One of the proud moments in talking up comics to my class of neophyte literature-lovers is the brief period in the 20th century when Canada had a vibrant comic industry. During the Second World War, Canada’s economy required protectionist oversight in the form of the War Exchange Conservation Act of 1940. This act prevented the importation of certain goods from the United States and unfortunately this included American comics. Titles like Action Comics or Detective Comics were barred entry at the border. However, this paved the way for indigenous titles like Brok Windsor, Johnny Canuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights to emerge in their own country as premier heroes in their own rights.
In fact, some have even made their own way to take their rightful place with their heroic counterparts due south.
Recently released by IDW Publishing for distribution in the States, a Canadian comic heroine has found a new home in the U.S. Lovingly restored to her former glory, Nelvana of the Northern Lights brings exciting stories of defending Canada’s North lands from poachers, trappers and even reasonable facsimiles of Nazi spies to a new audience in the 21st century.
Created by Adrian Dingle in 1941, Nelvana is a heroine who predates Wonder Woman and one of the first super heroines in popular comic culture. Descended from the Inuit god Koliak, Nelvana had a diverse array of powers: the ability to move faster than light, control the weather and shared an affinity with light.
This hardcover edition presents Dingle’s art in its original black and white format. Re-formatted for clarity, Nelvana’s adventures are reintroduced for Canadian comic lovers to be entertained and educated at the same time.
There are a number of reasons to be captivated by this character. First, editors Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey begin this collection immediately with Nelvana in action. Summoned to aid the people of the North, Nelvana and her brother Tanero face off against a cadre of futuristic whalers who threaten to starve out the Inuit of the area. Other than being the first time we are introduced to Nelvana, what makes this fascinating to read is that the nature of this story is far ahead of its time with regards to issues of conservation and the environment.
Another reason to be impressed with this heroine is the progressive perspective on gender she demands. Though Nelvana is a woman, she is royalty, a demi-goddess in her own right and doesn’t take a back seat to the males in the story, including her own brother. What’s refreshing about this 1940’s comic is that Nelvana is given due respect for her station and her abilities. She is not hampered by the usual perspectives on her gender. She is a creditable threat to her enemies and is not given any quarter because she is a woman. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, pummels her enemies with as much gusto as any man, and throws herself in the fray as any genuine hero. When the evil Kalumets threaten the north with their air fleet, Nelvana hardly hesitates in launching herself into the air to unleash Koliak’s light on the attacking force.
Dingle’s art is characteristic of the time: though Nelvana is a figure in Inuit mythology, she is drawn to resemble a glamourous model with contemporary movie star looks. Tanero is a fair-haired, tall leading man who looks like Buster Crabbe. In fact, in the foreword written by Benjamin Woo, Nelvana is described as looking like Hedy Lamarr. 1940’s concepts of beauty are prevalent throughout this book, as are the villain stereotypes that look like typical stock characters you could find in any book of the time.
What does distinguish Dingle’s craft from contemporaries is his willingness to experiment and graduate his storytelling to experimental levels ahead of his time. In the beginning of this collection, Nelvana’s ambitions concern themselves with the defense of the North and the Inuit, the other children of Koliak. Eventually she graduates to protecting Canada from Nazi analogues, exploring realms under the ice and trying her hand as a spy working in service to the Canadian government. Nelvana’s adventures take different forms and entertain readers in a variety of ways.
Nelvana of the Northern Lights is a clearly Canadian publication. Inuit settlements, the streets of Edmonton, futuristic Canuck military technology all make up carefully imagined yet recognizable Canadiana. This is a unique and vibrant retrospective view of Canadian fantasy in the 1940’s.
There is a sense of national pride in reading this book. Not only is this a representation of Canadian imagination from a forgotten period in this country’s literary history but there is also recognition of the atmosphere of a country at war. Canada was a part of the Allied war effort, yet distanced from the conflict by an ocean. Unable to import luxury items like American comic books, Canada developed its own comic publishing industry. In the same way that Canada also had to develop the largest escort navy in order to protect the transport of vital war materials across the sea, Canada’s indigenous comic industry is a reflection of the national will of this nation to depend upon its own efforts. Nelvana is a manifestation of the Canadian spirit and that is a proud thing to show young Canadian comic readers and for a Canadian comic-lover to see recognized by an American publishing company.
Nelvana of the Northern Lights is a delight for any lover of comic history and provides a totally unique look at a country’s publishing efforts at a pivotal time in Canada’s vibrant literary culture.