Death and taxes

Benjamin Franklin once said (in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le-Roy) that, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” This famous idiom has been used to the point of becoming cliché, but it still rings true even now, albeit in unanticipated and unexpected ways during the era of COVID-19.

To say that March 2020, was a rough month is an understatement. March 12, 2020, may end up being a defining, generational moment for our society. Of course, the impact of that day really began the evening before with the NBA suspending its season, the American president engaging in a blunder-filled address to his nation and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announcing that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19 simultaneously. Then the dominoes fell. Sports leagues shuttered. Film and television productions halted. Conventions, festivals, concerts and large gatherings of all kinds were postponed or cancelled outright. The economy tanked in conjunction with a manufactured oil war. Then our Prime Minister’s wife was diagnosed with the virus herself. The days and weeks since have been marked by self-isolation, quarantines, travel restrictions, Tiger King, panic buying, pandemic profiteering, and the shuttering of businesses, schools and public places. The list goes on and on and every day we are bombarded by more and more bad news about the exponentially increasing number of confirmed cases and deaths at home and abroad. We have all experienced a fundamental societal change, the repercussions of which may take years to fully appreciate.

My mother, Catherine Valerie “Val” Campbell at my sister’s wedding on February 21, 2020.

On a personal level, March was already going to be a rough month for me. My mother died on St. Patrick’s Day. After a year-long battle with incurable cancer that included a six-month reprieve where she achieved a semblance of normalcy thanks to a recently approved form of immunotherapy, her suffering became too much and she opted for Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) program. It all happened very quickly. It has been a draining, horrible, fabulous, hopeful, twelve months of tears, tender moments, juggling, perpetual business shutdowns and hospital visits. Since her death, we have been trying to pick up the pieces in a world where we can no longer have a visitation, have face-to-face interactions with loved ones and have to experience our grief without the usual social mechanisms in place to help with our emotional plight. It hurts that she is gone and that this really hit home on my birthday on April 3, but it is a relief that she is no longer suffering.

March is the time of year when we are usually scrambling to complete our year-end and budget for our business tax bill, while also anticipating our taxes for the first quarter of the year (both of which are due at the end of April). The fourth quarter of every year is usually a boon for our business, East Coast Toys & Games, and this is true for most North American businesses in the lead-up to Christmas. The first quarter of every year is a bill-heavy affair and this has not changed during the coronavirus pandemic. What has changed is that, for the first time in my business life, taxes have been deferred. The current unofficial adage seems to be “pay if you can” and as good citizens who are currently able to do so, we will have all of our payments completed by the end of April.

As the reclusive owners of an e-commerce business, my wife and I have found ourselves uniquely situated for the current crisis. We are fortunate to have our health and to be able to continue to stay in operation at a time when many of our regional brick and mortar colleagues have had to close their doors indefinitely and are scrambling to find ways to stay afloat. This has been particularly complicated by Diamond halting the shipment of new comics (while still fulfilling orders for back issues) and the cancellation or postponement of the many conventions that we all rely on in one way or another.

Halifax indie great, Dave Howlett, decided to release his newest series, The Makers,  digitally during the pandemic at least in part because of the uncertainty around being able to print and distribute physical comics at this moment in time. How are your local creators getting by right now?

If you are reading this, have the means and are able to help out your local comic shop, record store, or other kind of collectibles store, please do so. Additionally, if you can support local talent, know that you are not only helping now but helping to preserve the future. I know that this is a tall order, especially given that so many people have lost their jobs, but eventually this crisis will end and part of returning to normalcy will require being able to return to our favourite geeky places and interacting with our favourite geeky people. The fewer business casualties, the better!

When it comes to crafting each edition of Forgotten Silver, I usually have a few ideas on the go that I noodle around in my brain for a while until I feel motivated to research a topic in great detail. This month was the first time that I had actually specifically earmarked a comic to cover because I thought it would be a timely look at a bizarre comic from the late Canadian Silver Age: 1990’s Captain Tax Time.

This particular comic is quite common and can be found relatively easily on the resale market for around $10 CAD. Personally, I don’t generally go out of my way to acquire comics like this unless they “fall into my lap,” as I save my money for more obscure titles from the Canadian Silver Age that tend to be much more difficult to ferret out and can sometimes be quite expensive. Nevertheless, Captain Tax Time had been on my radar for some time due to it already being covered by Stupid Comics several years ago.

Cover of Captain Tax Time # 1. Image from the Grand Comics Database.

Indeed, a poor condition copy fell in my lap in December of last year. One of my best friends, Richard “Rick” Silvert, who owns Lost World Games, Toys & Records in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (and who we often set up with at conventions and events in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) procured a copy and gave it to me as a joke gift. Comics are the one collectible that Rick doesn’t generally deal in and when he ends up with the occasional Canadian comic, he usually sends it my way. Like many of my regional colleagues, Rick has opted to close his shop during the pandemic, so if you are looking for obscure collectible toys or video games, check out his Facebook page.

Given that Stupid Comics provides numerous splash pages and a reasonable overview of what Captain Tax Time is about, I will only provide what Rick would refer to as the “Readers’ Digest version” synopsis of the comic, before delving into the more interesting connection between this one-shot comic and the larger Canadian comic book and animation scene that surprised me. Before that, however, some context is needed.

Captain Tax Time was released in early 1990 by Paul Haynes Comics, putting it right on the cusp of being one of the last comics that I consider to be from the Canadian Silver Age. A native of Oakville, Ontario, Haynes was co-founder and president of Tax Time Services Ltd. Haynes served as the writer of the comic’s story, which serves as a criticism of Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government’s creation and the impending implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The comic also serves as an advertisement for Tax Time Services’ products.

A Tax Time Tax Services advertisement included in Captain Tax Time. Image from Stupid Comics.

The Mulroney government’s creation of the GST was explained as a measure to replace the 13.5% Manufacturers’ Sales Tax (MST), based on the argument that the MST prevented Canadian manufacturers from being competitive on the international export market. Initially, the federal government proposed implementing the GST at 9%, but by the time it came into effect on January 1, 1991, it had been lowered to 7%.

An anti-GST novelty eraser featuring a caricature of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from the early 1990s. Image from a current eBay listing.

GST ended up being extremely controversial across Canada. Despite the government promoting the new tax as revenue-neutral, it was, in reality, a value-added tax that would apply to almost all purchases in the country. This was compounded by the fact that (with the exception of Alberta) all of the provinces had existing provincial sales tax regimes in place. The result was that the GST raised the level of value-added taxes on consumers greatly in the early 1990s. The implementation of the GST was so despised that three Progressive Conservative members of parliament (David Kilgour, Pat Nowlan and Alex Kindy) voted against the bill in the House of Commons and were subsequently expelled from the party. Ultimately, the Liberal-dominated Senate rejected the bill, but this led to Mulroney using a little-known constitutional provision to temporarily increase the number of Progressive Conservative members in the Senate in order to pass the bill.

A Brian Mulroney novelty doll from the early 1990s that depicts the Prime Minister with a noose around his neck and donning a pin supporting GST. Image from an active eBay listing.

The aftermath of this controversy played a key role in the Progressive Conservative Party’s historic defeat in the 1993 election. Mulroney and his finance minister, Michael Wilson, were villainized in the public due to the perceived underhanded tactics used to force the tax into law. As a result, a small cottage industry of anti-GST novelty items proliferated in Canada for a short time (in ways that are reminiscent of the reaction to the senior Trudeau’s supposed use of the term “Fuddle Duddle“). All of this was compounded by the mini-recession of the early 1990s that stemmed from the 1990 oil price shock. Wilson would be shuffled out of his finance portfolio into the position of Minister of International Trade to start working on NAFTA, while Mulroney saw his popularity plummet as a result of his failed constitutional amendments as part of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord (which was defeated via public referendum in October 1992 and was the second such failure after the Meech Lake Accord failed to be ratified in June 1990).

Even philatelists could add anti-GST memorabilia to their collections, as these stamps depicting Prime Minister Mulroney and finance minister Michael Wilson demonstrate. Image from an old post on the Stamp Community forums.

By February 1993, Mulroney saw the writing on the wall and retired. Kim Campbell became his replacement as Prime Minister heading into the 1993 election, but the damage was done. Sovereigntist sentiments flourished in Quebec and the opposition Liberals ran (partly) on a platform of abolishing the GST. The Progressive Conservatives were decimated in arguably the biggest collapse in Canadian electoral history, losing 154 seats and only electing two MPs. The party lost official party status and never fully recovered, leading to it merging with the Canadian Alliance ten years later. This began the long era of Liberal majority governments headed by Jean Chrétien and set the stage for an era of the Bloc Québécois as Canada’s official opposition party. Of course, the Liberal government did not abolish the GST as promised and decades later it still remains in place in most provinces (though it was lowered in two stages to 5% under the governments of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper) or has been replaced by Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

With all of this in mind, Haynes’ Captain Tax Time one-shot was part of a larger cottage industry of anti-GST novelties that were being released from 1989-1991. As a comic book, it is a neat example of how this cottage industry spilled over into our favourite medium. At first glance, the comic looks like it could be a giveaway, but in reality, it is more akin to the black and white independent comics that proliferated during the mid to late 1980s and its $4 CAD cover price was quite expensive for its time. The amateur black and white artwork found within the covers, as well as the subject matter, give this comic the look and feel of many of the alternative comics that were being released in Canada and the United States during this time, which is why I consider it to be a late Silver Age comic, rather than an early example of the next era of Canadian comic books.

The story begins with Prime Minister Byron Baloney speaking with his shadowy cabinet ministers and “top mandarins” dreaming up new ways to screw over taxpayers. The comic then focuses on the sinister finance minister who is so obsessed with taxation that he transforms into a demonic beast referred to as “The Grabber” (in what is a thinly veiled shot at Michael Wilson). The Grabber then gives a press conference about the implementation of the “Good Samaritan Tax,” which is being watched by Captain Tax Time in his arctic compound.

Just as Captain Tax Time feared, the finance minister has turned into a “tax grabber.” Image from Stupid Comics.

Captain Tax Time then summons his fellow vigilante, Sgt. Saver, and the two proceed to track the Grabber to a compound where numerous criminal masterminds are meeting to provide the government (via the Grabber) with $30 billion CAD in hush money. Much of the remainder of the comic features on the two vigilantes hunting down the villains and collecting the billions of dollars of cash. This culminates with the heroes redistributing the money to the populace during a press conference on Parliament Hill, declaring that the underworld’s money is enough to offset and abolish the GST. The comic ends with the Grabber in his lair, thinking about new ways to tax the Canadian public and get revenge on Captain Tax Time.

The Grabber in his lair after being defeated by Captain Tax Time and Sgt. Saver, thinking about new ways to tax the Canadian public and enact his revenge on the heroes. Image from Stupid Comics.

The artistic merit of this comic book is questionable at best. The story is predictable and the artwork is unpolished and lacks detail. Surprisingly, the two artists, Terry Rotsaert and Ted Collyer would become well-respected animators in the years that followed, with Collyer in particular working on some well-known projects (such as directing Clone High and, more recently, working as a storyboard artist on Bravest Warriors).

The reality is that as much as Paul Haynes envisioned this comic as a potential serialized work that could be sold in comic stores, the first issue was not a success and the series was terminated with his vision unfulfilled. Ultimately, Captain Tax Time was actually a student project. Rotsaert and Collyer were third year students in Sheridan College’s animation program and the comic was helped along by one of their instructors, water colourist Wayne Gilbert, who contributed to the comic’s cover.

As an amateur student project, rather than a professional production, Captain Tax Time shows its faults. Yet, thinking about this comic as an early work by a couple of students who would become much more polished in the decades that follow gives it a bit more cachet than one might think at first glance. Most discussions of this comic miss the Sheridan College connection, which is a significant one in my opinion. This was not the first foray into comics by students at the college, which has become one of the most respected animation schools in the world (with at least one student project, the short film Charade winning an Academy Award in 1985). With this in mind, next month I will delve into how, during the late-1970s, Sheridan College became an unexpected hotspot for famous comic book creators (including Will Eisner, Neal Adams and Mike Ploog) to share their knowledge and help mentor young Canadian animators.

brian Campbell
brian Campbell

Dr. brian Campbell is an Anthropologist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. His PhD research focused on the used-goods trade in Halifax. Dr. Campbell is co-owner of East Coast Toys and Games, one of Atlantic Canada's largest eBay stores specializing in pop culture collectibles. Dr. Campbell left academia in 2019 to focus on his business. During his spare time, he researches Canadian comics that were released between 1960-1990.

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Matthew Ames
Matthew Ames
4 years ago

Brian so sorry to hear of your loss. I’m glad Canada has a program that could help you mother to some peace.

I am an American, but I went to school at Acadia. My roommate and I used to hitchhike into Halifax and get drunk at The Seahorse… that was a loonnnggg time ago!

I’m going to check out your online store!