Name a Canadian superhero. Alpha Flight? Well yeah, kind of. Wolverine? Yes, but Marvel would rather you forget that detail. Superman? No, but a lot of Canadian heritage groups want to take ownership of him. Captain Canuck? Definitely, but we’re treading on some obscure ground now. As far as most comic book fans know, the comic book industry has always been distinctly American. That’s where the industry started and for decades superheroes have been fighting for truth, justice and the American way. However, what most comic book fans don’t realize is that during a period that spanned between 1941 and 1946, Canada had a thriving comic book industry rich with action, adventures and characters just as intriguing as their American counterparts. When the Canadian government put forth a rationing bill to help the economy during WWII, American comic books were no longer available in Canada. The result was that a new Canadian comic book industry was born, and colorful characters such as Johnny Canuck, Freelance, Thunderfist, The Penguin, Golden Arrow and Nelvana of the Northern Lights were born. Although popular amongst Canadian readers at the time, their reign ended after the war was finished where they eventually found themselves in a state of limbo. As decades passed the history of Canada’s golden age comic book industry has fallen through the cracks where it remains to be a faded oddity of yesterday.
However two Toronto based women are trying to change that. Rachel Richey, writer or the blog Comic Syrup, which looks at the past and present of Canadian comics, and Hope Nicholson, associate producer on the upcoming documentary Lost Heroes, which examines Canada’s forgotten comic book legacy, have put together a Kickstarter campaign to reprint the adventures of Canada’s premier female superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, in one collected volume. Recently acquiring the license to the character, this will be the first time that a series from Canada’s golden age of comics has been reprinted and available to the public. Having emerged out of a movement of fans who are dedicated to preserving the history of Canadian comics, putting together a volume of Nelvana is a labor of love for Rachel and Hope, but they can’t do it without the support of comic book readers at home and abroad. The Kickstarter page is available at nelvanacomics.com .
Knowledgeable and passionate about the history of Canadian comics, I had the pleasure to talk Hope and Rachel about their plans, the history of Nelvana, and Canada’s hidden comic book legacy. But our talk was not without its surprises, because one character always leads into another and before the conversation was over the women had blown my mind and made me want more.
Sam Tweedle: What is your personal history with Nelvana, and why do you two love her so much?
Rachel Richey: I think my love for Nelvana comes from two different aspects. Anybody who loves comics is a collector, but I love archiving, I love history and I love making sure that we have this whole database to go back to. So when I found out that we had this great history in Canadian comics I was heartbroken [that people don’t know about it]. So it’s my prime directive to get more of Canada’s heritage and history to the forefront so more people know about it. There is just so much history there. On top of all that, Nelvana is an amazing character. She’s incredible. She’s beautifully composed. She’s just the best. I just think she’s an excellent character and is probably the most accessible to people. Especially with her relation to the animation studio, and being on the stamp. She is the one people would probably know if they knew any of them, so I think it’s just a great starting point.
Hope Nicholson: I agree with Rachel. I think the thing that was most exciting about Nelvana is that she is completely hidden from anyone doing any research until you do a little bit of a deep dig. Then you realize that there is this really great character written by a really talented illustrator with this really great connection to Canadian history and literature and she has completely disappeared. So you think that’s really exciting, and that you’re in on a special little secret.
Sam: So let’s go back to the creation of Nelvana.
Hope: She was actually co-created by Franz Johnston and Adrian Dingle. Franz Johnston was a member of the Group of Seven who was painting up North, and he came back and was telling his friend Adrian Dingle, who was an accomplished illustrator, all about the Inuit myths. Well Adrian Dingle thought “Hey, It’d be a great idea to sex up this Inuit character and make her a superhero.” Superheroes were fairly popular at the times, and comics had just been banned from coming into Canada. So Adrian Dingle, with the help of some investors, started his own publishing company called Hillborough Studios where he published Nelvana of the Northern Lights in Triumph Adventure Comics for seven issues. He didn’t do so well in the business side unfortunately, so he merged with Bell Features after the seventh issue.
Sam: Now you mentioned that comics had been banned in Canada. A lot of people, especially south of the border, don’t realize that comics were banned from coming across the border from the US during the Second World War. Could you give us a brief history of when and why this happened?
Rachel: Basically, during WWII, in order to preserve the Canadian economy and allow it to grow, [the Canadian government] decided to cut out a lot of American goods that were deemed unnecessary. This included periodicals, which included comics. In December of 1940 this War Exchange Conservation Act was instated and all of a sudden you couldn’t buy American comics in Canada anymore. Really, the industry had only been going for a couple of years by this point, but now all these kids were kind of dependent on having these comics. So, a bunch of different businesses decided to get in and take advantage of this industry that all of a sudden became available in Canada. So, you got publishers like Hillborough, Bell, Maple Leaf Comics, Educational Projects, Anglo-American and all these other publishers springing up, and they do incredibly well for about six years. Then, in 1946 the ban was lifted. By 1947 a lot of the publishers had shut down because all these American comics were coming back in. From 1941 to 1946 they had total control over the market, and after 1946 they had almost nothing because American comics were better produced, they had color, they had a greater staff of writers and artists to choose from. It was just a more polished industry in the States at the time. That’s why Canada kind of fell off the map.
Sam: So who is Nelvana? What’s her origin story and why is she interesting?
Hope: Nelvana was a demi-goddess whose been banned from entering the God world because she is half mortal. [She has a] brother who can’t be seen by white men because of the curse of being half mortal. She uses her skills to protect the Northern people, as well as Canada in general, from invaders which ranges from Nazis, which is the first part of the storyline, and then into outer space and inter-dimensional villains.
Rachel: Most creators at that time really got to have their own way with their comics as long as they were getting them in on time. I think that it could have gone in two ways. It could have gone really bad, which it did in some cases, or it could have gone really well, which is what you see in Nelvana. You really get to see [Dingle’s] creativity go with it, and you really get some good story lines.
Hope: There were a lot of different ways between the way that Canadian comic books were being produced and that American comics were being produced. Canadian publishers didn’t insist upon any standard art style among their staff, so you came up with comics that ranged from really rough stuff that came from high school kids to incredibly elegant illustrations that came from accomplished artists.
Rachel: Compare that to a lot of publishers [in the States] at the time that had a house style – a lot of comics done by a slew of different artists, but made it to look like it was in one form.
Sam: Are you using the comics from the National Archives as your source material for the reprint project?
Hope: We’ll be using it for a great deal of the source material. Some of the comics are damaged and certain panels [are in a state where we] can’t use the archive versions of [them]. But we do have access to private collectors who will help fill in those gaps.
Sam: As fans and collectors, what is it like to be holding these old Nelvana books in your hands?
Hope: I’ll let you know when I hold one. (Laughs)
Rachel: I worked at the Archives and I got to do it. There were so many times where I actually got emotional. It is actually the best job that I will ever have, other than maybe publishing this book. It was incredible. I got to hold many of them, and just to hold them, and realize that these comics have existed this long is almost surreal because [the history is] so hidden and so unexplored and you just don’t believe that they are Canadian and that they exist. You can’t believe that you just discovered it, and that it’s this good.
Sam: Your Kickstarter Campaign for Nelvana is running through October. What are some of the incentives that you’ll be giving people?
Rachel: I’m really excited about a lot of the incentives that we’re offering. There was one colour comic that was produced that we’re going to have as a single issue as a less expensive incentive. That way, if you can’t afford the book, at least you can get a single issue. I feel that it’s a little bit naughty of us because we’re kind of playing on the collector side of things because you want to have the complete collection. Even if you can only afford a buck you can get something. But if you can afford five hundred bucks we have original art [by different artists]. Jeff Lemire is on board. Ray Fawkes is on board. We’ve got Francis Manapul on board. Ramon Perez is designing the book, but he is also contributing a piece as well. Who else do we have Hope?
Hope: We have J. Bone, Adam Gorham, Michael Walsh and some others as well, depending on their schedule.
Sam: So the comic book community is really supportive of this project.
Rachel: They are really really really being supportive.
Hope: Everybody wants these comics. They really want them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “There really should be a reprint. Someone should get on that.” So if people can help in any little way by donating a piece of art, or being involved in that way, it gets them involved in the project.
Sam: Well I know I want the book.
Rachel: Well it’s really frustrating to know that there is this really amazing history and all of these great comics, and then hit a wall because it’s next to impossible to read them. To know they exist, but have them be completely inassessable is infuriating. Even reference books on Canada’s comics history are rare. The Great Canadian Comic Books are eighty dollar books. John Bell’s most recent book has a couple of inaccuracies, but it’s a good reference book no matter what. We’re still trying to figure out the history of [Canadian comics]. It’s so hard to get some of the information on this.
Hope: The only way I was able to read the Nelvana comics was to go to the library and request a copy of microfiche that had been copied in the 1970s and then copy it to digital format just so I could read it. This was just for my own interest. To say that this stuff is inassessable is an understatement, but it’s completely hidden from the public.
Rachel: This is the thing. Say you want to read these comics. Let’s just say you want to read Bell Features, which is probably the most prevalent golden age publisher. You would know, if you researched it a little bit, that there is a collection at the National Archives. But this is not advertised. Even though I worked there, and even though I had a contract to catalogue all those comics, there is no place where you can discover that there is that huge collection that exists. Even if you wanted to, it’s such a convoluted system. First you have to contact somebody there just to list what’s in the collection. Then you’d have to get them to pull it from Gatineau, Quebec and have them drive it into Ottawa where you’d be able to see them at the Archives in Ottawa.
Hope: But only some of them and only against a black screen with cotton gloves on.
Rachel: The Bell Features in the John Bell collection is almost complete, but many other publishers are not. They’ve made it next to impossible. But wouldn’t it be so nice if there was a copy of this comic in every library?
Sam: Do you have any idea what the retail price of the book will be at the moment?
Hope: Right now you get a copy of the book as an incentive if you donate thirty dollars. That will probably be the retail cost as well.
Sam: After you release the Nelvana book, would you be interested in continuing this project with any other characters or comic series?
Hope: Well, we’ll see how well this one does. I have every hope that it’ll be fully successful and be able to be self-sustaining, which is our goal because this is not a “for profit” project. If this is self-sustaining we’ll move on to other characters. Absolutely.
Sam: Who are some of the other characters you’d like to do?
Hope: Which one would you like to do Rachel?
Rachel: Well I know which one you’d like to do, which I also want to do, which would be my top priority. But I’ll say Thunderfist. Which one would you want to do?
Hope: I’d want to do Major Domo and his assistant Jojo.
Rachel: I was going to say that one, but I thought I’d let you say that one. The Penguin would be awesome too.
Hope: The Penguin would be really great. I’ve actually only read one of The Penguin stories. I have some catching up to do.
Rachel: The thing with some of these characters, like Major Domo and The Penguin, have a way shorter run than Nelvana. Some of them appeared maybe five times ever. It would be easier to put out collections of those characters.
Sam: You both seem to have an enthusiasm for this Major Domo. I’ve never heard of him.
Rachel: (Laughs) You’re in for a treat Sam.
Hope: I always feel like I’m always talking about Major Domo so I’m going to let Rachel explain about him.
Rachel: So Major Domo has no arms. He’s a superhero with no arms. I’m not even joking about that. I’m not making that up! How can you make that up?
Sam: What happened to his arms?
Hope: He’s a war veteran and he lost his arms in battle.
Rachel: Yeah. He lost his arms, so he has this assistant Jojo. (Laughs) So Jojo helps him out in that sense.
Sam: So let me get this straight. Major Domo has no arms, but Jojo has arms and helps him with the arms part.
Hope: Yeah. Jojo rides on Major Domo’s back in this small carry on thing. He’s a dwarf.
Rachel: Yeah. He’s a dwarf.
Sam: Okay. So how do they fight crime?
Hope: Well they fight saboteurs overseas.
Sam: With no arms.
Hope: Well Jojo has arms.
Sam: So Major Domo runs into action and Jojo does the arms part.
Rachel: When that is required.
Sam: I’m having a hard time picturing this. I’ll have to Google it so I can get it clear in my head.
Hope: Well good luck with that.
Rachel: This is what I’m saying. You’re going to hit a wall.
Sam: This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! My mind is blown!
Hope: Well Major Domo was created by a radical artist named Avrom Yanovsky. He was a political artist who wanted to create some comics that weren’t Americancentric. He wanted to create characters that were fighting the fight, but who was Russian based and not necessarily part of the US Empire.
Sam: I’m suddenly fascinated by this character.
Hope: Us too. Yanovsky’s other creation were Shasha and Masha which were the young Russian guerilla fighters. They were children that were basically fighting Nazis.
Sam: This is pretty radical stuff for the 1940s.
Hope: Yeah. It was definitely very different. I have a feeling that once we read these books featuring Major Domo and Shasha and Masha that they’ll be incredibly subversive compared to the other comic books at the time.
Rachel: I think there is, in total, five stories with Major Domo.
Sam: But couldn’t you do a collection of Yanovsky’s work featuring Major Domo and Sasha and Masha?
Rachel: Yeah. That’s what we would probably have to do with some of the creators work. Adrian Dingle only had a few other titles other than Nelvana, so we’d probably combine them but first we have to see exactly what we’re dealing with by publishing Nelvana.
The golden age Canadian comic book industry is a forgotten moment in Canadiana which needs to be brought back to the forefront of our nation’s cultural identity. Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson are undergoing a project of great national importance, and your support will allow them not only help them bring a unique comic character from the past out of obscurity and back into the hands of fans and readers, but will allow other editions to be published and more characters to return from limbo. I mean, who doesn’t want a Major Domo and Jojo collection? They could be my new favorite thing in the world!
Help make Rachel and Hope’s project a reality. Visit nelvanacomics.com and donate generously and help bring Nelvana to your comic shop. For more information on Nelvana and to keep up with the progress of the project make sure to visit Hope and Rachel’s Nelvana facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NelvanaComics.