Adrian Dingle: Comic Book Pioneer

By Mark Skeffington

Long before Adrian Dingle became an admired Canadian painter, he had already made his mark as a comic book writer and artist.

The year was 1941, and Canada was at war with Nazi Germany.

Because of the war, Canada had slapped restrictions on imports of non-essential goods from the United States (which was still not fighting in the Second World War). These non-essentials included comic books.

That opened the door to Adrian Dingle to start his own company, Hillborough Studios, and create Nelvana of the Northern Lights. (See Biography of Adrian Dingle the artist)

Nelvana ran as a monthly comic book from August 1941 to the mid-1940s, first published by Triumph Adventure Comics, and later Triumph Comics.

Group of Seven

These have now been brought back out of the history vaults in a new 365-page hardcover compendium, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, published by IDW Publishing. The book was edited by Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey, fans and historians of Canadian comics. All 313 pages of the original comic books are reprinted in order.

Former Group of Seven member Franz Johnston is acknowledged to have provided the core idea that led to the creation of Nelvana, sharing with Adrian Dingle legendary tales of a female elder named Nelvana that he had heard about in his travels in Arctic Canada. But Adrian Dingle is listed in every edition as the writer and illustrator.

Nelvana is a powerful demigoddess, and is acknowledged in comic book history as one of the first female “superheroes,” predating Wonder Woman.

Nelvana is the daughter of Koliak the Mighty, King of the Northern Lights, and has the power to fly and give off bright light, at times making herself invisible, and at other times blasting her enemies. Nelvana and her brother, Tanero – who takes the form of a large dog since he isn’t to be seen by those of the “white race” – are protectors of the “Eskimos” of Canada’s north.

Fighting Evil

Again and again, they are involved in fantastical adventures to protect the Inuit from the evil plans of the Kablunets, a made-up name for Nazis led by Hitler. Nelvana fights other villains and strange monsters through the course of the comic book series, and the Arctic becomes a surprisingly busy battleground in the fight between good and evil.

Part way through the series, Nelvana protects the Arctic against the evil plans of the Japanese, who are called “Japs,” “slit-eyed, yellow” men, and the “yellow peril.”

From today’s lens, some of the words and drawings of Nelvana of the Northern Lights are clearly inappropriate and racist. Use of the word Eskimos has long been replaced by Inuit. References to the Japanese are bluntly unacceptable.

However, Nelvana the comic book dates back almost 75 years to a different era, a time when Canada was also at war in Europe and Asia. The language and portrayals in Nelvana were not out of place in the culture of the time, either in Canada or the United States, where Adrian Dingle drew comic book role models from. That’s not an excuse – it’s an explanation.

Admittedly, the racist language of the comic books makes them harder to read and appreciate today, but the historical and cultural context should be kept in mind. The comic books can still be read with interest, not just as an historical artifact.

Like many comic books, the stories are far-fetched, implausible, fantastical and sometimes hokey, but it’s possible to use your imagination to picture children of the 1940s flipping through their inked pages with fascination, anticipating the next thrilling turn of events. And like many comic books of the day, good always wins out over evil in the end.

Copyrighted material. Cannot be used without written permission.


For more information:

Book: Nelvana of the Northern Lights, IDW Publishing, 2014; Editors: Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey.

Website: Nelvana Comics