‘Shady fur trappers. Nazi dopplegangers. Interdimensional radio-wave monsters. Ice queens and dragons. All are equal foes in the pages of the ground-breaking comic, Nelvana of the Northern Lights.
First appearing in 1941 in the pages of Bell Features’ Triumph-Adventure Comics, Nelvana was created as a superheroine to protect Canada’s northern lands and people, inspired by a young woman named Nelvana in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Created as a concept with Group of Seven artist Franz Johnston, Nelvana quickly came to life as a mini-skirt wearing, monster battling superheroine under the skilled pen of Adrian Dingle.
With the aid of her brother Tanero, a demigod cursed to appear in the form of a great dane in the presence of Kablunets (white men), and her loyal sidekick the mountie Corporal Keele, Nelvana fought the forces of evil for six years before her adventures came to an end in 1947.
Now her adventures return in a collected edition of every single one of her appearances. Come join Canada’s first superheroine in her struggle against tyranny!’
Written/art by: Adrian Dingle
Editor: Hope Nicholson
Publisher: Bedside Press
Released: 20 September 2017
Classic comics can be amazing. You should see some of the terrible, terrible shouts of surprise Robin came up with in the earliest Batman comics. They also usually have some completely weird storytelling, and some cringeworthy attitudes of the times, so they’re fascinating looks at entertainment of the past to boot. But wait, I’m sure I’ve seen the name ‘Nelvana’ somewhere before, and in relation to northern lights? Turned out I recognised it from the logo of the animation studio Nelvana, which was named after this old Canadian superhero! This collection of 1940’s comics from Canada’s golden comics age of one of the early heroes looks pretty interesting – all the old issues were collected and digitized after a Kickstarter campaign by Canadian editor and publisher Hope Nicholson, who specialises in classic and indie comics through Bedside Press (if you remember the name, she was also involved in the Moonshot anthologies). There’s going to be a lot to talk about here, because it’s a full collection and requires historical context.
First, history lesson! Back in World War II, Canada banned imports of luxury stuff from other countries in 1941 in an effort to keep money in the country to go towards the war effort. Comics and magazines from the USA were included in this, creating a sudden hole in the market since the entire North American comics industry was dominated by Marvel and DC (Canadian comics artists and writers always had to head there to work); and so, some Canadian artists jumped at the chance to create their own local industry instead. One of the earliest was a group of artists including Adrian Dingle, creating Triumph-Adventure Comics, a serial containing a few different stories each issue. Beating other creators to the punch, Dingle invented Canada’s first superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, whose ongoing adventures featured regularly, including after Dingle’s studio was bought out by a competitor and the comic title changed to just Triumph Comics. Unfortunately, Marvel and DC’s power was too great, and in the late 1940’s when the import ban was lifted they immediately flattened the local market again. Some of the old heroes got a revival in later years (like Captain Canuck), but Nelvana never did, despite some awesome powers and slightly insane plotlines.
The plotlines are definitely weird; the enemy starts out being Russians, although they’re never named as such; they’re the ‘kablunets’, which apparently roughly translates as ‘the white man’. The stories are mostly set in the far north, around the Arctic Circle, with Nelvana being a demigoddess daughter of a god whose spirit is the aurora borealis, worshipped by the Inuit people of the area (this doesn’t seem to be based on any actual religion or worship that I’ve found, but I only did some very basic research). The comic of course refers to them as ‘eskimo’, the outdated term. The whole relationship the comic has with Inuit people is weird yet pretty time period appropriate – Dingle obviously has respect for the indigenous people of the area but claims Nelvana was inspired by an Inuit deity from a group of white gods and goddesses, something I haven’t found any mention of in that basic research, while it’s a matter of record that painter Franz Johnston, one of several who travelled the country painting landscapes, co-created her (and it is said wrote the first issue of her ongoing story) based on a woman he met and photographed in the far north (‘Nelvana’ being a not unknown name amongst some of the people he visited). Basically, it appears the only reason Nelvana is white is because while the indigenous people are nice and all, a Western market superhero can’t be not white. Early issues include her brother Tanero, who has similar powers but is under a curse not to be seen by white men, and must turn into a dog before encountering any; he’s blonde and turns into a Great Dane (at least he stands out amongst all the huskies). Poor guy, everyone cheers for Nelvana when they appear, and he’s basically forgotten about after the first couple of adventures, possibly because he doesn’t get a fur-lined miniskirt. Nelvana’s powers seem to be electro-magnetic and light based; they involve beams of light often and communing with her father the Northern Lights, but she can also fuse metal and turn invisible, as well as travelling at the speed of light assisted by her beam of bright light. It gets pretty strange, but they’re handy powers. While in later comics Nelvana does head down to more populous cities, the early plots are firmly based in the Arctic plains and she still returns there for the occasional adventure later on. Alaska doesn’t seem to exist, I’m not sure what happened to it – it was definitely part of the US by then (for like seventy years?) but in all the adventure of attacking Russians etc. the Canadian north still seems to be the first place they land. Maybe everyone’s just pretending it’s part of Canada.
There’s one thing you’re definitely asking: did she punch Hitler? Her comic run was over WWII, nearly every superhero around punched Hitler at some point then, she must have. No, she didn’t punch Hitler, but she did take out a whole lot of Russian and Japanese fighter planes. And Hitler angrily shouted about her. While the Russian plotlines seemed to be just a general enemy sort of deal, the comic very directly deals with the war with invasions of Japanese fighter planes, and it’s an excellent example of war propaganda. While the Russians were just the ‘kablunets’, the Japanese are referred to as ‘Japs’ or occasionally ‘Nipponese’ and various insults. Everyone (including Russians) seems to speak broken English even to each other, making me glad of more modern conventions like translation brackets (where the dialogue is presented as <So I says to Mabel, I says . . . > with a note that it’s translated from the appropriate language) or in the actual language, with subtitles added, because trying to read bad accents phonetically inserted is a pain in the brain. Bad rumours are inserted as fact, and don’t forget the occasional ending with characters saying something along the lines of ‘This can only end if every boy and girl remembers to buy war bonds!’. It’s all cringeworthy, but a fascinating look at entertainment propaganda during wartime (Dingle and many of his fellow comic industry people had tried to sign up to fight but were denied for various reasons). The plotlines themselves are pretty rad though – aerial dogfights are used as a way for Nelvana to show off her powers (and it’s worth noting she is ruthless, there are negative attempts to avoid loss of life in any of her adventures when fighting an enemy), and while the early Russian invasion plots are more sci-fi or out there, the mid-war Japanese ones seem to reflect actual fears of a ‘this could happen, even if it’s pretty damn unlikely’ type , perhaps seeing as Axis U-boats had been in Canadian waters and fire balloons (read up on them, history is fascinating!) used over North America. No fighter plane invasion though in real life. In the comics, the part where Nelvana rides in on a polar bear and destroys some wolves released as part of an attack is pretty cool.
There’s a strong science fiction element running through most of the stories for a superhero who’s the daughter of a god; enemies using special rays to defuse her electro-magnetic powers, trips to underground ice cities, and into inter-space worlds through loudspeaker transformation. A window into what the 1940’s considered sci-fi, and it is strange. The later issues had Nelvana going undercover in the city as a secret agent (the point where she basically bluffs her way into being a secret agent because she wants to be is a thing of beauty, and suddenly she has her own office at the Mountie’s HQ) which heralded some more standard spy action and crime-fighting before plunging headlong into sci-fi again, and even in the lull the plot includes ‘ice-beam rays’ and criminals who use their inventing skill. The plots at this point also can’t seem to decide if they want her to be a standard crime-fighter or superhero, trying to combine both in a way that just makes her seem incapable of not using her powers even while in disguise (I gotta admit, I would absolutely just use those powers all the time if I had them), and at one point suddenly being in costume in the next issue when she’d been in a [strange 40’s style] spacesuit for the story so far. The underground ice city storyline seems to have just been abandoned without being finished up properly, though it’s returned to later as part of another storyline, and exactly what her powers are aren’t always consistent. She occasionally suffers from Superman syndrome where convenient powers suddenly appear to suit the situation. Things don’t make sense all the time, but the inconsistencies like that aren’t common at least.
While Dingle has been praised for his use of chiaroscuro effect in his artwork, I don’t think it’s that far above standard for comics at the time. His use of dark shadows and lines of varying width give it an intense look, though at the cost of detail sometimes. Considering his background (and future, after he finished in comics) as a professional painter, I rather expected more show-off panels and pages of beautiful landscape settings and backgrounds, however I was to be disappointed. The quality itself of Nelvana is fine, it’s just standard where I was expecting occasional greatness. Considering that regular sci-fi theme I mentioned before though, some of the settings are interestingly designed; with a lot of the stories taking place around the Arctic circle there’s also a lot of snowy plains though. Weird how people from millions of years ago who were frozen in ice look just like white guys; at the same time the battles with mammoth-people in futuristic cities are cool. There’s not a whole lot more to say about Dingle’s artwork; it’s solid work, and different from the detailed clean-line style often seen contemporarily, but not noticeably above other work of the time.
I would totally recommend this collection to people interested in classic comics. Canada’s first superhero kicks ass, and it’s a pity she hasn’t had a revival, so this is the closest you’ll get. Weird outdated sci-fi, cringey outdated attitudes, solid artwork, and destroying fighter planes with a magic beam of light. At one point, she single-handedly takes out a monster, then gets told (by someone who saw her do it) “Stay here, this is no place for a woman!”, whereupon she promptly and sensibly ignores them and heads straight off to take down more monsters. And in a minor adventure she rides a polar bear to take out some wolves, I think I already told you that but it bears repeating (haha, pun). The collection includes all the colour covers Nelvana was on as well (being a serial comic with several different stories, she wasn’t always on the cover); my copy included an introduction and an essay at the end covering the search to find the woman Johnston met who inspired Nelvana, interesting stuff, though apparently the first Kickstarter-funded edition has a lot more additional material (it’s been reprinted through IDW). The desire for the material to be available for people to read also means it’s at a good price for over 300 pages of black-and-white classics. Needs more polar bears though.
Thanks to Comixology.com for making this copy of ‘Nelvana of the Northern Lights’ available for review.