The World War II-era comics starring Nelvana of the Northern Lights are being reprinted! She is Canada’s first superhero, and one of the first female superheroes to exist, even pre-dating Wonder Woman by a few months. The project, headed up by Hope Nicholson and Rachael Richey, is being crowdfunded by way of a Kickstarter project.
Being able to read Nelvana’s stories is a dream I’ve had since I first became interested in comics. Back in early 2007, my childhood interest in superheroes was rekindled by an article in Bitch Magazine about the dilemmas of superheroines in comics. I was smitten with all things Batman and was just itching to find female superheroes I could relate to, and part of my blind googling included searches for “Canadian superheroes”. Along with Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, Northguard, and Fleur de Lys, and the more embarrassing members of Marvel Comics’ Alpha Flight (*cough*Puck*cough*), I came across Nelvana.
Of course, the name “Nelvana” was already familiar to me, as it’s the name of a Canadian animation company that produced several cartoon shows from my childhood, like Care Bears and Babar. But I had never before heard of Nelvana the superhero. How could that be? She had a commemorative stamp made for her by Canada Post and everything! So clearly she was important to what’s referred to as “Can-con” (Canadian content).
During WWII, Canada banned the import of luxury goods, including American superhero comics. This allowed Canadian comics to thrive–creating a golden age for the duration of the war. When the original comic series ran its course, the Nelvana comics created by Adrian Dingle were shelved, and never reprinted. After digging fruitlessly online, I finally had the sense to get in touch with the National Archives in Ottawa, and found that I’d have to travel up to the Archives myself to see the originals, or pay a lot of money to acquire digital copies. Either way, the comics were effectively out of reach. Fortunately, Nicholson and Richey have had far greater success. Their Kickstarter program to fund the digital capturing and reprinting of Canada’s first national superhero has already reached its goal–with a few weeks to spare! Come next year, I will finally have my dear Nelvana’s black and white stories in my hot little hands!
Why is she such a big deal to me? Part of the reason is that she’s just so Canadian. She was created by artist Adrian Dingle, but his inspiration for the character came from his friend and Group of 7 member Frank/Franz Johntson. (If you’re Canadian, you’re likely well-versed, but for the uninitiated: the Group of 7’s impressionist landscape paintings are some of the most iconic and recognizable Canadian art of the 20th century.) The story goes that Johnston shared with Dingle some stories from Inuit mythology, and Dingle adapted them to a superhero origin, with Nelvana’s father Kolkiak as an Inuit god, and her mother a human mortal. Her powers include flying at the speed of light (with the help of the Northern Lights), telepathy, invisibility, shape-shifting, metal-melting and disrupting radio communications.
Oh, and she fights Nazis. Lots of Nazis.
So she’s pretty cool.
When you discover a character that can serve as a “paper mirror,” one you can see yourself in, it makes a big impact. Now, I’m not a superhero demigoddess, I can’t fly, I’m not Inuit, and I live in Toronto, not in Nunavut or elsewhere in the arctic. I am, however, a Canadian gal who likes the occasional adventure (in fiction and real life). I also do not like Nazis. As much as I’ve talked to anyone who will listen about the need for more diverse female characters in pop culture and media of all sorts, (given that men still dominate most artistic fields, both in front, and behind the scenes), I do yearn for Canadian representation in media. And not for characters that seem to exist only to serve tired, boring old stereotypes. (Yeah, Puck, I’m looking at you again. And your creator John Byrne*. Sorry dude.)
Canadian media, like that of many other countries, I’m sure, is constantly overwhelmed and outcompeted by American content that is supported by bigger budgets and bigger audiences. But there’s something very vital and important about media that reflects parts of your identity back at you. It’s a kind of confirmation that you exist; that you matter enough to have your stories told. And I think everybody enjoys being on the inside of an in-joke. In the grand scheme of things, I tend to rank “reflection of Canadian identity” relatively low on the list of media representation issues that need addressing, because there are segments and intersections of society that are marginalized in far more ridiculous and egregious ways.
But Nelvana taps into a part of Canada that is often neglected and marginalized in media, reduced to centuries-old stereotypes about a people and heritage that were thriving in this land a long, long time before hockey jokes were A Thing. The Inuit, First Nations, and Métis of Canada don’t always get the spotlight they are entitled to, whether it be in the telling of Canada’s pre-colonial history, the telling of their contemporary stories in pop culture, or in decent and fair news coverage of movements for justice like Idle No More. So the fact that Nelvana is explicitly described as Inuit is pretty awesome. Now, not having read the actual comics, I have no idea how the Inuit are depicted, how much Nelvana reflects that identity in her character, or if any portrayals are racist. However, almost as soon as I learned about Nelvana, I couldn’t help but imagine what a reinvented and modern version of her might be like if her character was informed by both modern Inuit people and their cultural heritage.
How awesome would that be? And it sounds as though Nicholson and Richey may be thinking along those lines as well. For fun, I’ve illustrated the old Nelvana and what a modern revised version of Nelvana could look like.
The Kickstarter project to reprint the Nelvana comics began October 1st and ends November 1st. Their initial goal of $25,000 was reached this past Sunday, a half hour before a launch party at Toronto’s Silver Snail comics shop, and celebrated with an amazing cake. Along with digital and print versions of the collection of comics, incentives include prints from Canadian comic artists such as Ramón Pérez, Francis Manapul, Jeff Lemire, Kate Leth, and Katie Shanahan. Pérez is also in charge of the collection’s book design.
My complete and total excitement about finally being able to read the stories of the fascinating Nelvana of the Northern Lights aside, all in all this is looking like a pretty awesome Kickstarter project that comics fans from all over the world will want to get in on.
*In fairness John Byrne, he did name the parents of Alpha Flight member Snowbird, Nelvanna and Hodiak, in tribute to Nelvana.