Misty Barriers of Time

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A Review of Jon Stables’ Brok Windsor. Edited by Hope Nicholson (Bedside Press, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

What sort of vehicle would a Canadian superhero adventurer from the mid 1940s travel in? That’s right, of course it is a canoe. Comic book superhero Brok Windsor was a creation of Jon Stables, writing under the pseudonym Jon St. Ables. The Brok Windsor comics, like most golden age Canadian comics, were produced during the years around world war II when Canadian rationing laws meant that American comics were no longer being shipped to Canada. Stables and his contemporaries were able to create their own Canadian superheroes and rewrite the Canadian landscape as a place of adventure. The Brok Windsor comics ran from 1944-1946 and was produced by Maple Leaf Publications. Hope Nicholson has now resurrected this historical comic and published it as a collection through Bedside Press. 
But where is a Canadian adventurer like Brok Windsor to find adventure in this Canadian landscape?… well, don’t forget that Canada is huge, and, of course, most of the country is largely unexplored, so when Windsor is fishing in his canoe and sees strange mists on a large lake named “The Lake of the Woods”, of course he needs to investigate. Through the misty barrier, Windsor finds himself in a new realm of islands, and, as we know, islands are always places of mystery and adventure. 

Jon Stables’ Brok Windsor comics were about the immensity of the Canadian landscape and its ability to be both familiar and strange, a place that can be opened to adventure and whose magical quality is only a thin wall of mists away. Windsor’s body itself is shaped by his landscape and when he crosses through the mists he becomes immense in size, his body emulating the bodies of the giants who occupy these islands of adventure, and, even when his body is returned to its normal size, the intrinsic difference is still written on his body, providing him with the immensity of strength that his giant body possessed… just in the form of a smaller, more Canadian shape. 

The oddity and magical quality of this different landscape hidden within Canada’s hugeness is expressed throughout the comics. Even seemingly familiar aspects of the landscape are alive with oddity. When Brok first encounters trees in this landscape, rather than providing a sense of familiarity, they add to the oddity of the landscape. Rather than stationary figures of the landscape, these trees are active and potentially consumptive, reaching out with branched fingers to consume flesh. Through this device Stables illustrates the oddity of the landscape and the notion that the expectations of Canadian geography are about to be disrupted. Brok Windsor encounters new civilizations, alien lifeforms who are able to detach their heads from their bodies, possessing spirits, gigantic bird-bats, horned lions, insectile people who are horrified by water, magnetically powered flying cars, and an indigenous civilization that has become giant and have developed space-age technology. 

Windsor’s companion in this strange world is one of the giant indigenous men that he has encountered, Torgon, who serves as a translator for the adventurer as well as a co-explorer in a realm of new possibilities. 

Stables’ art evokes the mystical quality of the Canadian landscape, the power of sky, lake, and treescape that were frequently evoked by Canadians trying to find a sense of identity in the war years and served as a shorthand for belonging. The power of Stables’ art is such that it is able to evoke both these familiar shorthands for Canadian geographical ideas of belonging and also estrange these icons of belonging by creating a strange landscape within the expectedly familiar place.

To discover more about Hope Nicholson’s reprint of the Brok Windsor comics, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelnicholson/brok-windsor-lost-wwii-comic-book-returns/video_share .

UNsettling Homelife

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A review of They Have to Take You In edited by Ursula Pflug (Hidden Brook Press, 2014).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Home is a complicated concept, but one that we often pretend is easy. We project “home” as a place of belonging, of comfort, of ownership, and an extended form of selfhood, and we connect ideas to home like family, security, safety…. But these concepts are always open to challenge, to question, particularly by those whose home lives don’t match the assumed standard. Ursula Pflug’s edited collection They Have to Take You In blends the speculative and realist literature that borders on auto-ethnographic in cases to explore this multiplicity of “homes” and to challenge the safe, secure image of “home” that society prefers to construct to the exclusion of other options. 

As much as They Have to Take You In is about home, it is more about exile: the experience of being Othered, of not being able to find that place of comfort and security that is promised through the notion of “home”. The authors in this collection remind readers of the unsettling power of home, its ability to make people feel excluded because it focuses so strongly on the promise of belonging, and that sense of belonging only works for people in positions of privilege. The characters in these stories are Othered from a sense of home through poverty, homelessness, alcoholism, dementia, the need to escape from abusive homes, as well as a sense of wanderlust. The authors explore the possibility that sometimes you have to leave the place where you have settled in order to find home… and sometimes you can’t ever find home, can’t discover a place of belonging. The multiplicity of these narratives provides a space for exploring  home as a place of security… and simultaneously suggests that, for some, ESCAPE from home is a place of safety.

Connected to home is the notion of family, an idea that has been shaped by historical circumstances (industrial systems, labour, political and religious ideologies), but that has pretended to be natural and enduring. They Have to Take You In complicates family as a natural category. In addition to showing assumptions about traditional family structures, these stories complicate these structures, invite speculation and open them up to question the ways in which “family” as a category can be exclusionary, delimiting possibilities for other interactions. 

Many of the endings in these stories are open, uncertain things because the reality of home life is that nothing ever really ends and everything is always open to change and reassessment. Homes are places that are always complicated and always haunted by the potential failing of the home as a place of belonging, security, and safety. Deep down, we, as readers, know that while we feel safe in our homes, there are those who are homeless, those whose homelife is marked by domestic violence and who need to escape, those whose housing is precarious because of poverty, and so all houses are haunted places… haunted by the myths of belonging, security, and safety that are not as ubiquitous as they pretend to be. 

To discover more about They Have to Take You In, visit Hidden Brook Press at http://www.HiddenBrookPress.com

To discover more about the work of Ursula Pflug, visit her website at http://ursulapflug.ca 

On The Familial Lives of Lizard Superheroes

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A review of Jason Loo’s The Pitiful Human Lizard #3 (2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Pitiful Human Lizard # 3, author And illustrator Jason Loo finally gives us a glimpse at some of the supporting characters in the comic. We get our first real look at the life of the top tier Toronto superhero Mother Wonder, and a chance to see her civilian life as a mother with small children. Although not the title character, Mother Wonder serves a key role in Loo’s superhero world. She is the superhero who The Pitiful Human Lizard looks up to and considers himself far below her power ‘weight class’.  Loo allows us a view into the life of a character who would be considered second tier and his reactions to meeting a first tier superhero – blending envy with fandom and a desire to assist.

The role of family has been an important one in Loo’s comic, allowing us to see the home life of his character and familial responsibility. This family role transcends his civilian life in the comic when The Pitiful Human Lizard needs to continue to cope with his father’s celebrity as an early Toronto superhero, The Lizard Man, and the fact that people keep making connections between father and son, which could reveal The Pitiful Human Lizard’s civilian identity. The threat posed by the potential for his family to reveal his identity further blurs the space of family and superhero identity, placing him in a precarious space of uncertainty between two identities that most superheroes tend to keep separate.

The blending and mixing of superhero and civilian/family identity is further illustrated through The Pitiful Human Lizard’s interactions with Mother Wonder. Her name itself speaks to the close connection between familial and superhero identities, and The Pitiful Human Lizard’s constant view of her as the superhero he aspires to impress situates her as a sort of maternal figure to him, coaxing him to further develop. When The Pitiful Human Lizard is able to recognize Mother Wonder in her civilian identity while she is out with her family, the line between superhero and family is further blurred, allowing him a glimpse at her familial identity.

Where The Pitiful Human Lizard is inspired by Mother Wonder as a figure to look up to, he inspires the development of a new superhero in a very different way. He evokes the irritation of Lady Accident, who seeks to become a superhero because she is frustrated at the attention-seeking behaviour that she believes underlies most superhero identities. She is able to justify her own voyage into heroism as a reaction to this attention-seeking behaviour rather than a reflection of it, and, rather than continuing to protect the public from the shadows, she sets out into the streets with her own garb (something not too flashy so she can blend in, but different enough so that she can stand out). Lady Accident reveals her own contrasting desires to both be noticed and also continue to be critical of superheroism’s intrinsic attention-seeking.

This issue is one of revelations – characters discovering secret identities as The Pitiful Human Lizard discovers the secret identity of Mother Wonder and also recognizes Lady Accident as his sometime girlfriend Barb, but beyond the plot revelation of secret identities, this issue also reveals the blurring of identity that can occur when a character’s civilian and super identities mix and interchange. 

You can discover more about The Pitiful Human Lizard and get your own copy at PitifulHumanLizard.stoenvy.com 

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science Fictional Religions

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A review of Jerome Stueart and Liana Kerzner’s Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)

By Derek Newman-Stille

I have to admit to a little bit of hesitancy when picking up Tesseracts Eighteen. While I have loved the Tesseracts series since I first discovered it and feel that Canadian Spec Fic owes a lot to this long-standing staple of Canadian SF, I was a bit hesitant about the theme. I had heard early on that Tesseracts Eighteen was going to be about the topic of religion, and my first concern was that authors may use it as a soapbox to push a conversion narrative on readers. I also worried that people might tokenize non-Christian religious systems because of the prevalence of Christian beliefs in Western society and the lack of understanding of other religions that this often creates. Fantasy, as a genre, is particularly prone to this sort of unintentional religious discrimination since it often portrays “bad cultures” and “villains” as having Islamic-like faiths, and I worried about the potential of this collection to become an assortment of cultural stereotypes.

BUT when the title of the collection was released “Wrestling with Gods”, some of my hesitancy dissipated. There was a potential here for looking at the wonder that happens as people try to understand their place in the world and their beliefs. So, I picked up a copy and began reading. Within the pages of this collection, I discovered not people trying to speak their believed TRUTHS, but rather people speaking about their QUESTIONS. This was a speculative volume after all, filled with a sense of wonder and a desire to push the boundaries of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. This collection was more about humans and their obsessions, fears, desires, and discoveries than it was about the gods. These stories presented multiple paths for human exploration, each filled with signposts that were question marks inviting us as readers to reflect on our own position in the world and our thoughts about where we come from and where we are going.

Wrestling with the Gods is a collection that challenges rather than conforms. It asks readers whether at times the opposite of the expected norm may be the best path and invites readers to question what they are told is Truth. It illustrates that the idea of Truth itself is subjective, open to question and interrogation, and ultimately that there will always be a multiplicity of truths rather than a singular Truth. Through the power of stories, with all of their potential to embody multiple truths and interpretation, Tesseracts Eighteen invites us to recognize that the concept of Truth is infinitely more complicated than we can imagine and it is always multiple and contradictory, but that we should keep imagining and through imagination we might discover our own collection of truths.

Stueart and Kerzner collected stories that question hegemonic power and taken-for-granted assumptions, inviting readers to constantly ask questions and discover new ideas and perspectives. Within this collection are vampires questioning their faith (and fear of the cross), priests establishing shrines on Mars, manifestations of the natural world that challenge the idea of human ownership, questions about the connection between religion and mental health, explorations of the relationship between technology and belief systems, speculations about the connection between humanity and the animal world, and the exploration of the way that reading sacred or forbidden books can change us in fundamental ways. Tesseracts Eighteen is a collection about boundaries, and is interested in pushing those boundaries because within stories we discover a multiplicity of adventures, ideas, new philosophies, and new ways of viewing and understanding the world.

To discover more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit EDGE’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read reviews of some of the stories in this collection, check out the links below:

http://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/04/21/robo-religion/

http://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/08/cuttlefishy-myths/

http://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/10/beauty-myths-and-legends/

http://speculatingcanada.ca/2015/05/04/an-unnecessary-proving-ground/

Beauty Myths and Legends

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A review of Savithri Machiraju’s “Ganapati Bappa Moriya” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Ganesha is a Hindu god who has the head of an elephant and a plump body. He is a god of luck, a remover of obstacles, a patron of the arts, and a deity of intellect and wisdom. He is one of the most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, and he is the protagonist of Savithri Machiraju’s short story “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”. 

Tesseracts Eighteen is a collection about faith, but it is not really Hindu faith that Savithri Machiraju explores in “Ganapati Bappa Moriya”, rather, she explores a system of beliefs and practices that are generally not considered to be a faith, the fitness movement. Machiraju’s Ganesha is called fat and told that he is disgusting by a fitness guru. Rather than dismissing this as silly human judgements as his wives do, Ganesha decides to change his image to make himself conform to human beauty standards. He begins to work out, control his eating, take supplements to increase his muscle mass, and has plastic surgery to change his elephant head into the visage of a Bollywood star. Rather than embracing his individual bodily expression, he seeks to be just like everyone else, to conform to a standard of beauty. 

Machiraju explores the compulsion to conform that is embedded in the fitness movement and the social push for a bodily ideal that removes bodily diversity. Machiraju explores the religious quality of fitness gurus, moralizing bodies into “good” and “bad” and explores the danger of losing oneself in the beauty myth. Machiraju adds further depth to her story by naming her fitness guru Maya, a name which in Hindu belief means “illusion”, illustrating that the beauty myth is itself an illusion, a surface-level performance that does not reveal depth or reality. 

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

Cuttlefishy Myths

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A review of James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” in Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods (Edge, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Human arrogance assumes that only humanity has the ability to develop beliefs in deities, and it is exciting to see that James Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” is included in a collection on religious beliefs because unlike most of the stories in the collection, he focusses on the beliefs of Cuttlefish. Bambury’s cuttlefish tell a mythic history to each other about their rise from the dark of the deep sea (a place filled with predators and absent of light) into the light of the sun. His cuttlefish celebrate their mythic ancestor who absorbed the light of the sun and brought that light into her own body, bringing communication to her people (since cuttlefish communicate with changing patterns of light and colour). Bambury explores this potential within the cuttlefish body for a mythical exploration, connecting the cuttlefish’s ability to change colour to communication and suggesting an ur myth where the cuttlefish first began to communicate by sharing patterns of light with each other. He creates a unique mythological system that comes from environmental and bodily change, a uniquely cuttlefishy desire to understand themselves and their place within their oceanic world. He indicates to readers that religious ideas would express themselves through the body of the practitioner and be shaped by their bodily engagement.

Bambury’s “Chromatophoric Histories of the Sepiidae” invites the reader to divorce themselves from their human-centric perspective of the world and asks us to look at the potential wonders of the deep sea since it is an area, like space, that represents a final frontier that humanity has only explored in part.

To find out more about Tesseracts Eighteen: Wrestling with Gods, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess18/t18-catalog.html

To read more about James Bambury, visit his website at http://jamesbambury.blogspot.ca

The Outsider School for Outsider Youth

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A review of Jillian Tamaki’s Supermutuant Magic Academy (Drawn and Quarterly, 2015).

By Derek Newman-Stille

In Supermutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki takes on the recent cultural trend of portraying children just finiding the right school for their outsider status and then finally fitting in with all of the other students – a theme that has been played out in cultural phenomena like Harry Potter, which Tamaki heavily spoofs. Tamaki blends ideas from the Harry Potter universe with ideas from the X-Men universe (Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). These ‘outsider schools for outsider kids’ phenomena that continue to be popular unwittingly project the idea that the best method for inclusion of diverse youngsters is to create a school environment where they are not diverse, where everyone shares some trait with them, whether it be mutation or magical ability. This unintentionally suggests that what works best for kids is to keep the current system intact with all of its ideas of forced normalcy and associated exclusions, but to create special schools for those who don’t fit into norms so that they can finally find a place to be normal. This cultural trend favours maintaining the status quo of the school system, but imagining other schools with other norms to push on children – whether it be control of their magical abilities or their mutant powers. The message is still one of conformity.

This is what makes Tamaki’s Supermutant Magic Academy so clever. It challenges the idea that we can just create special schools for each person’s diverse qualities without changing the school system itself. Her characters, although learning about magic and their abilities are still teens. They are still just as disaffected as other teens about the school environment and the superstructure of controlled learning. No matter what they are learning about, the system still fails them in diverse ways and they still challenge and push the boundaries of that system. This is the particular power of Tamaki’s work, her ability and desire to push boundaries, to challenge the status quo and intentionally subvert it from the inside – by creating a story that is nominally about a school for diversity of magical and mutant abilities and then playing with the attitudes of the teens that attend the school and ensuring that they still engage with the school in their own ennui-shaped framework.

Tamaki illustrates that even when a school suggests that its curriculum is inclusive (in this case, of mutants and magicians), it still fails students when it fails to make changes to the ideas that underly that curriculum. 

Tamaki’s fun, brilliant, savvy critique of supernatural school lit is filled with students who don’t use their powers to fight epic battles and fight for all of the rules of normalcy of society… instead they continue being teens and use their powers in ways that real teens would – to get rid of acne, deal with the tribulations of attraction and sexual identity, deal with people misunderstanding them, and cope with school until they can get out at the end of the day and do something that isn’t state sanctioned. Like most teens, they recognise that the things that are the most fun are the ones that aren’t part of a state prescribed curriculum. 

To read more about Supermutant Magic Academy and see a few online images from this graphic novel, visit http://mutantmagic.com 

You can also visit the Drawn and Quarterly website to find out more at https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/supermutant-magic-academy