Some Canadians are aware of the fact that artists from this country have long played a significant role in the growth and development of the U.S.-dominated comic book industry. Toronto-born Joe Shuster, along with Jerry Siegel, created one of DC Comics’ greatest superheroes, Superman. Marvel Comics gave us not only the popular and incredibly complex Canadian superhero Wolverine, but also a long-running series with a Canadian superhero group, Alpha Flight. On the independent comics scene, Richard Comely’s appropriately named Captain Canuck arrived in the 1970s, followed by David Boswell’s Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman and the controversial Dave Sim’s Cerebus.
Most of us, however, do not know this: there was a time in this country when the only comic books children could buy with their allowances and milk money were created by Canadians. This period has been called the “Canadian Whites” (most comic book pages were black and white, with colour usually reserved for the covers) and the “Golden Age of Canadian Comics.”
What happened? The War Exchange Conservation Act, enacted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1940, placed an embargo on American luxury items like comic books during World War Two. Four companies—Vancouver’s Maple Leaf Publishing and Toronto’s Anglo-American Publishing, Bell Features and Hillsborough Studios—took advantage of this situation and flooded our market with uniquely Canadian comic books. Some popular characters included Johnny Canuck, Canada Jack and Iron Man (no relation to the Marvel Comics character).
The one comic book that truly stood out was Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Nelvana was Canada’s first female superhero (predating some American equivalents such as DC Comics’ Wonder Woman), and the first one with an Inuit background. She was created by Adrian Dingle, a Welsh-Canadian painter, who had been inspired by Group of Seven painter Frank Johnston’s fascinating stories of the Arctic. Hillsborough Studios ran the first seven monthly stories under the title Triumph-Adventure Comics from 1941 to 1942, and the series shifted to the prolific Bell Features until its conclusion in 1947.
Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey, two Canadian women with solid ties to the comic book industry, decided to collect the long-forgotten Canadian Whites series and publish Nelvana’s stories in one graphic novel. The October 2013 Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds, which included original art from well-known comic book artists for large donations, succeeded in five days. Nicholson and Richey co-founded a publishing company, CGA Comics, and released Nelvana of the Northern Lights in March 2014.
The two editors have created a wonderful graphic novel. Nicholson wrote that “this was no easy task,” since the “original artwork art prints had sadly long since been lost … Even the best quality issues suffered from fading, smudges and yellowing.” In her view, they “could have reprinted it as is, and I’m sure people would have been happy to read the comics in any form. But it was worth it to us to do the best we could do to bring the comics back to a condition where they were easily readable.” Nicholson and Richey “both had some skill at restoration and I asked for advice from artists on various techniques. We managed to quickly teach ourselves enough to repair the majority of the damage.”
One of the book’s essay contributors, Benjamin Woo, a professor of communication studies at Carleton University, noted that Nelvana was the work of “a single author trying to figure out the popular but still inchoate genre of the superhero comic book.” While the heroine was “known to the Canadian public as the ‘Arctic mystery girl’ through second-hand newspaper accounts,” Dingle was always “experimenting and improvising, trying to figure out what worked.”
Nelvana appeared as “an Inuit goddess and, therefore, an Inuit superhero” in the early stories. Her father, Koliak the Mighty, had had a curse put on him by the gods for marrying a human, and could no longer be seen in the mortal world. Nelvana had “her mother’s characteristics and is often seen by human eyes”—while her brother, Tanero, “carries the curse of his father and so must never be seen by those of the white race,” forcing him to take the form of a Great Dane.
The comic book dramatically evolved over time. The beautiful ice fields of the Northern Lights disappeared when Nelvana moved to Nortonville, Ontario. She worked as a secret agent, Alana North, for the RCMP. The original villains, known as the Kablunets (who had Nazi-like personas), switched over to the Japanese (who were often depicted in a crude, racist manner). Nelvana would also battle comical evil-doers such as One-Ear Brunner, the Ether People and Knuckles Socco, a crime king covered with indestructible plastic.
When it comes to Nelvana’s place in Canadian comic book history, Richey’s analysis provides some deeply personal thoughts:
She is not perfect. She was the cultural product of a country at war and is inconsistent, as the first model of anyone’s dream is. The book is sometimes culturally insensitive, and for that I am genuinely sorry for both you and myself. However, it is my opinion that had Adrian Dingle been able to write and produce his work without non-artistic influence it likely would have never gone in that direction, or at least less so. Maybe this is hopeful speculation. The real tragedy is that Nelvana was never given the chance to grow beyond the less-favorable writing. She was an incredible idea that was manipulated into what audiences at the time wanted, from issue to issue.
Yes, Nelvana of the Northern Lights was a product of a time in which intolerance trumped political correctness. That being said, I do not believe in ignoring history—or attempting to change it—even if the language, perceptions and stereotypes hurt. Nelvana should therefore be viewed as the genuine article, warts and all, and interpreted for what it was rather than what it could have been.
When Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert purchased Bell Features’ entire archive for $6,000, Nelvana received a new lease on life. Hirsh writes in the afterword to this volume, “Nelvana had artistic integrity which was typically lacking in many of the other books.” The two men produced a CBC documentary in 1971, and curated “a National Gallery traveling exhibition all titled the Great Canadian Comics.” The Bell collection was eventually sold to the National Museum of Man—which became the Canadian Museum of Civilization and, more recently, the Canadian Museum of History. And, when the two men founded a successful children’s animation company, they appropriately “settled on a name that we owned that sounded interesting and reflected part of our own history”: Nelvana Studio.
In the introduction to this highly original Canadian-style graphic novel, Richey writes, “it is now no fault of mine that people don’t know about Nelvana of the Northern Lights.” She is right. The whole story of the female Inuit superhero turned secret agent has finally been told, and it is one that all Canadians can be proud of.