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Nelvana of the Northern Lights

July 21, 2014

I finished reading Nelvana of the Northern Lights (which is available here), so it’s time to give my thoughts on it.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights was a Golden Age superhero, created by Adrian Dingle. The character debuted in Triumph-Adventure Comics in August 1941. She was actually inspired by stories Dingle heard from a friend of his, painter Franz Johnston (of the Group of Seven), that Johnston brought back after spending time with some Inuit people.

In the comics, Nelvana is the daughter of Koliak, King of the Northern Lights. She comes to Earth to help the Inuit against the “Kablunets” – it’s the Nazis. She works with her brother, Tanero, who can change his shape (with Nelvana’s help) from man to dog. Eventually, Tanero drops out of the book, and the focus actually shifts away from the war as Nelvana enters a world beneath the surface of the Earth, “Glacia.” After a little while there, it shifts focus back to WW2, but the villains now are the Japanese. After the war ended, Dingle tried to carry the character on as a special agent fighting various criminals, but that didn’t last long, and he abandoned the character.

One thing to keep in mind when reading these stories is the time period. It was the ’40s, before the idea of “racial sensitivity” existed. So there’s definitely elements in the stories that, looking on them now, are pretty cringe-inducing. But I honestly think that, for their time, they were shockingly progressive. Take the character of Nelvana herself. While she does sometimes get captured, it doesn’t happen very often. She has an amount of agency that one wouldn’t expect in the ’40s – hell, it’s about equal to what you’d expect of female characters today. She’s a commanding presence – she sees a problem, comes up with a plan, and anyone around her immediately falls in line. Her powers aren’t really well-defined, and she actually has no real powers of her own – she’s simply able to call on her father’s aid, and he does whatever’s needed at any given moment. Invisibility is a fairly common power. She’s also able to use Koliak’s power to wreck Nazi planes. Just totally destroy them. She’s also capable of instantaneous travel through her father’s lights. So for the most part, her powers wind up being “get daddy’s help.” But she’s also capable of coming up with her own solutions to problems.

Also of note is that she rarely gets truly surprised. She’s almost always in control, if not of a situation, then of her own reaction to it. She doesn’t get afraid, or angry, or lose her confidence in herself. This sort of iron will and self-control is rare in female characters today (slightly less rare in male characters, though still very rare). It’s interesting to see.

So it’s surprisingly progressive in terms of gender. How about race? Well, it was the ’40s, so obviously, it was horribly racist. But even there, it feels progressive by the standards of the day. While it treats the Inuit in a condescending and patronizing way, it did at least make heavy use of them, and it does feel like it’s coming from a good place. And honestly, it’s not hard to find modern stories that are even more condescending in their treatment of First Nations and Native American people. Reading Nelvana, I got the feeling that Dingle was at least trying to be respectful, he was simply held back by the colonial views of his era, and it’s hard to truly fault him for it.

Much the same actually applies to his treatment of the Japanese. Yes, there’s references to their “slit eyes.” Yes, the words “Yellow Peril” are used. Yes, there’s the offensive phonetic accent when Japanese characters speak. But despite the racism, it comes across as an oddly Canadian type of racism – offensive, but weirdly polite about it. It’s not even close to being the worst depiction of Japanese people during WW2. Honestly, it’s probably the least awful depiction from the whole period. He doesn’t do too much in the way of exaggeration of their features, and he actually does have some Japanese characters speaking fairly normally.

Now let’s talk about the art. I’m not generally a fan of Golden Age comic book art. I find most of it to be rather crude, compared to what I’m used to. I can respect that it set the foundation that’s been built on, but in the end, I’d rather look at what’s being done today. Nonetheless, there is a certain power to Dingle’s art. It’s probably because he was already a successful and mature artist before he turned to comics. A lot of Golden Age comics were drawn by people who were basically kids. Dingle knew what he was doing, and he did it well. The art is still distinctly crude by modern standards, but less so than with a lot of other comics of that time.

The stories themselves had the same weaknesses as so many other stories back then. They were very simple, and routinely had things happen for the sake of convenience. Dingle did seem to at least try to maintain a degree of coherence, which not all writers back then did. He sometimes tossed away elements that were inconvenient. (For example, early on, Tanero wasn’t allowed to be seen by the eyes of white men. But in another story, that gets completely ignored as he masquerades as a German officer.) The Glacian stories wind up being a little convoluted. A story where she and an RCMP officer go fight “Etherians” – beings who live in the ether, unseen by human eyes, and who are apparently being driven crazy by radio waves – is kinda silly. The final few stories, where she fights various criminals, are bland and feel like they’re missing most of the story. But there’s a certain quaint charm to the stories, all the same.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Nelvana of the Northern Lights. It was a really interesting look at Canada’s first national superhero, a little piece of Canadian history. I’d definitely encourage anyone to check it out. It costs $45 for the hardcover, or you can buy a PDF version for $15. I’d like to say you can also try your local library, but even Ottawa Public Library doesn’t have it, which is insane to me. Anyway, it’s a great read. It makes me want to see modern stories published using Nelvana. Someone should make a new Nelvana of the Northern Lights series. She’s a compelling character, so it’d be fun to see.


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One Comment
  1. rachelpeabody permalink

    I’m glad you enjoyed the book! Keep an eye out for the next Canadian Golden Age book, Johnny Canuck, on kickstarter in August!! Here is the Facebook!

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