Nelvana of the Northern Lights (IDW, $39.99) reprints the titular character's adventures from a Canadian publisher in the 1940s. Copyright IDW Publications.
By Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Thanks to a pack of recent reprints, we are free to take a peek at some of the ladies of the early days of comics, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s.
You'd think that would be salacious, given the moral uproar over comics in the 1940s and early 1950s, which resulted in Senate Subcommittee hearings and the Puritanical Comics Code of America. But what's been reprinted recently wouldn't raise an eyebrow in a convent.
Take the first successful female star in comics: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Debuting in 1938 (three years before Wonder Woman) and lasting until 1953, this female Tarzan launched an entire genre. The comic-book stands of the '40s and '50s were crowded with gals in furry bikinis: Nyoka, the Jungle Girl; Rulah, Jungle Goddess; Zegra, Jungle Empress; Camilla, Wild Girl of the Congo; Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle; Marga the Panther Woman; Lorna the Jungle Girl; Judy of the Jungle; Jann of the Jungle, Princess Pantha; Tygra of the Flame People; Tiger Girl; Cave Girl; the inevitable Jun-Gal; and more.
But ruling above all was Sheena, who starred in all 137 issues of Fiction House's Jumbo Comics and 18 issues of her own title (although, oddly, not in Fiction House's Jungle Comics, where other jungle queens held sway). Different folks claim credit for her creation, but the likeliest story is that she was created by the legendary Will Eisner (The Spirit) at the Eisner-Iger shop that wrote, drew and packaged the first issue of Jumbo. Eisner says he drew elements from the H. Rider Haggard novel She (including the name), and it rings true.
Not many Sheena stories have been reprinted over the years, so most people know her from the short-lived 1950s TV show (with the zaftig actress Irish McCalla) or the 1984 movie (starring Charlie's Angel Tanya Roberts). But fortunately for jungle-queen fans and scholars, English publisher PS Artbooks has just reprinted Sheena's eponymous title (1942-52) in three volumes.
Since PS Artbooks didn't reprint Sheena's Jumbo stories, this collection doesn't include the Jungle Queen's origin (where, according to one foreword, she was a bit more bloodthirsty than later). Instead, this collection gives us the fully formed Sheena, in a series of relatively repetitious stories that don't vary much from formula.
So, yes, reading these stories at a sitting can be dull. There's not even much ogling to be done; Sheena's leopard-skin outfits show less skin than you'd see today at the mall.
But there are some fun bits. For example, for no evident reason, Sheena and the natives speak in a stilted, almost formal language. "Pah! It is not so easy to capture the Jungle Queen," snorts Sheena, as she decks an evil-doer in issue #8. "Taste my wrath, jungle scum!" A few pages later, a native scout shouts "Hark! A boomstick sounds from yonder glen!" I had no idea there were English finishing schools in the Congo!
An exception to this is Bob -- no last name, just Bob -- who is Sheena's sidekick (and invariably referred to as her "mate"). Bob dresses in "white hunter" mode -- jodhpurs, boots and canvas shirt -- and speaks in regular 1940s American. (Presumably, he is the audience's point-of-view character). He also gets kidnapped a lot, and is occasionally a whiner. "Hush!" Sheena snaps at Bob in issue #6. "Your complaints grow wearisome!"
More entertaining, but less well-known is Cave Girl, whose every appearance has been reprinted in a hardback by Kitchen Sink (Bob Powell's Complete Cave Girl, $24.99). Cave Girl came along a little late for the prime jungle-girl era (1952) and only lasted a couple of years. Nor was she particularly well-written, as sometimes she could talk to all animals, and sometimes she couldn't.
But what Cave Girl had going for her was the artwork of Bob Powell, one of the best at the time. Despite dressing in a modest zebra-skin one-piece, Cave Girl was sexier than Sheena just by dint of having a better artist. Plus her adventures varied a bit more than Sheena's, with "Beast-Men," abominable "Snow-Men," Amazons and, of course, her come-and-go super-powers.
Even less well-known -- obscure, even -- but far more entertaining than both is a heroine from Canada: 'Nelvana of the Northern Lights" (IDW, $39.99).
Nelvana came about due to import restrictions during World War II, when luxury goods like comic books from the U.S. were barred. That opened a window for writer/artist Adrian Dingle to launch his superhero creation, which ran in Triumph Comics from 1941 TO 1947. Nelvana, and her father the sky-god Koliak (her mother was a mortal), were entirely invented by Dingle, albeit inspired by stories about the Inuit people of Canada's far north.
Being a demigod gave Nelvana an enviable host of super-powers, from almost instantaneous travel via the Aurora Borealis, turning invisible, throwing heat rays and many more. In her first adventure she was accompanied by her equally super-powered brother, who could not appear before white people due to a curse, and would therefore transform into a large dog.
Needless to say, the appeal of this strip was its creativity. Nelvana also entered the "radio world" to fight the Ether Men, became secret agent Alana North and explored the strange world of Glacia, in an adventure straight out of Flash Gordon.
Which raises another plus: This was long before women's lib, but Nelvana was one liberated lady. Occasionally some man, like Prince Targa of Glacia, would bark "This is no work for a woman! You must stay here!" But Nelvana would blithely ignore him and go save the day.
Of course, there are some less appealing aspects of the era that appear in the strip. For example, Nelvana is the defender of the Inuit early on, but after the Japanese become the primary opponent, she seems to spend her time mostly protecting white folks. And, of course, those Japanese are depicted as they were in American comics, with the worst racial stereotypes of the times. Nelvana refers to them in one adventure as, no kidding, "the Yellow Peril."
Oh, and one other minus: Triumph Comics was in black and white. For a strip that relied as heavily on the Northern Lights as Nelvana, that was a considerable drawback! But Dingle's artwork is attractive enough to carry the concept, and continues to evolve through the series, until it strongly resembles that of the dean of adventure strips, Milt Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates").
In fact, all of these gals are fun to look at. And it's not naughty at all!
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Nelvana looks an awful lot like Supergirl...or vice versa.
Snowbird of Alpha Flight is supposed to be Nelvana's daughter. Except of course Marvel doesn't have the rights to the character. Nelvana was actually a hideous hag, but drawing her like that might have affected sales.
John Byrne (a proud Canadian) wanted to make Snowbird the daughter of Nelvana. But since Marvel didn't have the rights, he had to change names and avoid direct references, letting in-the-know readers infer Nelvana's existence in the Marvel U. A frustrating side effect is that I accidentally used the Byrne name for Nelvana's father, Hodiak, instead of the real name, Koliak, in this column when it first went out. As we say in newspapers, it's not what you know that comes back to bite you, it's what you think you know. I didn't bother to look up Koliak, since I thought I remembered it. Nerts!
Adrian Dingle was inspired by the Group of Seven painters (I have no idea what that is), one of whom did a turn in the far north. He told Dingle about his trip, and Dingle used some of it in the creation of Nelvana. For years everyone thought Nelvana was based on an Inuit goddess, but dogged research by the creators of the IDW book finally narrowed it down to a respected elder in an Inuit village. She was very old, but it's unkind to call her a hideous hag!
There was no Inuit goddess. Nelvana was based on revered elder in an Inuit village.
Tell wikipedia that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelvana_of_the_Northern_Lights
Wiki's wrong. They are often wrong.
The book describes the origin of Nelvana's name in great detail. I've also been in touch with the author.
There was no Inuit goddess.
There was a Batman writer they insisted had a middle name who tried convincing them he didn't but finally gave up on it. He printed his attempts to get them to change his wiki page in CBG.