Know Thy History: Nelvana of the Northern Lights
Canada jumped into WWII in 1939. This led to the establishment of an organization known as the Foreign Exchange Control Board, which was meant to oversee the rationing of foreign currency. The trade deficit with the US was growing. Gold shipments from the embattled Great Britain were put on hold. So, in order to help conserve American dollars, the Foreign Exchange Control Board introduced the War Exchange Conversion Act. This meant a ban on the import of non-essential goods. This included fiction periodicals, a catch-all term that included pulps, magazines… and yes, comic books.
So, for a time between 1941 to the Act’s repeal in 1946, Canadians were deprived the adventures of the Man of Steel and Dark Knight. On the other hand, it jumpstarted what would be known as the Canadian Golden Age. Canadian Whites — black-and-white comic books with color covers — featured Canadian heroes and superheroes who filled in the pop culture vaccuum. There was Canada Jack. Johnny Canuck. There were pages of WWII fighter aces and pony fighting.
And there was Adrian Dingle’s creation, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, who debuted in Triumph-Adventure Comics #1.
Adrian Dingle was inspired by stories from explorers returning from Canada’s Arctic region… namely the stories from Franz Johnston, a painter from a team of landscape painters known as the Group of Seven. Dingle replicated the barren, snow covered vistas through the stark inks of the colorless medium. And yet, the economically driven limitations do go a long way in depicting the lonesomeness and the serenity among the glaciers and the icy waters.
Nelvana was a demigod, the daughter of Koliak the Mighty and a mortal woman. The union angered the gods, and Koliak was forbidden from being seen again by earthly beings. Instead, he could only be seen in the form of the northern lights. But Nelvana is subject to no such restrictions. She can be seen by humans, especially the Northern peoples who she has sworn to protect.
Nelvana has a brother named Tanero, a dapper chap with a nifty spandex outfit that makes him look kinda like Flash Gordon. He’s a soft-spoken, gentle soul who’s up to whatever task Nelvana asks of him. However, he carries the same curse as his father. He can’t be seen by white people, though he apparently can be seen by the Inuit tribes. (They’re described as “Eskimos” in this comic, which I understand is politically incorrect these days.)
Fortunately, he doesn’t have to be a pulsating string of light in the sky like dear old dad. With a flick of her magic cape, Nelvana can transform Tanero into a dog. Like many dogs, Tanero can also fly. And he’s a pretty big dog, which means that Nelvana can ride him. Man, and you thought your family was weird. Try living in one where your brother is a flying dog and your dad is the Aurora Borealis.
A lot of Nelvana’s powers involve invoking the name of her father, Koliak. He grants her a veritable bouillabaisse of powers, all tied to light and magnetism. Invisibility (via “a super light ray”). Melting metal. Radio communications disruptions. Hey, she’s a demigod. Anything less would be would not be quite as godly.
The downside, though, is that since her powers are so strongly tied to the magnetic poles, demagnetizing handcuffs prove to be her kryptonite. So… she sorta has the same weakness as your debit card.
Being the celestial defender of the Great White North isn’t all fun and games and riding around on a dog who also happens to be your brother. Nelvana was summoned to defend the land against a host of enemies. Sometimes it was slavers. Sometimes it was a Devil Ship that consumes Arctic sea life. Sometimes it was the Dreaded Mammoth-Men, giant, hirsute tusked creatures who imperiled the citizens of Glacia, a frozen city located under the ice in the North Pole. And sometimes it was Nazis.
I’ve gotta call shenanigans on this issue, by the way. If you’re going to have a cover showing your heroine on the verge of executing a devastating Bronco Buster to Adolf F***in’ Hitler, then, by God, your comic better deliver.
Nelvana, probably looking for a change of scenery, decided to become more proactive toward the war effort. She took on a secret identity as Alana North, started wearing some professional dress for once, lost her awesome headwear, and worked as a spy smasher. Also, she fought the “ether people,” who were litte green men that lived in a giant loudspeaker. Seriously. Also, they wanted all radio broadcasts destroyed. Hey, you and me both, buddy. I feel the same way listening to the Morning Zoo Crew.
Nelvana is one of Canada’s most celebrated home-grown superheroes, and for good reason. She was the third ever Canadian superhero, the first Canadian national superhero, the first female Canadian superhero, and one of the first female superheroes of all time. It can be argued that Nelvana is Inuit, making her arguably the first non-Caucasian superhero.
Unfortunately, she could not survive the terrifying powers of free market economics. The end of the war meant the end of the War Exchange Conversion Act. Sadly, Nelvana and her fellow Canadian superheroes just could not compete with their more flashy American counterparts. Nelvana made her last appearance in comics May of 1947.
In a weird way, though, the Daughter of the Northern Lights lives on. Canadian animation company Nelvana — the people behind 6teen, Clone High, Mission Hill, and Eek! the Cat — is, in fact, named after her. Canadian comic book creator John Byrne paid honor to her, too. Snowbird, a member of his Canadian superteam Alpha Flight, is daughter of a demi-goddess named “Nelvanna of the Northern Lights,” daughter of Hodiak.
But beyond a stamp series in 1995, Nelvana hasn’t been seen since. Interestingly, Moonstone Books seems to have brought together a bunch of public domain Canadian superheroes for their Northern Guard comics. While Johnny Canuck is featured prominently, though, Nelvana is nowhere to be seen.
There IS a Inuit-looking gal in a fur-trimmed bikini who sorta has the Nelvana M.O. Further research reveals that co-creator David Cutler regards Nanook as an original character. Ah, well. Perhaps Nelvana’s chillin’ with her pops and her bro in that weird realm that’s beyond the sight of mortal eyes.