Minorities in cartoons: Nelvana of the Northern Lights

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Nelvana of the Northern Lights
“Nelvana of the Northern Lights” #2. Art by Adrian Dingle.

This week’s entry is Canadian superheroine Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Nelvana is one of North American comics’ earliest superheroines, pre-dating Wonder Woman by several months. Nelvana debuted in “Triumph-Adventure Comics” #1 (August 1941). Adrian Dingle created Nelvana.

Background

Nelvana was Canada’s first superheroine, and came about due to a World War II-era restriction in Canada on importing “luxury goods” from the United States, including comic books. Thus, a boom in Canadian-made comics came about, including home-grown superheroes. The stories were usually published in black-and-white with color covers, giving rise to the term “Canadian Whites.”

Nelvana’s backstory is that she’s a powerful Inuit demigoddess; her brother, Tanero, would often accompany her as a sidekick. Her parents were an unnamed mortal woman and Koliak the Mighty, King of the Northern Lights. When Koliak married Nelvana’s mother, the other gods disapproved, and cursed Koliak to be visible only as a spirit manifested in the form of the Northern Lights. However, Koliak decided to task his offspring with protecting the native peoples of northern Canada.

Nelvana certainly lived up to that task. On her first adventure, Nelvana protected Inuit peoples’ food supplies from a villain’s sabotage. Later adventures saw Nelvana visit an underground world hidden below the Arctic ice and travel to another dimension to fight an alien invasion. Nelvana, like every other hero in the 1940s, also fought Nazis. (Her first adventure in-universe attracted Hitler’s attention!)

Oddly, Tanero was forbidden from being seen by White men (due to the curse on their father); Tanero thus disguised himself when away from Inuit peoples. Said disguise was usually in the magically-transformed form of a Great Dane.

Later in her run, Nelvana gained a secret identity, that of “Alana North,” a Canadian secret agent.

After the end of World War II, American comics started to flow into Canada again. With the popularity of American comics, and presumably also the decline in superheroes’ popularity post-war, Nelvana saw her last adventure in 1947.

Powers

Nelvana’s powers came from her Inuit demigod heritage and the Northern Lights itself, and included: telepathy; shape-shifting; becoming invisible; flight (at the speed of light); and the ability to melt metals.

She also possessed a magic cape, which she’d use to magically disguise Tanero.

Nelvana also seemed to be a friend to animals; she rides a polar bear in one story.

Other media

However, Nelvana remained in the memory of Canadian culture for decades afterwards. The animation studio Nelvana (founded in 1971) was named after the heroine. Writer John Byrne also introduced in Marvel Comics’ “Alpha Flight” the superheroine Snowbird; her parents were “Hodiak” and “Nelvanna of the Northern Lights” (note the spellings), as a tribute to the original Nelvana. Nelvana also appeared on a Canadian postage stamp in 1995.

In 2013, a Kickstarter campaign was successfully started to raise funds to reprint restored versions of Nelvana’s comic.

(Updated 11/21/16)


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