Last week we got the news that Gord Downie has brain cancer. For those who don’t know, Downie is the lead singer and songwriter for The Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s most popular band. Downie’s cancer was announced as being terminal, and the Hip are doing one last tour this summer to give fans a chance to say goodbye and, I presume, themselves a chance to say goodbye to the fans and to give Downie a fitting end to a great career.
I wanted to write something immediately when the announcement dropped, but it took a while before I was ready. I think I am ready now, and so here we go.
A friend of mine wrote on Facebook that he was surprised to realize how much different times of his life were associated with Tragically Hip songs, and for people who grew up at the right time (and, I guess, liked that kind of music) I imagine the story is much the same. It certainly is for me. The first dorm room I lived in, the first place that I lived in outside of my parents’ house, looked out at a huge ad for the Hip album Fully Completely painted on the wall of a nearby record store. That album will probably always make me think of being a fairly clueless young dude trying to figure out who the heck I was outside of my small town for the first time. (It took a while. I’m very nearly finished.)
Phantom Power came out at at time when I was figuring out that, yes, I really was crazy enough to give this medieval history thing a go. Music at Work had just released when I was going overseas to study in England for a year, and that album became my little dose of Canada in a faraway place when I needed it. In Violet Light came out as I was trying to reinvent myself from ‘student’ into ‘teacher’, to whatever degree of success. And so it goes.
So, yes, I’ve been a fan of the Hip and their music for a big chunk of my life and I expect I’ll be listening to it for a very very long time yet. People who understand music and its history better than me have written praise for the band, for Downie, and his lyrics and I’m not going to try to do better than them. I will say that yes, part of the appeal has always been (as a Canadian) hearing such very Canadian things being referenced and weaved into the songs the band does. A lot of Canadian artists try to excise all the evidence of their origins, and I think it’s wonderful that the Hip have never done that, and that Canada has always been the foundation of so much of what they do. As a writer, Downie’s skill at crafting a memorable image or phrase is astounding and if I am ever a tenth as good with words as he is I’ll be doing very well indeed. So I like the Hip on several levels.
The thing is that the relationship is a little more complicated than that, because I would also admit that I don’t like all their stuff equally. If you listen to their collection of work, there’s a lot of variation, and not all of it has really worked for me. There are some albums that I just haven’t liked very much, to my great disappointment as a fan. The thing that I do greatly respect, though, is that this is a band that has continued to do these different and creative things throughout their career. They could probably have just continued to churn out albums that sounded more or less exactly like Fully Completely and sold a lot of them, but it’s clear that Downie and the Tragically Hip were and are interested in exploring artistically and doing things they hadn’t done before and creating something genuinely new with each album.
I think, as an artist, that no-one is going to like everything you create equally, unless what you create is always the same. I don’t know Gord Downie, but I suspect he’s not the least bit interested in doing the same song twice, or creating the same experience from album to album. To me that’s how you can tell that this is an artist who is deeply in love with his art, and even though not all of it works for me in the same way, I can only deeply admire the man and his process.
I hope he and the rest of the Hip have a great tour this summer and step off the stage in the way they’d like to. Thanks for the tunes and thanks for the words, guys, I’m keeping them forever.
I wanted to weigh in briefly on the Captain America thing. I’m going to preface this by saying that I haven’t read the comic, which may be where some of you get off (which is fair), but it’s the broad strokes of what has just been published by Marvel that I want to touch on today.
Again, for those who don’t know, last week it was revealed that in the first issue of his new comic run, the original, Steve Rogers Captain America reveals an allegiance to the fascist organization Hydra. This kind of Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist is far from out of character for the comics industry, that has been boosting sales and grabbing attention by killing Superman and breaking Bruce Wayne’s back and having Doctor Octopus steal Peter Parker’s body ‘forever’ and oh yes Steve Rogers even got killed a while back.
This kind of thing is (I presume) good business practice for comics publishers to pull in readers and sell a bunch of issues and get their titles in the headlines for a while. Heck, I remember when Spider-Man got married, well before the superhero fad we are currently experiencing, that made all the papers. So it obviously works for them and so they keep doing it, and the second truth of most of these Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twists is that they get undone in the end and things get put back as they were. Superman comes back to life. Bruce Wayne isn’t really retired as Batman. Steve Rogers wasn’t dead either. And so on.
So there’s some reason to expect than after a certain space of time, Captain America, HYDRA agent, will be undone or revealed to be untrue in some fashion. As a result, some say, there’s no reason to be more upset about this than any other Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist that appears in comics.
I disagree, and here’s why. The thing about HYDRA is that they’re Nazis. Yeah, I know it’s not a 1:1 relationship but the fictional organization has been written as a Nazi analogue, with actual Nazi members, for long enough that you can’t effectively separate the two. It’s part of what makes HYDRA effective villains, because ‘Nazis, I hate these guys’. Nazis are great villains because they’re genuinely reprehensible (of course) so you don’t have to work very hard to get your reader on board to root against a Nazi villain. You also don’t have to worry about offending people by having a Nazi villain – the number of people who will come out and explain that you’re actually being quite unfair in portraying Nazis in a negative light is (fortunately) vanishingly small.
So Nazis work great as villains and writers and movie makers use them all the time. Having a good character turn bad is the sort of Shocking and Unbelievable Plot Twist that also happens all the time in serialized fiction (not just comics!) and so in a way, having Cap join HYDRA (or always having been HYDRA or whatever) seems like an obvious gambit. I can see, kind of, where someone thought it was a great plan.
Here’s the problem. We often forget that the Nazis aren’t just great, convenient fictional villains. They were (and to some extent are) a real movement with real members and who did awful, horrific things to real people on a scope and scale never before seen in human history. Their (real) ideology was (and is) vitriolically hateful and racist towards people who really exist. The pain they inflicted in the real world continues to impact many cultures and families right up to the present day.
With this in mind, it’s maybe a little questionable that we use Nazis as fictional villains at all, or that we don’t use them with more care than we sometimes do. (That’s a topic for another blog, perhaps) What isn’t questionable, though, is that you they aren’t like other, fully fictional villains for these reasons. And so making Captain America a HYDRA member isn’t like making him join up with Dr. Doom or Magneto or some completely fictional villain. You’ve aligned him with a real-world ideology that caused real-world harm to a great many people. Marvel has said that they wanted to create a situation where Cap is still acting as a hero but now has this secret agenda, which is a neat concept but they haven’t just given him any villainous or immoral secret agenda, they’ve given him the agenda of racists and fascists who really existed. There’s no take-backs on that one.
I wrote a while ago (about Atticus Finch) about the need to use our characters with care, especially the ones that our readers have gotten invested in, and not abuse the trust that readers have placed in us. I feel like making a beloved character a surprise Nazi falls under that category. I know Captain America will eventually be restored to his heroic status quo, but it kind of doesn’t matter. Being a Nazi is unforgivable and irredeemable in the eyes of a lot of readers, with some justification. If Captain America quits HYDRA next issue, it really doesn’t matter if he’s been a Nazi all this time. You can’t bring a character back from that. (Sure, he *used to be* a Nazi, but…)
I can actually think of a couple of ways that Marvel can write themselves out of this situation with a character who you could still call a hero. Maybe that’s what they’re going to do. The problem for them is that the damage has already been done for a lot of people who were invested in their character and their fiction, and they may not get those people back.
It’s amazing the power that fiction has over its readers and the times I’ve had people tell me that one of my characters touched something in them mean a lot to me. It also means we need to be careful as writers. People let us way inside them, and while we have a lot of freedom to do what we want with our art, I think there’s an element of trust there that we mustn’t abuse. For what it’s worth, I think Marvel is over the line with Nazi Captain America.
Ooof, that went long, huh? Ok, one quick thing and I’m done: I will be at Prose in the Park here in Ottawa this weekend! It’s my first chance to attend as an author and I’m very excited. Unfortunately space is pretty tight and we haven’t yet finalized exactly when I’ll be at the Renaissance Press table through the day on June 4, but once I know I’ll update on Twitter on Facebook. If you’re in the city you should definitely come out as it promises to be a fantastic day of books and authors in a beautiful setting. Hope to see you there!
This is also the last week of my fundraising for Fort McMurray relief; if you buy The King in Darkness I am donating my cut to the Red Cross. Details of how it works here.
Thanks for reading.