The island of Newfoundland is a very strange place that is home to a very strange people. But far and away the strangest of them all was the local media mogul who spent nearly 40 years trying to bring mystical enlightenment to the human race through a surreal superhero comic book and transcendently weird late-night television.
Geoff Stirling has been dead since December 2013, but his spiritual quest lives on. Tune into NTV, the television station he founded, anytime after 2 AM, and you will be transported on a cosmic odyssey to the absolute edge of outer (and inner) space. You will float across obscure vistas of hyper-saturated alien worlds soundtracked by psychedelic disco while flashing blocks of text admonish you to "ADJUST YOUR MIND, ADJUST YOUR LIFE, ADJUST YOUR SEX." A strange man draped in the Canadian flag flies through the air and dances around on a rooftop. An otherworldly chorus of Christian hymns drone ominously while the "12 ETERNAL LAWS OF GOD" scroll up across the screen.
Every Newfoundlander is familiar with the wonders of NTV Late Night, but very few people have ever known what, exactly, is actually going on. I certainly didn't, until I spent three months trying to get inside Stirling's head.
I'm still not sure I get it, but it's been one hell of a trip.
Welcome to the mystical world of Captain Newfoundland.
THE (OTHER) FIFTH BEATLE
There has never been—and likely never will be again—a man quite like Geoff Stirling. He was a visionary in the truest sense of the word; he glimpsed truths about the present and the future that other people could not, or would not, see.
Born on March 22, 1921, Stirling spent his life chasing new heights—literally as well as figuratively. He was an accomplished sprinter and high-jumper in the 1930s and 40s, attending Tampa University in Florida on an athletic scholarship for track and field. In 1946, while the moribund colony of Newfoundland was wrestling with whether it should join Canada or seek independence, Stirling founded a tabloid magazine (the Sunday Herald) that urged the island to link with the United States instead. Along with broadcaster Don Jamieson (who later sat in Pierre Trudeau's cabinet), Stirling founded CJON as a radio station in 1950 and expanded to television in 1955. This station—NTV, "Canada's Superstation"—eventually became the first color station in the province, and in 1972, it pioneered 24-hour broadcasting.
But while Stirling could see ahead of his time in the media business, it often seemed like he could see beyond time and space itself. His occult side came through loud and clear in the dozens of hours of extra content that 24-broadcasting required every week. As Sarah Smellie chronicled in the Scope just before Geoff's 90th birthday:
"While every other station in the country would simply go off-air, NTV blazed all night, showing syndicated programming, movies, continuous live feed of a fish tank, Scenes of Newfoundland, and the Stirling tapes: hours-long interviews with Joey Smallwood; conversations with conspiracy theorist David Icke spliced with images of horrible grey aliens; the 'Computer Animation Festival,' featuring Atlantis characters and pulsating animation sequences from the Lawnmower Man; repeated showings of Pink Floyd's The Wall; images of crop circles, UFOs, and the Egyptian Pyramids layered on top of one another and/or images of Barack Obama; and the laws of God—'The Law of Energy – All is Energy'—scrolling over random stills."
Because he was a profoundly weird man working through an eminently public medium, Newfoundland abounds with apocryphal stories about spooky Stirling: that he once injected liquid gold into his veins to cure arthritis; that he once called NTV in the middle of a primetime news broadcast to make them play an episode of Inspector Gadget; that he once ranted, shirtless, about politics for two hours on television when he ran against premier Frank Moores as part of Joey Smallwood's Reform Liberal personality cult in 1975.
(Despite being political enemies back in the 1940s, Smallwood and Stirling went on to develop a great—if bizarre—friendship, and once traveled to Cuba together in an unsuccessful attempt to meet Fidel Castro.)
Stirling was deeply influenced by the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. When he bought CHOM-FM in Montreal—the first English FM station in Quebec—he used it to play multi-day Beatles marathons, live meditative chanting, and divination sessions with the I Ching. Famously, while vacationing in London in 1969, he befriended John Lennon and Yoko Ono when he sent Lennon a cryptic telex: "I've heard your Come Together. Here I am. Geoff Stirling." According to Stirling's son Scott, it was Geoff who invited John and Yoko to Montreal when they held their Bed In and recorded "Give Peace a Chance."
ENGAGE IN A NEW AGE
Stirling's mystical inclinations ultimately culminated in a trip to India in 1975 to spend time at Swami Shyam's ashram. Upon his return, he wrote about the enlightenment he discovered there in his spiritual manifesto, In Search of a New Age:
"I got on a plane with the determination never to return to the West until I found what I was seeking... [But] really my search was an inner one, not an external search... the true Guru is within yourself."
The book is many things. It is a manual for a daily meditation regimen ("unless you [meditate], no real progress is possible... two hours of meditation will refresh the body more than ten hours of sleep"), a platform for Stirling's dietary theories ("many diseases, including cancer, are created by wrong diet because the body enzymes use up so much energy digesting and clearing out this bad food"), a treatise of Christian esotericism ("until we can believe [we are children of God], we are in bondage... all of us have the potential to exceed even the wonders performed by Jesus"), an ode to LSD ("drugs give... a glimpse over the wall of one's potential"), and a paean to human freedom ("man is what he thinks, but man does not yet know his power to think is infinite... consequently, his own creative power is unlimited if he but believes").
Above all, In Search of a New Age reveals that Stirling was preoccupied with human spiritual liberation—in particular, freeing young people from 'indoctrination':
"Our traditions have so bound us that we have forgotten that we were born free men... we have accepted through indoctrination that man is born in sin instead of accepting that man is born perfect as a new born baby and descends into the sin of ignorance by indoctrination.... [which] immediately starts in direct ratio to the [level of] consciousness surrounding the child during these formative years... The terror of our position can be seen."
It was this genuine concern for human psychic liberation that led to Stirling's fascination with superheroes. "Canada has no superheroes," he would tell anyone who listened. Canadian kids needed their own superheroes who could teach them enlightened values—who would help them expand their consciousness and unlock the infinite divine power within themselves. And as the head of a media empire that virtually dominated his home province, Geoff Stirling was well positioned to give them one.
Thus, Captain Canada—and his cosmic guru Captain Newfoundland—were born.
The characters appeared regularly in the pages of the Newfoundland Herald in the late 1970s and started popping up on NTV in the early 1980s (Captain Canada remains the mascot for the television station).
Everything we know about those strange figures dancing around in front of a greenscreen at 2:30 AM comes from two canonical sources: the Captain Newfoundland comic book (1981), and the epic Atlantis graphic novel (1983). The comics are notoriously hard to find, but I found both of them in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies archive at Memorial University in St. John's.
It's a shame that they're so obscure, because they're a real trip.
TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
Stirling's Atlantis characters can still be seen on the periphery of the NTV Late Night spot, but the stories behind them have long since faded from the collective memory of Newfoundland and Labrador. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fate of the Stirling Press mural on Logy Bay Road in St. John's.
The mural, painted on the side of the Herald office, was a Mecca for Stirling mythology enthusiasts. The first time I saw it at the age of 20—whacked out of my mind at 4 AM after a particularly intense NTV session—we just sat, awed, in the car for a solid 30 minutes. Nobody knew what the fuck it was, but the gravity was undeniable. Holy shit, it's true, this is a real thing—Geoff Stirling is a real person.
Despite its sublime weirdness and central place among St. John's urban legends, the mural vanished shortly after Stirling died in 2013. It was replaced by stock images from a Newfoundland™ brochure: a humpback whale, a fjord near Gros Morne, Cabot Tower perched above the Narrows. The marketeers' vision of "local culture" dreamed up in a government focus group: absolutely safe, eminently profitable, utterly soulless.
It makes sense why they'd downplay it. Channeling thousands of years of Eastern mysticism through an obscure set of underdeveloped superheroes in mass-market comic books, advertised with five minutes of greenscreen time, is a terrible idea—sustainable only by Stirling's own superhuman drive. The Atlantis mythology oscillates somewhere between patronizing and cheesy, but is mostly incomprehensible. That the source material is more than 30 years out of print doesn't help either; a guy shows up to the St. John's Santa Claus parade dressed as Captain Canada every year, and no one has a fucking clue that he once saved Prince Charles and Wayne Gretzky from an evil cosmic wizard. (Yes, this was a plot line in the comics.)
The general weirdness of Geoff Stirling has been part of the background of Newfoundland's cultural life for decades. For weirdos like myself, it's an enduring cult fascination, but it's otherwise increasingly unnoticed and unappreciated since its heyday 30 years ago.
The comics, the late-night computer graphics, the glowing pyramid on Logy Bay Road—it's all part of the charm. But as a method of public enlightenment, all this is an oversell. It was Stirling falling into the Western excess he rails against, an unnecessary veil over what is otherwise his very simple, profound, and transformative promise: that if you spend 20 minutes a day quieting your restless windmill mind and listening to your heart, you will be less of a miserable piece of shit.
It's true. It works. And at the bottom of it all, maybe a goofy dude in a maple leaf suit teaching us how to chill out and love ourselves is the hero that the digitized stress nightmare we call the 21st century needs. It's this simple truth, shorn of the drug-fueled mania and 1980s psychedelia, that keeps the spirit of Captain Newfoundland alive.
We're due for a Stirling renaissance. After all, isn't it a testament to the man's power of vision that yoga and clean-eating obsessions have become a major mode of spirituality in the post-Christian consumer societies of North America? The dominant media model in the 21st century is a perpetual motion machine of instant, constant, cheap content syncing up across multiple platforms 24/7/365—a model Stirling pioneered, for his own obscure ends, in his own obscure corner of the world. It's a better track record than most oracles.
Everything old is new again. The Boris Vallejo Atlantis covers have recently appeared on a wall outside the NTV studio, not far from the old Herald mural. Captain Canada can still be seen somersaulting off the moon every Saturday night, proclaiming the Holy Gospel of Consciousness to anyone vibrating on Geoff Stirling's cosmic frequency, broadcasting his secret message to those few among us who have truly lived by the Captain's code: "This above all: to thine own Self be true."
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.