Nelvana of the Northern Lights – Q&A with David Fuller

Questions & Answers: Here’s the full text from an interview with David Fuller. Exceprts will be appearing today (9 November 2013) in a Remembrance Day weekend culture/analysis section, 49.8, in the Winnipeg Free Press. If any Winnipeggers are readers, I’d reimburse you for a copy!

What is the title of your thesis and what made you decide to include Nelvana in it?

My MA research paper was entitled: “‘A Brand New, Thrilling, Chilling Adventure!’ A Case Study of Heroism, Villainy, and ‘The North’ in Nelvana of the Northern Lights in the Strange Frozen World of Glacia.”

250px-Nelvana2Cover

Luck and happenstance led to my interest in Nelvana! My interest in Canadian superheroes more generally began during my undergrad in Canadian Studies at McGill University, when I wrote an essay based on characters that I found listed at InternationalHero.co.uk, presumably a website that I stumbled upon while I was procrastinating from choosing an essay topic.

Nelvana interested me because she is often referred to as one of the “first” Canadian superheroes and claimed as the “first” female superhero. I wanted to find out the story behind the character. Since the University of Toronto Rare Books Library had the complete issue of the Nelvana of the Northern Lights in the Strange Frozen World of Glacia storyline, I focused on that issue for my MA.

I met Hope Nicholson at a conference, and she had access to many more of issues of Nelvana’s adventures (as the recent Kickstarter may indicate!), so I used those stories in my chapter comparing Nelvana to Wonder Woman in the book Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men: Superheroes and the American Experience (published in 2013).

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Nelvana and many of the other Canadaian WWII-era superheroes have been all but forgotten by most Canadians. Why do you think they have been overlooked?

It seems like most WWII-era superheroes – with the notable exceptions of characters like Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman – have faded out of existence (having lost their patriotic impetuous and soldiering audience) and then been forgotten by most people. This might be because of a general (and dangerous!) tendency to forget the past, or maybe it’s because people have just been interested in other things, or perhaps a combination of factors including the ebb and flow of interest in early comics.

the-great

You see the waxing and waning of interest particularly with Nelvana, who was created in the 1940s, revived for The Great Canadian Comic Books publication in 1971, included in a Canada Post stamp series in 1995, and is now (2013) the focus of a Kickstarter to reprint her complete adventures.

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Canadians have, perhaps, done a better job of keeping Nelvana and other WWII characters in the public eye, especially if you consider the Guardians of the North: The National Superhero in Canadian Comic-Book Art exhibit from 1992 or if you compare the 1995 Canada post stamps that celebrate such WWII characters as Nelvana and Johnny Canuck to the 2006 USPS collection of mostly contemporary DC Comics characters and the 2007 USPS collection of (again) mostly contemporary Marvel Comics characters.

2006marvel-STAMPS

Given that U.S. comics were not allowed to be imported into Canada when Nelvana first hit the stands, how fair is it to say she was a role model for Canadian girls and women growing up in the 1940s?

This is a tricky question to answer, as I have yet to locate readership statistics for Canadian audiences. I can say with some certainty that the publisher of Nelvana of the Northern Lights was selling more than 100,000 comics a week in Canada in 1943 (according to John Bell). For comparison, in the United States, roughly fifteen million copies of comic books were sold each month in 1942 (according to Ian Gordon).

As you indicate, US comics were prohibited from being imported to Canada, but Mordecai Richler has written about the popular “black market” in comic books that existed in Canada during WWII. However, I couldn’t say how many of the readers of Nelvana (or “black market” comics) were female, male, children, or adults, although I’d be interested in seeing those distribution figures, if they exist.

It would also be worthwhile to ask readers of comics from the 1940s if they found a role model in Nelvana, but I have not done so and, as Professor Desmond Morton at McGill has said, accessing those memories “gets harder as those years fade away.”

Nelvana was a Canadian superheroine of Inuit background in an era when most other superheroes were male, white and American.  Was there anything in her adventures (art- or story-wise) that also made her stand out from other heroes?

In appearances and costume, Nelvana was quite similar to another (white, female, immigrant American) character from the time, Wonder Woman. Both were based in the “white queen” tradition in fiction dating back to (at least) 1886 with Henry Rider Haggard’s book She: A History of Adventure.

Likewise, both Nelvana and Wonder Woman (and other characters from the era, such as War Nurse Pat Parker) don an alter ego and wear the uniforms of their war-supporting efforts as a secretaries and nurses. Both Wonder Woman and Nelvana spark controversy in their respective comic book universes—a bystander calls Wonder Woman a “hussy” with “no clothes on” and a local police officer rebukes Nelvana for her short skirt, saying “that’s hardly the apparel f’r early spring!”

The main stand out feature of Nelvana in terms of Canadiana trivia is that she was inspired by a story that Group of Seven affiliate Franz Johnson shared with Nelvana’s creator, Adrian Dingle.

In a 1973 interview (reprinted in Alter Ego #36), Dingle said:

Dingle

[Nelvana] was a Franz Johnson idea. Franz Johnson gave me that idea for a filler. I remember signing it with sort-of a pseudonym. The “Nelvana” strip was created from legend by Franz Johnson—the late Franz Johnson—who was a member of the Group of Seven painters. And he came back from an Arctic trip and he talked about this deific character called Nelvana. And he showed me a photograph of her. She was a horrible-looking old hag who was chewing her mukluks, just about ready for the bone yard. But the name stuck, and… [ellipses in original]

Given that Inuit people are portrayed in some of the adventures, do you think Nelvana is an example of an empowered/positive Inuit character, or is she “whitewashed” — that is, essentially a Caucasian hero in Arctic trappings?

The best answer to this is found in the 1973 interview (reprinted in Alter Ego #36) with Adrian Dingle and his wife, Pat Dingle:

PAT DINGLE: Adrian changed [Nelvana] a bit.

DINGLE: I changed her a bit. Did what I could with long hair and mini-skirts. And tried to make her an attractive-looking woman. The first issue was [Johnson’s] own script, actually—where I got the dialogue, what the various names were for sleds and boots, and so forth. And he did a lot of translating from Eskimo so that we could get things started. Then, after that, I was on my own. Then we had to bring her up to date and put her into the war effort. And, of course, everything had to be very patriotic, didn’t it…?

PAT DINGLE: And, after that, we slipped in some Indian because we knew that the Canadian public wouldn’t know the difference between Indian and Eskimo in those days. And I had a book on Indian words.

The evidence in this interview suggests that Nelvana is quite whitewashed in the original stories. Arguably, the use of the character has evolved over time, inspiring fan art on deviantART that is quite celebratory of the character’s Inuit roots, and such celebratory representations seem to have potential for empowerment.

Other examples of Nelvana’s use for inspiration include Snowbird in John Byrne’s Alpha Flight series and “The Northern Guard” series by Moonstone Books, which appears to have a very scantily-clad Nelvana-inspired re-boot.

Guardians

I haven’t read the latter series, but based on a cursory glance at the front page image of the team, Nelvana’s role seems quite tokenistic, and nearly nude, continuing an ongoing tradition of sexualizing female Aboriginal bodies.

A much stronger argument can be made for the 1980s Inuit Broadcasting Corporation hero Super Shamou as an empowered and positive Inuit character, as his Arctic adventures took place in Inuktitut and the character was portrayed in the television series by Nunavut resident Peter Tapatai.

[Forgive the annoying voice over in the video – it was the only clip of Super Shamou that I’ve found.]

Other characters from the era, such as Johnny Canuck, were explicitly patriotic to Canada and were pitted against Canada’s wartime enemies such as Germany and Japan.  How nationalistic or patriotic was Nelvana, in comparison?

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Johnny Canuck and Captain America both got to punch Hitler in the face. Based on what I have seen in her stories, Nelvana never actually gets to punch Hitler (or Mussolini) in the face, but Hitler does hear reports of her efforts foiling Nazi plots in the Arctic and, frustrated, refers to her as “dis Arctic girl.”

Early in the series, Nelvana’s father, Koliak, sends her to bring peace to the war-torn world, which she does—ironically—by killing Nazi villains and their collaborators. The focus of the books seems to be more on her adventures fighting aliens in outer space than on her support of the war effort directly, although comic books from the time in the US and Canada are full of advertisements for war bonds, recycling drives, and other ways for readers to support the cause of the Allies.

Credentials:

My name is Amanda Murphyao, and I’m a doctoral candidate in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa researching Canadian visual culture (namely, political cartoons, cartography, and historical comics). I was awarded my MA in Canadian Studies at Carleton in 2010 with a research project on Nelvana of the Northern Lights. I have a BA in English Literature and Canadian Studies (with a minor in History) from McGill University (2006). I am currently an intern at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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