Canada Day (it was known as Dominion Day then) was also Edmond Good‘s birthday. He would have been 104 this year.
Because it’s Canada Day week I want to do a bit of a more involved special column about the figurehead of the Canadian Whites this time–Nelvana.
This mini-skirted, semi-mortal, maid of the Arctic skies has firmly become the totem (the chosen emblem) of the Canadian war-time comics. She was realized from an idea by Franz Johnson by master artist Adrian Dingle. This week I want to look at her a little more closely. My main contention is that we have probably elevated her to these heights after seven decades of maturing as a country, a culture and a comic industry when, in reality, she never had a similar popularity during the WECA period itself.
Her place in the comic book pantheon as the first real, costumed super heroine is unassailable, but she isn’t the first Canadian super-powered hero (that honour goes to Sub-Mariner clone Iron Man from Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 from March, 1941). Nor is she the first real costumed Canadian super hero (that honour should go to Ted Steele’s Wolf Savage from Canadian Rocket Comics No. 1 from April, 1941—Freelance, though he showed up a month before Nelvana in Triumph-Adventure Comics No. 1, really didn’t have a costume or any superpowers). After Nelvana, the first costumed super heroes to appear were Thunderfist and The Brain in Active Comics No. 1 (Feb., 1942) and the next female super heroine after Nelvana was John Hillkert’s The Wing in Joke Comics No. 4 (Sept./Oct. 1942).
But if I think of a group of young boys getting together on a park bench to discuss the comics they’ve just picked up at the corner drugstore, I don’t see them buying into Nelvana as the one to be or the one to buy the next issue for. Canadian boys then wanted to be air aces, cowboys, crime busting detectives, or futuristic space men. The media and propaganda of the day supported this. Even comic artists such as Jack Tremblay and Mel Crawford couldn’t wait to turn 18 so that they could join up and fight for Canada. The Canadian comic creators themselves were heavily influenced by the British boys-adventure literature and popular annuals and carried through that tradition in their published work in a way that the American comic creators lacked. I don’t even think that the costumed superhero genre ever took off here in war-time Canada the garish way that it did in the early forties south of the border and that while parliament kept almost all American comics out of the country, there was no sense of competition with or breaking into the American market in the sense that it permeates the Canadian comic world of today. This only entered into the Canadian war-time comic culture in its twilight when the end of the war became as immanent as the threat of American comics flooding back into the Canadian market.
If Nelvana had been so popular, why does Dingle completely take her out of a four issue arc in Triumph Comics. Nelvana disappears after the second page of the Triumph Comics No. 14 installment and doesn’t reappear until the second page of the Triumph Comics No. 18 story.
Dingle does a four issue transition from the six issue high fantasy Glacia arc that runs from Triumph 8-13 in order to anchor Nelvana into the real life Canadian battle with the axis. In this four issue arc, Dingle introduces “The Yellow Peril” into the high Arctic. It actually only takes 3 issues to do this and Dingle’s mysterious “The Mystery of the Arctic Monster” in Triumph Comics No. 17 has nothing to do with anything previous or after. The real mystery of this story is the reason as to why Dingle even included it in the Nelvana series at all, it simply fills a gap in the issue run. Perhaps Dingle was still trying to figure out how actually to bring Nelvana into the real world of Canada at war and he hadn’t come up with the idea of Alana North as a secret agent battling the axis.
Twenty years after the short run of the war-time Canadian comics, Maclean’s Magazine published an article by Alexander Ross called “A Fond Portrait of those Wild Wartime Comics” (Maclean’s Magazine Sept. 19, 1964), which is essentially an interview with Cy Bell and takes as its topic the Bell Features comics, makes absolutely no reference to Nelvana at all but has prominent pictures of Johnny Canuck, The Brain and The Invisible Commando.
The term “Canadian Whites” wasn’t even in existence yet. It was coined by George Henderson in the late sixties. We can thank the start of Nelvana’s prominence to Clive Smith for creating the cover artwork for The Great Canadian Comic Books in 1971 and Patrick Loubert and Michael Hirsh for naming their animation company after her.
Don’t get me wrong, Nelvana did earn a 1945 compendium issue (which has become one of the most collectible comics from the period) from Bell Features which shows that she had prominence in the Bell pantheon, but so did Speed Savage, Tang the Wonder Horse, The Phantom Rider, Spike and Mike, and even a collection of the text stories from the Bell comics (a little bit later Bob Young’s Whitlecraft series received the same treatment). The fact that we’ve made Nelvana the emblem of the First Canadian Age of Comics by sifting her through the enlightened gender and McLuhan mass media consciousness that has evolved after seven decades is still sexy, but I don’t think it reflects what her actual presence was in contemporary war-time Canadian comic consciousness.
If I had to propose the most popular character from the Canadian war-time comics in a pan-Canadian sense at the actual time of the Second World War, I’d have to put Freelance up at the forefront. His stories by Ted McCall were among the best written from the WECA period. Their continuity and drama were well-mapped out and the art of Ed Furness was of the first order. Freelance had the longest page run of any WECA character, and boys could buy into him.
Robert MacMillan in his “The War Years: Anglo-American Publishing Ltd.” from John Bell’s Canuck Comics: A Guide to Comic Books Published in Canada, Matrix Books, Montreal, 1986. P. 96 refers to George Henderson, who lived through these Canadian war-time comics as a teenager, as claiming that Freelance was the most popular character in Canada during that time. Freelance, however, will never match Nelvana for fantasy sex appeal and therefore collectible value as well.
Let me also list a quick rundown of the Nelvana arcs from Triumph Comics:
- The Kablunet Arc (Triumph-Adventure Comics Nos. 1-6 and Triumph Comics 7)
These comprise all the Hillborough issues plus the first Bell issue and the introductory story from Triumph 1 is the longest of the lot at 18 pages. It’s well-known that the seed for Nelvana was an idea brought by Dingle’s friend, Group of Seven artist Franz Johnson, after one of his trips to the north. Dingle informs us in the Dave Sim’s “A Conversation with Adrian and Pat Dingle and Bill Thomas” in the second issue of the Kitchener fanzine Now and Then Times from 1973: “The first issue is his own [Franz Johnson’s] script, actually – where I got the dialogue, what the various names were for sleds and the boots and so forth. And he did a lot of translating from Eskimo so that we could get things started. After that, I was on my own.”
We meet Nelvana, her brother Tanero and her divine father Koliak. Her first nemesis is a Slavic looking Commander Toroff, a representative of the evil Kablunets, who is depleting the northern whale population and eventually all the resources of the North in an attempt to eventually rule the world on behalf of the Kablunets. In issue 3 we find out that the Kablunets are really after the heat generating metal Zircondium 2736 and using enslaved natives to mine it. With issue 5 the Kablunets bring in their air power whose commanders all now seem to have Germanic accents and, with the help of the R.C.A.F., Nelvana defeats them. There’s even a submarine delivered Nelvana double called Mardyth thrown into the mix in issue 7.
- The Glacia Arc (Triumph Comics 8-13 and Super Duper Comics No. 3)
Koliak reveals to his daughter that there has existed a frozen civilization beneath the Arctic ice for five million years with all its inhabitants in frozen suspended animation. She reanimates Targa son of King Rano and in issue 10 encounters her new nemesis, Vultor who wants to usurp the throne. In issue 11 Targa saves Nelvana from a certain death and on the last page of that issue gets her first “on screen” kiss from Targa. In issue 13 Nelvana defeats Vultor resulting in his apparent death and the return of Glacia to normality but before the chapter is over, a bomb guided by a suicidal Japanese pilot breaks through Glacia’s ceiling but doesn’t explode because of the chilly temperatures of the frozen world. The arc continues two pages into the issue 14 installment and the surface war has directly intersected Nelvana’s story line.
- The Transition Arc (Triumph Comics 14-17)
This arc is marked by the absence of Nelvana. In the first issue of the arc, the Japanese establish a hidden settlement in the Alaska and plot to turn Nelvana’s indigenous tribesmen against the white man. In the next two issues American engineer “Spud” Jodwin investigates the sabotage of a bridge along the Alcan (Alaska-Canada) highway and is captured by the Japanese but is eventually saved. Issue No. 16 “The Mystery of the Arctic Monster,” is the curious which really adds nothing to the Nelvana story and seems to be a filler story by Dingle while he decides what to do with Nelvana when she comes back from Glacia. “Spud” and head foreman Bill Speers solve the mystery of a strange set of tracks which are half human and half animal.
- The Return of Nelvana as Alana North and the Ice Beam Arc (Triumph Comics 18-23)
Nelvana returns to the Arctic from Glacia dramatically riding a polar bear in issue 18 and in issue 19 Koliak allows Nelvana to take on a Caucasian identity (while retaining all her powers) in order to fight the axis in the southern Ontario town of Nortonville. In issue 19 we also find out that the Langdon scientist twins Felix and Silas, both originally of Nortonville have invented an ice-beam the plans for which the Japanese salivate and send two agents, One-ear Brunner and Dwarfo after them. One-ear kidnaps Silas who has half the plans and attempts to get the remaining half from Felix but is thwarted by Nelvana as Alana. It’s important to note that Nelvana does not appear in costume again until Triumph 29 and 30 and the 1947 end of the Ether People arc in Super Duper Comics No. 3 except for the one blip in the 1945 one-shot compendium story called “Nelvana and the Death Dealing Double.”
- Nelvana and the Ether People (Triumph Comics 24-29 and Super Duper Comics No. 3)
This arc brings back Corporal John Keene who we first met in Triumph-Adventure 3 and again briefly at the start of the previous arc. He encounters one of the Ethernet people who has entered our world through one of the radio speakers at the corporals northern outpost. This “emissary from the Ether world” informs Keene that human radio broadcasts have become intolerable to the Ether People and are driving them mad. He states that if they are not stopped the Ether people will destroy human civilization. These Ethernet people are short, squat individuals who remind me of Al Capp’s shmoos. Anyway, Keene tries to find Nelvana to see if she can help and in doing so travels to Nortonville where he knows he will find Silas Langdon who can possible lead him to her. He literally bumps into Alana and immediately recognizes her as Nelvana but she asks him not to give her away. Together they encounter the same Etherian and Nelvana manages to send him back through the speaker. Keene and Alana build a giant speaker that first takes them to the world of Statica which is destroyed by the discharge of atomic bomb testing on earth. They jump into the speaker again but this time they enter a new kingdom with royalty who wish to imprison her and Keene. However she saves this king and queen from an assault by “fire men” and earns their praise. But this arc ends in Triumph Comics here with the story in issue 29 with a last panel radio bulletin that the Etherian army is massing for an attack on earth and Nelvana saying that they’ve got to get to Etheria immediately. The continuation story must have been done but it took over a year to appear in F. E. Howard’s Super Duper Comics No. 3 and this time it appeared in full colour. Because of the one-year gap, the first two-and-a-half pages summarize the Nelvana saga and how she got to the point of visiting Etheria. Nelvana and Keene finally get to Etheria but are taken hostage by the Ether People and brought back to the earth as part of their invading force. There they meet the real mastermind behind this invasion, Vultor. Nelvana defeats Vultor and the Ether People return to their dimension.
- Three Independent Nelvana Stories (Triumph Comics 30 and 31, and the 1945 Compendium)
The last two Nelvana stories in Triumph don’t belong to any arc. They are “Nelvana and the Indestructible Crime King” and “Nelvana Meets her Match.” Both involve relatively tame villains such as “Knuckles” Socco who invents a super indestructible plastic coating that prevents him from being injured and Dr. Elektra who has a contraption that discharges electrical force. Nelvana dispatches each one in 7 pages. The last story “Nelvana and the Death-Dealing Double” is the previously unpublished story from the 1945 one-shot compendium (it looks like each of these compendiums had at least one new story in it). This compendium is advertised in Triumph Comics 27, which puts its publication more than half-way through the Ether People arc but it looks like it more properly belongs just between the Ice Beam arc and the start of the Ether People Arc. It’s notable for the appearance of the criminal Nelvana double Sade and the fact that it’s the only story in which Nelvana dons her costume since she becomes Alana North in Triumph 20 until Triumph 30 after the Ether People arc finishes in that title—an almost two year run.
For another look at Nelvana please see my review of Hope and Rachel’s book at Bud Plant Books.
Without a doubt, Nelvana has become the darling of today’s collectors. I can see nothing but good in that for Canadian comics.
Before I close, I want to share an oil portrait sketch by Adrian Dingle that’s probably from the late forties or early fifties. It’s of an attractive young woman with dark hair that I whimsically like to imagine is what Alana North might have looked like in oils.