Friday, March 28, 2014

The Avengers, Omega Flight & Westminster style Executive Government

While rereading Avengers Vol. 5 #10 recently I noticed (remembered!) how the story took the Avengers to Canada where we had an alien force take over Regina, the capital city of the province of Saskatchewan. Canada's Department H had reluctantly called in S.H.I.E.L.D. and the US-based Avengers for help when this little gem of dialogue appeared: 

Image from Marvel's Avengers Vol. 5 #10 (June 2013) Written by Jonathan Hickman, Pencils by Mike Deodato, Colours by Frank Martin, Letters by Cory Petit.

Image from Marvel's Avengers #10.
A military department with nuclear weapons that "his government" (and by this I presume the elected politicians) doesn't know about. Could this even happen in Canada? Could there be such a disconnect between a government department and the elected leadership that, as Logan suggests an "old school" government agency could have access to nukes that nobody knows about? And if so could this thing even be legal? This piece will examine this issue using the history of both the Canadian and British parliamentary systems as well as the current law that governs the Department of National Defence to explain how this in fact could not happen. Legal issues aside, this was an enjoyable story is not an indictment of the actual writing or art in any way. 

Canada is what can be called a Westminster democracy because it is modelled after the UK’s parliament located in Westminster, London. The British parliament has been a model for many democracies around the world, not just those 16 states that share Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. Naturally, as these different states have evolved they have made subtle changes to better reflect the realities of their geographic and political realities, but in essence Westminster systems tend to remain quite similar. Examples of such changes include Australia, which while sharing the Queen has an elected upper chamber, whereas members of their British and Canadian equivalents, the House of Lords and Senate of Canada respectively, are appointed by the Queen on the advice of their prime minister.  Since 1982 Canada has also had an entrenched constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is a legal document that while allowing for both the federal parliament in Ottawa and the provincial legislatures to pass laws, also serves as an entrenched check against these legislatures and their laws have been found to be unconstitutional and struck down by the courts. Westminister style states can also include republican countries such as Israel or India who have presidents yet operate in a similar fashion as their monarchical cousins and have prime ministers who make the political decisions and are elected members of parliament. 

The UK's MI: 13 (The MI stands for "Military Intelligence" and dates back to WWII) would follow a similar chain of command as Canada's Department H, as Canada's system of governance was largely modelled after the UK's. Image from Marvel's Revolutionary War: Alpha (March 2014) Written by Andy Lanning & Alan Cowsill, Art by Rich Elson, Colours by Antonio Fabela.

While the history of parliamentary governance reaches back further than the Norman invasion of England in 1066, it's here where we’ll begin our discussion. It was that pivotal year that the Normandy-based duke William conquered England and took the kingship of the realm. Not knowing the country as well as he might, the new king and his descendants set about inviting England’s landowners to join in the governance of the consolidated kingdom. Over time these aristocrats grew robust in the defence of their newly acquired rights and responsibilities and by the early 1200s were in rebellion against one of William's lesser decendents, John. So it was in 1215 that John was made to sign Magna Carta, which subjected him to the law and disallowed him from raising taxes or an army without their consent. From John onwards, certain favourites or competent individuals would assume positions of power and influence and the early stages of ministerial government developed.

But it was in the seventeenth century that things came to a fore. In 1603 James VI of Scotland became the King of England upon the death of his cousin Elizabeth I and this brought a different tone to the governance of England. James was influenced by continental rhetoric that envisioned a more centralized and monarch-centred ideal and soon set out to implement this as policy. This thinking became even more pronounced when James' son Charles assumed the English throne and would culminate when parliamentary and royalist forces went to war in the English Civil War (1642 to 1651). This war ultimately led to Charles’s execution, but when the republican experiment failed, Charles's son (Charles II) was invited to become King. When he died, his brother assumed the throne but being Catholic, was unacceptable to England’s largely Protestant aristocracy. So when James II finally became unpalatable for English nobles, they invited the Dutch Prince William of Orange (who was married to James’ daughter Mary) to become co-regent with his wife. But in order to become King, William was made to sign a contract of sorts – called the Bill of Rights of 1689 – containing a number of provisions of which the king had to adhere. These included a prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, jury trials for criminal matters and other such things.

The marker denoting the site in Westminster Hall where Charles Stuart, King of England was sentenced to death. Photo by Blogger.

Westminster Hall. This is the oldest party of the Palace of Westminster. The above shown plaque is on the stairs. Photo by Blogger.
Giving the crown to William and Mary under such conditions represented a seismic shift in the constitutional status of England. By setting conditions, the nobles and the representative body of parliament ascended into an arrangement with the King that changed the legal landscape. Henceforth, it was the "King-In-Parliament" that had sovereign power in England and not only could the King not act unilaterally (as per Magna Carta), if a law was passed in parliament it was indisputably the law of the land and the only thing parliament could not do is pass a law that bound itself. The Crown's prerogative powers which was the body of customary authority, privilege, and immunity, that was the sole prerogative of the sovereign and included defence, foreign affairs and keeping the peace – were largely maintained and would remain considerable until gradually chipped away by parliamentary statute. But the legal Rubicon had been crossed and parliament was now a sovereign body that could make laws as it decided. Mary died in 1693 and William in 1702 and eventually the crown passed to Anne, Mary’s sister. But when Anne died without an heir, the closest protestant candidate was George, Elector of Hanover, a German who could not speak English. Because of these linguistic issues by the end of George’s reign, much of the responsibilities for the governance of the realm were on the shoulders of a parliamentarian named Sir Robert Walpole and he is largely considered Britain’s (and therefore the Commonwealth’s) first Prime Minister. 

A century and a half later in 1867, when the three colonies of British North America came together to form Canada, its establishing act from the British parliament called the British North America Act stated in its preamble that the newly formed Canada was to be a federal union of "One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom." 

Ministerial Government

Which brings us back to the question at hand: could a Canadian Prime Minister or Minister of Defence not know that the department which he or she ultimately controls has access nuclear weapons? Currently, the Prime Minister of Canada is selected by the Governor-General of Canada (the Queen's representative in Canada) to become PM. This is usually done after an election in which the party he or she leads wins the most seats in parliament. Once this happens, the Prime Minister-elect sets about deciding on who will join him or her to form the Canadian Ministry, which over time by constitutional convention (these are not laws but conventions that have evolved) has taken the prerogative powers of the Crown and become their sole exerciser. These are typically other Members of Parliament and are chosen not just for their competence but other politically calculated considerations which include but are not limited to province of origin, ethnicity, city or constituency.  

All of these Canadian government resources are ultimately under the control of a minister who must answer to the House of Commons. Image from Marvel's Avengers #10.
Once a minister is chosen, he or she is sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. The Privy Council's active component are those individuals who are responsible for running or assisting with the operations of government departments such as the Ministry of Finance, Justice Canada or the Department of National Defence. Leaders of the Opposition are also sworn into the Privy Council so they can have access to secret information, but they do not head a government department and actively oppose the government in the House of Commons where each minister is held to account. Because of this, it is ultimately the minister who is responsible for its bureaucrats and employees. So if Department H were to acquire nuclear weapons without the Minister of National Defence knowing, this would be counter the National Defence Act, 1985 which reads in Section 4:
The Minister holds office during pleasure, has the management and direction of the Canadian Forces and of all matters relating to national defence and is responsible for
  • (a) the construction and maintenance of all defence establishments and works for the defence of Canada; and
  • (b) research relating to the defence of Canada and to the development of and improvements in materiel.

Remember this law was passed by the heir of the sovereign parliament of 1689 and is very clear: the Minister of Defence is responsible for all matters relating to national defence. So even if Department H was created by a separate statute by the Canadian parliament (to my knowledge Marvel has never stated which statute created Department H) it would most likely be governed by similar language as the NDA and would ultimately have a minister responsible for it. Because of this, Logan's "old school" friends with their secret arsenal are clearly operating outside of the law and counter to centuries of both historical negotiation and constitutional and legal development.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

WGTB Reviews The Life and Times of Conrad Black: A Wordless Biography

Few Canadians are more polarizing than Baron Conrad Moffat Black of Crossharbour. Born in Montreal, Quebec to beer baron George Montegu Black Jr., and his wife, the daughter of an insurance magnate, Jean Elizabeth Riley, Black was educated in such bastions of the Canadian establishment as Upper Canada College and the Trinity College School (both Toronto in the area) before completing degrees at Carleton, Laval and McGill universities, finishing in 1973. Education notwithstanding, it was seven years prior that Black started down the road towards what he is best known for being a newspaper proprietor when he purchased the fledgling Quebec-based Eastern Townships Advertiser in 1966. This would lead to Black and his family starting the investment company Ravelston Corporation and the systematic acquisition of newspapers across the globe over the course of the next three decades. Black and the companies he controlled would eventually go on to own such influential broadsheets as the Chicago Sun-Times, The Jerusalem Post and Britain's Daily Telegraph.
The Life and Times of Conrad Black: A Wordless Biography, George A. Walker, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013, pp. 221, C$22.95
But all this would change in July 2007 when 
after a very public trial he was convicted in a Chicago court of corporate fraud and sentenced to six and a half years in a US federal prision. He would go on to serve only three and a half years after which he returned to Canada where he currently resides in a tony Toronto neighbourhood. The Life and Times of Conrad Black: A Wordless Biography by George A. Walker is an unorthodox treatment of the above story done through 100 prints of wood engravings. So while this book is not a graphic novel in the conventional sense of the phrase, it is nevertheless a very interesting take on one of the most loquacious and controversial Canadian exports of recent memory.

Lord Black, the Baron of Crossharbour was given a Life Peerage by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001. This was opposed by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who citing the 1919 Nickle Resolution, a motion in the Canadian House of Commons that prevented Canadians from recieving British honours, forced the two parties to go to court. The case Black v Chretien in the Ontario Court of Appeal saw Black lose his case and subsequently give up his Canadian citizenship. All images from The Life and Times of Conrad Black.    
The book starts with a well written introduction by the author who explains the purpose and goal of the book, making it clear this is not a hit piece and should not be viewed as one. Rather, the book tells the story of Conrad Black's life through masterfully crafted images and transitions one image at a time from his earliest beginnings to his resettlement in Canada after prison. As a long-time reader of comics, I have often heard that the panels of graphic storytelling should be thought of as the highlight moments of a longer narrative such as a TV show, film or novel and this book takes that to an extreme. In 100 images you see such mountains as Black being made a member of the Order of Canada and valleys as his incarceration by the US government. Other significant images include meeting Pope John Paul II, a significant event for a convert Roman Catholic and Black sweeping the floor of a prison cell. 

Conrad Black after purchasing the Daily Telegraph. The "Torygraph" was an extension of Black's conservative ideology in the UK.    

Pope John Paul II was a towering figure in conservative politics of the 1980s and Black, having been received into the Church in 1986, would not have missed an opportunity to meet the pontiff.

But it would all come crashing down in 2007 when Conrad Black was convicted of fraud in a Chicago court.
This is an interesting book and as mentioned, a very unorthodox telling of Conrad Black’s story. As a work of art it is a very well done and an accomplishment in so many ways. It does lack as a work of history; not having the information to give readers a sense of who this man is. But that's clearly not the point, and the book in so many ways is a superlative expression of Black's flawed and complicated humanity. And in this respect it's very good. When Black achieves, he is represented as doing such. When he fails, he is fairly represented as well. In this reviewers mind, the above cited image of Baron Black of Crossharbour sweeping a prison floor remains the most potent and is emblematic of not only Black's failings, but how fleeting each and every one of our own successes can be. With a $22 price point it is an expensive purchase for what amounts to a half hour read, but it is still an interesting and well crafted work of art. Read in conjunction with a solid history, it would certainly be valuable at highlighting the key moments in Conrad Black's life, giving the reader a much better sense of who Lord Black is.  

Admittedly, before his fall from grace, I was an admirer of Black and this is what attracted me to the book. Having read his books on US presidents Roosevelt and Nixon, I continue to admire him as an historian, but as a convicted felon the lasting image I'll have of him is that of carrying Bankers Boxes of corporate documents from his Toronto office. Nevertheless, like the subject of the book or not, The Life and Times of Conrad Black: A Wordless Biography and its 200 images is a remarkable account of the life of a remarkable individual and a very interesting "read" overall.  4/5 STARS

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Does It Stand? The Death of Captain Marvel

With the January announcement that comic book legend Jim Starlin was returning to Marvel to write a new graphic novel titled Thanos: The Infinity Revelation to be released in 2014, I got to thinking about one of his marquee works The Death of Captain Marvel and an exchange at a Marvel panel of FanExpo Canada 2012 between Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and a fan. The floor had opened for questions and the fan asked when was the real Captain Marvel coming back. Of course, the impressive sales Captain Marvel #1 (July 2012) were still on the Marvel minds and that's what probably led to Alonso's curt response: "We have a Captain Marvel in the Marvel Universe and her name is Carol Danvers."

Axel Alonso (far left) and other "House of Ideas" dignitaries at Fan Expo Canada 2012
The fan, not taking the hint, persisted and subsequently launched into an ill-thought-out diatribe about how Danvers wasn’t the same as Mar-Vell. Alonso’s tone immediately changed from fan-obliging editor to ticked-off expert and he proceeded to dress the fan down (in as polite a way as possible) explaining how he watched his father die of cancer and would never disrespect such an important part of the Marvel Universe. Alonso also saw Starlin's story as an important tribute to all those who have been taken by cancer and if Marvel were to resurrect Mar-Vell, it would seriously insult those people. As a cancer survivor myself I could not have agreed more with Alonso's statement and afterwards approached him to express my thanks. In my opinion Mar-Vell's death remains both an important moment in the Marvel Universe and in comic book storytelling generally.

The original cover of Marvel's Death of Captain Marvel Marvel Graphic Novel Vol.1 #1 (April 1982) by Jim Starlin. The volume was reprinted in a 2013.
But what of the telling of the death of Captain Marvel itself? Does this early graphic novel stand the test of time? It's over 30 years old now, and we've all read late Bronze age material that isn't quite as readable as today's books. Does The Death of Captain Marvel stand up to today's discerning comic book reader? The following piece will look at this question but also do so through the eyes of a cancer survivor as this aspect of the book is such an important part of the story itself. 

Pain, self-pity, frustration and fear are just some of the emotions Mar-Vell goes through when coming to terms with his cancer diagnosis. All subsequent images from Marvel's  The Death of Captain Marvel (April 1982)
I'd say that The Death of Captain Marvel does stand up for today's reader. Starlin’s writing could be counted in the "gifted" category even back in the early 1980s and while script does have some self-reflective bubbles that one normally doesn't see in today's books, the dialogue does not have too "Uggh the 80s" of a feel to it and could match contemporary comic book storytelling. 

The sentiment is similiar for Mar-Vell's friends.
Moreover, the basic storyline – one of reflection and contemplation is still very poignant. The story begins with Mar-vell on a spaceship, recording his thoughts about the life he has lived. We then track back to his days when as a hero he was exposed to a canister of nerve gas while fighting a villain named Nitro. This happened seven years prior, but now the exposure's legacy has finally come out of remission and presumably metastasized (become a secondary tumor of similar cells) and is killing him. It also becomes apparent that the Negabands which had previously held the cancer at bay, were no longer effective and the inevitable would soon arrive. Once the reader learns that it's the "Inner Decay" (call that by the Titans), the "Blackend" (Kree) or cancer, we are then introduced to Mar-Vell's efforts to come to terms with his impending death, his friend's efforts to use their considerable talents to save him, his final good-byes before one last challenge from his old foe, Thanos. When that is all completed Captain Marvel dies.

Mar-vell of the Kree dies surrounded by heroes in The Death of Captain Marvel.
As mentioned, I read this book through the lenses of a cancer survivor. My personal experience with the disease started in May 1995 when I threw a baseball and twisted my leg, experiencing a pain that I never quite experienced before. From there I met with a many different doctors who eventually referred me to one of the biggest research hospitals in Canada where I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. With that I immediately started an intense regime of chemotherapy. This went on for three days at a time with three weeks between each session. After the third, I had an operation to remove the infected tissue and have a titanium prosthetic inserted to hold my leg together. After three more chemo sessions, I started the long road to recovery and 18 years later, I'm still here. I now walk with a slight limp and cane, but otherwise live a relatively normal life. 

Very much like Mar-Vell's experiences in The Death of Captain Marvel, the external reaction to my own illness was quite mixed. Some friends walked away not sure how to deal with the gravity of my condition. Others did whatever they could to make me feel better. Again some other friends simply sat with me and were quietly and patiently my friends. Indeed, I think Captain Marvel is a story that most people who have been diagnosed with cancer can relate to and Starlin does an excellent job taking his readers through the journey of feelings and emotions of so many people who have undergone treatment. Pain, self-pity, frustration and fear is all very normal for anyone who has cancer and not even the greatest of us superhero or mortal is immune to them. Being a long-time volunteer with numerous cancer organizations and currently in a position where I sit on a committee of fellow survivors who advise doctors who treat cancer patients, I can tell you from personal experience that Jim Starlin hit on some universal feelings when he wrote how Mar-Vell saw his own life slowly slip away and how powerless he felt about it.

A Marvel-616 Universe without cancer would be unfair to  both the heroes and us readers. In this scene Starlin makes it clear that even the greatest minds in the Marvel Universe cannot stop cancer. 
In fact, I would go as far to say that The Death of Captain Marvel is an important comic reading experience and most certainly stands for the reader in 2014. The art is typical of what you would see in the early 1980s, but the real power is the experience of watching a formerly (near) invincible individual, reflect on his passing and then die. Fortunately, this is something I have yet to experience, but reading this graphic novel did remind me of many of my cancer-related trials and is valuable for anyone wanting to understand what it's like for someone living with cancer. Kudos to the list of Marvel editors who have keep this book so powerful by not resurrecting Mar-Vell (on a permenant basis at least) and to Axel Alonso for coming to its defence in 2012. As always, thank you for visiting WGTB and below are some links to cancer organizations you might consider supporting. They're from countries where the readership of this blog is greatest but if you would like to suggest another, please leave a comment with its website below. 

Sarcoma Cancer Foundation of Canada 
Sarcoma UK
Sarcoma Foundation of America 
Teenage Cancer Trust (UK)
Australian Youth Against Cancer

Monday, March 3, 2014

Exploring the Nebulas: 1978 winner Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake

Taking place in the distant future, Dreamsnake by American writer Vonda N. McIntyre, tells the story of "Snake" a Healer on a post-apocalyptic, radioactive, unforgiving Earth. Healers in this period are highly respected and equipped to handle health emergencies in a place that has largely forgotten modern medicine. When Snake's only dreamsnake is accidentally killed while helping a patient, she is professionally hobbled and embarks on a quest to find a new one. Along the way McIntyre details a quest riddled with hazards, hostiles, odd sexual mores and a decimated landscape all of which leads to a fascinating and provocative story. Unlike so much science-fiction, the story has no obvious “offworlders” but does make it clear that there has been contact with extra-terrestrials and this becomes an important part of the story by the end of the book. Along with winning the 1978 Nebula award, Dreamsnake was also the recipient of the 1979 Hugo award from the international science-fiction community.

Dreamsnake, Vonda N. McIntyre, Houghton Mifflin, 1978, pp. 277
Dreamsnake has the heavy undertone of drug use and culture that one might expect from a book published in the 1970s. Indeed, Snake’s primary method of creating medicine is by three snakes and the alchemy that comes from mixing their venom. The primary antagonist is also very much akin to a drug lord and it’s the magic-turned-science of the Dreamsnake that gives this book has much a fantasy feeling to it as a science-fiction one. So while strictly speaking I would label it a science-fiction novel, it has some intense fantastical elements to it and at times could almost be integrated into the elaborately constructed worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. The characters are both well developed and richly detailed and their convincing motivations do well to drive the story forward. With a number of the sub-plots, the story is also somewhat layered and gives the readable characters a humanity that makes the story as much about them as it does the odd new world.

This is not really the type of science-fiction I would normally buy and honestly I only read it because of the Nebula quest I'm currently on. But I’m glad I did. It was a worthy winner of the award for best novel from the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for 1978 and a very Good read overall.