balloons, wears eye-bleeding colours and more ammo pouches than ever could be considered practical, talks like a surfer, and enjoys stable employment as a vigilante contract killer. How would morally squishy Canadians hold up in this kind of environment? Pretty well, it turns out, because you probably know Wolverine, one of this era’s grittiest exemplars, and you’re probably familiar with the work of Todd McFarlane, who drew some of those badass anti-heroes.

McFarlane is Canadian, but his character Al Simmons/Spawn is an American: Wolverine is a Canadian character created by Americans Roy Thomas and Len Wein. I chose these two as a study in contrasts, but also to highlight what happens when the Canadian creator, or creation, gets sick of the aggressively dull homeland and thrusts himself into a hostile world.

Let’s start with what they have in common. Spawn and Wolverine are both extraordinarily powerful and especially resilient, but find themselves constantly controlled by, or fighting back against, entities far more powerful than themselves. Surrounded by war, death and sin, and haunted by loss, they have shut down emotionally, burying all weakness and fear behind stoic, gruff façades. They alternate between embracing the chaos around them and trying to impose some small measure of justice.

Critically, they both appear to lack two elements of the standard superhero rollout: The secret identity, and the place of refuge. Wolverine does have a backstory and a name, but has had his memories wiped, and prefers to keep what he does remember of his dark past buried with alcohol, sex and violence. Spawn was Al Simmons, a decorated Marine, before he fell into Hell after being betrayed and became a collector of souls, having given up his own soul and most of his memory in a bargain with the demon Malebolgia.

Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, Spider-Man has Aunt May’s house, and even Achilles had his tent, but where are Spawn and Wolverine’s safe places? Controlled by the forces of Hell, manipulated into a war against Heaven and forced to watch his wife remarry, Spawn enjoys no peace. As for Logan, he finds companionship and temporary respite with a succession of women and at Professor X’s X-Mansion, but is always either betrayed, dehoused, or forced to watch the people he loves die, either at his own hand or because he couldn’t protect them.

And yet, these elements are not missing, but hidden, because Logan’s past is in his safe place, isn’t it? It’s not hard to imagine Wolverine being born in some northern Alberta hamlet, a place like Letterkenny, or perhaps Essex County, which he left behind and can never fully return to. (The Jordan B. Peterson fans in the audience will no doubt recollect that the infamous Professor hails from the same part of the world as Logan, and I imagine Dr. Peterson and Wolverine would have much to talk about if they ever met.)

But I have always believed that Wolverine knows he does not belong in the peaceful land of his birth. Remember the scene in X-Men Origins where he is living out his life as a logger,calmly sipping a mug of coffee in pajama bottoms out on the porch? It looks and feels ridiculous, and in a movie that features the infamous version of Deadpool with his mouth grafted shut, that’s saying something. That’s not Wolverine, I remember thinking.

As for Al Simmons, it appears that he mostly does right by the ideals of the Marine Corps for the short time before he becomes Spawn. But Simmons is not, for example, a member of JTF2, the elite Canadian military force. Simmons could have been a contract killer, or any other type of soldier, for all the difference it makes once he becomes Spawn. Why, then, did McFarlane make him a Marine? Is this a subtle dig by a Canadian artist at the supposed high ideals of the Corps? If the heroic Simmons was destined to become the demonic Spawn, was he ever really a hero? Later on in Spawn’s arc, we learn the truth: Simmons was an abusive and neglectful husband, his wife had been carrying on an affair before his death, and he was sent to hell for deliberately killing non-combatants.

Without saying so out loud, I believe McFarlane thought it was better to locate Hell, and the war between demons, far away from Canada. Everyone knows there are no demons in Canada. Spawn is literally, and figuratively, cut off from the promised land. He cannot return… and this, I think, is why he is forgotten. On the other hand, Wolverine keeps a part of his past with him at all times, even if he does not really want it. He remembers who he is, and so he remains part of the culture.

There was one last thing I wanted to use Wolverine and McFarlane to illustrate, and it is this: Canadians, and Canadian creations, have a tendency to take on a life of their own when they travel abroad and find success, though they can never really shed their origins. This is probably best illustrated by the character of Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother, who hides the fact that she was a Canadian pop star in her youth. (Stay tuned for an exploration of the weird and unintentionally hilarious world of Canadian music through the ages.)

But does Canadian culture, and do Canadian themselves, exist only in this twilight where it, and their work, can only really “arrive” after crossing over to the wider world? Where are the domestic cultural boosters, the artists and creators that engage with Canada critically? The answers to these questions can be found within journey the Canadian province of Quebec, a place that definitely sees itself as having its own distinct culture within Canada.


Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Photo by @cdharrison