Sunday, August 10, 2014

Nelvana of the Northern Lights

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun” Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert W. Service, 19o7
“Many of my sketches were painted after ten P.M., some of them at midnight while the sun was skipping along the horizon till it finally bounced back up. It seemed strange after the sun had passed its full day of shining to see it sink in the northwest and then rise in a few minutes. I saw it but I didn't believe it. The skies I found very fascinating and often quite queer – that is, they would be if seen over a pastoral landscape – but naturally perfect in the settings where sketched.” Franz Johnston, quoted in Canada Moves North by Richard Finnie, 1942

by John Adcock

MY OWN infatuation with superheroes did not last long. I began reading Superman and Batman in 1956 and outgrew them when Steve Ditko left Marvel comics in 1966, just when the stories and art were becoming stale and formulaic and comics began turning to the Burroughsian fantasy and horror genres. My interest these days is mostly in the historical background of comic books and their creators. The 14 year old boy that still lurks somewhere deep in this craggy exterior enjoyed this present Nelvana collection very much but the adult is a little more critical.

[2] “The Devil Ship” – Nelvana of the Northern Lights 
NOT surprising. Since Canadian comic talent was drawn from newspaper staff, high school kids, art school students, sign painters, failed fine artists and a lumberjack or two, Canadian comic books consisted of 90% filler pages and 10% semiprofessional material. Despite the wretched and amateurish color printing (which is part of the charm of Golden Age comic books) these comics had a captive audience when American comics were restricted at the border. For the most part the generation that bought them fresh off the newsstands did not remember them fondly – most I have talked to were relieved to return to superior American product.

[3] Triumph-Adventure Comics, No. 1, August 1941
DUE to the use of heavy blacks and the over-reliance on a paint-brush inking style Adrian Dingle’s artwork somewhat resembled that of Milton Caniff. His inking was most impressive in the early issues which took place under mystical northern lights. The sky shimmers and shakes and everything is wet and glistening. The stories are typical of the Golden Age and its stereotypical heroes and villains. Story and art are above average for Golden Age comics.

“Many, many years ago – as legend has it – KOLIAK the Mighty King of the Northern Lights married a mortal. This so angered the gods that a curse was placed upon Koliak forbidding him to be seen again by earthly beings. His spirit may still be seen in the form of brilliant lights that streak majestically across the northern skies. His beautiful daughter NELVANA inherits her mother’s earthly characteristics and is often seen by human eyes. Her brother TANERO carries the curse of his father and so must never be seen by those of the white race.” – introductory blurb to Nelvana of the Northern Lights

CANADIAN WARTIME comics, which survived in such small quantity, have been highly sought after by collectors at home and abroad. The real value of this nostalgic collection is the rediscovery and reintroduction of Canadian heroes, by Canadian creators, to a new audience. Comic book fans (and Canadian cartoonists) have proudly and enthusiastically embraced Nelvana of the Northern Lights and further collections are planned.

[4] “The Devil Ship”
Canadian Patent Office Records for June 24, 1941, credit Nelvana of the Northern Lights to Franz Johnston, Paul Johnston and Adrian Dingle. Franz (originally Francis) Hans Johnston (1888-1949) and Adrian Dingle co-wrote the first story in the first issue of Triumph-Adventure; and the cartoonist Adrian Dingle took over all writing with the second issue.

Nelvana made her entrance as one of many features in the first monthly issue of Triumph-Adventure Comics, published by Hillborough Studios in Toronto, Ontario in August 1941. Hillborough’s founders were Adrian Dingle and brothers René and André Kulbach. The editor was Henry Helier Hamon. (A curious echo of that name can be found in Harry J. Halperin who edited the comic books Canadian Heroes and Famous Adventure Stories for Educational Projects Inc. of Montreal in 1942 and 1943.)

AFTER the seventh issue of Triumph Comics, as it was titled from issue No. 5, it was published by Commercial Signs of Canada/Bell Features from 1942 until 1946. Six adventures were printed in Bell’s single issue Nelvana of the Northern Lights in 1945. One story was published in Super Duper Comics, published by F.E. Howard in 1947.

[5] Trappers by Franz Johnston
Hope Nicholson, one of the two comic fans responsible for this Nelvana collection (the other is Rachel Richey), discovered that Nelvana was based not on legend, but on a real person, an Inuit woman Franz Johnston met in the Coppermine community in the Northwest Territories in 1939 (read her account, The Real Nelvana, HERE). Johnston may have sketched the real-life Nelvana; perhaps she was the “Eskimo madonna” in the Johnston quote below.

“The majority of my studies were landscape, this being necessary because figure subjects later developed into serious paintings must have convincing settings. I painted trees, rock, snow, ice, freezing, melting, dogs, carioles, sleds, komatiks, igloos, Indians, Eskimos, buildings, trappers, the doctor and his dogs, Indian madonnas and Eskimo madonnas, wild flowers, canoes, etc. – countless subjects, all of which will constitute an authentic record of the country.” Canada Moves North by Richard Finnie, 1942
Nicholson and Richey gained the rights to Nelvana in 2013 and formed CGA Comics to introduce the obscure character to a new audience. The result was this great hardcover volume of Nelvana of the Northern Lights featuring the complete collection of Nelvana stories in black & white and four-color. Due to scarcity, and after a painstaking search for surviving issues, one complete story had to be captured from microfilm.

[6] Adrian Dingle panel detail
Nelvana of the Northern Lights is available in digital or hardcover HERE. 
IDW Publishing copies will be available on Amazon in November HERE.

Hope Nicholson’s Brok Windsor project (HERE) has been fully funded and should be available by this time next year. Rachel Richey’s Johnny Canuck (HERE) is ongoing.

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