Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nelvana of the Northern Lights: Canada's answer to a lack of comic books

What's black and white and red all over?  The cover of TRIUMPH-ADVENTURE COMICS #1 (August 1941), whose two-colour cover promised fun, mystery and adventure for kids suffering from the dearth of American comic books at Canadian newsstands during World War 2.  The War Exchange Conservation Act introduced in December of 1940 banned the import of non-essentials, such as periodicals, mostly of the fiction variety.  Toronto's Hillborough Studios, founded by unemployed artists Adrian Dingle and Rene and Andre Kulbach, filled the void with their cheaply-printed black and white publication, promising "clean and wholesome" thrills for all ages.

Nelvana protects Canada's frozen north from invaders.  "If every boy and girl in this great continent of ours", says she, "makes a gigantic effort to buy war savings stamps, the tyranny now on this earth will vanish into its own nothingness!"

Most of the magazine is filled with forgettable material: the lead feature is "Spanner" Preston, a squadron leader in the Royal Canadian Air Force, in a comic with almost no dialogue, and captions that merely describe what can already be seen in the panels.  There's also Tang, a cowboys-and-Indians adventure starring a horse; Clue-Catchers, a comic destined not to catch on; and some filler material.  But one strip stands out: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

The splash on page 18 introduces Nelvana, her name in enormous bold font set before an explosion of radiating lines, presumably the aurora borealis, scintillating at her command in all its glorious majesty, as if declaring "She's way better than that 'Spanner' Preston guy!"  Nelvana of the Headlights is shown wearing a fur-trimmed miniskirt and a skin-tight costume with gloves, boots and flowing cape.  Being a hyperborean demi-goddess impervious to the cold, she has no need for a toque or any other seasonal wear.

Sometimes Nelvana is in a real jam and resorts to calling home for assistance.

Her origin is capsulized in a mere caption on the first page, explaining that her father, Koliak, King of the Northern Lights, married a mortal (it wasn't just a one-nighter that produced Nelvana), which angered the other gods, and so he was forbidden to be seen by mortal eyes ever again, except as pretty colours.  His daughter, Nelvana, having inherited her mother's traits, can be seen by mortals, but her brother Tanero "must never be seen by those of the white race", presumably so he won't knock up another earth woman, like his father did.  However, Nelvana, with the help of her magic cape, can turn Tanero into a Great Dane, collar included, whenever the need arises, and only in this form can he be seen by the white man.  (Tanero is visible to the Inuit, and one wonders if he can be seen by other non-white races, or if he can be seen by Metis, if they're looking hard enough.)

Nice colours.  Too bad they aren't where they belong.

In her first adventure, Death Stalks the Arctic, Eskimos (as they were called back in those politically incorrect days) are facing starvation due to the mysterious disappearance of fish and seal.  Tadjo, a tribal leader, summons the other tribes, and they build a snow altar and call upon Nelvana.  The aurora borealis dances in the sky and Nelvana appears, descending upon the altar along a beam of light.  Tadjo explains the situation, and Nelvana promises to investigate, with the help of her brother.  (Nelvana has an eloquent command of the English language, while her subjects sound like Johnny Weissmuller, the standard set-up between white goddess and primitive worshippers ever since H. Rider Haggard's She.)

The blond Tanero, dressed as Flash Gordon, arrives in similar style, and Nelvana turns the handsome hero into a mutt and flies off, dragging him by the collar.  Hundreds of miles north we find several ships dropping thousands of lighted capsules into the water, which attract a great percentage of all forms of marine life within a huge radius.  Nelvana discovers that the capsules are time bombs meant to blow up the Eskimos' food supply!  But Nelvana can do more than fly and turn her brother into Marmaduke.  She can control the north's magnetic energy, and so raises the bombs into the sky, where they explode harmlessly.

"Arf!  Arf! and awaaaay!"

Toroff, the rat-faced villain behind this dastardly scheme, calls upon his men to kill the dog, but to bring the girl alive.  "I have a plan!" he sneers, which is usually the case when the girl involved is beautiful and wears a revealing outfit.  The story is continued next month, which is rather presumptuous of the publishers.

By the second issue it's clear who wears the pants in this magazine: it's still "Spanner" Preston, but he's been relegated to backup feature, while Nelvana gets the cover and the lead.  In the second part of her adventure, Nelvana sees that Toroff's ships are armed with "thormite" rays, which melt the ice, clearing a path so the enemies of freedom and justice can continue their mission.  The fickle Toroff has changed his mind about Nelvana, however, ordering his men to "destroy the girl and dog without fail!"

We learn that Nelvana can make herself invisible, and that her brother -- at least in his human form -- has "the speed of the killer whale" and "the grace of the polar seal", as well as the strength to tear apart a ship.  In fact, he seems more and more like Bill Everett's Submariner.

Nelvana in the hidden land of Glacia.  You can get there by following the Pole Star.

In the third installment of this interminable adventure, Nelvana has discovered the secret of Toroff's plan: kill all the whales and turn them into oil to run his fleet of deadly ships.  (The disappearance of seal and fish in the first issue was collateral damage; the disappearance of caribou mentioned in that story is inexplicable.)  A busy little beaver, Toroff is also forcing Eskimos to work for him in a mine shaft deep under the "Isle of Mystery", somewhere in the Northwest Territories, where they're digging for "the precious heat-generating zircondium ore (z736)", which can be used to power their weapons.  (The plot gets more and more convoluted.  Adrian Dingle admitted he made this stuff up as he went along.)

Issue #4 sported a three-colour cover, and with issue #5 the title was changed to TRIUMPH COMICS.  (The Adventure part of the logo was almost microscopic to begin with, anyway.)  In this issue Nelvana reveals another power: by bathing enemy "war birds" in rays of light she could disrupt radio communications and fuse delicate instruments, causing the planes to lose control and crash.  Issue #6 wrapped up Nelvana's first adventure (for some reason listed as chapter 5), but she was to have other continued adventures starting with #8, predating Stan Lee's lengthy soap operas by over 20 years.

Hillborough Studios' debts kept piling up and they were taken over by another comic book firm in Toronto, Bell Features.  There wasn't much to take, except for TRIUMPH.  Adrian Dingle was given the exalted art director position at Bell Features, and drew many of their covers.

Formerly a printing outfit supplying advertising posters and placards for street cars, Cyril Bell and his brother Gene reckoned they could exploit the War Exchange Conservation Act and make a lot more money producing comic books.  The brothers hired writers and artists, some of them barely old enough to be a superhero's sidekick, and their first effort was WOW COMICS, in full colour, but the press they bought required them to run each sheet through the rollers four times to lay down the colours.  What might have been a day's work at a reputable printer took two months, and the registration for each colour was off -- way, way off.  Still, WOW #1 (September 1941) sold out all 52,000 copies.  Eventually the Bells came to their senses and switched to black and white, like their competitors, adding more titles, like DIME, JOKE, ACTIVE and COMMANDO, and creating a very lucrative business.

Cy Bell recalled the acquisition of Hillborough: "He [Adrian Dingle] started out as an opposition of mine.  When I put out DIME and WOW and ACTIVE and some of our first books, TRIUMPH came on the market.  Their book came out two or three times, but on the second or third edition they failed to show.  So I went around to see the reason it didn't show and they said they couldn't finance it and they were going to go out of business, so I gave them the deal that I would take over the title, continue publishing their book, and that they would work for me.  That's how I acquired the Kulbach brothers, and Adrian Dingle, who became, later on, our art director."

Cy Bell, 1971

At first they had a bullpen, employing some 60 artists, but Bell figured his art staff would be more productive if he stopped paying them a salary and they worked from home: "Originally they all worked for us upstairs...but there was too much foolery going on, we couldn't get work out of them, so we sent them all home and they came back each week and Adrian Dingle paid them so much per page -- depending on their talent."  $6.50 per page, according to Johnny Canuck creator, Leo Bachle.

"Every Friday when the boys got their cheques," said Bell, "we'd adjourn down at the old Piccadilly hotel, which was on King Street, just where the North American Life Building is now.  They eventually tore it down.  But every Friday afternoon the boys got their cheques and they went over there and had a general comic book session.  That's where a lot of the stories were hashed over and future episodes were talked about..."

TRIUMPH #7 (February 1942) was the first issue published under the Bell Features imprint, but the only noticeable difference was that the covers were now in full colour.  This issue presented Nelvana in a stand-alone story, where she's replaced by an evil German doppelganger named Mardyth.  Hitler himself also shows up, though his face is never shown, nor his name uttered.  Were they afraid he'd sue for slander?

Next, Nelvana went to "the strange frozen world of Glacia" deep beneath the arctic ice, where she battles giant mammoth-men and thwarts Vultor's plan to invade the ancient city.

Nelvana discovers fashion.

Nelvana adopted a Lois Lane look for a while when she moved to Nortonville, Ontario (a place the locals would probably refer to as "the bush"), and assumed a secret identity, Alana North, spy-smasher.  In TRIUMPH #25, Nelvana, along with Corporal John Keene of the RCMP, battles the "ether people", who enter our world through speakers to complain about the quality of 1940s radio programs and deliver an ultimatum: stop playing the Andrews Sisters or the earth will be destroyed!

Nelvana's adventures were getting shorter and shorter -- and so was her time on this earth.  With the end of the war came the end of the embargo on American comics, and Superman leaped across the border in a single bound.  The anemic Johnny Canuck couldn't compete with his colourful rivals, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Flash, Sheena, Archie, Wonder Woman, and countless funny animals.  It was over.

Some Nelvana stories were reprinted in a one-shot of her own title in 1945, but after issue #31 of TRIUMPH she appeared only once more, in SUPER DUPER COMICS #3 (May-June 1947), published by F. E. Howard, who purchased the rights to some of Bell Features' characters after Cy Bell threw in the towel.  Once again it was written and drawn by Adrian Dingle, this time in full colour.  In fact, Adrian Dingle was Nelvana's sole writer and artist from beginning to end, with the exception of TRIUMPH #31, which was written by John Hollis Mason.

Dingle continued to paint, but looked back on his comic book career with fond memories: "The era of the comic book was a very exciting one in my career.  It meant a great deal to me.  We had rather grandiose illusions of where it might end because the American distribution was cut off and Canada was then getting ready to distribute comic books across the border and we had all sorts of wonderful ideas of solid gold Cadillacs and everybody was talking exorbitant salaries..."

Adrian Dingle, 1971

Of his time at Bell Features, he said "Cy Bell was a very dynamic character.  I enjoyed working with him, he was always so full of enthusiasm, and we lived in a sort of a world of fantasy in those days drumming up these scripts for comic books, and Cy was always a part of it.  He was a most magnetic person to work with, he really was.  He was astounding.  We had some marvellous personalities in the whole group..."

Adrian Dingle died in 1974, and was posthumously inducted into the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creators Hall of Fame in 2005.  Canada Post issued a Nelvana stamp in 1995.

Nelvana ain't so tough, not when anyone can lick 'er.  She got her own stamp in 1995, part of a book of stamps celebrating Canadian superheroes: Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, Fleur de Lys, and, stretching it a bit, Superman, created by writer Jerry Siegel and Canadian artist Joe Shuster.  The image used for this stamp was taken from the cover of her 1945 self-titled one-shot.

"Nelvana of the Northern Lights" pg.1, from SUPER DUPER COMICS #3
Nelvana pg. 2
Nelvana pg. 3
Nelvana pg. 4
Nelvana pg. 5
Nelvana pg. 6
Nelvana pg. 7
Nelvana pg. 8


Anonymous said...

More please.
- j.

Bill Watson of Holland, MI said...

Great feature. I had never heard of Nelvana but I like her. They obviously enjoyed making these stories with Ether people who hate radio programs and lines like: "Girl picks up Mountie." That's a great line.

Bill Watson of Holland, MI said...

...and it's interesting that her first appearance came only a few months before Wonder Woman.

Seanachai said...

Thank you so much for posting these frames from Nelvana--I learned of her when I was a teenager and have struggled to find anything of her or other Canadian comics of the era. A part of my Canadian history that should be more accessible. So awesome to see this!

Dee said...

I've got a small collection of a few dozen Canadian Whites that are in pretty good shape but at the moment there doesn't appear to be much serious interest in Canadian Whites. I brought them all the way from Canada to New Zealand. There isn't any interest here of course. Sure like to find a good home for them.