Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Windsor is a remarkable man in almost every way, but when it comes to that sort of thing he's about the dumbest man I have ever known!" Brok Windsor review

Through supporting the Kickstarter which produced Hope Nicholson & Rachel Richey's collected edition of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, I came to learn quite a lot about the era of 1940s Canadian comics which produced the so-called "Canadian Whites" (much of what I learned arose because I found myself promoting the book on behalf of my employers, the University of Calgary). With both women turning to new Kickstarter projects along the same lines, I happily endorsed Nicholson's new book Brok Windsor, collecting the adventures of the obscure Canadian hero featured in the obscure series Better Comics (sometimes a black & white series, sometimes color) by the obscure publisher Maple Leaf Publishing. Obscurely.

Created by Jon Stables, Brok Windsor is rather nice Canadian fellow who goes canoeing one day and finds himself in Chaqua, a lost land featuring enormous monsters, sorcery, advanced technology and heads without bodies. He soon befriends Torgon, a First Nations chap who is son of the local chief; eventually they join forces with Starra while saving her from a depraved sorceress and the trio endure many adventures together (with Starra developing feelings for Brok). Brok also obtains superhuman strength and grows taller due to the Chaqua environment. He also acquires clothing which might best be described as a halter top (possibly also the reason why Torgon refuses to wear a shirt).

The content of Brok Windsor includes a heaping tablespoon of Flash Gordon, a dash of John Carter and a liberal pound of Pellucidar. Like Gordon, Windsor is thrust into a land of both science and sorcery, of rebel armies and sinister witches, of flying machines and terrifying beasts. Like Carter, he obtains special powers from his environment and clashes with despicable creatures who plant their heads on other people's bodies. And as in the Pellucidar tales, the backdrop is a hidden land somewhere on Earth where anything is possible.

Indeed, anything -- even a First Nations sidekick hero who defies most of the "Indian sidekick" tropes! Torgon speaks English perfectly, is actually taller and stronger than Windsor and has his own love interest. Although he enters the tale in a loincloth and with feathers in his hair, he quickly puts on pants and boots. Although he's the son of a great chief, his father's kingdom is a super-scientific city with advanced aircraft ("Zipcars") which Torgon can fly. In general, Torgon is smarter than Windsor, not only in the ways of Chaqua, but in craftiness. At one point he even demonstrates real agency - when Brok has temporarily lost his memory, Torgon decides to abandon him in the prison they've landed in, deciding it's more important to escape and complete their mission than to drag Brok along. Yes, the book's nominal hero is left behind by the sidekick!

Part of why the series reminds me of Flash Gordon is that, as in Alex Raymond's strip, the goals of the protagonists are constantly interrupted as they wander into the clutches of menaces which are entirely unrelated to their present predicament and this tends to set off a domino effect; Brok and Torgon's attempt to rescue Starra from giant rats leads to Brok's amnesia, to their capture by an evil sorceress, to their journey through an underground world filled with monsters and so on - all of this interfering with the larger mission of saving Torgon's father from a rebellion. However, unlike Raymond's strip, the characters occasionally find time to rest, eat and (gasp!) converse with one another. As I noted in my review of Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, it seems unbelievable that Gordon could fight on day after wearying day - I appreciate that not everything in Chaqua is life-or-death - sometimes Brok and Torgon can drop everything to hunt their next meal.

Also unlike Raymond is the pacing of the series. Fights in Brok Windsor can carry on for pages, whereas Raymond would short-cut his characters' actions, leaving his text boxes to exposit on what occurred. Brok Windsor fits more comfortably into the realm of comics than Flash Gordon because it escapes the confines of "illustrated text story" which far too many comics of the 30s & 40s fell into. The only real misstep is that the adventure in Chaqua comes to an abrupt finish when the heroes meet a figure who grants them each one wish, which they use to end the story. It enabled Stables to take Brok into new territory by returning him to Canada proper, but sadly the series didn't last long enough for him to finish the next tale (the Kickstarter raised enough money to publish Stables' last-known unpublished script, but the story is still left on a cliffhanger).

In parting, I have to say Jon Stables' artwork is a treat. I certainly ragged on one Canadian Whites creator - Ross Saakel - for his poor art and traced tales. Brok Windsor demonstrates that Stables had real talents as an illustrator, moreso than many comic book artists of that decade (be they US or Canadian). He understood anatomy, perspective and fight choreography, plus he had weird and wonderful ideas about what to draw. Brok Windsor is great fun, but I think the real take away is that in Stables, Canada had one fine artist.

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