Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 69: A Chat with Mark Shainblum

On this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I invite Mark Shainblum back to talk about Canadian Superheroes. This time, we were able to do our interview at Ad Astra.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below.

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This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

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Weaving Tales in Word and Image

A Review of Hope Nicholson’s (ed) “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection” (AH Comics Inc, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Photo for Moonshot

Cover Photo for Moonshot

The comic book industry has generally had an exploitative relationship with indigenous peoples. Generally indigenous peoples have been portrayed in comics as villains or sidekicks and their character development limited to cultural stereotypes and one-dimensionality. In superhero comics, generally even the superpowers of indigenous superheroes have been expressions of cultural assumptions – communal relationships with animals and trees and special connections with nature. Indigenous people have often been portrayed as extensions of the landscape. Hope Nicholson’s “Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection” tries to open up a space for indigenous stories that come from indigenous peoples. The collection features the work of 30 authors and artists expressing diverse stories that render indigenous voices into image and written word.

Often when asked to contribute to collections that interact with cultural and artistic expressions, indigenous people are encouraged to talk about the past, which problematically structures indigeneity as something of the past rather than a vibrant, current culture. This collection emphasises the vibrancy of indigenous culture, including tales from the past, but also modern adaptations of these tales, new tales of the present, and science fictional tales of the future. These are tales of superheroes, animal spirits, dark figures from the water depths, space travellers, futuristic inhabitants of other worlds, encounters with otherworldly and sometimes extraterrestrial beings, encounters with possession, tales of robbery and recovery, robopocalypses, and environmental travesties.

David Mack plays with the interaction of indigenous identity and Deaf culture in his superhero character Echo, who explores her understanding of herself as a Deaf indigenous woman. David Robertson and Haiwei Hou play with light and colour as they play with the Cree tale of Ochek the Fisher and opening the world to new light. Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor use animal and anthropomorphic animal spirit forms to tell the story of the gathering of bright stones to become the stars and Coyote’s accidental scattering of the stars across the canvas of the sky. Sean and Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsely and mention3 tell the story of the Qallupiluk, a figure from Inuit tales who rises out of the cold water. Arigon Starr and David Cutler tell a cross space future version of “The Young Man Who Turned Into a Snake”. Elizabeth LaPensee and Gregory Chomichuk use only visuals to tell the tale of a hunter encountering the Star People. Michael Sheyahshe and George Freeman tell a tale of two brothers with special gifts who seek to solve the disappearance of their mother on an alien world. Tony Romito and Jeremy D. Mohler tell an arctic tale of an inuit hunter who encounters otherworldly beings from under the arctic ice. Ian Ross, Lovern Kindzierski, Adam Gorham, and Peter Dawes explore the impact of anthropology on indigenous cultures and the robbery of indigenous artefacts by anthropologists. Richard Van Camp, Rosa Mantla, and Nicholas Burns explore the interaction between the traditions of The Night the Spirits Return among the Dene and the Celtic-originating tradition of Halloween. Todd Houseman and Ben Shannon tell a tale of the future where pollution has destroyed much of the North American continent and a war between humans and robotic life forms has meant widespread devastation. Jay and Joel Odjick examine a first hunt and the interaction between the human and animal world. Elizabeth LaPensee, Claude St. Aubin, and Andy Stanleigh explore the impact of mining and the attempt to connect to the Memegwesiwag, a people who love copper and can only be seen by the pure of heart. These tales weave together in a fabric of intwined words and images, and also a twining of multiple worlds and worldviews.

The art styles vary in “Moonshot” between mixed media art, ink on paper, pencil crayon on paper, watercolours, fractal-influenced digital art, traditional comic panels and frame-breaking violations of the ‘gutter’ space between panels. They use word bubbles, text-free comics, or large swaths of text, illustrating the potential for expressing the idea of ‘story’ through multiplicity. This is a collection as diverse as the indigenous peoples who contributed to it. No longer relegated to the role of sidekicks or villains, the indigenous characters in these comics are able to tell their own tales, rich in complexity and multi-dimensionality.

No Longer Invulnerable, But Not Vulnerable Enough

A review of Matthew Johnson’s “Heroic Measures” in Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (ChiZine, 2014)
by Derek Newman-Stille

Superheroes inspire the imagination. They are larger than life. They are impossible. They are figures of immortality, defying the touch of death and aging. So, what happens when our superheroes age? What happens when their bodies begin to change? 
Matthew Johnson explores superhero mortality in “Heroic Measures”, presenting readers with an aging superhero who seems remarkably similar to Superman (with dark-framed glasses, invulnerable skin, a little s-curl of hair on his forehead, a bald, wealthy adversary, and plucky former reporter for a partner). This superheroic figure has had what may be a stroke and is experiencing the shut-down of all of his bodily organs.
Doctors, in their compulsion to ‘fix’ whatever they see as ‘broken’ try to intervene in his health care, but their medical technology is no more able to pierce his skin than a speeding bullet would be. They admit that even if they could see into his body with X-Rays or a scalpel, they still wouldn’t know what was normal for his alien biology. This Super body is medically defiant and resistant, unable to be ‘fixed’. But, his body is also trying to constantly heal itself. He is suspended in a liminal space between healing and death, his organs healing themselves only to have others fail. 
What happens when our Supermen age and approach death? What happens when these icons of seeming eternal youth and virility meet age, something that our society imbues with the imagery of loss and eventual death? 
To discover more about Matthew Johnson, visit his website at http://zatrikion.blogspot.ca

To discover more about Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, visit ChiZine’s website at http://chizinepub.com/books/irregular-verbs 

The Ad Astra Experience: A Reflection on Ad Astra 2015

By Derek Newman-Stille

As an educator who engages in fandom, I see fandom as a teaching space, by which I mean it is a space for developing new ways of looking at the world. Ad Astra is nominally a Canadian SF writer’s conference, but there is some magic in the slippages between writer and fan, and in my case between academic, writer, and fan. 

I wanted to be on as many panels as possible because I feel that as an academic I have a duty to share knowledge and experience wherever possible. So, being on panels allowed me the space to share some of my ideas and to learn from the ideas and perspectives of others. Having said this, many of the most informative and educational experiences happen between panels, in those random hallway conversations and in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with fascinating people.

I was on 8 panels this year: “The Classics – In Space and Beyond!”, “The Beldam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture”, “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star”, “The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature”, “Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer”, “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World”, “Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen”, and “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”. I had the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds and interests and was fortunate  enough to share the experience with brilliant, wonderful panelists who varied from performance artists to authors to academics and, of course, fans. I was impressed by the incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion from all of the people involved, and I think this is the particular magic that comes from a mingling of people who come from varied perspectives to bring their delight and sense of wonder to this collective space.

“The Classics – In Space in Beyond!” in addition to having an amazing title and an exclamation mark (letting us know that we were DEFINITELY in for excitement) allowed for an exciting place for exploring something that I love to explore: adaptation. Texts can shift and change with time and with the interests of people, and this panel explored the notion of a “classic” text and how these classics could become platforms for changes that allow them to shift to include new ideas while maintaining their core, or become spaces where under-represented people can insert their voice or ideas. I have probably talked about this before, but I see fan fiction as an exciting potential space for playing with texts, for shifting them, changing them and asserting new ways of looking at them (as well as allowing for fan agency) and I see a lot of the adaptations of the classics as forms of fan fiction, explorations of new elements of texts and creative engagements. As a panel made up of performance artists, authors, and instructors of literature, we were able to explore the possibilities of investing new energies and new insights into classical texts through adaptation and also the potential dangers in adaptation.

For me, the real magic of the panel “The Bedlam, the Hag, and the Hedgewitch: Witches in Popular Culture” was the exploration of the power of books that feature witchcraft for empowering young people. Often these books feature young people who begin in a situation of powerlessness and gradually are able to shift their circumstances through magic. The wonder of this is that it illustrates to young people that they DO have magic, that they have an ability to change their world by words – not spells, but another form of words, those on the page. They learn that by reading and writing there is a power to challenge assumptions and to change the way we view our world. This type of power results in things like the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that began as a fan group for Harry Potter and changed into a group that takes the Harry Potter texts and uses them to change the world by empowering young people, encouraging them to help get books to those who can’t afford them, and generally by challenging the cultural assumption that young people can’t change their world. This is a special kind of magic – that of empowerment.

The beauty of the “Podcasts Killed the Radio Star” panel was the excitement of the audience, and, particularly, their desire to engage in those communication spaces that allowed for their voices to be shared with the world around them. Many of the attendees were interested in sharing their perspectives, their interests, and their understanding of speculative genres. This excitement underscores why i began blogging, podcasting, and running my own radio show – to provide a space for people to share their voices and their perspectives about the genre that they feel so passionate about and to encourage people to think about and interrogate the works they are reading. 

“The Pleasure and Pain of Teaching Literature” blended a critique of the embedded ‘traditional’ ways that literature is often taught (which are often assumed to be the only ways of engaging with the process of teaching) with new ideas for approaching the process of teaching students about literature. We examined the idea of ‘pedagogy’ (teaching) itself and looked at what this means for our engagements with literature: what do we consider ‘teaching’?, what does teaching inside the classroom look like?, and, of course, my favourite question – how do we extend teaching literature beyond the walls of the classroom. I think that this last question occupied a lot of our time and concentration because many of us engage in the idea of teaching in diverse ways: through providing a space for students to think about how literature and life outside of the book interact with one another, through looking at literature as a medium of empowerment, through encouraging students to think critically about the texts in their lives, and through making ourselves figures who look for learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Ghosts in Popular Culture: From Casper to Ghost Whisperer” extended the idea of hauntings to encompass an idea of the haunted, spectral space itself. We looked at traditional ghost narratives and how they develop to express cultural issues, representing sort of a cultural icon of our particular cultural preoccupations. Ghosts tie in with the subconscious and represent those things that we deny in our culture, the things that haunt us. We looked at the relationship of ghosts to the texts that they are presented in, whether through the descriptive power of literature or the CGI of film and television, and explored the diversity of ghost narratives and the idea that ghosts are presented in diverse ways in our cultural media to present diverse issues and understandings. Ghosts, as figures who represent that barrier between life and death, become figures who are surrounded by questions and come to embody the idea of questioning ideas themselves. It turns out that the “boo” of the ghost is actually an existential question. 

Of course, right after the ghosts panel, I was able to stay in that space of the undead for “Zombies as Dressing: How Society Returns in a Zombie-Infested World” and have a chance to explore the figure of the zombie with two authors of zombie fiction and a costumer. We looked at the changes in the zombie narrative and the current diversity of narratives, while being aware that the zombie narrative in recent years has tended to be inclined toward the infected zombie (the zombie virus). The zombie narrative has been able to shift and change to express the fears, anxieties, and even desires that we have as a society… though when I talked about Claude Lalumiere’s descriptions of wiggling maggots in zombie kisses there were gags around the room (it is always awkward to talk about zombie romance before lunch). We also took the zombie beyond the page and film by talking about how people have used the image of the zombie to make cultural commentaries – through dressing as zombies to protest educational reforms to the CDC’s use of the zombie narrative to create a pandemic preparedness guide. The panel’s exploration was staggering… or maybe shambling… 

“Superheroes: From the Printed Page to the Silver Screen” allowed panelists to explore the shifts and changes that are perpetually happening in the superhero genre as well as the potentials and dangers in the transition from comics to film. The superhero was exposed to the Kryptonite of critique and through that process, like Star Labs, we were able to look at the superhero through new lenses and then turn that lens on the society that creates and needs its superheroes. We looked at the social conditions that make superhero narratives desirable and the changing social conditions that mean that we need to shift and change our superheroes to become representative and dynamic figures. We looked at the different possibilities that the comic book or film media represent and the way that these different media change the figure of the superhero and, by necessity, focus on different issues, needs, and desires. At the end, we were even able to sneak in a little discussion about ‘the gutter’ (the white space between the panels of a comic book) and the incredible creative work and insights that happen in the comic book when the audience has to fill in the narrative between panels. 

One of the highlights of the con for me was the final panel I was on, “Intersections Between SF and Contemporary Issues”, because we explored a particular type of fantasy that is generally considered absolutely the most “real” thing possible, and that is “normalcy”. We looked at the potential that the speculative genres have for illustrating that “normalcy” is itself a fiction, something created to embed certain groups in power and to suggest that other groups don’t have worth or value. This clearly hit home for some of the audience members because one member expressed his issues with the notion of changing SF to be inclusive. He told us that we were too disparaging of past SF that portrayed a white, straight, able-bodied male hegemony and expressed his concerns that if SF and other social media changed that he and other straight, white, able-bodied men would “become a minority”. I think this itself illustrates the power of SF to challenge those power structures and to illustrate that the structures that keep groups like straight, white, able-bodied men in power are themselves quite weak and that questions posed by minority groups can destabilize those structures, open new possibilities and fundamentally point out the insecurity surrounding the structures that situate one group as “normal” and therefore naturalize their power when in fact it is as constructed as any fantasy story.

Ad Astra would not have been such an amazing experience if it weren’t for the incredible insights, passions, and interest of the fans. I am so thankful for all of you fans who asked brilliant questions and brought up new ways of looking at the material. I am also extremely thankful for brilliant co-panelists and the co-panelists for these panels included people like Kate Storey, David Lamb, James Bambury, Gail Z Martin, Karen Dales, Gregory Wilson, Kari Maaren, Robert Boyczuk, Douglas Cockell, Erik Buchanan, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Chris Warrilow,  Peter Prellwitz Dennis Lee, Derek Kunsken, Max Turner, Adam Shaftoe, Cathy Hird, and Charlotte Ashley. Authors, academics, musicians, biologists, podcasters, costume designers, a Wiccan priestess, fans, and a whole lot of people who blended these roles… this complicated mix of panelists made for some amazing interactions and really incredible discussions. 

I want to particularly thank Angela Keeley for all of her hard work at Ad Astra this year. She was both a great resource to presenters and her enthusiasm and interest in the topics of the con really encouraged presenters to be similarly excited, energetic, and engaged in their panels. 

I have to say that my favourite overheard line from the con was “Watch out: things tend to get derailed by the Klingon in the room”. I would imagine that unlike “the elephant in the room”, the Klingon in the room makes him or herself heard.

To discover more about Ad Astra, visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 26: A Discussion with Dan Vena About Apocalyptic Fiction

In this episode, Queen’s University PhD student and cultural theorist Dan Vena joins me in the studio to talk about Canadian apocalyptic fiction. In our discussion, we explore notions of the monstrous, the superheroic, mutations, pandemic narratives, and the power of apocalyptic narratives to discuss issues in the present such as environmental concerns, the experiences of LGBTQ2 people, critical capitalism, and power structures.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Superheroic Questions

A review of Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny by Mark Shainblum and Garbriel Morrissette (Caliber Press, 1989)

Comic books are often treated as a lower form of culture and considered to be pure pleasure reading without intellectual interest, but comic books, like any other form of text, offer a vision of the world around us and the speculative nature of the format offers us a series of questions to ask about normalcy. The superhero genre, in particular, evokes questions about what constitutes heroism, what makes someone special or different, and comments on the way we look at ideas of justice and moral rightness, which are entirely subjective.

Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Northguard is a figure that offers a critical lens to the superhero genre. He is not the moral guardian who is sure of his rightness and always saving the day, but rather is insecure, uncertain, and cautious in his approach. He does not seek to impose his idea of rightness, but rather dwells in a space of moral question, critiquing himself and his choices. All of this contrasts nicely with the key enemy in the collection Northguard Book One: Manifest Destiny, the organizsation ManDes, an American religious fundamentalist group who sees Canada as an embodiment of weakness to the North, too passive, too diverse, and sinful in our allowance of diversity. ManDes is a group that embodies patriarchal misogyny, religious intolerance, capitalist monopolism, and white supremacy.

P.A.C.T. (Progressive Allied Canadian Technologies) has formed in Montreal to stop organizations like ManDes from imposing their corporate control over people and doing social harm. They form a system to keep multinationals in check. In their attempt to provide a set of balances against other corporate powers, they created a device called the uniband, which has the power to reverse the laws of thermodynamics and operate beyond the restrictions of physics… and it can be integrated into the human body. When the person who has originally worked with the uniband and attuned it to his biorhythms is killed, P.A.C.T. ends up finding an unlikely candidate to wear this personal arsenal: Philip Wise, a comic book fan. Philip only asks for one thing: that he be allowed to design his own suit to operate the machine, one modeled after his own superhero fantasies and featuring the prominence of the Canadian flag.

Philip’s uneasy relationship with the flag represents a microcosm of the Canadian uncertainty around embodying ourselves in a patriotic symbol. Unlike American figures like Captain America, that easily wear the flag and represent a certain brand of American patriotism, Canadians on the whole have been a little less certain about a figure that wears his or her patriotism on the outside and Northguard is the perfect character to embody that uncertainty. Before he decides to model his costume after the maple leaf and dress in red and white, he throws the flag down on the ground yelling at it “mean something”, bringing to his own experience of uncertainty to his garb as well as his conflicting need to have the flag mean something for him. In this simple act, Northguard is able to take up an aspect of Canadian identity: the perpetual search for what Canadian identity can mean.

His own interaction with Canadianness also embodies a particular Canadian notion of dualistic identity and the potential for a multicultural reading. Philip is a Jewish Canadian living in Montreal – his identity is powerfully shaped by his ability to simultaneously represent Canadianness and Jewishness, and living in a city that is bilingual and multicultural. The power of his duality is marked nicely in the comic when the maple leaf on Northguard’s mask and chest are both overlaid by the Star of David, allowing the costume to simultaneously speak to Canadian identity and how that identity is made up of a multiplicity of cultures and cultural symbols.

Yet, ManDes sees Canada as weak because of this multiplicity and attempts to play into the perceived insecurity caused by a collective of cultural interests by purposely trying to play Francophone and Anglophone Canadians against each other, perpetrating violence and attributing it to one language group or the other. Northguard resists these attempts both by foiling these plots by also by trying to become bilingual himself, creating a French name for himself “Le Protecteur” and working with a French Canadian superhero named Fleur de Lys, who wears the symbols of Quebecois identity.

Northguard is able to embody the potential of the superhero to be a figure who evokes questions, both in his own morality and in the way Canadians see ourselves. Shainblum and Morrissette turn the Canadian question about “who are we?” into a suit of red and white, featuring a maple leaf that asks readers to keep questioning and to recognise the superpower that exists in the act of constantly questioning our identity and what we can and do represent.

Unfortunately, this collection is hard to come by and I hope that Shainblum and Morrissette are able to revive Northguard in the future.

To find out more about Mark Shainblum, visit his website at http://www.shainblum.com/

 

 

Floating on Myths and Legends

A review of Marie Bilodeau’s The Kevlar Canoe in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories (Tyche Books Ltd, 2013).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Marie Bilodeau re-visits Quebecois mythology in her story The Kevlar Canoe, reinventing legend and tying it to a modern legend, a myth for modernity: the superhero story. Taking the story of La Chasse-galerie, often translated into English as The Flying Canoe, Bilodeau inserts modernity into the tale, transforming the canoe into one made of Kevlar and lined with Tasers and other weapons attached by Velcro to its surface.

In the Quebecois legend, La Chasse-galerie is maneuvered by a voyager who has made a pact with the devil to gain the ability to fly a canoe through the skies like a leader of the Wild Hunt. But, Bilodeau’s modern Voyager searches for demons, protecting the world from their intrusion and policing the thin veils between the worlds. Like a fisherman of the sky, he feels the flow of the clouds and air currents around him to sense the presence of demons causing trembles in the surface of the world.

Playing with the religious character of the original story, Bilodeau inverts some of the assumptions. Church bells, normally symbolic of warding off evil presences, here are extensions of demonic power; their openings gaping mouths capable of biting the unwary, their chimes rupturing the world, and their influence controlling nuns, their passive servants. Rather than resurrecting a myth that reifies religious assumptions about the world, Bilodeau inverts them, reminding the reader that part of loving myths is questioning them and that myths should be speculations about the world rather than black and white presumed “Truths”.

The Voyager in Bilodeau’s story, like the tale of La Chasse-galerie, is one of the few of his kind, one of only a few voyagers remaining on scarce canoes, which were getting slower and older with time. But, far from being worn out, Bilodeau gives new life to this tale, illustrating that we can always find new meanings in our stories.

Bilodeau reminds the reader that our stories are still haunted by our mythic past, by the stories that pre-date us, but still continue to shape us and our understanding of the world. She shares the secret with her readers that myths are made to be changed, re-told, re-shaped to reveal new understandings, to adapt to the world’s questions and concerns by shifting with social currents.

You can discover more about the work of Marie Bilodeau at http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/

Visit Tyche Press to find out more about Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories at http://tychebooks.com/books/masked-mosaic/ .