Canada’s first superheroine saved from obscurity

There’s no need to be a closet comic nerd anymore. The genre has exploded into accepted popularity over the last 10 years and it’s definitely something worth openly celebrating.

If you’re like me, however, and relatively new to the scene, you might be surprised to find the roots of Canadian comic artists went mainstream more than seven decades ago.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights, one of the world’s first comic book superheroines, was created in 1941 by Canadian author and artist, Adrian Dingle. The Nelvana series had a successful run before the print ended in 1947 after being overshadowed by more popular American characters.

Seventy years later, Canadian comic editors Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey have revived Nelvana from pseudo-oblivion. After a successful kickstarter campaign, the pair restored the collection in high-definition and republished the series in one volume in 2014. The book Nelvana of the Northern Lights is part of comic and Canadian heritage, and now available for new generations to enjoy.

Predating Wonder Woman, Nelvana is a vintage superheroine, reminiscent in style as the well-known classics of Batman and Spiderman. An Inuit demi-goddess, “born of woman and god”, Nelvana rides on the waves of the Northern Lights.

In contrast to other superheroes, Nelvana was distinctly Canadian. She rose to fame when the importation of “non-essential goods” to Canada was restricted by the War Exchange Conservation Act. Implemented in 1940, the Act banned “fiction periodicals”, a category that included comic books. With American comics out of the picture, Canadian publishers rushed to fill the gap in the market; Nelvana was one of the breakout stars.

In her debut comic, Nelvana fights the evil Kablunets who are slowly starving out the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic by killing the fish, seals, whales and polar bears.

An environmental superheroine, you say? Makes you think she’s ahead of her time, right? But hold the national pride at bay, Nelvana comes as a mixed bag. The series may be ahead on the gender and environmental curve, but, as Richey notes in her editor’s introduction to the republished anthology, Nelvana is the “cultural product of a country at war” and the series is “sometimes culturally insensitive.”

However, her inability to progress with the times isn’t completely the fault of Nelvana’s creator. Most illustrators have blundered their characters into an awkward corner at some point or another, says Benjamin Woo, an assistant professor at Carleton University who studies comics and their subcultures. In the foreword to the 2014 edition, Woo writes:

“Comic-book superheroes tend to be long-lived and are subject to seemingly endless revision by numerous hands. In time, it all gets smoothed out so that readers remember successful and striking elements while forgetting experiments and dead ends.”

Unfortunately, with only five years in publication, Nelvana never had the chance to shuck those stereotypes and completely define herself as an icon. But that doesn’t make her any less valuable. As Woo says, Nelvana is an “artefact of a very different Canada than we live in today.”

And while her tales may not have wintered the years well, the tracks she laid for the Canadian comic industry to take flight are significant. And that is an extraordinary feat to be preserved, indeed!

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