SMASHING THE AXIS: THE CANADIAN NATIONAL SUPERHEROES OF THE FORTIES
While U.S. comics were largely the product of the American entrepreneurial genius for recognizing and exploiting the public's desire for new forms of escapist entertainment, the English-Canadian comic book industry was the inadvertent by-product of the Canadian government's massive intervention in the economy during the Second World War. In December 1940, faced with a growing trade deficit with the U.S., the MacKenzie King government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act, which was designed to conserve American dollars by restricting the importation of non-essential goods. Among the items banned were U.S. fiction periodicals, which included comic books. All of a sudden, Canadian kids who, like their American cousins, had displayed a voracious appetite for the funny books, were denied a major source of entertainment.
The deprivation experienced by Canadian comics fans was, however, short-lived. Four different Canadian publishers quickly recognized the opportunity that the comic book ban represented. Maple Leaf Publishing in Vancouver and three Toronto-based firms Anglo-American, Hillborough Studios, and Bell Features and Publishing all rushed to fill the void created by the exchange legislation. While all four firms were to publish material in a wide variety of genres, they were also very much aware of the phenomenal success of the U.S. superheroes and of the need to provide Canadian fans with new superheroes.
IRON MAN AND FREELANCE
The first two Canadian comic books, Anglo-American's Robin Hood and Company (No. 1) and Maple Leaf's Better Comics (No.1), both appeared in March 1941. However, while Robin Hood was published in black and white (like most Canadian comics of the forties) in a tabloid format and featured reprints of the "Robin Hood" newspaper strip, Better was issued in colour in the standard comic book format and featured original material. Better also had the distinction of introducing the first Canadian superhero Vernon Miller's the Iron Man. Miller, who had returned to B.C. following a stint with Disney in California, apparently played an instrumental role in launching Maple Leaf, convincing the magazine vendor Harry Smith to invest in the new comic book industry.
Iron Man, who predated the better-known American comic book character of the same name by 22 years, somewhat resembled another U.S. character the Sub-Mariner. The sole survivor of a South Seas civilization that was destroyed by an Earthquake, he lived alone in a palace in a sunken bubble-city. Contacted by the Major and the latter's two youthful companions Jean and Ted, Iron Man would return to the surface world to combat Nazis, pirates and other villains. Iron Man possessed super-strength, was indestructible and, like the original version of Superman, could leap so high that he could virtually fly (Superman did not gain the ability to truly fly until later in his career). Iron Man, however, lacked any uniquely Canadian characteristics with which his readers could identify.
This same lack of a Canadian identity was evident with Canada's second superhero, Freelance, who debuted in the first issue of Anglo-American's Freelance Comics (July 1941), the third title of the Canadian Golden Age of Comics. (The term Golden Age is utilized to describe the 1941-1947 period in English-Canadian comic book history, when the first original Canadian comics were produced. Although religious French-language comics would appear during the latter part of the period, French Canada would not experience a similar explosion of indigenous comics publishing until the early 1970s; however, a number of francophone artists did work for the English-Canadian comics companies).
The product of Anglo-American's leading creative team (writer Ted McCall and artist Ed Furness), Freelance, like Iron Man, had his origin in the Southern Hemisphere, having grown up among a lost tribe in a tropical valley in Antarctica; however, unlike his predecessor, Freelance's powers were limited to exceptional athletic ability. Wearing a costume comprising jodhpurs, knee-high boots and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the letter L, and assisted by his sidekick, Big John Collins, Freelance battled the Axis menace all over the world. His adventures, which began in July 1941, did not end until December 1946, with the appearance of Freelance (No. 35).
NELVANA OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
However, if Iron Man and Freelance were, in a sense, generic superheroes devoid of any attributes that could be deemed distinctly Canadian, the same was certainly not true of the country's third superhero and first national superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights. The creation primarily of Adrian Dingle, Nelvana first appeared in Triumph-Adventure-Comics (No. 1, August 1941), published by Hillborough Studios, which was founded by Dingle, the artists André and René Kulbach, and an unidentified investor. Dingle, who, following the failure of Hillborough late in 1941, merged his operation with Canada's fourth comic book publisher, Bell Features, would later credit Franz Johnston of the Group of Seven with not only the concept of Nelvana, but also most of the script for the first Nelvana story.
It seems that following a trip to the Arctic (probably in 1939), Johnston intrigued his friend Dingle with references to a powerful Inuit mythological figure an old woman called Nelvana. Dingle thought the Nelvana character had comic book potential but decided that he would have to transform her, in keeping with the conventions of the superhero genre. As he explained in an interview a few years before his death in 1974:
I changed her a bit. Did what I could with long hair and mini skirts. And tried to make her attractive ... Then we had to bring her up to date and put her into the war effort. And, of course, everything had to be very patriotic.(2)
In reshaping Nelvana, Dingle appears to have drawn on a number of sources, including Canadian political cartooning and the adventure-fiction tradition of the "white queen."
For over half a century before Nelvana's appearance, Canadian cartoonists had frequently personified Canada as a beautiful young woman named Canada or Miss Canada. Often forced to spurn the advances of Uncle Sam (or Brother Jonathan), the demure Miss Canada was the Canadian equivalent of such established female cartoon symbols as Columbia (the U.S.) and Britannia (the U.K.). Nelvana, whom Dingle and Johnston identified as the daughter of Koliak, the King of the Northern Lights, clearly belonged in this same tradition. From the outset, it was obvious that Nelvana was intended to personify the North (she even drew her powers from the Northern Lights). This identification would be further underscored in issue No. 20 of Triumph, in which Nelvana goes south to Nortonville, Ontario, and adopts a new identity: Alana North, Secret Agent.
However, while Nelvana, the daughter of a mortal woman and Koliak, personified the North, she was very much a white goddess not an Inuk [singular form of "Inuit" Ed.]. In choosing to portray Nelvana as a White, Dingle was consciously casting her in the same mold as the many white queens and goddesses that had appeared in popular fiction since the publication of H. Rider Haggard's She (1887). Typically, these figures had names that ended with the letter "a," were beautiful and immortal, and ruled over more "primitive" peoples (often lost races). Prior to Nelvana's appearance, the character Sheena, the first of many white, jungle queens in American comics, had made her debut in Jumbo Comics (1938). However, while Nelvana succeeded Sheena, she predated Wonder Woman, the first female superhero in the U.S., by three months.
Unlike most of the Golden-Age artists, who were young men even boys Dingle was in his thirties when he created Nelvana, bringing to the comics medium his already well-honed skills as a graphic artist and illustrator (from 1942 until 1946 he would serve as Bell Features' art director). His comic art, which was somewhat reminiscent of Milton Caniff's striking artwork on the strip Terry and the Pirates, was far more sophisticated than that of most of his Canadian contemporaries. Throughout Nelvana's run in the comics, from August 1941 to May 1947, Dingle's work was distinguished by its elegant, bold design and by his mastery of chiaroscuro techniques, in which the artist relies less on line and more on the use of light and shade.
Compared to the Canadian national superheroes that followed her, Nelvana was extremely powerful. She could both fly and travel at the speed of light along a giant ray of the Aurora Borealis. She also had the ability to call upon other powers of the Northern Lights, including Koliak's powerful ray, which could melt metal and disrupt radio communications. As well, she could make herself invisible, alter her physical form, communicate telepathically with her brother Tanero, and use her magic cloak to physically transform him from light form to human form. Furthermore, it also appears that she was immortal.
In fact, the magnitude of Nelvana's powers posed a problem for Dingle, one that other superhero creators also had to contend with. With a very real war impinging on the fictional, comic book universe, the creators of ultra-powerful superheroes were obliged to explain just why it was their characters did not rush off to Berlin or Tokyo and destroy the Axis leaders and their military might. Superman's creators resolved the dilemma by insisting that the U.S. military was quite capable of defeating the Axis, so that Superman would focus his energies on the home front. Dingle's approach to the problem was more creative: he invented other-world super-villains (often allied with the Axis) and Axis super-weapons. This way, while the Canadian armed forces fought a conventional war, Nelvana could protect her country against more fantastic threats. As a result, Nelvana's adventures often had a Flash Gordon flavour.
Nelvana's first major adventure centred on her efforts to thwart an Arctic invasion by the Kablunets, Nazi allies who were armed with Thormite Rays and led by a villain named Toroff. Her second adventure was even more far-fetched and saw her dispatched by her father to the lost world of Glacia, located under the Arctic ice. In the futuristic world of Glacia, she is drawn into the battle between King Rano (joined by his handsome son Prince Targa) and the villainous super-scientist Vultor. With Nelvana's assistance, the Glacians defeat Vultor; however, before she can enjoy the fruits of her victory, Nelvana is obliged to return to the Arctic, where, in order to prevent the completion of the Alcan highway, the Japanese have dropped "swarms of savage, starved Manchurian wolves" a considerable threat to highway construction but no match for Nelvana, who arrives in the upper world riding on a polar bear.
Nelvana's third adventure, which was a little more mundane, involved the efforts of the German villain One-Ear Brunner, and his henchmen Dwarfo and Slimey, to steal a new Allied secret weapon: the ice-beam. This five-part story was notable, though, because it brought Nelvana from the Arctic to Nortonville, Ontario, where she assumed her new identity as Alana North. Her next adventure, however, marked a return to the outré super-science territory that was becoming Dingle's trademark. Entitled "Nelvana of the Northern Lights and the Ether People," the story saw Nelvana and her companion, Corporal Keene of the RCMP, travel through the worlds of the stratosphere on their way to Etheria to stop an invasion of the Earth, led, it turns out, by her old nemesis, Vultor.
The subsequent Nelvana stories date from the post-war period, when Dingle and other artists were forced to find new non-Axis villains and when the English-Canadian comic book industry was on the verge of collapse due to the return of the U.S. comics. Generally, these later strips lacked the panache that characterized Nelvana's earlier adventures and which made her one of the most memorable characters of the English-Canadian Golden-Age period. Her name lives on, though, not only in the memories of the fans who followed her adventures during the war, but also in the name and logo of one of Canada's leading animation and film studios: Nelvana Limited of Toronto. Looking back on his time spent on Nelvana and a number of other Bell Features' strips, Dingle was later to comment:
It was fun trying to make up a new schmoo of some kind...whenever you thought up a new character you thought, "This is going to be immortal, it's really going to make me a big shot in the business." We always thought we had the real thing everytime we invented something. As long as we thought that we were able to carry on. It was a very exciting time. It was a grand time.(3)