by Richard Comely and George Freeman
(collecting Captain Canuck #1-15 and Summer Special, 1975-1981)
Captain Canuck isn’t a superhero. I know he looks like one, with the red and white costume and the symbol of Canada on his forehead. I know he sounds like one, with his codename and secret identity. But those are only external trappings. Captain Canuck is a different kind of hero. He’s a government agent and adventurer, more like James Bond than Superman.
Captain Canuck’s adventures are set in the near future- or 1993, which was the near future for a book that debuted in 1975. That allows the stories to add a small dose of science fiction, such as jet packs and cybernetic eyes. Again, these advances are similar to the ones presented in spy films. Other than that, Captain Canuck doesn’t do much with the futuristic setting. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to read about a hero who is a blend of James Bond, Buck Rogers and Captain America. On the other hand, it seems like there was a lot of unexplored potential in the near future setting.
The volume has a rough start. Richard Comely is the co-creator of the character and the original series artist. Unfortunately, his art is amateurish. That’s not entirely surprising considering the series’ humble origin but I didn’t expect it to be quite so crude.
The art gets a lot better about 50 pages in. That’s when George Freeman takes over with issue 4. Freeman has a much cleaner approach. He doesn’t overcrowd his panels. His characters are distinctive and polished. Although he’s not in the same class, I even see a little of Barry Windsor-Smith’s influence in Freeman, especially in his women.
The story gets better too. The pace is top-notch as Captain Canuck runs from one adventure to the next. There’s also a better use of supporting characters. Other agents like Kebec and Stardance accomplish important tasks on the side. We meet the Captain’s twin brother and a potential love interest. Plus, Comely and Freeman develop a more complex political scene, as the interests of national and worldwide agencies don’t always align. There are still a few hiccups. The nurse who helps Captain Canuck escape from a hospital remarkably happens to have espionage experience. But those are minor flaws in an otherwise enjoyable stretch of comics.
The story really picks up near the end of the volume with the epic “Chariots of Fire.” The futuristic setting comes to the fore with an alien menace that brings the series’ tension to new heights. The resolution of that story results in a very different direction as Captain Canuck is hurtled into the past, in time to witness the Viking discovery of the New World in an intentional homage to Prince Valiant. Then, the Captain is brought forward to the present (1981) instead of his near-future home. The sudden shifts in status quo were exhilarating. You didn’t know what to expect next and that created excitement and anticipation.
It should be noted that, despite the title, this is not the complete Captain Canuck. The volume does collect the entire first series yet later mini-series such as Reborn, Unholy War and Legacy are not included.
There are two things to review about this trade paperback: the stories that are collected and the package that contains them.
The stories are a mixed affair. Wally Wood is a brilliant artist who would go on to fame at EC, Marvel and Tower Comics. These are the stories that got him noticed and led to his opportunity at EC. This volume collects his science-fiction work from 1950 and ’51, mostly for Avon but also a couple for M.E. or Lev Gleason.
You can certainly see Wood’s talent. His women are beautiful. His men are muscular. His aliens are interesting. Yet due to the standard format of the time- multiple square panels on every page- the art is sometimes cramped. Characters seem like they’re bending down in order to fit onto the page. In other places, huge dialogue boxes practically squeeze the art out of the panel.
Characterization and plots are inconsistent as well. Wood does a good job with recognizable characters like Captain Science, Space Ace or Space Detective. They have well-established traits and relationships. However, when he takes on an anthology story, the new character is usually poorly defined. Some of the stories are interesting, multi-faceted affairs with unexpected twists and changes of the direction, especially those with multiple chapters. Others are straightforward and unsurprising. One story, a supposed cautionary tale set in the past, failed to follow through on its stated purpose.
Strange Worlds is an interesting read for all of that. As noted above, you can see Wally Wood’s talent, though it’s unrefined at this point. You get a sense of an artist figuring out his craft, even if the quality of the actual stories varies widely.
I can’t be as kind to the package. I suspect that Vanguard knew they weren’t giving us Wally Wood at his best. They include a cover gallery with his later work for EC and the Spirit as well as the stories printed in this volume. The insets between stories all feature art from his later EC days rather than from the stories actually printed. It’s almost as if Vanguard is saying, “We’d much rather reprint Wood’s EC work but we don’t have the license for that so we’re giving you this instead.” The back cover even features the EC and Spirit work that isn’t included in this volume. Quotes about the quality of those stories are misleading considering that they don’t appear in this book.
The volume claims that this is the most extensive collection of Wood’s work to date. It isn’t. It’s an interesting collection of his early work and I would have appreciated it a lot more if it was presented as such.