What Would Mike Strong Do?
It is a question for the ages, and one upon which the fate of lives, nations, and planets might hinge. It is the unofficial slogan of Champions, the fun quip that adorns swag, and an inside joke that keeps on giving. It is… the result of sleep depravation, and good spirits, and friendship. What would Mike Strong do? Let me tell you.
By now I’ve explained at some length how Alex and Stephanie came to Champions. For years these two best friends had been standing by in some subconscious realm, ready for their own series. When it turned out they were daughters of characters from His Majesty’s New World, everything added up… but as the full cast for the series assembled, it became evident that they couldn’t go it alone. Their unit required a third member, who could bring different qualities to the table.
From fairly early on, I was pretty certain this character would have to be a venerable Sergeant –– like a ship’s Captain and Chief Engineer, a unit’s officer and NCO can be an inseparable team. But what sort of soldier could hope to match Alex and Stephanie?
One thing was immediately clear: he had to be immune to the fact that they’re both eligible young women. There would be no love triangles, no cliched romantic tension. That requirement suggested a slightly older, wiser Sergeant, who could keep up with the ladies’ intellects, but make up for their lack of real combat experience. So was born Mike Strong… sort of an ‘uncle’ figure.
But who was he, really? That was a problem. Having survived His Majesty’s New World, he could have been any sort of man –– bitter, haunted, jaded? At the time I was deep into Defense Command, in which Andrea Kiley was dealing with PTSD in a rather dark way, so my initial thoughts were somewhat bleak. Make him dark… or better yet, make him pitiable? A hopeless man being given one more chance to make good, destined to be redeemed by his association with Alex and Stephanie?
That Mike Strong was in the initial spec draft for Whitecoat… and as such, he tended to suck the oxygen out of every scene. He clearly needed something different, but not being very bright, I didn’t know what to do.
Fortunately, we had to start shooting covers for the series… and everything changed.
Here I must switch streams, and take us back to the cover shoot for His Majesty’s New World in 2007. On that occasion, we worked with the PPCLI First World War unit from the Canadian Military Heritage Society (more on them in a future note). Among those who turned up for that shoot: a disreputable soul named Mark Kipper.
Mark, as it turns out, was from Iceberg’s hometown (Kitchener–Waterloo), and though we hadn’t kept in touch after the shoot, I bumped into him almost exactly a year later, on the night Peter Braid won his first federal election. Quite by surprise, I ran into Mark, his wife Anita, and his kids Matt and Christine when they attended Peter’s victory party. After that, we definitely kept in touch.
In 2010, Mark helped quarterback the CMHS’s return for the launch of The Reprisal in Waterloo. We’d meet up once or twice a year for wings and beer, and chat about everything from his reenacting, to history, to movies, to politics. Mark’s what Newfoundlanders might call the salt of the Earth, or better yet, ‘best kind’.
But the irony was great: somehow, as shot selection continued for the His Majesty’s New World covers, he never appeared. Other faces recurred, but the images dictated by the plots never included him. This became a running joke… and a thing I was determined to correct.
When Mike Strong came to Champions, everything fell into place. Who else could I call, but Mark?
And it’s a good thing I did. The Champions covers are the most demanding we’ve ever produced, and besides finding the right photographer and models, getting the (alternate) history right wasn’t easy. Fortunately, Mark and his son Matt are exceptional when it comes to a very practical sort of history. Need British battle dress to fit a young woman? No problem –– Stephanie’s battle dress is actually Matt’s (cross buttoned at the waist, with Canadian Army flashes removed, and officers’ insignia attached).
The equipment and expertise the Kippers brought to the project was vital… but not so important as having Mike Strong himself show up in front of the cameras.
By trade Mark Kipper is a millwright, and on the weekend of that photo shoot, he was actually working nights. That meant he came off shift, got ready, and came out to join us for a full day of shooting… with no sleep. Charged with plenty of caffeine, and with his family in tow, he somehow arrived as exactly the Mike Strong you know if you’ve read Champions –– and that hit home the minute he asked: “What would Mike Strong do?”
Neither of us remembers when the question was first asked, but it was the way it was delivered –– very reverently, I assure you –– that sealed everything. Mike Strong needed no one’s pity. He’d survived His Majesty’s New World, and though deeply haunted, he had determined the best cure was to live a big life, have fun, and do good.
Which meant he was a perfect foil for Alex and Stephanie –– as (un)funny as they are, as smart, but also more experienced and very supportive. I’m infamous by now for stealing my friends’ souls for characters… I’m just very lucky that the right friend so willingly showed up that day in 2011, sleep-deprived but entirely irrepressible, because with a single question he solved Mike Strong.
Over the holidays, Mark and I got together for a long-overdue catch-up, and he was presented with both his copy of War Footing, and the latest inner-circle-only Iceberg swag: a flask. We were at McCabe’s in Kitchener, and I had steak, mashed potatoes and a couple of Alexander Keith’s –– ironically, the very same meal I enjoyed on HMCS Halifax last May. I think that’s now become my trademark meal when hanging around with the best kind of people… I look forward to sharing it with Mark again soon.
Iceberg is fortunate to have many friends around the world, but I’m lucky that one of the best is here at home. He’s helped make Champions stronger, and as the series moves from strength to strength, you can bet he’ll be along for the…
What, a pun too far?