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), and was created by Adrian Dingle.
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—her first adventure saw her protect Inuit peoples from having their food supplies sabotaged by a villain’s efforts. Later adventures saw Nelvana visit an underground world hidden below the Arctic ice, travel to another dimension to fight an alien invasion, and, like every other hero in the 1940s, fight Nazis. (Her first adventure in-universe attracted Hitler’s attention!)
Oddly, Tanero was forbidden from being seen by White men (due apparently to the curse their father was under), so was forced to assume a disguise when venturing away from Inuit peoples. Said disguise was usually in the magically-transformed form of a Great Dane.
Nelvana’s powers were drawn 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’s seen riding a polar bear in one story.
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.
However, Nelvana remained in the memory of Canadian culture for decades afterwards. In 1971, animation studio Nelvana was founded, and was named after the superheroine. 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 was also honored 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.