Log’s Comic Log, week of 7/11/2018

When I first started out buying weekly comics, I gave myself two rules: 1.) I would only buy arcs with two or three back-issues instead of frantically catching up on longer stories, and 2.) I would only buy comics that were continuing on the next New Comic Book Day. That week, it happened to be Coda and Isola that fell into both of those categories. I also happened to fall in love with both of those story arcs, and since then they’ve been on the top of my list for comics that have me flipping through my calendar, double-checking when I can finally continue reading them.

Needing a third comic book to review this week, I looked at She Could Fly from Berger Books and Dark Horse Comics, and Farmhand from Image Comics as my possible choices. They both seemed promising, in fact the former of which had been advertised quite heavily in previous comic books I’ve bought. However, they are both first issues, and I knew I could really only pick one to feature as first issues tend to be pretty top-heavy, adding onto this already heavy week. Upon reading the first few pages of Farmhand, I knew I had to write about it. It’s… exciting, to say the very least, and I’ve saved it for last for that very reason.

In order, I will be discussing the following comics:

 

  • Coda #3
  • Isola #4
  • Farmhand #1

 

Coda3

Coda #3 (W) Simon Spurrier, (A/C/Cvr A) Matías Bergara, (C) Michael Doig, (Cvr B) Julian Totino Tedesco, (Cvr C) Toni Infante. Published by BOOM! Studios

The last two issues of Coda have been a fascinating hodgepodge of frantic, wiry illustration, entrancing colors, and effectively humorous writing. Hum and his foul-mouthed deadly mutant unicorn are a duo that is always such a pleasure to see gallivanting around this horrid universe created by Simon Spurrier, which is why I’m most anxious for Coda #3. In the last issue we got to see Hum’s world turned upside down. Exiled from Ridgetown for discovering one of their deepest, most disturbing secrets, landing in the refuge of a senile wizard, his unicorn crippled due to poison from eating a mutant scorpion, and discovering his current strategy to save his wife Serka as entirely useless, Hum has seemingly hit rock bottom quite early in his trajectory. With nowhere to go but up, it’s finally time to see what Hum will do next in Coda #3.

Overview

Coda #3 begins – as the previous two issues have – with a letter to Serka. Also unicorn vomit. If there’s anything Coda is successful with, it’s hooking the reader on page one. This issue hooks you and drags you until the very last page. Coda #3 is easily the most action-packed issue of Coda, and it might even be the most action-packed monthly release I’ve read in general.

Hum’s story bounces back with insurmountable force in this issue. Progress is made at breakneck speed as Hum determines himself to undo all of his misdirection, and it’s done with the illustrative prowess I’ve come to expect from this series. Coda #3 has the most magnificent spread in the series so far. It’s a sprawling graphic of a hulking giant tugging along a city-sized land-boat while being pelted by cannonballs from the defending Ridgetown, surrounded by makeshift air crafts, enormous birds, and tanks all battling one another. I try to avoid spoilers, visual or written, but that deserves describing. I was paused on this spread for at least 5 minutes. This issue has a staggering amount of visually baffling panels beyond that spread, too; bloody, colorful collages that had me laughing in amazement almost every other page. I can only imagine how fun it must have been for Bergara to render these images.

On top of this, the issue ends in a reveal so incredible that I swear my neck hurt from whiplash once I closed the back cover. I wrote the introduction for this issue’s review several days ago, and when I wrote that Hum had “nowhere to go but up,” I really didn’t know how far up that meant. Writing about any story details in this review would mean spoilers on a rather large scale. If you haven’t yet picked up Coda, I highly recommend you pick up issues 1-3. The first three issues have a concise arc on their own that’s worth it to at least get a taste of this world.

Isola4

Isola #4 (W) Brenden Fletcher & Karl Kerschl, (A) Karl Kerschl & MSASSYK, (L) Aditya Bidikar. Published by Image Comics

Isola might be the most beautiful comic series I’ve picked up since starting this whole hobby. The second half of Isola #3 took so long for me to finish because I kept gawking at almost every single panel. What’s more is the story exists within a lush universe rich with backstory, there’s so much to cling onto and dissect. In Isola #3 we were introduced to the Moro race of hybrid human/animals, hinting towards the magic (or is it?) of what may have happened to Queen Olwyn. At this point I may or may not be confused beyond recovery, but I’m still 100% along for this ride.

Overview

It seems Isola is at the point where question trading begins. Some questions are answered vaguely (maybe even not at all), while others sprout up in their place. Isola #4 is the shortest issue yet, and majority of this issue is taken up by one of the more intense and bloody action sequences seen so far in this series. For the first time I’m just a tad disappointed, but only because this arc has me so curious and wanting more after every page.

What we do get to see in this issue is more of the Moro race of hybrids. Particularly, we see a certain figure paid special attention who doesn’t speak and isn’t spoken of, but is a great source of interest for me. Scenes with the Moro still provide for some of my favorite panels in Isola, and this issue has the added bonus of getting a small visual taste of how things were before this arc began. These moments are magical, and colored in a nostalgic way which I appreciate. The universe of Isola continues to grow, which I am always on board for, however I was really hoping for just a bit more meat this time around.

Farmhand_01-1

Farmhand #1 (W/A) Rob Guillory, (C) Taylor Wells, (L, logo) Kody Chamberlain. Published by Image Comics

Starting on a new series always seems like a foolish idea when I gaze wondrously at the amount of comics I’ve managed to collect in my minor stint in the weekly comics world. Choosing to start Farmhand was a decision made, as is normally the case for a new series for me, because of the cover art and the illustrations I saw from my cursory flip-through in store. The tiny, tiny bit of information I read about Farmhand had me curious, but not yet excited. Full disclosure: I wrote this intro after having read the issue. In short and without spoiling anything, I’m glad I chose Farmhand.

Overview

Farmhand #1 is a comic that knows it’s absolutely absurd. To break out some real college-level in-class critique verbiage, there’s a lot to unpack here in this impressively ambitious debut issue. Farmhand #1 asks the question, “What if you could plant and harvest human organs?” and it answers that question with levity, for the most part. When the severity kicks in, though, it kicks hard.

I am new to Rob Guillory’s work, but the first aspect to strike me was, of course, his art style. I’m in love with how seamlessly Guillory’s characters can be depicted as caricature in one panel to stern realism in the next panel. Throughout Farmhand #1 it also benefits to pay close attention to the backgrounds. There are little bits of humor tucked away in corners for those willing to look. A few of my favorite examples include a sign in a bathroom that reads, “Wash yo stank hands,” a scientists clipboard with only one note, “ Analysis: WTF science,” and of course, a welcome brochure labelled, “Private parts.” Yes. You can grow genitals in this universe. Contrasting visual humor – and the snappy writing too – with the familial struggles and detail heavy backstory about discovering a “new type of human stem cell” allowing for the growth of human organs only amplifies both extremities of humor and serious plot.

Given all of the above, the characters of Zeke and his family, who have a surprising amount of development for issue #1, are like-able and believable off the bat. This story’s beginning is given a concise angle while also providing enough detail to fully understand the scope of this series. Essentially, this first issue accomplishes everything it needs to, and with amazing flourish to boot. Farmland #2 hits shelves on August 8th, 2018, and I already know I need a copy.

Wrap-up

Damn. I need a cigarette after this week’s releases. I don’t even smoke, I just think it’ll help.

I feel so lucky to have had a week this rich in good content for the second Log’s Comic Log. Many of these comics capture that pure joy of getting a hit of a good story, and I’m ecstatic to have Farmhand as yet another new series to keep up on. Now I just need to make sure I don’t get too overwhelmed…

That being said, next week it’s hard to say what I might want to write about. By Night #2 from BOOM! Studios is coming out, but I haven’t read the first issue that I’ve been carrying around in my bag and may or may not have forgotten about (shhhh please don’t tell shhhhh). Gideon Falls is another series continuing next week that I’m interested in, but haven’t read the 4 issues preceding this upcoming release. Jeff Lemire is a favorite of mine in the comics world, it only makes sense that I should read it. That also means purchasing and reading 4 issues by next Wednesday… As for a third comic, we’ll see! If anybody has recommendations, I’m always open to them.

Thanks for reading!

Log’s Comic Log, week of July 4th, 2018

One day, I woke up in the morning,  looked in the mirror, and said to myself, “You know what this world really needs? One more straight, white dude on the Internet writing about comic books.” Thus begins the story of how I breathed life back into this blog after an uncounted amount of neglect. Whoops.

Weekly comic books as a whole are a new endeavor for me. The only weekly comics I’ve read have been Jeff Lemire’s Royal City and Bryan Lee O’Malley & Leslie Hung’s Snotgirl. Entering a comic book store and gazing at a wall of glossy weekly releases was an intimidating mess up until about one and a half months ago when I really started digging into a few different story arcs. As an additional handicap, I couldn’t be any more uninterested in superheroes.

That’s right, nerds, I’m an interloper.

Honestly, skipping over the weekly releases by DC and Marvel is a relief. It allows me to focus on smaller, weirder releases, and in a manageable quantity, too. I’m never reading too much at any given time to forget what stories I’ve invested in, and I have much more time to reflect on everything I’m consuming.

Comic books are, as it turns out, very, very good. This has become an unexpected new hobby. Naturally, it could only lead to this: a new (hopefully recurring and definitely redundant) series called “Log’s Comic Log.” I’d like to spend a brief amount of time every Wednesday discussing what comics I’ve picked up that week, why, and how I enjoyed them, as spoiler-free as possible. However, since New Comic Book Day fell on National Hot Dogs and Explosions Day and I was admittedly distracted, I’ll be talking about what I picked up last week in the very first Log’s Comic Log.

In order, I will be discussing the following comics:

  • Sword Daughter #2
  • New Lieutenants of Metal #1
  • Submerged #1

sword daughter 2

Sword Daughter #2 (W) Brian Wood, (A) Mack Chater, (C) Josè Villarrubia, (L) Nate Piekos, (Cvr) Greg Smallwood. Published by Dark Horse.

The first issue of Sword Daughter arrived at a perfect time for me. I had just started getting into comic books, and I recently finished a nearly year-long binge of fantasy material wherein I read A Song of Ice and Fire and The Kingkiller Chronicles back to back in their entirety (well, almost, considering neither of them are complete). While Sword Daughter #1 isn’t exactly medieval fantasy, it scratches that itch just fine with its earthy, natural colors, and stark illustration. The first issue of Sword Daughter offered three aspects I found worthy of returning to: a mute, young, female protagonist, a historical setting, and a promising revenge tale. Sword Daughter left off with Dag and his daughter Elsbeth reunited after Dag’s recovery from a 10 year coma, and beginning their journey of vengeance against The Forty Swords – the clan that burned down their village when Elsbeth was just a baby.

Overview

This issue is meant to secure the tone and mood of Sword Daughter as a whole, and is therefore light on the story’s continuation. Considering that issue #1 of Sword Daughter set up the overarching story, it makes sense that issue #2 would focus more on character development and chemistry between Dag and Elsbeth as reunited father and daughter. Of course it would have been nice to get another taste of the real meat of Sword Daughter in this issue. I’m curious about topics such as finding out more about The Forty Swords, or maybe filling in some of the gaps of how Elsbeth raised herself after her village burned down. However, the conversation that takes place after this issue’s main conflict sets the stage for greater storytelling in future issues. Dag claims to still understand Elsbeth’s character, yet he has been in a coma for ten years and needs more adjusting than he might be prepared for. This dynamic is chilling for a revenge tale. Both characters are unsure of what makes each other “tick;” an important detail when creating and discussing character, although they have the same goal. This is bound to provide tense moments of conflict and discovery as both characters continue their story in their own, stubborn way.

The illustration, coloring, and lettering of Sword Daughter continues to impress in issue #2. Half of this issue is spent in rainy forest scenery, which provides for several panels which I’m sure I’ll inevitably scan and use as a banner in one of my social media profiles. Is that illegal? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that…

NewLieutenantsOfMetal_01-1

New Lieutenants of Metal #1 (W) Joe Casey, (A/Cvr A) Ulises Fariñas, (C) Melody Often, (D) Sonia Harris, (L) Rus Wooton. Published by Image Comics.

Okay, time for a confession. I will judge a comic book by its cover. Illustrators and colorists work insanely hard to provide a captivating cover, which makes sense considering the competition in the industry and the way comic books are displayed in stores. It could be argued that comic book covers are designed to be judged; there’s probably an existing essay on the Internet that I didn’t care to find before writing this. New Lieutenants of Metal was a purchase decision I made precisely because I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the art. It’s zany, vibrant, and abrasive, yet welcoming due to Melody Often’s coloring, and Ulises Fariñas’ rounded, cartoonishly exaggerated style similar to Pendleton Ward or J.G. Quintel (first person to say “CalArts Style” gets a time-out). Plus, the idea of a monster-fighting team of metal-heads is too niche for me to pass up.

Overview

This comic begins in a way that only a cartoonish story about metal-heads can – in order to save their teammate, Steppenwulf, the New Lieutenants of Metal break him and dozens of kids out of “de-metaling” therapy aimed to “cure” their metal music addiction. This happens on page 5. It’s reminiscent of the campy Twisted Sister music videos where defiant teenagers tell the commanding adults in their life where exactly their priorities are. Appropriately so, what follows is an over the top action sequence where The New Lieutenants of Metal, now mostly whole again with Steppenwulf back on the team, fight off literal monster-sized Monster Trucks from destroying New York City.

References to rock and metal are heavily peppered into their Saturday morning cartoon mid-fight dialogue – some of which I’m sure soared over my head much like their hawk-shaped Metal Jet ship might. Shouts of, “Holy diver!” and declarations that they’re, “Two minutes to midnight,” or that they’re delivering a, “Sheer heart attack,” are just a few examples of the hilariously on-the-nose references made in this issue alone. By the end of reading New Lieutenants of Metal #1 I had at least 6 Google search tabs open for song names. The silliness and music references don’t confine themselves to metal music, either. At the conclusion of the issue we get a glimpse into a rival team, the Boy Band Nation, led by The Beeb, and in an interview with Collider, Joe Casey mentions that we will see another genre team, The Grunge, in issue #2.

I’m on board for this series. The camp, the action, the ridiculous references, the musical integration, and the outlandish style make for an extraordinarily entertaining read. I would recommend this to music lovers, comic lovers, and cartoon lovers alike.

submerged1

Submerged #1 (W) Vita Ayala, (A/Cvr A) Lisa Sterle, (C) Stelladia, (L) Rachel Deering, (Cvr B) Jen Bartel. Published by Vault Comics.

Second confession: if I see a new comic series created by an entirely female team, I’m definitely picking it up. Submerged was a no brainer for me. Based on the teaser blurb on the back cover, Submerged is combining story elements of paranormal and natural disaster, starring a female, bilingual person of color, Elysia Puente. Additionally, the illustration and coloring stands out in a realistic, approachable way for a comic depicting – I’m assuming – a modern day New York City, which is a welcome contrast when facing a literal wall of new comic releases. It seems unfair to write so little when introducing why I picked up this comic, but it’s a testament to how little convincing I needed to leave the store with Submerged #1 in hand.

Overview

As a title, “Submerged” describes perfectly well how it feels to read this first issue front to back. In the first few pages we see the main character, Elysia Puente, in the motions of an average evening’s wind-down: smoking weed, eating a microwaved pot-pie, and catching up on voicemails. By the end of the issue she gains wicked momentum spiraling down into a dark fantasy located deep underground New York City, melding the fantastical with the realistic in a disturbing and unique way. Elysia’s main motivation is finding her brother, Angel, who left minimal details of his situation in a voicemail to Elysia. As her journey’s beginning gets stranger, she explains to this story’s proverbial “gatekeepers of the Underworld” that she is her brother’s protector, and always has been. In the brief flashbacks offered to the reader, we get to see that she never really had a choice in this role, often times downplaying her involvement in protecting Angel.

Much of the contents in Submerged #1 are subject to speculation if you Google hard enough. A handful of the oddities Elysia encounters, in addition to the aforementioned gatekeepers, include a ferryman in the form of a subway train operator, a plague-doctor bird creature that calls Elysia by name, and a woman who spews cryptic Shakespeare quotes in front of two doors, one of which contains death, and the other lies. Even the names, “Elysia” and “Angel,” are enough to connote symbolism on a grand scale for this story. However, a deep dive such as that is not necessary to enjoy Submerged. The illustration, layout, and pacing of this first issue, in addition to Elysia as a refreshing bilingual, female main character, is all more than enough to bring me back for issue #2.

Wrap-up

That does it for the first Log’s Comic Log! I feel lucky that this week contained 2 new stories that I’m incredibly excited to continue. The amount of time and effort put into both New Lieutenants of Metal and Submerged can be observed from cover to cover, which is an inspiring effect in a first issue.

3 is a magic number, so in the future I aim to keep the amount of comics that I write about to 3 per week, unless of course there is a particularly rich week for comics.

This upcoming Wednesday has some great releases that I already know I’ll be discussing. Coda #3 from BOOM! Studios, and Isola #4 from Image Comics will both hit shelves on Wednesday, and they’re two of my favorite stories I’ve picked up since getting into comic books. They’re both still young, but I couldn’t recommend them enough.

Thanks for reading! (Is this normally where people put like a “sign off” phrase? I need to get me one of those.)

Puyo Puyo Tetris on PC is Puyo’s 2nd chance at a Western competitive spotlight

Tuesday, February 27th is a big day for Puyo Puyo fans. Initially a 2014 Japan only release, Puyo Puyo Tetris made its way to North America and Europe via Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4 in April 2017. This marked the first appearance of Puyo Puyo in North America since Puyo Pop Fever on Nintendo GameCube in 2004. Nearly a year later, Puyo Puyo Tetris is coming to Windows PC worldwide, purchasable through the massively popular digital video game distribution platform Steam. Puyo fans are rejoicing because if Puyo Puyo Tetris performs well on PC in the Western market, the community could see a huge boost in interest and viewership. With a bigger fanbase, Puyo Puyo could finally find a place among popular Western competitive eSports events where, to this day, it has remained unrepresented.

Puyo Puyo Tetris is a game as simple as the title suggests. It’s a puzzle game that packages together Tetris, the need-no-introduction champion of “falling block” games, and Puyo Puyo, the competitive, multiplayer match-four puzzler from Japan. Tetris is a title known and loved the world over; chances are you’ve played it at least once. Puyo Puyo on the other hand was created in Japan in 1991 and didn’t see a Western release until 1993 in the form of Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine on Sega Genesis. Since then Puyo Puyo has had very little presence outside of Japan, but the game-play has evolved through the several iterations released over the years.

In Puyo Puyo the objective is to defeat an opponent by placing blobs (called Puyo) of 4 different colors onto the play board. When 4 same-colored Puyo touch, they “pop”, causing the built up Puyo on top to fall. Players can arrange their board in such a way that when 4 Puyo disappear, the falling Puyo align into another series of 4 colors, creating a chain effect. The higher the chain, the more garbage is sent to the opponent, and the faster the opponent’s board fills up to the top and loses. Unless, of course, the opponent counters the garbage by firing off their own chain equal to or greater than the initial attack. This counter-attack and neutralizing mechanic is the core of Puyo Puyo. It’s what separates Puyo from other puzzle games, placing it among the few puzzlers that share terminology and play style with popular fighting games. These similarities allow for an exhilarating competitive experience which built the fighting game eSports scene as we know it today. However, in the same spaces where competitive fighting games are celebrated, Puyo continues to be amiss.

Currently the list of popular games in eSports is dominated by genres like fighting, first person shooter, real time strategy, and multiplayer online battle arena. These genres consist of a plethora of games which most gamers with even a cursory knowledge of competitive gaming can list without hesitation. Representation for puzzle games on the other hand is nowhere near as generous. Using the Wikipedia page for “List of eSports games” as a rough example, only one puzzle game is listed in the “Others” category way at the bottom of the page. Understandably, it’s Tetris. While Tetris isn’t as popular in the competitive realm as the big hitters like Super Smash Bros. Melee, League of Legends, and Overwatch, the exposure and popularity alone is enough for Tetris to hold serious worldwide competitions for its different releases. For Puyo Puyo, that popularity has had difficulty spreading outside of Japan where Sega holds official Puyo tournaments to this day. Answering the question of exactly why Puyo Puyo has struggled to achieve a similar status in the West is troublesome. Whether it’s the lack of presence over the last 10 years or the difficulty of joining the ranks with heavily established competitive scenes, this new release of Puyo Puyo Tetris on PC could remedy that and succeed where the previous release did not.

One enormous difference between the PC and console (Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4) release of Puyo Puyo Tetris is accessibility. Not everybody owns a Switch. While it is a massively successful console, some consumers are still having difficulty acquiring one in stores and online. As for PS4, Puyo Puyo Tetris doesn’t hold a presence on the Playstation Store. Searching for the game yields no results, and physical copies are unavailable on Amazon from first party retailers in the United States. The Steam release breaks down all of these barriers. First, Steam is an application that anybody can install on their laptop or desktop computer and create an account for free. Second, the system requirements for running Puyo Puyo Tetris are minimal, listed as follows on the Steam store page:

  • OS: Microsoft Windows 7 / 8 (8.1) / 10 64Bit
  • Processor: Intel Core i3 or AMD equivalent
  • Memory: 4 GB RAM
  • Graphics: DX11 compliant video card with 1GB VRAM
  • Storage: 7 GB available space.

These are very low-demand system requirements, and anybody with a Windows computer purchased or built within the last 8 years can run Puyo Puyo Tetris with no issues. The only other requirement is an Internet connection for online play, which isn’t even necessary if players just want to play offline in the several single player game modes, or locally with a friend. Lastly, the current pricing of $20 (currently on pre-purchase sale for $18 as of this posting) is $10 cheaper than the Nintendo Switch eShop listing. Those familiar with Steam know about the frequency of digital game sales, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see that price cut in half during the upcoming Summer sale.

With this level of accessibility we could see a snowball effect for Puyo’s popularity in the West. If more people play Puyo Puyo Tetris, the online lobbies will be more active, discussions about the game will occur in more online spaces, and more people will see intense high-skill game-play moments captured on gaming publications like Kotaku and Polygon, causing new players to join the English Puyo community. The more support an individual community has, the higher the demand for placement at recognizable tournaments which are streamed for the world to see on Twitch. Representation at that level in the West would be well deserved for the tight-knit puzzle game communities as they exist today, and a welcomed fresh face to eSports in general.

***

If you are interested in seeing game-play of Puyo Puyo Tetris on PC, I will be speedrunning the Story Mode on Tuesday, February 27th at around 7pm EST on my Twitch channel! Come to http://www.twitch.tv/log_arhythm and chat with me!

Additionally, here is a recording from my favorite Puyo Puyo Tetris streamer S2LSOFTENER (great name), time stamped to start at a particularly interesting match. S2 is one of the best Puyo Puyo players in America, and watching him play is mesmerizing. In this video he is using an eye-tracker to show where he is looking while he is playing.

Thanks for reading!

Looking For A Place To Happen: How The Tragically Hip Helped Me Rediscover my Home Country

I’m the kind of Canadian that apologizes by saying “sahr-ee” instead of “sore-ee”. This is to say, Canadian by nationality, but raised in the States. My parents made sure I always remembered that I am, in fact, Canadian. Today I thank them for that, but as an impressionable pre-teen my Canadian-ness became an easy identity to latch onto and be “that Canadian kid” in school even though I had no cultural experience to back it up with. Despite spending two weeks every summer visiting family in Toronto and vacationing in the Kawarthas, I did not have a grasp on what it meant to be Canadian. I didn’t know the names and capitals of all the Provinces, I didn’t know the history, and I didn’t know what a “Prime Minister” was. I couldn’t even tell you the ingredients of poutine.

I was a fake Canadian.

At age 13, during the most introspective arc of my early teenage years, I decided enough was enough and I executed a deep dive into my roots, or, what I thought it meant to be Canadian. This inevitably led to the discovery of The Tragically Hip.

For the unaware, The Tragically Hip (known colloquially as “The Hip”) are lovingly referred to as “Canada’s band” up north; a well kept secret that, while willing to share, Canadians are proud to call a product of their own land. The five-piece band from Kingston, Ontario gained popularity in the early 90’s through their bar-rock sound and memorable, improvised performances led by frontman and lyricist Gord Downie – a figure whom I would grow to swiftly idolize. As a point of comparison for Americans, I agree with statements I’ve read before claiming that Gord Downie is to Canada as Bruce Springsteen is to the United States (more specifically the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania tri-state area).

I suspected The Hip’s cultural relevance early on. My mental “detective cork board” full of Canadian media always placed The Hip at the center with bits of string connecting to other examples I loved. Between testimonials by members of bands like Barenaked Ladies and Rush to cameos in TV shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys, I obviously had to like this band.

That Christmas I was gifted a copy of The Tragically Hip’s ninth studio album In Between Evolution. It feels strange to admit this now, but I really did not enjoy this album on first listen. The first track, “Heaven Is A Better Place Today”, kicks off with harsh, singular electric guitar tones and a sour-tuned Gord Downie half shouting lyrics that hardly made sense to me. I remember thinking, “Why is this band so important to Canada if they sound like this?” But I had to like this band. I was persistent, and learned to looked for more Hip songs on the Internet. That’s when I listened to the song “Bobcaygeon” for the first time.

This track caught my eye not because of the odd spelling, but because it’s the name of a town in Ontario that I visited several times as a child. Bobcaygeon is tucked away in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, just between Sturgeon Lake and Pigeon Lake. For the longest time I was convinced barely anybody knew of this quaint little town my family used to visit on boat trips. To me, Bobcaygeon was where my family would dock our boat, buy some ice cream, and relax, watching boats pass through the water locks (it’s more fun than it sounds, believe me). In The Hip’s “Bobcaygeon,” it is where “The constellations reveal themselves one star at a time,” to the character in the song – a Toronto cop who regularly escapes to this small countryside town to spend time with their lover and frequently considers quitting work to settle down. I immediately loved this song. I knew I found something special; something I would cherish, dissect, and celebrate for years.

 

Bobcaygeon

Finding “Bobcaygeon” helped focus my lens to more of The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie’s explicitly Canadian lyrics. From there it was a short search to find story-rich tracks like “Fifty-Mission Cap” about the disappearance and discovery of Bill Barilko, hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose last goal “won the Leafs the cup” in 1951. As the song describes, the Maple Leafs “didn’t win another / ‘til 1962 / the year he was discovered”. On the same album there is “Wheat Kings”, the story of David Milgaard’s wrongful life imprisonment in 1970 for a murder he did not commit, and “Looking For a Place to Happen”, starring Jacques Cartier, a French explorer who traversed land inhabited by the aboriginal people of Canada, ultimately leading to the annexation of that land from the 1500’s through the 1800’s. If other songs weren’t centric to Canadian stories, the topics within provided further reading. A few favorite examples are the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union (“Fireworks”), writer Hugh MacLennon (“Courage”), painter Tom Thomson (“Three Pistols”), and even more small Canadian towns in “Fly” (“There’s Mistaken Point, Newfoundland / there’s Moonbeam, Ontari-ari-o / there are places I’ve never been / and always wanted to go”)

One point that should be made clear is that The Tragically Hip are not a nationalist band. The difference between flippant pandering and deep rooted storytelling was present in the lyrics from the beginning. Gord Downie’s mentioning of Canadiana doesn’t exist to be pointed at and say, “oh look, there we are,” while waving a foam #1 hand covered in maple leaves. Instead what Downie provided was a discography equivalent to a beautifully written book on Canada’s culture. Within Downie’s lyrics there exists as much criticism as there is adoration of Canada’s stories. I could have learned about Canadian history from Wikipedia pages but it would not have been anywhere close to the emotional experience I had consuming The Tragically Hip’s work, song by song.

That does raise the question again of what exactly is Canadian culture – not just the history, but the living, breathing present-day culture? As a child my knowledge of Canadian representation was hockey, beer, and a strange fascination with furry lake region wildlife. Even then, why did that matter? In an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld recalls a Larry Miller joke about Canada to Norm MacDonald (a Canadian). In short, the joke likens Canada to being captured by aliens who observed America through telescopes and rebuilt it on their home planet. Upon release, you would think, “Oh great, I’m home!” only to slowly realize that “something is terribly wrong.” The point being, there isn’t a whole lot different between Canada and America – a conclusion I’m confident a plethora of traveling Americans have achieved on their own. Majority of us speak the same language, our accents hardly differ, we drive on the same side of the road, and aside from most Americans’ inability to understand why Curling exists, we play the same sports.

The Tragically Hip helped me understand some hidden corners of Canada, so for a moment I thought I could obtain and share pieces of Canadian culture with my friends. The summer of 2007 I extended my vacation north and spent a month in Toronto, staying with my relatives. At the time I must have believed myself to be a young Anthony Bourdain –  a traveler who did their research and embarked on a wondrous journey of cultural discovery. Off I went to live the life of a Canadian. I wore the Roots clothing, ate poutine, saw a Blue Jays game at the Skydome, visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, drank at least one Tim Hortons iced cappuccino a day, and I essentially learned nothing. Something was terribly wrong.

Perhaps then I returned home with some fleeting sense of accomplishment, having basked in “all things Canadian” for a month of my summer. While I did have fun, my time spent up north was spent consuming stuff. After all of my romanticization of The Tragically Hip, my cultural appetite was surface level. At the age of 14, what more can be expected? Maybe I didn’t experience the Canada that Gord Downie was singing about, but I didn’t know any better either. In the following two years I devoted gross amounts of time towards learning Tragically Hip songs on my acoustic guitar, and in 2009 I had a reprisal of my month long trip to Canada. This time my cousins and I didn’t confine ourselves to Toronto. After many uncounted years, this was the summer I returned to the lakeside vacation spot in the Kawarthas that my family used to visit every summer in my early childhood. Except now I was armed with my guitar, a literal book of songs I knew how to play, and all of the charismatic bravado a 16-year-old could possibly muster.

bobcaygeon and pine vista

Located about a two hour drive northeast of Toronto, the lakeside resort of Pine Vista is a picturesque gathering of cabins on Gilchrist Bay, letting out on Stoney Lake in the Kawartha region. In every sense of the word, Pine Vista is a family resort. On the first night of every weekly stay there is a “campfire sing along” held by the management. It’s a means for the guests to get together so the kids can roast marshmallows and the parents can drink – and I was there to show off. With permission, I was allowed to swap in for a handful of songs. To my memory I played “Wheat Kings” and “Bobcaygeon” by The Hip, making sure to slyly mention our physical proximity to Bobcaygeon, and I finished off with “If I Had $1000000” by Barenaked Ladies (for the kids). The next afternoon, after a day of canoeing, a guest approached me on the beach and told me how much she enjoyed my playing. She told me that “Sundown in the Paris of the Prairies” from “Wheat Kings”, referencing the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is one of her favorite lyrics of all time.

mesinging
The very moment detailed above, embarrassing hat and all

This was my first random encounter with a fan of The Tragically Hip, and it wasn’t the only one I had that week. Each night by the lakeside fire, guests would request for me to play more Tragically Hip songs. Between performances, parents would trade their fishing stories of the day or joyfully recall stories from their past. Their children would actively complain about the amount of Tragically Hip they were forced to endure on this vacation. One father asked if I knew “Fifty-Mission Cap” only because that song in particular irked his son the most. All the while we were inhabiting piney, lakeside Canada. This was surely the Tom Thomson painting Gord Downie had in mind when writing “Three Pistols”. These were the fishing trip stories Bill Barilko would have shared before his untimely disappearance detailed in “Fifty-Mission Cap”. Each of these families were living a life similar to that Toronto cop in “Bobcaygeon”. When conversation lulled, we were greeted by a loon call much like the one that begins “Wheat Kings”.

“Tom Thomson came paddling past / I’m pretty sure it was him”

Gord Downie was writing about that Canada. An oddly specific, ironic, and homely Canada that, in one moment, jokes about using a frozen fish as a bocce ball jack on an ice fishing trip, and in the next moment, waxes poetic about a city called Saskatoon. On its own, The Tragically Hip’s music gave me a semblance of that Canada as I sat in my suburban Pennsylvania room surrounded by physical morsels of my home country. It wasn’t until a lack of trying presented an unforgettable moment with people whom I would never speak to again when I understood why Gord Downie wrote these songs for The Tragically Hip. Every song I played had more than a hint of realism to it which elicit reminiscence for everyone at that fire. Real stories that don’t require a pedestal and often end with “you had to be there” held more meaning to the Canadian identity I sought after than the tally of how many times I visited a Tim Hortons that summer.

Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip had a thorough foundation for the intimacies of Canadians. The music is a dog whistle, and when the subtleties of their songs are heard it justifies the urge to call The Hip “Canada’s Band”. That might be why, in his final years, Gord Downie broke the fourth wall of that subtlety. On the last show of The Hip’s final tour, taking place mere weeks after a heartbreaking announcement about Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, Downie spoke directly to Canada in a rare moment. Addressing the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Downie said, “He cares about the (indigenous) people way up north that we were trained our entire lives to ignore. Trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there.” Downie was referring to the brutal history of Canadian indigenous residential schools where children were forcibly removed from their families to attend, with the intention of assimilating them to Canadian culture while erasing their own.

If Gord Downie was going to write about Canada, he was going to write about all of it – especially the uncomfortable subjects. Reflecting on my life of love for The Hip, Downie’s final message remains the most relevant, shining example of the identity the band represents. Canada is a country to be loved, and doing so by trading stories by a fire is a fraction of the effort. Acknowledging Canada’s flaws, big or small, is the best way to preserve these quirks. I was lucky enough to have The Tragically Hip teach me all of this through song.