12+ Comic Stories Taking Place in or Mentioning My Homeland, a Small Piece of Paradise Known as Newfoundland and Labrador
1. “Tundra,” Alpha Flight #1 (Marvel, 08/83)
Take it from me — when you grow up in a place where you’re told you have to go somewhere else to make it in the world, you tend not to see your home as a place where interesting things happen. My own place of birth, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, is one such place; blessed with gorgeous vistas and a rich cultural heritage, its small population (about a half-million, give or take) and remoteness from major urban centres conspire to make it a land that’s often on the outer fringes of pop culture. Because of that, we tend to sit up and take notice when, say, a U.S. television show host mentions us by name, as Ellen DeGeneres did recently while interviewing one of our hometown gals. As for me, my first “Holy crap! They mentioned Newfoundland!” moment happened in the mid-’80s, when I first picked up a copy of Alpha Flight #1. First introduced in Marvel’s X-Men, Alpha Flight was Canada’s elite team of government-funded superheroes; this issue opens with the federal government shutting down Department H and the team’s leader pondering their next move. But then a new mystical threat emerges in Canada’s far north, and one by one his teammates answer the call to duty. Added to the team are two new recruits from the Beta Flight training program: Puck, a pint-sized acrobat with an attitude, and Marrina, the team’s aquatic adjunct. We first meet her “on a rocky spur jutting defiantly from the rugged coast of Newfoundland” as her friend/adoptive brother, Dan Smallwood, runs to tell her that her “signal brooch” is making a strange noise. She then leaps into the water to join her teammates, leaving Smallwood alone with his thoughts. Readers would later learn that Marrina’s home address was pure chance; she was sent to Earth as part of an alien species’ invasion force, but her infant form landed in the ocean just off Newfoundland, adopting both an aquatic form and a kindly personality thanks to her local environment. And anyone who has ever experienced Newfoundland’s legendary hospitality can’t be surprised by that last part.
2. “A Thirst for Power,” Alpha Flight #91 (Marvel, 12/90)
Given the fact it’s a book starring a Canadian super-team, it only makes sense that Canadian cities and landmarks would pop up in Alpha Flight stories. But after writer/artist (and Canadian) John Byrne left the series, there was a noticeable dip in quality regarding the attention to detail paid to the book’s locations. Where a fan could expect a Marvel book starring a New York-based superhero to feature an accurate representation of, say, Central Park or the Empire State Building, a typical Alpha Flight story set in Toronto or Winnipeg tended to feature backgrounds that could easily be filed under “Cityscapes, Generic.” For most Canadian readers, it wasn’t a big deal, generally; we were just happy to see place names we recognized in our comics. Occasionally, though, the American writers’ unfamiliarity with Canada would bite them in the butt; take this issue, in which the opening scene is set in Corner Brook, a small port city in which the team is about to bust a high-tech weapons smuggling operation. Problem is, the province’s second-largest city is located on the island’s west coast, away from the open Atlantic and facing the Gulf of St. Lawrence. So while it’s theoretically possible for a smuggling operation to be based out of there, it’s also highly unlikely given the city’s distance from foreign shipping routes and the many more accessible harbors dotting the continent’s eastern seaboard. Still, it must’ve been a pretty cool moment for Corner Brook fans of the book, so good for them.
3. “The Crossing Line,” The Avengers (vol. 1) #319-324 (Marvel, 07-10/90)
While it was one thing to see Newfoundland’s appearance in a book about Canadian superheroes, it was quite another to see it in one of Marvel’s higher-profile books. During the late ’80s, Marvel got into the habit of publishing its top-selling books on a bi-weekly schedule during the summer months, with the biweekly issues hosting a blockbuster-worthy storyline. In 1990, The Avengers was home to “The Crossing Line,” a story about a Russian nuclear submarine hijacked by a terrorist group in the North Atlantic. That brings out the Russian superheroes, who are joined by Alpha Flight because the closest port of call is Newfoundland’s “St. John’s Bay” (the Avengers get involved because, hey, it’s their frakkin’ book). Everything soon goes to hell as a nuclear missile explodes and all the heroes have to work double-time to save the innocent fisherfolk who live nearby. Gripping stuff; it’s just a shame the writers clearly couldn’t be bothered to do their geography homework. See, there is a St. John’s Bay on the island, but it’s located on the western side of the island that’s far away from St. John’s, the province’s capital and site of the nuclear showdown. St. John’s Harbour, on the other hand, is the body of water around which St. John’s is located, and while the 200,000 souls in its metropolitan area may not live in a city teeming with skyscrapers, they also don’t live in the quaint village that’s depicted in the story. But hey, at least someone deemed St. John’s worthy enough to be Ground Zero of a nuclear explosion and landfall for an invasion of Atlantean soldiers. Suck on that, Toronto!
4. “The Viking Trail,” Archie All-Canadian Digest #1 (Archie, 08/96)
Actual fact: a 2000 study by Canadian researchers found that Canadians read more Archie comics per capita than anyone else on the planet. Maybe we really do prefer the clean-cut type up here. At any rate, Archie Comics honored its neighbours to the north in 1996 with a digest featuring a series of “The Archie gang is going to…” stories set in the Great White North. Far from presenting the entire country as a bland, clean place where everyone plays hockey and says “eh?” a lot, the stories made an effort to impart fun facts as the gang traveled to various Canadian locales. In “The Viking Trail,” Archie, Jughead and Dilton head to Newfoundland on Mr. Lodge’s dime, who decides to move his important “international conference” to Newfoundland solely because the island has no ragweed to aggravate his allergies (ah, to be rich and eccentric). Once there, the boys end up foiling a heist involving stolen Viking treasure, but the real treasure is the trove of trivia throughout the story: it’s the youngest Canadian province but hosts the oldest settled community in North America, it has great sport fishing, it’s home to both moose and caribou, you can always rely on our local whales to capsize smugglers’ boats at dramatically opportune moments, etc.
5. “The Golden Helmet,” Four Color Comics #408 (Dell, 07-08/52)
Speaking of Vikings. L’Anse aux Meadows, on Newfoundland’s northernmost tip, is the only confirmed site of a Norse settlement in North America, and it represents the earliest known instance of European exploration in the New World prior to Columbus’s voyage. Before the site was discovered in 1960, it was believed that Viking ships made landfall somewhere in North America; it was just a question of finding the right spot. Eight years before archaeologists solved the mystery, Donald Duck writer/artist Carl Barks presented this story, which sent Donald and his nephews racing to the Labrador coast to retrieve a golden helmet. Long story short: Donald (while toiling in his day job as a museum guard) discovers a map hidden in a Viking ship that points to the treasure, but he’s in a race against Azure Blue, a descendant of the Viking leader who once owned that helmet and claimed North America for himself… and if Blue finds the helmet first, it will give him legal title to the entire continent. The story’s view of legally binding property law is dubious at best, but its plot and setting are consistent with Barks’s approach to many of his more memorable tales: exotic locales, races against time, over-the-top villainy, treasure hunts based on real-life history. Bliss.
6. “S.O.S. in Labrador,” Sergeant O’Brien #82 (L. Miller & Son, 1952)
Jean Papazian (pen name Jean Pape) illustrated several magazine and newspaper comic strips in the 1940s and ’50s, including Sergent O’Brien, a French-language strip chronicling the adventures of a straight-arrow military man who always managed to find trouble and intrigue wherever he went. The series got its own comic in 1953, and was also published in Great Britain by L. Miller & Son Ltd. I don’t have a complete copy of the book on me, but according to the good people at the Grand Comics Database, this issue finds Sergeant O’Brien investigating the possible sabotage of a Royal Canadian Air Force flight from Ottawa to Labrador. It’s not an unlikely location for military skulduggery; Labrador’s location along flight routes between the U.S. and Europe made it a logical place to build a military airfield during the Second World War, and today CFB Goose Bay is operated by the Canadian Forces Air Command as a NATO training base. (And anyone who thinks “Goose Bay” is a goofy name for a military installation has never tangled with a seriously aggravated gander.)
7. “Blood Sport,” Justice League of America #223 (DC, 02/84)
Sometimes, a bit of remoteness can be a blessing, especially if you’re someone who appreciates the quiet life. The flip side is that remote areas can also be magnets for people who want to conduct their questionable activities away from prying eyes. Take the Ani-Men, a group of humans genetically modified to resemble human/animal hybrids straight out of Dr. Moreau’s wildest dreams. The Justice League investigates when a cat-woman begs for their help; in this issue, the final of a three-part story, three of the Leaguers have been captured by the Ani-Men and taken to a secret base where gladiatorial fights to the death are staged for an audience of ultra-wealthy jet-setters flown in to watch the spectacle. Eventually, the League learns the secret base is located “on an island off the coast of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic,” which sounds plausible enough; the province is located halfway between Europe and major U.S. destinations, and there are plenty of smaller islands dotting the jagged coastline that would be large enough to suit the needs of all but the fussiest super-villains. The only flaw I can see in this set-up is, well, how would you fly hundreds of well-heeled jet-setters — to say nothing of half-man-half-rhino types — into the province and not attract unwanted attention? Believe me, anyone walking around with a rhino horn on his face… let’s just say it’s the kind of thing that gets noticed.
8. “The Lurkers in the Shadow,” Green Lantern #141 (DC, 06/81)
And if it isn’t vicious hybrid ani-men picking a remote spot for their clandestine affairs, it’s actual aliens from outer space. (Honestly, some days it’s almost enough to make a Newfoundlander move to the mainland.) This issue begins with Hal Jordan taking his stressed-out boss/lady friend, Carol Ferris, on a relaxing camping trip amid the forests of central Newfoundland… which wouldn’t be a bad plan if he didn’t just happen (drat the luck!) to choose a campsite down the road from a gaggle of alien refugees desperate to keep their presence on Earth a secret. In retrospect, the aliens (whom readers would later come to know as the Omega Men) had the right idea: anyone who wants to keep a spaceship a secret from nosy Earthlings could do a lot worse than to park it anywhere within Newfoundland’s sparsely populated interior. And to make doubly sure no one discovers them, they use their alien talents to disguise their base camp as a typical small town. Alas, the jig is up when Jordan and Ferris arrive on the scene and are told there are no phones, hotels, gas stations or cars in a town that also isn’t on any map. That seems mighty suspicious to our hero, and rightly so — while Newfoundlanders might enjoy a slower pace of life, we happily partake in basic amenities invented around the same time as indoor plumbing, for crying out loud. Better luck next time, cagey alien dudes!
9. “One Day in Newfoundland,” Captain America #218 (Marvel, 02/78)
It’s a small detail in Captain America’s life story that didn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect: if, as readers were told, he disappeared at the end of World War II by falling into the English Channel from an exploding plane, then how did he end up frozen in an ice block up in Canada’s Far North? It’s a question that’s troubling Steve Rogers at the beginning of this story, and his search for answers leads him to “Newfoundland’s streets”… a phrase I find very amusing, as if all the streets in the province (156,000 square miles, y’all) are concentrated within a few city blocks for a sleuthing superhero’s convenience. (For comparison’s sake, imagine a fictional character roaming “Montana’s streets” or “the streets of Upper Mongolia” in search of answers to his past.) Rogers eventually spies suspicious activity simply by staring out a restaurant window; specifically, he sees a band of similarly attired smugglers disappearing down a trapdoor in the middle of a pier in a manner that would in no way arouse the suspicions of anyone else, I’m sure. After the requisite fisticuffs, they lead him to… oh, it’s too silly to get into here, so I’ll just say I hope I’m half as brave as Cap is the day I discover my own giant-sized android doppleganger in the underground lair of an evil genius.
10. “The Frozen Lands of the Midnight Sun,” Smash Comics #37 (Quality, 11/42)
Is this the earliest mention of Newfoundland in a superhero comic? I’m too lazy to research the answer, so let’s just say the answer is yes. The Ray, whom we’re told “takes his powers from the force of light-waves,” is in reality Happy Terrill, reporter for the Metropolitan News, and it’s in the paper’s teletype room that he learns of a “mystery wreck in Newfoundland.” With youthful sidekick Bud in tow, Terrill makes his way to “a windy stretch of beach on the lonely road of Newfoundland” (great, now we’ve only got one road to speak of), where he discovers the shipwreck… and inside, he finds a map and “micro-camera” that prove the fishing boat was actually piloted by (dun dun dun) Nazi spies! So off the Ray heads for England to find the dirty rat who’s leaking Allied invasion plans to the Nazis. How the Nazis ended up wrecked in Newfoundland is never clearly spelled out, but it wouldn’t be the first time the province hosted enemy combatants; years after WWII, an unmanned German weather station was discovered on the northern Labrador coast. Then there was the U-boat that sunk the S.S. Caribou off the island’s south coast in 1942… right around the time, in fact, this comic came out. Coincidence? Yes!
11. “Love Charms,” Wonder Woman (vol. 1) #85 (DC, 10/56)
Back in the days when the Comics Code Authority strode across the land like a censoring Colossus, comics were eager to position themselves as purveyors of both entertainment and education. It’s why a lot of books from the 1950s and ’60s had public-service ads about why it’s bad to be racist, or full-page essays on the many reasons we should love zinc. No surprise, Wonder Woman tended to host features that editors assumed would appeal to a female audience, like this half-page “Did you know…?” list of facts about love charms from around the world. According to the first panel, Newfoundland girls would entice men to fall in love with them by boring holes in apples and carrying the fruit under their left arms before presenting them to the objects of their affection. I honestly have no idea if Newfoundland girls have ever molested apples in this manner just to ensnare a man, but I’m a little skeptical given the fact that apples weren’t exactly a staple of Newfoundland diets in the old days, especially for fisherfolk living on the rockier parts of the coastline. Now, a love potion that involves boiling turnips in a pot for seven straight hours — that I would have no problem believing.
12+. “Ordinance Weighed in Blood,” X-Force #22 (Marvel, 05/93), among others
For the first half of the 1990s, I was away at school reading books that were a little more relevant to my career prospects, and so I stopped obsessively following the adventures of the spandexed set around 1991. This turned out to be a very good thing, as I missed out on the most egregious excesses of that period in comic history, up to and including Rob Liefeld’s blue jeans commercial. But it also means I have a hole in my collection that I don’t intend to fill anytime soon. So believe me when I say I don’t know how many times “Department K” is mentioned during this era in Marvel history, or where it came from, or why it created so many emotionally unstable super-beings, or why its secret base of operations was located in a warehouse on the outskirts of St. John’s, Nfld. All I know is, the reference to St. John’s in this issue of X-Force is typical of all the other references I’ve found in Cable, Deadpool, X-Men, and other Marvel titles from this era: brief, fleeting, and lacking any discernible background details that would make it clear the action was set in scenic St. John’s and not, say, downtown Omaha. Given the fact the city’s tourism office was unlikely to put a sign out at city limits reading “Proud home of a secret government project to create mutated psychopaths,” it was probably for the best.