By Christine Leonard
CALGARY — In her recent documentary, Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines, filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan explores the history of that iconic female comic book character. Tracing the Amazonian princess’s ascent to role model status, the film recalls Wonder Woman as being World War II’s only visible super-heroine. But wait! What’s that flashing from the Northern Hemisphere with the dazzling brilliance and supernatural swiftness of the Aurora Borealis? It’s a falcon, it’s a storm, it’s… Nelvana?!
“Nelvana really embodied the ideas that Canada had about the North, which isn’t always without its issues,” acknowledges Nelvana expert, Hope Nicholson, of Toronto. “The North is often overly romanticized and attempts to picture it from a white point of view end up giving it a mythological quality, and its inhabitants are reduced to either savage or simple in the representations. This was reflected in the Nelvana stories. In terms of her being a female, she really was treated pretty much as a character first and woman second, which is how it ought to be done. While characters would remark occasionally on her beauty, it wasn’t fetishized and the focus was always on her powers not her looks.”
Streaking to Earth with a Triumph-Adventure Comics debut that predates that of Wonder Woman by four months, and illustrated by Toronto-based Welsh-born artist Adrian Dingle, Nelvana of the Northern Lights is a genuinely Canadian phenomenon. A touchstone of early feminism, this Daughter of “Koliak, King of the Northern Lights,” dwells amongst the Inuit peoples and uses her powers of speed and invisibility to battle evil Død Snø-quality Nazis. Loosely borrowed from Artic folklore and inspired by the paintings of the Group of Seven’s Franz Johnston, Nelvana (and her secret identity, Alana North) protected Canada’s interests from the diabolical Axis Powers beginning in 1941 until her final appearance in May of 1947.
“Adrian Dingle, unlike most comic artists at the time, had a great deal of experience in the visual arts field before he turned to comics. His style continued to evolve after Nelvana and he experimented with many different artistic methods. His landscape paintings were particularly popular and his contract with Eatons meant that thousands ended up in homes across Canada.”
As with so much of the ephemeral material from that era, Nelvana’s stories seemed fated to a slow death by diaspora and disintegration. In 1995, her image was commemorated on a stamp by Canada Post, as part of a set that also featured native-supersons Captain Canuck, Johnny Canuck, Superman and Fleur de Lys. Nelvana is perhaps best known for giving her name to one of Canada’s most beloved entertainment companies. Fortunately, the founders of that very franchise, famous for its imaginative children’s animation, compiled an omnibus of the “Canadian Whites” series of comic books manufactured during World War II, when American comics were banned North of the 49th parallel. Published in 1971, their catalogue of Canadian comics, with colour covers and black-and-white interiors, came to the attention of admirer Hope Nicholson who took up the challenge of reuniting Nelvana’s 31 issues and putting the defender of the North back into the spotlight.
“Nelvana of the Northern Lights first came to my attention about six years ago when I read The Great Canadian Comic Books, by Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert,” says Nicholson. “Her story was instantly compelling to me because she was such a mystery! At one time, she was in the hands of thousands of Canadian children, then completely forgotten after the war.”
Nicholson felt an immediate connection with Dingle’s avant-garde demi-goddess and, shortly thereafter, made it her mission to venerate his work while breathing new life into Nelvana’s tale. In October of 2013, Nicholson launched a Kickstarter campaign to republish Nelvana of the Northern Lights for the first time since the original publication. To the delight of all involved, the grassroots initiative achieved its fundraising objective in less than a week. To date almost $55,000 has been contributed by some 1,100 backers, twice the original goal.
“My business partner in the project, Rachel Richey, and a host of friends and artists, contributed their time, energy, and talents to making us a success. I couldn’t have done it without the aid of dozens of folks, and of course the thousand odd Kickstarter funders!” Nicholson beams. “When I read a press release about Kickstarter coming to Canada, I thought about what project I would like to focus my energy on first. A Nelvana reprint was the one that seemed the most essential to get into the hands of people.”
Having surpassed their financial obstacles the next hurdle in Nicholson and Richey’s path was that of recovering original Nelvana resources that had a 70-year head start in a literary game of hide-and-seek. University of Calgary “Special Collections” to the rescue! Collections developer and a former Marvel writer and contributor, Michael Hoskin, and serials specialist Glenn Phelps aided the Nelvana quest by locating first-run copies of her adventures within the UC library’s George Morley Cartoon Collection.
“Definitely the rarity of the comic books was the biggest challenge. All in all, I had to go to 13 or more locations to gather the necessary scans. Some were submitted to us from fans and some required significant travel and time,” Nicholson reports. “People have been very enthusiastic and I’ve been so glad to see people’s passion for restoring history rivals mine!”
Chronicling the past for the benefit of future generations, co-editors Nicholson and Richey have reintroduced Canadian to a resilient personality who covertly conquered one stereotype while openly combatting another (inter-dimensional ether people, subterranean mammoth men, nasty fur traders, et al.). Still the enigma of her origins, perhaps a Grendel-esque witch-woman, remains Nelvana’s greatest mystery.
“I definitely was surprised to discover that Nelvana was inspired by a woman named Nelvana who lived in the Northwest Territories in the late 1930s!” Nicholson confirms. “I am still investigating this, but there are people in her community who are definitely related to the real Nelvana.”
While it’s a gloomy footnote to a modern myth, Nelvana’s disappearance from print may have been her saving grace. Whereas Wonder Woman would tumble from her Olympian plinth, surrendering her powers to live in a “Man’s World” by the 1960s and gradually devolving to the status of Diana Prince: shop-girl, Nelvana persists as a strong and benevolent female icon. A lady, a leader and a beacon on the horizon, The Daughter of the Northern Lights still shines as brightly the day she descended from the starry heavens. And, for the first time, thanks to Richey and Nicholson, all of Nelvana’s thrilling escapades have been amalgamated into a single 320-page volume, entitled Nelvana of the Northern Lights.
“Nelvana is a story that is about a superhero who happens to be female. Her power is innate and she isn’t controlled by the men in her life. Strikingly, her one love interest only lasts for a single short storyline and the consistent men in her life are firmly in the supporting friends and families roles,” says Nicholson, who is eager to embark on her next literary adventure.
“I do have plans for more projects, both film and comic based, but until any licenses are signed, mum is the word. I am looking forward to announcing them though!”
Nelvana of the Northern Lights is available via nelvanacomics.com.AB, Alberta, comic books, comics, feminism, Nelvana, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, superheroine, superheroines, women in comics, Wonder Woman, Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines