By Meaghan Scanlon
The first Canadian comic book, Better Comics no. 1, was published 75 years ago by Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publishing. Since that time, Canada has produced many talented comic book artists. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) presents a new exhibition of reproductions of these artists’ work. Entitled Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity, the exhibition runs from May 12 to September 14 in the lobby of LAC’s main building at 395 Wellington St. in Ottawa.
Alter Ego takes three different approaches to the subject of comics and Canadian identity. The works featured are organized into three thematic groupings: “Collective Identity,” “Secret Identity,” and “Personal Identity.”
“Collective Identity” looks at the ways Canadian artists have engaged with national identity in their work. The Canadian identity is built through shared symbols and a shared history. Many Canadian comics, particularly in the superhero genre, have used the country’s national symbols to build patriotic feeling. There are also several comics about important figures and events from Canadian history. Through their depictions of distinctly Canadian stories, these comics help us consider what it means to be Canadian.
“Secret Identity” spotlights some of the Canadian artists who have found success outside Canada. From the earliest days of American comic books when Canadian Joe Shuster co-created Superman, Canadian artists have made significant contributions to international comics. Often, these artists’ work has little to do with their home country. To fit in with the wider world, they keep their Canadian origins hidden below the surface—like a superhero’s secret identity.
“Personal Identity” delves into Canada’s impact on the genre of autobiographical and realist comics. A number of Canadian cartoonists have drawn comics about “normal” characters—people who are more like Clark Kent than Superman. Dealing with issues such as family relationships, trauma and recovery, and sexual identity, these comics are highly personal. At the same time, their portrayal of circumstances that countless readers can relate to makes them universal.
The archetypal superhero, with his dual identity, is an extreme illustration of the idea that each of us is many things simultaneously. We define ourselves by our various qualities, and choose which side of ourselves to emphasize depending on our circumstances. Alter Ego examines some of the many perspectives on identity revealed through the work of Canadian comic artists. All of these perspectives work together to show that there is no single “Canadian identity,” but rather as many versions of the concept as there are Canadians.
Visit Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity and see which parts of your unique version of Canadian identity are reflected in Canadian comics! See you at 395 Wellington St. starting May 12. Admission is free.
Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.