Canada’s forgotten superheroine
Inuit demigoddess gets the attention she deserves, 70 years after wartime stardom
By: David Jón Fuller
Posted: 11/9/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 11/10/2013 1:20 AM | Updates
She was an Inuit demigoddess. She could fly and become invisible.
She wore a magic cloak, battled aliens from other dimensions, mammoth men and crooks, and safeguarded Canada’s Arctic against Adolf Hitler and Imperial Japan.
In her heyday, thousands of Canadians at home and overseas thrilled to her adventures.
She wasn’t Canada’s answer to Wonder Woman — she came first.
And yet, today almost nobody knows who Nelvana of the Northern Lights was.
But thanks to two comic-book aficionados and a phenomenally successful fundraising campaign, all that is about to change.
Across the dark and snowy Arctic landscape, Inuit are called to a great council. The seal, caribou and whale they depend on for food are disappearing. Some Inuit do not survive the journey, but those that do are greeted by the great chief, Tadjo. "Nelvana will come," he proclaims. The Northern Lights stir, and basked in their glow, Nelvana descends upon a beam of light. "Mighty chief Tadjo," she says, "Arise and tell me for what purpose I was called."
Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey, both of whom are working on the upcoming Canadian comic-book documentary Lost Heroes (Nicholson as a producer, Richey as a researcher), started a Kickstarter campaign in October to reprint the entire run of Nelvana’s adventures.
"I think that we do a bad job as Canadians about remembering and celebrating our own history," says Nicholson. "And we seem to have an uncanny ability to view anything that we create ourselves as naturally inferior. Which isn’t necessarily true!
"While the Canadian publishing industry didn’t have the funds to produce comics in full colour, the talent behind the Canadian golden age comics was some of the best in the industry. The line-work and details, especially in Nelvana, was elegantly composed."
Canada’s "Golden Age" of comic books is roughly 1941-46, when wartime restrictions on some U.S. imports – including comic books – allowed a homegrown industry to flourish.
For Canada, it was a period of unusually explicit patriotism. As Ted Barris and Alex Barris write in Days of Victory: Canadians Remember: 1939-1945, in newspapers and advertisements, "Canadians were badgered, cajoled, threatened, nudged, scolded, [and] exhorted to do or not do an ever-growing list of things.
"Save ... be careful what you say ... don’t travel if you don’t have to ... sacrifice ... scrimp ... dig deep to finance the war ... write often ... send parcels ... knit socks ... save tin foil ... re-use everything ... wear last year’s clothes ... buy bonds ... walk, don’t drive ... be kind to men in uniform ... do volunteer work ... roll bandages ... support the war effort ... use less sugar, gasoline, meat, butter, rubber ... take a job in a war plant ... join up."
For children, that meant giving up (and not by choice) reading about Superman, Batman, Archie, and Captain Marvel. But in return, they got something they’d never had: homegrown heroes.
Tadjo tells Nelvana of his people’s plight. She summons her brother, Tanero, from the sky to aid her in her task. But just as she begins, an explosion rocks the ice on the horizon. "This is the work of the Kablunets (the evil white ones)," says Nelvana. "And so, my brother, you must assume your disguise, as no white one must look upon your human form!" Casting her magic cloak over Tanero, she transforms him into a great hound. Together they ascend into the air to search out the source of the explosion.
Much of the Canadian Whites’ content was explicitly patriotic, and supported the war effort. In The Great Canadian Comic Books, Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert write, "Canadian comic books existed only during the Second World War, and inevitably war provided much of the books’ subject matter. The war stories reflected one of the genuine myths that comic books create: the simplicity of human behavior. It is only in the medium of comic books that the bad guy is pictured as absolutely inhuman."
In the book, Leo Bachle, who wrote and drew Johnny Canuck as well as The Invisible Commando, admitted, "I felt the war spirit. We saw pictures in the papers of babies impaled on Japanese bayonets, and read constant reports about the gas ovens of Europe, and people were really stirred up."
But aside from excerpts published in The Great Canadian Comic Books in 1971, Nelvana’s adventures have been out of print for nearly 70 years. This pales in comparison to the Golden Age U.S. superheroes whose rights are held by companies such DC Comics, whose wartime adventures have been reprinted countless times over the decades.
Rachel Richey discovered a treasure trove of Bell Features’ Canadian comics while on a journalism/communications internship with Library and Archives Canada.
"It was the uncatalogued John Bell Collection which had a complete run of Triumph Comics, the collection Nelvana was featured in, as well as a ton of other Golden Age stuff," she says. "This was around the time that I first became obsessed with Canadian comics, and I couldn’t believe the gems."
Originally from Winnipeg, Hope Nicholson first encountered Nelvana’s adventures in the library. "I think I must have looked strange sitting in the dark microfiche room at the Millenium Library alone with a huge smile on my face," she says. "The comics are dated, clearly, but they’re just so much fun to read still."
Several hundred miles north, Nelvana and Tanero discover strange ships lowering eerie lights into the Arctic waters that attract the unsuspecting creatures of the north to their doom. Seal, polar bears, whales and fish are drawn in, to be slaughtered by the men in the ships. Nelvana discovers the lights are time bombs. She calls upon the power of her father Koliak, using the Northern Lights to form a giant magnet to pluck thousands of bombs from the waters and hurl them into the sky, where they explode.
To give Nelvana the collection she deserved, Nicholson and Richey hoped to raise $25,000. They did it in six days.
By the end of the one-month campaign, they had raised more than $53,000.
Not bad for a superheroine who could be considered obscure at best, even in her home and native land.
"What this says about Canadian comics is that there is a real hunger, a need to see these comics returned to our history," says Nicholson. "I have been absolutely stunned at the level of interest that has risen from this campaign."
Superheroes exploded onto the pop-culture scene in 1938 with the publication in the U.S. of Action Comics No.1, featuring Superman. It gave rise to an entire industry, with the likes of Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and many others slugging it out in four-colour adventures.
Nelvana was created by artist Adrien Dingle in 1941. She and a host of other characters, such as Johnny Canuck, Dixon of the Mounted, and Major Domo and JoJo, owe their existence in part Canada’s War Exchange Conservation Act, introduced in 1940.
The Act restricted imports of "non-essential" goods – including U.S. comic books.
The Canadian demand for superheroes was clear, so with the dearth of familiar American comics, a number of Canadian publishers started a homegrown industry that quickly took off.
However, the cost of printing in full colour was prohibitive, so the majority of Canadian comics were printed in black-and-white, giving rise to the term "Canadian Whites" for the comics published in this time.
Dingle came up with Nelvana after Group of Seven artist Franz Johnston told him of Inuit legends he had heard while traveling in the Canadian Arctic. Dingle began publishing his comics independently, but later joined Bell Features in Toronto, bringing Nelvana with him.
Along with Johnny Canuck, Nelvana was one of the most popular superheroes in the Canadian Whites; by 1943, Bell Features alone was selling about 100,000 comics a week. (As a comparison, Ian Gordon estimates in the United States in 1942 roughly fifteen million copies of comic books were sold each).
According to figures in The Great Canadian Comic Books, Bell printed more than 20,000,000 comics before the end of the war.
However, with the end of the war, the Canadian government lifted restrictions on importing comic books, and American comics again flooded the market. The whys and wherefores of the end of the Canadian Golden Age are open to debate – Bell Features actually planned to begin printing in full colour and continue its success – but by 1946 the native superhero comics were finished, and their creators went on to other work.
But the Canadian heroes had made their mark.
Within one of the strange ships, the nefarious Kablunet Toroff curses Nelvana’s interference. "Order all ships to speed away from the iceberg," he tells his fleet. "Then spread out for a surprise attack from all directions. Shoot the dog, but bring the girl to me alive – I have a plan!"
Part of Nelvana’s appeal, says Nicholson, was she was "explicitly patriotically Canadian. In her adventures she often fought the Axis, both German and Japanese, as they attempted to invade the country. The stories are tied inherently into the war efforts and reveal a great pride in the Canadian forces serving overseas."
And as Richey points out, "She was best friends with an RCMP officer, rode polar bears, was of the Northern Lights, lived in the Arctic and was of Native Canadian heritage." You don’t get much more Canadian than that.
Amanda Murphyao, who wrote her M.A. in Canadian Studies on Nelvana and is pursuing her doctorate in the discipline at Carleton University, recently wrote on the respective impacts of Nelvana and Wonder Woman as patriotic icons in Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).
"It seems like most World War Two-era superheroes – with the notable exceptions of characters like Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman – have faded out of existence (having lost their patriotic impetuous and soldiering audience) and then been forgotten by most people," Murphyao says.
She points to a 1973 interview with Dingle reprinted in Alter Ego No. 36, in which he described combining aspects of the Inuit character with a contemporary sensibility.
"I changed her a bit. Did what I could with long hair and mini-skirts. And tried to make her an attractive-looking woman… Then we had to bring her up to date and put her into the war effort. And, of course, everything had to be very patriotic, didn’t it…?"
Nelvana’s exact ethnicity is subject to some debate. Murphyao points out "Nelvana was quite similar to another (white, female, immigrant American) character from the time, Wonder Woman. Both were based in the ‘white queen’ tradition in fiction dating back to at least 1886 with Henry Rider Haggard’s book, She: A History of Adventure."
Nicholson says she recently learned that Nelvana may have been based on an actual Inuit woman Johnston met in the Arctic.
"Although some would argue that she is Caucasian, and this is always open to debate, I disagree," says Richey. "I suppose in reference to some of the supporting Inuit characters, her ethnicity could be confused. But if you take a closer look at different depictions of her physical features, especially later on in the series, I don’t think it’s really an issue.
"It’s also important to remember that any main character or superhero is going to be glamourized. I think describing Nelvana as a glamourized Inuk is totally fair. I mean, holy polar bears — she’s wearing a mini-dress, for Pete’s sake."
Nicholson adds that while some critics have said Nelvana looks "too anglicized" to be considered northern, "this is partly due to the fact that Adrian Dingle did base aspects of her appearance on his wife, Patricia. But I think these arguments show a lack of understanding of the variation of appearance in northern communities, as if saying only one specific look could be considered Inuit.
"When you compare her physical appearance to other females in the stories that are explicitly anglo, you can tell that the character was drawn to be slightly exoticized. Added to that, she explicitly refers to outsiders as Kablunets or ‘evil white ones,’ cementing her position as an Inuk character rather than Caucasian."
Will Nelvana fall into the evil Toroff’s clutches? Will Tanero be destroyed by the Kablunets’ fleet? Will Tadjo and his people survive? Read the adventures of Nelvana of the Northen Lights to learn the answer to this and many other mysteries.
Nelvana and the other stars of the Canadian Whites got some of the recognition they deserved in 1971, when filmmakers Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert and Clive Smith made a documentary for CBC’s Telescope called Superheroes to Call Our Own.
They also put together a traveling exhibit, and reprinted a cross-section of the Canadian Whites in The Great Canadian Comic Books the same year. That book, no longer in publication, was the last time Nelvana saw print.
"I understood that with the aging of the key figures [such as] publisher Cy Bell and John Ezrin, financier and owner of the archives, this story would disappear if it was not documented," says Hirsh.
Hirsh and Loubert also arranged for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, then known as the National Museum of Man, "to obtain the archives including original artwork and printing plates as well as complete sets of the comic books, thus making it easier for everyone who has followed to study the subject. We were motivated to preserve the story and we did."
Hirsh, Loubert and Smith were also the founders of an animation company in 1971 that eventually became a powerhouse of children’s entertainment. If you’ve ever seen programs such as Care Bears, Mike the Knight, or The Adventures of Tintin, to name a few, chances are you’ve seen a familiar name at the end credits: Nelvana.
"The name Nelvana was for better or worse my idea and I had to twist some arms to talk my partners into it," says Loubert.
"It sounded good and we owned the rights to the name," says Hirsh. "Patrick and I were young Canadian nationalists at the time and it appealed to that side of our natures."
Now that Nelvana’s complete adventures will finally be able to reach a wide, modern audience — the book is slated for release in April 2014 — what’s next?
"There are so many characters that I would love to help become accessible to the public," says Nicholson, mentioning Dingle’s other character, The Penguin, as well as the works of Avrom Yanovsky and the adventures of Major Domo and JoJo as candidates for putative collections. Richey adds that Johnny Canuck would make a good choice for a collection.
"I was surprised at the lack of knowledge of Canadian culture and superheroes that kept coming up when I was talking to fans," says Nicholson. "And that’s something that I really hope changes with the broadcast of [Lost Heroes] and the publication of new Nelvana comics."
Who was Nelvana?
From Adrian Dingle’s intro in Triumph Adventure Comics No. 1:
"Many years ago… as legend has it… Koliak the Mighty, King of the Northern Lights, married a mortal. This so angered the gods that a curse was placed upon koliak, forbidding him to be seen again by earthly beings. His spirit form may still be seen in the form of brilliant lights that streak majestically across the northern skies.
"His beautiful daughter Nelvana inherits her mother’s characteristics and is often seen by human eyes.
"Her brother Tanero, carries the curse of his father and so must never be seen by those of the white race.
"Follow the exciting adventures of Nelvana and Tanero every month, as they protect their Arctic brothers from the evil plans of the kablunets."
Other Heroes of the ‘Canadian Whites’
Johnny Canuck – Canada’s answer to Captain America and Uncle Sam. Well-muscled and often shirtless, he let his fists do the talking against Japanese soldiers and Adolf Hitler.
Major Domo and JoJo – Domo was an armless veteran ("hero of Arnheim"); his short companion JoJo, when the need arose, climbed onto Domo’s back to serve as his arms.
The Invisible Commando — Former scientist Lee Pierce, serving in the RCAF, became invisible with the aid of a secret formula. His missions in occupied Europe pitted him against the Nazis, but he had to avoid getting wet — being immersed in water neutralized his invisibility.
Dixon of the Mounted – Corporal Wayne Dixon was a Mountie hero who, with his canine sidekick Laddie, fought evil in the Yukon, including a demonic antlered villain.
Air Woman – Sally Dunlop, member of the Canadian Women’s Service, saved pilots and helped air crews in Europe.
Derek of Bras d’Or – East coast hero based on the real-life giant of Cape Breton, Angus McAskill.
Sources: The Great Canadian Comic Books; Invaders From the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe
The complete collection of Nelvana of the Northern Lights will be published in April 2014. For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/nelvanacomics.
Updated on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at 1:20 AM CST: Corrects detail of Nelvana's powers, clarifies Nicholson's and Richey's roles on documentary
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