- Making up History:A Look at Johnny Canuck from the Comic Page to the Dramatic Stage
History is often chosen as a dramatic subject in order to transform, expand, challenge, celebrate or subvert national narratives, mythologies and discussions of identities. Director-playwright Ken Gass founded one of Canada’s most recognized theatres, the Factory Theatre Lab, in Toronto in 1970, and has himself used history as a dramatic subject on numerous occasions. Generally, his plays have gone beyond straightforward factual accounts and have turned historical narratives upside-down. For example, his controversial play Winter Offensive, produced at the Factory Theatre Lab in 1977, drew protestors who objected to its staged violence and sexually explicit scenes among the leaders of the Nazi party. In a 1975 interview with the Canadian Theatre Review, Gass suggested that for him, history “needs to be transcended” (“Postscript” 123). Verifiable truth is not the end goal, nor is it plausible or even desirable. In fact, he went on, “we should lie about our history or make one up if we don’t like the one we have” (“Postscript” 123). In 1974, just four years after opening his new theatre, Gass put his belief of making up history into action, writing and directing Hurray for Johnny Canuck. The play, based on a World War II comic book series, follows Canadian superhero Johnny Canuck and his Supersquad as they save the world from Hitler and the Nazis during the war. Gass not only uses the Johnny Canuck comics to help develop the content of the play, but also employs a comic book performance style to tell his made-up story of World War II.
In this article, I hope to build important connections between Johnny Canuck’s role as a national superhero in the World War II comic book series and Ken Gass’s later depiction of both the Johnny Canuck figure and the World War II comic books on stage in Hurray for Johnny Canuck. In order to start to build such links, I will begin with a brief history of the figure of Johnny Canuck and its emergence and reoccurrence in moments of heightened national discussion in Canada during the time [End Page 103] of Confederation, World War II, and the 1970s. I will then look at why this recurring use of Johnny Canuck as a national figure is so unique by addressing some of the challenges to Canada’s mythology. Following this, I examine the creation and history of Johnny Canuck in Bell’s Dime Comics in World War II in order to lead into a discussion of how Gass transfers the comic book to the stage in Hurray for Johnny Canuck.
To build upon Bell’s national use of Johnny Canuck in the comic books during the early to mid-1940s, I will move into an analysis of Canadian theatre during the 1970s to show why and how Gass’s use of Johnny Canuck continues to capitalize on the figure’s national associations. I argue that the central concern of Hurray for Johnny Canuck is to mythologize Canada by representing moments of national accomplishment through a nationalist perspective, and challenging and/or removing the colonial view of our history. The theatre of the 1970s in Canada placed an emphasis on celebrating an independent nation. In fact, I argue that the perspectives of playwrights like Gass can be historicized alongside other socio-political changes of the period. This approach borrows greatly from the theories of new historicism that address many of the same connections and ask how a play, novel, movie, or comic, among others, relates to a culture in a specific society, time, and place. With such a perspective, questions of cultural narrative, definition and performance are highlighted.
Johnny Canuck and Myth in Canada
Long before his arrival in comic books, Johnny Canuck began as a figure in political and editorial print cartoons. His first appearance was in 1869 in the Grinchuckle, a Montreal humour magazine, in which he is seen kicking Uncle Sam across the border (Cottrell). This patriotic portrayal was typical for Johnny Canuck; in and around the time of Confederation, he represented Canada next to...