The Secret Lives of Villains #278

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Golden Age Showcase; Nelvana of the Northern Lights

Canada.  From what I’ve heard it’s a pretty nice place.

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As an American I may not know a whole lot about our neighbor to the north aside from hockey, poutine, curling, Celine Dion, hockey, maple syrup, universal healthcare, hockey, Justin Bieber, Molson, and hockey, but I do know that Canada has a respectable place in comic book history as the home of Marvel’s greatest cash cow…I mean greatest bad asses: Wolverine.

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and to all the people complaining about me not bringing up Alpha Flight,

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they came out after Wolverine.  But don’t worry, they factor into this article later.

But Wolverine wasn’t the first Canadian superhero.  Everyone’s favorite hairy man with foot long murder knives in his hands was first published in 1974 and it turns out that Canada had been in the comic book publishing business since the Golden Age.

Today we’re going to talk about Canada’s first true superhero: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

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Origin and Career

Nelvana of the Northern Lights made her first appearance in Triumph Adventure Comics #1 which was published by Hillborough Studios in August of 1941.

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She was created by Canadian comic artist Adrian Dingle,

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who was inspired by stories told by Canadian painter Frank Johnston.

There are a couple of things to note about this comic.  For starters, the cover is in black and white and you’ve probably never heard of Hillsborough Studios.  That’s because the publisher was created by Dingle and two others to create something resembling what we would call an independent publisher today.  The reason why the comic is in black and white is to cut down on costs, partially because it was a small operation, partially due to the lack of resources thanks to the war effort, and partially due to the fact that the Canadian comic book market wasn’t very large at the time.

Nelvana would turn out to be Dingle’s greatest and most lasting success.

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For starters, she was one of the first comic book heroines ever published.  She wasn’t the first, but she beat out Wonder Woman by three months.  However, she was the first truly Canadian superhero and she was a member and protector of the Inuit people,

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and you could make the argument that this makes her one of the first Native American superheroes ever published (someone correct me in the comments if I’m wrong).

Nelvana is a demigoddess, the child of a human mother and a god named Koliak who was the king of the Northern Lights.

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Her powers were pretty fitting for a demi god.  She could fly, turn herself invisible, travel at the speed of light along the Norther Lights, and could summon a heat ray that could melt through almost anything.

Also, she had a brother named Tanero.

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What makes Tanero interesting is that he couldn’t be seen by white men, he had to turn into a dog whenever they were present.  Thankfully, her brother/household pet proved to be useful as a noble steed Nelvana could ride on.

That’s not weird at all.

In her first seven stories, Nelvana and her brother protected the Inuit people from all kinds of threats from slavers to Nazi agents, thus fulfilling the standard “Golden Age hero kicks Nazi butt” quota.

After seven issues, Dingle took his creation to a company called Bell Features, which allowed Nelvana to add some color to her adventures.

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Her stories took a left turn into crazy awesomeness after that.  Now instead of just Nazis and gangsters, Nelvana fought aliens and mad scientists with death rays.

While her enemies became crazier, Nelvana became a bit more grounded.  She adopted the civilian persona Alana North and gave up a good portion of her mystic origin to become the standard spy smasher super heroine that the real life war effort called for.

Fun side note: did you know that the Nazis actually landed on Canadian soil during the war?  They established a weather station on Newfoundland in 1943 and used it to determine weather patterns in Europe for the rest of the war.

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So it turns out that Alana North would have had an actual job on her hands and that threats of invasion weren’t that far off.

So what happened?

While Nelvana was able to hold her own and become a Canadian symbol during the war, she and her publisher could not survive the glut of American comics that flooded the Canadian market when trade restrictions were lifted after the war.  Nelvana had her last appearance in 1947 and Bell Features ceased publication in 1953.

Thankfully, despite her short history, Nelvana’s story actually gets a happy ending.  While she didn’t last very long, her impact on Canadian identity and culture lives on to this day.

The Canadian animation company Nelvana Limited is named after her.

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They bought the rights to the character in 1971 and currently share said rights with Library and Archives Canada.

And for those of you who are upset that I didn’t talk about the Canadian super team Alpha Flight don’t worry, it turns out that Nelvana is actually the mother of one of the team members: Snowbird.

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But the best part of the story is that reprints of her old stories are actually being published to this very day!  In 2013 comic book historian Hope Nicholson launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint six of Nelvana’s old stories and bring them to a modern audience.

The campaign made its goal in five days and the project is currently being published through IDW.

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Nelvana of the Northern Lights deserves a special place in comic book history as one of the first, and most powerful super heroines in comic books.  While she got left by the wayside due to the limitations of the Canadian comic book industry, she proved that great superheroes don’t have to be American to be popular.

I like to think she was the Canadian version of Superman, a heroine who inspired thousands of other creatives to imagine and create superheroes of their own.

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Golden Age Showcase: Stuntman

We all know who Jack Kirby is right?

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Okay, so for anyone who doesn’t know the name all you need to know is that Kirby was the main artist and one of the biggest creative voices behind many of Marvel’s greatest superheroes.  The man had one of the most prolific art careers in comic book history (there are stories out there that said he could draw five to six pages a day) but  was sadly, and unfairly, overshadowed by his more famous counterpart: Stan Lee.

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With such a legendary career you would think that Kirby created nothing but legendary stories.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case as evidenced by today’s hero: Stuntman.

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Origin and Career

Our hero made his first appearance in the self titled Stuntman #1, which was published in April of 1946.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

A couple of things to note here.  First, the cover claims that it’s not a comic book.  Instead, it’s a comic novelette which makes me think the comic’s creators were trying to create something a bit classier than the throwaway pulp that made up most of the comic book scene of the 1940’s.  Second, you’ll notice that the book was created by Jack Kirby AND Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America.

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So we have not one, but two of the greatest comic book creators of all time working on single project.  This ought to be good.

The story starts off with a criminal gang trying to shake down a travelling circus, implying that there will be several accidents if management doesn’t pay up.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

Sadly, the criminals succeed in killing the circus’ greatest act: a group of high flying acrobats known as “The Flying Apollos”

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

The only survivor is their young ward Fred who vows revenge and accidentally runs into a movie star/amateur detective named Don Daring.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

What?  Is the origin of an acrobatic superhero who used to work for a circus before his parents were murdered starting to sound a bit familiar to you?  Shut up and focus on the excellent artwork!

Anyway, Fred takes a job as Don’s stuntman in his pictures with the purpose of getting a new job and working with Don in order to solve the case by acting as bait for the killer.  Fred is eventually attacked and decides to don a costume to go after the killer

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Hmmm, could use more black.

Don discovers that it was a circus manager who was behind the crime all along, but before he can carry out his dastardly deed he is ambushed by the Stuntman and the day is saved.

Comic Book Cover For Stuntman #1

The rest of Stuntman’s adventures would have a similar theme to them.  Don would do all of the detective work while Fred would swoop in as the Stuntman to do the fighting.  The two men were a duo, dynamic even, and their adventures all centered around the entertainment industry and the various people looking to fleece audiences and entertainers alike.

For a Golden Age comic the writing and artwork were fantastic.  But then again, that’s what you expect from the minds and talents of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.  Surely the Stuntman would go on to become one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

So what happened?

The Stuntman Comic only lasted three issues and the character would only make nine appearances for a single year.

Honestly, considering the talent behind the character and quality of the artwork and writing, I’m really surprised it only lasted that long.  Maybe it was the post war backlash against superheroes, or maybe it was Harvey Comics’ decision to focus on licensed characters instead of original content.

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but sadly we were deprived of more excellent stories.

However, it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Stuntman superhero lives on in another circus performer who watched his family get murdered before his eyes and eventually wind up fighting crime under the guidance of a rich amateur detective.

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Okay, so maybe Stuntman bears too much of a resemblance to Robin for comfort and maybe if the title had kept going Harvey would have found themselves on the receiving end of a DC lawsuit, but I honestly think that comic book fans and readers missed out on something fantastic with this Golden Age hero created by two of the greatest comic book creators of all time.

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Golden Age Showcase: Unknown Soldier

This Saturday is Veteran’s Day.

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For our non American readers, this is a holiday where America honors those who have served in the armed forces in conflicts past and present.  It’s also an exciting time for this blog because it’s a great time to talk about war comics!

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When looking at the time period, it’s easy to see why war comics became so popular.  America found itself at war and sent thousands of young men and boys to go off and fight in Europe and the Pacific.

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However, America had the advantage of being separated from the conflict by two massive oceans and it’s people didn’t have to come face to face with the true horrors of war.  With that being said, the United States became a military industrial powerhouse during the war and almost the entirety of American culture became obsessed with doing their part for the war effort and protecting the home front.

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Comic books took advantage of this shift in popular culture, and stories about ordinary soldiers fighting against the forces of evil were quite popular during the Golden Age of Comics both during and after the war.  Many of the greatest artists and writers of the Golden Age of Comics made a living writing and drawing war stories which resulted in some of the most complex and interesting stories of the time, along with some absolutely breathtaking artwork.

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The intent and purpose of the war stories that were written during this time was also pretty varied.  War and combat stories ranged from fantastical adventure stories for young boys staring ordinary soldiers fighting in fantastic situations,

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to very thinly veiled propaganda stories promoting American patriotism and fighting spirit.

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It’s worth noting that most of these adventure and propaganda stories were created and published during the Second World War.  After that war was over and the Korean War began a lot of comics became much more realistic and brutal in their depictions of war.

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So there’s a brief rundown of the early history of war comics.  Unfortunately, since most of the early stories have so much talent behind them and were published by the big important publishers of the day, there isn’t a whole lot of material out there for free reading.  However, today’s comic is available in the public domain and is a pretty interesting look at the early days of the war comic genre.

Today we’re going to talk about the thinly veiled propaganda hero The Unknown Soldier.

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Origin and Career

The Unknown Soldier made his first appearance in Our Flag Comics in 1941.  He was published by a company called Ace Comics and was the title character of the series.

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The funny thing is, despite the fact that he was popular enough to appear on the cover of his debut issue, I can’t find any information on who created him or drew his story.

The hero himself has an interesting backstory, mostly because he really doesn’t have one.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He’s just a super being who appears out of nowhere firing explosive bullets and using his superpowers to defeat injustice and oppressive “gangster nations”.

What makes this kind of interesting is that this has some pretty close ties to real world American military culture.  In Washington D.C you can visit a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery that honors the unnamed American soldiers who died in every war America has ever fought.

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It’s called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and while the comic doesn’t tie the hero to the memorial, I like to think the creators of the story had this monument in mind when they wrote it.

Anyway, in his debut issue the Unknown Soldier helps defeat the Nazi invasion of Britain.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

It’s worth mentioning that in 1941 this was actually a scenario that was terrifyingly plausible.

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However, in this comic the Nazis don’t succeed because of superior tactics or planning, in fact their kind of idiots, but because of English traitors willing to betray their country to the Nazis known as Fifth Columnists.  We actually get to meet one and learn about his motives.  His name is John Jennings and he has made the classic mistake of believing that his country would be better under the rule of Nazism.

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The Nazi war machine starts rolling and crushes everyone in its wake.

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Thankfully the Unknown Soldier arrives just in time to murder every Nazi he can lay his hands on.

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Naturally, the invasion is turned back but not before the story does something really unique and interesting.  Remember the British fifth columnist John from the beginning?  He has a change of heart when he and his gang of saboteurs attempt to blow up a hospital.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

He actually redeems himself and dies a hero’s death while protecting his mother.

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

Comic Book Cover For Our Flag Comics #1

All while the superhero stands by and does nothing.

So the story isn’t actually about the Unknown Soldier, it’s actually a story of redemption for a man who was once blinded by ideology and hatred and sacrificed himself for a noble cause.

Pretty good stuff for a Golden Age Comic.

After that first adventure the Unknown Soldier continued in a similar capacity.  While the stories were actually about ordinary people doing their part for the war effort, the Unknown Soldier would show up when it was time to knock heads or save someone from dying.

He wasn’t a hero with a secret identity, he was a representation of America’s fighting spirit.

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Also, he got a costume change.

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Despite all the murder done by our hero the creators were quick to make sure that the Nazis were just as bad if not worse.  Case in point, they invade Manhattan and use flamethrowers on civilians.

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So what happened?

Our Flag Comics only lasted five issues, but The Unknown Soldier was popular enough to be moved to another title called Four Favorites where he did pretty much the same thing.

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He lasted for over 16 issues until November of 1945 when he fell into the public domain.

While this Unknown Soldier would fade from the public eye, the idea and name would continue when DC comics published another character called The Unknown Soldier in Our Army at War #168 in 1966.

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The comic was created by DC legends Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, two men who knew how to create a really good war comic.

This version of the Unknown Soldier was a lot more tangible and slightly more realistic.  Instead of a real superhero, the Unknown Soldier was an intelligence operative who was so disfigured that he had to bandage his face.

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He was actually a master of disguise and in his final appearance, he kills Hitler and disguises himself as the dictator to end the war without further loss of life.

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This iteration proved to be a bit more popular and he got a new limited series in 1997 under the Vertigo imprint at DC.

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As for the original Unknown Soldier, he would make a slight comeback in 2008 when Dynamite Entertainment launched their Project Superpowers title to bring many of the Golden Age public domain heroes back into the mainstream.

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He was renamed “Soldier Unknown” to avoid copyright issues with DC.

As a superhero the Unknown Soldier is not a very good one.  He’s bland, he has no backstory or secret identity, and he’s even more overpowered than Superman.  But that’s not really important.  The Unknown Soldier isn’t a hero, he’s a symbol of something much greater than himself, the creators who made him, and any single person.  He is the personification of the fighting spirit that rises up against tyranny and oppression, and while it would be nice to have known his name, it’s important that we know that he did his job so we could live.

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Happy Veteran’s Day everyone.