NELVANA OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTSMedium: Comic books
Published by: Bell Features
First Appeared: 1941
Creator: Adrian Dingle
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The superhero genre hit it big in comic books with the June, 1938 debut of Superman. It took a little over three years for the superhero women to arrive. Tho there were a few early starters such as The Woman in Red and (assuming she qualifies) Fantomah, August, 1941 is when the big wave hit. That month saw the debuts of Harvey Comics' Black Cat, Quality's Miss America (no relation), Holyoke's
Miss Victory and more. Quality Comics launched two more that month, Phantom Lady and Wildfire. Even north of the border, Canada's Hillborough Studios started Nelvana of the Northern Lights in the first issue of Triumph Adventure Comics, a black and white comic dated, like the rest, August, 1941. Wonder Woman, a relative late-comer, was still four months in the future.
But Nelvana had this much in common with Wondy: Both were mythological princesses (no relation). Nelvana was the half-human daughter of King Koliak, god of the Northern Lights, part of an ancient Inuit (formerly called "Eskimo") pantheon — at least, according to tales brought back from the far north by painter Franz Johnston. As a demi-god, she seems to have struck fellow painter Adrian Dingle as just the thing to be turned into one of the first comic book superheroes to originate in Canada.
Dingle's first story arc, appearing in Triumph Adventure 1-7, started with a call for help from an Inuit community, whom Nelvana had sworn to protect, and led to a direct confrontation, in the Arctic region of North America, no less, with agents of Hitler himself — just about the time of Pearl Harbor! By the time it was over, Nelvana had gotten into the news and was well known in the southern regions of Canada as well as in the far north. (She later relocated to Ontario.) Her brother, Tanero, also helped, but Nelvana, being more visually appealing, was the star.
Some of Nelvana's super powers were tied to the Aurora Borealis. She could travel at the speed of light by riding one of its rays. She could disrupt radio communication and call on other electromagnetic phenomena, enabling her to do anything from melt metal to control the weather. Using a magic cloak, she could alter her appearance, including turn invisible. Also, she could communicate telepathically with Tanero. She was friends with Arctic wildlife, and was once seen riding a polar bear. With a physical resemblance to the people who first told stories about her (unlike The Bird Man), Nelvana is very likely at least tied (with The Bronze Terror, who debuted in the same issue as Pat Patriot, another female superhero who started in August, 1941) as the world's first non-Caucasian superhero.
Early on, the title dropped the word "Adventure". and the publishing was credited to Bell Features (probably not related to the syndicator of Phil Hardy and The Nebbs). Among the other series that ran in Triumph Comics over the years were Captain Wonder, Speed Savage and The Black Avenger. Meanwhile, Dingle continued to write and draw Nelvana until 1946, when, with wartime difficulties over, U.S. comics returned to Canadian stands, forcing many of the less well-produced native publications into retirement. Nelvana's (and Tanero's) last issue of Triumph was #31 — coincidentally, the first to feature Doc Stearne, the character who inspired Mr. Monster.
Nelvana is well remembered as a very early Canadian superhero. In fact the Ottawa-based animation studio that produced Eek! the Cat, Berenstain Bears and much more is named after her. In 1995, she appeared on a Canadian postage stamp, part of a series commemorating Captain Canuck, Fleur de Lis, and other comics characters created by Canadians.
In fact, she even survives, in a way, in modern comics. Marvel's character Snowbird, an early member of Alpha Flight, is said to be her daughter. Marvel spelled the name a little differently ("Nelvanna", possibly to avoid copyright entanglements), but it's pretty clear who they were talking about.