Canada. From what I’ve heard it’s a pretty nice place.
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.
and to all the people complaining about me not bringing up Alpha Flight,
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.
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.
She was created by Canadian comic artist Adrian Dingle,
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Art provided by Dave Windett: http://www.davewindett.com/)
We all know who Jack Kirby is right?
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.
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.
Origin and Career
Our hero made his first appearance in the self titled Stuntman #1, which was published in April of 1946.
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.
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.
Sadly, the criminals succeed in killing the circus’ greatest act: a group of high flying acrobats known as “The Flying Apollos”
The only survivor is their young ward Fred who vows revenge and accidentally runs into a movie star/amateur detective named Don Daring.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.