Starting in the 1930s, Lost Heroes details how Canada’s entry into World War II also led to the first Golden Age of Canadian comic book heroes. After the passage of the War Exchange Cultivation Act of 1940, many American products, including the comic books that were just as popular with children in Canada as they were in America, could no longer be imported to Canada. Looking to fill the hole, Canadian publishers put out their own comic books, all featuring uniquely Canadian heroes who fought the Nazis. Because these books were published in black-and-white, they became known as the Canadian Whites.
The first half of the documentary is about the Canadian Whites and the companies that published them. Maple Leaf was the home to a hero who dwelled under the sea and who was known as Iron Man. Cosmo Grant was a Batman-style scientist while Brok Windsor traveled in a canoe. Anglo-American published the adventures of Commander Steel and Freelance, two international adventurers who aided in the Canadian war effort. Educational Projects introduced readers to Canada Jack, an ordinary Canadian who fought crime but also taught valuable life lessons. Most popular of all was Bell Features, which was home to Nelvana of the North (who drew her powers from the Northern Lights), Crash Carson, and Johnny Canuck. Johnny Canuck’s super power was “being Canadian.”
The stuff about the Canadian Whites is genuinely interesting. Jack Tremblay, one of the artists of the Golden Age, is interviewed and talks about the experience of being a 16 year-old comic book artist. (Because of the war effort, many of the Golden Age comic books were written and illustrated by teenagers who weren’t old enough to enlist.) Along with re-introducing some forgotten World War II super heroes, the documentary also looks at how those super heroes represented Canadian culture and how they helped readers take pride in being Canadian.
The end of World War II also brought about the end of the Golden Age of Canadian comics. With the war over, the War Exchange Cultivation Act also came to an end and, once again, American comics could be sold in Canada. The black-and-white Canadian comic books could not compete with the color comic books coming from the States and most of the Canadian publishers closed up shop. The rest of the documentary deals with the periodic attempts to revive the Canadian comic book industry throughout the years. Though Captain Canuck it found some brief success in the 70s, it ultimately could not compete with the Marvel and D.C. titles coming across the border.
Much of the second half of the documentary deals with Wolverine and Alpha Flight, both of which were created for Marvel by John Byrne. Along with being one of the world’s most recognizable and popular super heroes, Wolverine is also Canadian and several people interviewed in the film take pride in pointing out all of the things about Wolverine that identify him as being from Canada, everything from his love of beer to his flannel shirts. Alpha Flight is less warmly received, with many criticizing it for being more about how Americans view Canada than Canada itself.
Lost Heroes is an interesting and informative documentary. It examines both the history of Canadian comics and also what those comic book heroes said about Canada’s national identity and its efforts to distinguish itself from its neighbor down south. The documentary ends with the suggestion that the Canadian super heroes will rise again. I hope they do.