Set in Canada during World War II, the new series examines the short-lived history of Canadian superheroes
Margaret Atwood is making more comics. Following up her playful graphic novel series Angel Catbird, the Handmaid’s Tale author is back with a new comic: War Bears. Like its predecessor, War Bears features a superhero with strong animal characteristics. Except this time, there’s also a meta-fictive element. The real story is not the adventures of the heroic Oursonette, but the struggles of the people creating her — like aspiring young artist Al Zurakowski and no-nonsense publisher Gloriana Topper — in the short-lived comics industry of World War II-era Canada.
The idea behind War Bears sprouted last year, when Atwood was one of several authors commissioned by The Globe and Mail to write a story about an important date in the history of Canada. Atwood chose V-E Day, which represented not only the Allies’ victory over Axis forces in Europe, but also the end of the comics industry that had sprung up in wartime Canada.
“They were black-and-white comics, because it was forbidden at that time to import colored American comics into Canada, because of paper shortages and the war effort. I’ve never quite understood that, but it was forbidden,” Atwood tells EW. “On V-E Day, everybody knew that now everything was going to change. Back would come the American comics, which they did, and away would go the black-and-white ones they’d been drawing, which they did. I had a friend in the ’60s who was interested in that period of history and did an early book on the subject of these comics, which as you might expect were Nazi-fighting superheroes of various kinds. The men usually took off tops to do their most extreme Nazi fighting. I don’t know why that was, but it was all, ‘Well, better take off my top and fight some Nazis.’ The women, one of them was called Nelvana of the Northern Lights, usually had flying powers and Wonder Woman-type attributes, but different costumes showing bits of leg and boots. I knew about them from 1971, when this book called The Great Canadian Comic Books came out.”
Atwood continues, “So I did my little story and Ken Steacy, who’s a well-known illustrator and graphic artist, read the story and was chosen by the Globe to be the illustrator. That got him interested in building out the story and doing a full graphic novel, which we’ve now done. His dad was in the army, and he knows a lot about World War II. All of the visual things in it are real because he goes and draws them from life. That is, if he draws a tank, it’s a real tank; it’s not just a generic tank, he knows the model number. He goes to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and says, ‘I need this particular gun,’ and they go and get it for him.”
In addition to the actual fighting (seen mostly in the story-within-a-story excerpts of Al’s Oursonette comic), a central dynamic of War Bears is the relationship between Al and his female boss. Gloriana is clearly the inspiration for Al’s bear-like superheroine, and she’s exhibiting a rare kind of power in her authority over her employees — an authority that is doomed not to last after the war.
“We wanted to have a female boss,” Atwood says. “One of the things about wartime is of course that a lot of women got jobs they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, because they were needed. One of the things that happened in the ’50s was this concerted push to get women back into the homes, to move over and make room for people coming back from the war. So, what is gonna happen with her after the war? Wartime was a different world, and then people were suddenly forced to change into something that wasn’t that.”
Like Gloriana’s professional career, Oursonette’s animal characteristics also have real-life inspiration. Atwood points to The Beast Is Dead: World War II Among the Animals, a French comic created under Nazi occupation that portrayed the different sides of the war as different animals, decades before Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Anyone wondering why a bear would be the inspiration for a Nazi-fighting superhero like Oursonette need look no further than what the bear represented in these sorts of comics at the time. The bear was understood as Russian, the most effective Nazi-fighters of all.
“The French are cute little bunnies and squirrels having picnics, when along come the evil pigs and wolves (you know who they are), and then along come the Americans, who are bisons — powerful, but they do tend to trample things,” Atwood says. “They were doing this under the noses of occupiers in Paris, and they were all ready to go when the all-clear was sounded. At the time, the Russians were the big, white bear. They were supposed to be our friends, and the bear was their symbol, which is one of the things Al says. The animal symbolism is germane to the period.”
War Bears #1 is out now; order it here. Two more issues are set to follow, in October and November.