The search for Canada's first female superhero
On a visit to the Northwest Territories in April 1939, the Canadian painter Franz Johnston was introduced to a young Inuit woman named Nelvana. The exact circumstances of their meeting are unknown, but according to an interview the artist later gave the Toronto Evening Telegram, Johnston was so taken with Nelvana that he asked to paint her picture. She was uneasy about the idea but eventually allowed him to sketch and photograph her so that, when he returned to Toronto, he could complete a portrait.
In the seventy-five years since Johnston’s trip to the Arctic, no portrait of Nelvana has ever surfaced. But the artist didn’t forget her. Sometime in the two years following his return, he showed Nelvana’s photo to a young man named Adrian Dingle, who was then a struggling illustrator, trying unsuccessfully to enlist as a war artist in World War II. Dingle too appears to have been fascinated by Nelvana. According to comic historian John Bell, he was “attracted to both the wonderful name and the alluring idea of a goddess-like woman.”
The image of Nelvana stuck with Dingle. In August 1941, he published Nelvana of the Northern Lights in his inaugural issue of Triumph Adventure Comics, a series he created with two other artists who were also unable to join the war effort. Nelvana’s heroine donned a winged headdress, fur miniskirt, and cape, and traveled along the northern lights fighting the war that her creators could not. A demigoddess with a mortal mother and a royal father—Koliak the Mighty, the king of the northern lights—Nelvana harnessed the force of the aurora borealis. She also used her cloak to shape-shift and had the powers of telepathy and invisibility. A patriotic superhero, Nelvana defended her “Arctic brothers” and later Canada as a whole (in the guise of secret agent Alana North) against Axis-allied supervillains such as the Ether People and the Mammoth Men.
As World War II raged on, comics like Triumph spread across North America. By 1946, the Canada Whites—comic books so named for their black-and-white interiors—had spawned scores of new superheroes, including Johnny Canuck, Canada Jack, and the Penguin. Nelvana was one of the most popular comics—and one of the few to feature a female superhero. But then, in 1946, with thirty-one issues under its belt, Triumph folded. Nelvana was licensed to an American publisher, who would unleash her one last time, to defend humanity against alien invaders. “We of earth want no more wars!” Nelvana exclaimed. With that, she was no more.
Dingle never drew Nelvana again. Curiously, he maintained in the press that she was based solely on an Inuit deity. And so Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the story of the woman who inspired her were largely forgotten for the next six decades.
Nelvana was Canada’s first comic book superhero. Until the end of 1940, U.S. comics had claimed sovereignty over North America. Superheroes such as Superman (cocreated by Canadian Joe Shuster) and Batman colonized Canadian newspapers and comic books to such an extent that local artists had to move south for work—Halifax’s Hal Foster created Prince Valiant for William Randolph Hearst; Albert Chartier, an artist from Quebec, worked with New York’s Columbia Comics, home of Skyman and the Face; and, nearby, Ontario-born Charles Spain Verral wrote Street & Smith’s Bill Barnes Comics. The Canadian comic book industry was rescued only after the country attempted to address its trade deficit with the United States by passing the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA), which restricted the import of “non-essential goods,” including comic books (though American strips continued to run in Canadian papers). No longer competing with juggernauts like Marvel and DC Comics, Canadian artists began creating their own caped crusaders.
At the outset of the war, Adrian Dingle found himself in his early thirties, unemployed, unable to enlist in the military because his hearing was damaged following a series of childhood ear infections. Two of his friends, brothers Andre and Rene Kulbach, also happened to be out of work, so the trio launched a bid to become war artists. “We got a large petition signed by a number of Toronto artists,” Dingle told a Canadian zine years later, “and the result was just the usual: ‘When we want lemon juice, we’ll ask for it.’ So in desperation we all got together and started Triumph Comics on about a $400 budget.”
In 1941, the three men founded Hillborough Studios and got to work on Nelvana. For funding, Dingle and the Kulbachs joined forces with an anonymous investor to produce Triumph Adventure Comics, its only title, in August of that year (Franz Johnston shared the copyright and cowrote the first issue with Dingle but did not participate further). Visually, the sixty-page volume stood out. Many comic book artists at the time were unskilled teenagers who were too young to go to war, but Dingle had worked for years as an illustrator. “Dingle’s artwork was distinguished by its elegant, bold design and by his mastery of chiaroscuro,” Bell wrote in his 1992 book on the history of Canadian superheroes, Guardians of the North.
Triumph Adventure Comics contained a handful of stories about spies (Spanner Preston), giants (Derek of Bras d’Or) and cowboys (Tang the Wonder Horse & Buddy)—among them was Nelvana of the Northern Lights. According to Trina Robbins, author of The Great Women Superheroes, Nelvana was preceded in the United States by only three female superheroes: the Woman in Red (March 1940), Miss Fury (April 1941), and USA, the Spirit of Old Glory (July 1941). She beat Wonder Woman by four months.
Nelvana soon captured the attention of Bell Features, the most famous Canadian comic book publisher of the Golden Age. The company acquired Triumph Adventure Comics when, in 1942, after only seven issues, Dingle and his partners fell into financial crisis. Bell changed the title to Triumph Comics and hired him as an art director. By the end of 1943, it was selling one hundred thousand comics a week.
From 1942 to ’46, Bell Features published twenty-four Triumph Comics—ceasing after Canada lifted the WECA ban. Soon after, Dingle put down his pens and returned to his painting career. “I think Adrian probably just saw the writing on the wall, in terms of the ability to make money in the Canadian comics industry, once the American comics started to come back in,” his grandson Nick Dingle said. “I suspect that Adrian also considered comics to be kind of a lark anyway. He would have viewed it more as a way to make some money than as a career or a creative outlet.”
In 2010, a woman named Rachel Richey, then an intern at Ottawa’s Library and Archives Canada, was researching the library’s comic book collection. Among the LAC’s four thousand or so comics, she found many of Canada’s most well-known heroes: Johnny Canuck, Dixon of the Mounted, the Invisible Commando—each stuffed inside protective Mylar pockets. Having heard about Nelvana of the Northern Lights, she sought out the Triumph comics. “When you open it and you see Nelvana it’s kind of jarring because all the other characters are male,” Richey said. “On top of that the art is just stunning—I mean you’re blown away.” As she would later learn, the comics had been sold to the library in 1970 and had since remained in storage. Sheltered by the privacy of her cubicle, she read each issue, foregoing the prescribed white cotton gloves. “I was not really supposed to read them,” she said. “But obviously I’m going to read them.”
A year later, while cataloging the LAC collection, Richey wrote about some of her finds on her blog, Comic Syrup. In September 2011, she received an email from a woman named Hope Nicholson who was working as an associate producer on the Canadian superhero documentary, Lost Heroes. Nicholson had discovered Nelvana years earlier while writing a paper on Canadian comic book history at Toronto’s York University. “I’m a nerd, a feminist, and an avid fan of Arctic literature, so I was incredibly shocked that I never heard of her before,” said Nicholson, whose outfit when we met—vintage specs and a green silk frock—was more Mad Men than X-Men. “I became completely captivated.” In February 2010, Nicholson obtained a microfiche collection of Nelvana comics from the LAC and spent the next few months digitizing them.
In June of 2013, the duo, who had been working together on Lost Heroes, decided to reprint Nelvana of the Northern Lights. But the project presented difficulties. The original acetate printing plates had been lost sometime after 1970, so Richey and Nicholson needed to rely in part on private collections to compile the complete catalogue. In October, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their research and travel. “I will not say that I was fully confident that I would reach the $25,000,” Nicholson said. But they did—in less than a week. “Our party that launched the campaign actually became our celebration party,” said Richey.
In all, thirteen different collections would be used to compile the first full reprint of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, which went on sale in Canada in May 2014, and has since printed approximately 3,500 copies. “I’m constantly finding new collections,” Nicholson said. “If I got everyone in Canada to look in their attic right now, I’m sure we’d find many more.”
*Research into Nelvana’s identity has also met with questions regarding her race, which was never explicitly stated, although she was billed as an Arctic superhero. According to Bell, Nelvana “belonged to a long line of white queens and goddesses.” However, Michael Hirsh, author of The Great Canadian Comic Books, thinks she was “meant to be Inuit.” (Nelvana’s defined cheekbones seem to have been inspired by the real woman who shared her name, but, according to Nelvana reprinter Hope Nicholson, her appearance may have also been influenced by Dingle’s wife, Patricia, and a figure model named Margot Mossman.)
From the beginning, Nicholson and Richey believed that Nelvana was based on an Inuit deity, as Dingle had stated throughout his life.* In October 2013, however, after Nicholson went searching for Dingle’s family to tell them about the reprint, the artist’s son, Christopher, told her that his father had said Nelvana was in fact “an old woman who was perhaps a shaman, a seer, a healer, or something, but a toothless old woman certainly, in some Inuit village.” Nicholson searched the name Nelvana in the Library and Archives Canada and came across a photograph of a woman named Kukilukak, who was described as “Cecile Nelvana Kamingoak’s step-mother,” taken in Coppermine, Northwest Territories—now Kugluktuk, Nunavut. This led Nicholson to a book by photographer Richard Harrington, The Face of the Arctic, published five years after Nelvana went out of print. The book included a picture of a woman named Cecile Nelvana Kamingoak with two of her children. The timing of the photo seemed to fit with the Toronto Evening Telegram article in which Johnston talked about meeting a woman named Nelvana to whom he referred as a Madonna. “I remember seeing that picture of [Cecile] Nelvana with her children when she was young,” Nicholson said. “I thought, well, clearly it has to be the same woman.”
According to her granddaughter, Ellie Adjun, Cecile lived in Coppermine until her death in 2011 at the age of eighty-eight. In 1943 she married Peter Kamingoak. “My grandfather and her made a very handsome couple,” said Adjun, whose grandmother reared thirteen children while her husband delivered mail to the communities around Coppermine. “It was good fishing, they were right at the mouth of the Coppermine River, and it always had good caribou that came by,” Adjun said, “so that’s where they made their home, where it was plentiful for food.” The materfamilias was also a talented seamstress, sewing her family parkas, beaded jewelry, moccasins, and mukluks. “She was a very kind-hearted loving grandmother,” Adjun said. “She always made sure that her grandchildren shared their catch and food with the rest of the community.”
If Cecile was in fact the Nelvana who met Johnston, she kept it to herself. None of her surviving family members remember her talking about his visit. Further complicating matters are records of another woman, named Connie Nelvana, who also lived in Coppermine during Johston’s visit and was approximately the same age as Cecile. Connie appears to have been a housekeeper and a sculptor as well as a skilled caribou butcher. But she died in 2000, and neither her grandson, nor her daughter-in-law, Jean, recalls her mentioning Johnston. According to Jean, Connie and Cecile grew up together, and may have been cousins (church records suggest they could have even been sisters).
A shared last name in the Inuit community, however, does not necessarily imply family ties. “Nelvana is an Inuit name given at birth, usually by elders of the community,” Adjun told Nicholson in an email. “It is passed down from a respected elder who has passed away, or is a relative, in honor of them.” Adjun herself once saw some Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics at a flea market in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, but decided not to buy them. “I was quite surprised but I wasn’t sure who Nelvana was, who the book was about, so I didn’t grab them,” she said.
In November, Nicholson sent Adjun a box of the Kickstarter-funded Nelvana books, which included reprints of every black-and-white Nelvana of the Northern Lights story as well as eight color covers featuring the Arctic superhero blasting various enemies into the ether. When I asked Adjun if she thought it was her grandmother whom Johnston had met seven decades earlier, she wasn’t sure. But she imagined Cecile would have been tickled by the prospect of inspiring a super hero: “She probably would have laughed about it. She really enjoyed telling stories.”