Special Feature — April 30, 2015, 8:00 am

Saving Nelvana

The search for Canada’s first female superhero

Photograph of Nevlana TK taken sometime between 1929 and 1945. Courtesy of Kenneth Kuodluak

Photograph of Connie Nelvana, taken sometime between 1929 and 1945. Courtesy of Kenneth Kuodluak

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.”

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

An eight-foot minke whale washed ashore on the Thames, the third beaching of a dead whale on the river in two months.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today