022: Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada
May 28, 2015
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You don’t have to go far to see the influence that comic books have had on contemporary culture, but you might be surprised to learn that Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of comic books and related material within its vaults. In this episode, we speak with comic book historians Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey about their work and LAC’s role in it. We also talk to special collections librarian Meaghan Scanlon who takes us deep into the comic book collection, and tells us what can be found there and online.
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Guardians of the North
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Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada
Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
You don’t have to go far to see the influence comic books have had on contemporary culture. A quick scan of the top blockbuster movies provides a pretty good indication that the medium is here to stay. You might be surprised to learn however, that Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of comic books and related material within its vaults. In this episode, we speak with comic-book historians Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey about their work, and LAC’s role in it. Hope and Rachel were recently honoured in
Flare magazine’s top 30 under 30 feature, which celebrates extraordinary Canadian women, under 30, who are changing the world. They were recognized for their ground-breaking work to bring Golden Age comics back into the spotlight. Meaghan Scanlon, Supreme Protector of Rare Books… ok, that’s not really her title but we like to think of her that way… special collections librarian Meaghan Scanlon takes us deep into the comic book collection and tells us what can be found there and online.
During a recent visit to Toronto, one of our producers, Tom Thompson, took the opportunity to step in front of the microphone to interview Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey.
Tom Thompson: Hi Rachel, thanks so much for being here today.
Rachel Richey: Hello.
TT: I hear you have some exciting news about a feature in
Flare magazine. Could you tell us a bit about that and what that means to you?
RR: Yeah. So that was kind of a surprise when I got the email about that.
Flare magazine for the first time ever, like this is their first time doing it, are doing a 30 under 30. I never ever thought, ever in my life, that I would be in
Flare magazine for like any reason at all, never mind for publishing Golden Age comics, but yeah. So they’re doing a 30 under 30 and Hope and I are included for publishing and reprinting
Nelvana of the Northern Lights, and we also talk about our future projects like
Brok Windsor and
Johnny Canuck and so on and so forth. So yeah, it’s a fantastic opportunity and I feel really, really honoured by it and on top of that, it’s a great way to reach out to a greater readership to try and bring these comics back into pop culture. You know, I feel like it’s been a journey and my prime directive for the last, you know, five or six years now has been to get those comics into the public eye, get them into the mainstream because they’re great and totally amazing for everybody to read, and to understand and to know that we have this rich comics history. I feel like it’s been a great opportunity in being able to reach even more Canadians.
TT: I understand that you had a successful Kickstarter campaign to get the
RR: Yes, very successful.
TT: Why did you think that was so important?
RR: Well, Nelvana is a very important character on a multitude of levels. She’s so rich and layered in so many ways. I mean, some of the listeners might know that she is a demi-goddess, that she’s half Inuit. She’s the first major female superhero in comics ever.
TT: Which is amazing.
RR: Which is amazing. Yeah, she predates Wonder Woman.
RR: Yeah, exactly. And beyond that, she’s Canadian-produced and she’s a very strong character. She kind of overshadows a lot of female characters in comics from the time. On top of that, Adrian Dingle is a fantastic artist. [He] was working in illustration and advertising for a long time when he started doing the comics. He really adds a lot to the art and the texture of the comics that, again, a lot of this early art form, this early literary art form, didn’t have, you know. So she’s just beautiful.
JO: Tom had a conversation with Hope Nicholson about the origins of the Nelvana character.
TT: Can you tell us where the inspiration for the Nelvana character came from?
Hope Nicholson: Nelvana of the Northern Lights was inspired by an Inuit women named Nelvana, although I recently learned that’s not pronounced Nelvana.
HN: It’s actually pronounced Nelv-ana.
TT: Oh, okay.
HN: And I learned that from, well it could be from one of two women who was living in Coppermine, Northwest Territories in the 1930s, we’re not entirely sure which, but I did meet one of their granddaughters who is also named Nelvana…
TT: Oh wow!
HN: …in traditional Inuit naming tradition. Yeah, and she was the one who told me it was pronounced Nelvana. One of the Nelvanas is named Connie and she was a very traditional women. She did a lot of artwork, sculpture and also followed traditional ways of preparing caribou and the like. I don’t know much about her, but I’ve been chatting to her grandson a fair bit. He’s been filling me up on her. It’s very likely she is the Nelvana that inspired the comic book because at the time, the artist Franz Johnston—who is a member of the Group of Seven—was travelling the Northwest Territories and he described meeting an arctic Madonna named Nelvana.
HN: He photographed her and took paintings of her, unfortunately none of which exist. So because I believe its Connie and not Cecile (the other Nelvana)… because Connie had a child at the time and I feel that fits in with the Madonna naming by Franz Johnston, anyway, that’s another story. Franz Johnston came back to Toronto and told his friend Adrian Dingle about this amazing women he met and Adrian Dingle made her into a superhero.
TT: Hmm. And in the stories, what is it about Nelvana that makes her a uniquely Canadian superhero (or heroine)?
HN: Well, she’s incredibly Canadian in a lot of various ways. I mean her powers are based on the Northern Lights and she has deep ties to the arctic people who she protects and guides. Sometimes in later issues this turns problematic, unfortunately. There are also things with her powers, for example she can command polar bears upon request and ride them into the battlefield, and her best friend is a Mountie.
TT: Okay, that’s interesting.
HN: So yeah, she travels kind of across Canada really getting into all sorts of adventures. It’s quite fun.
TT: Interesting. What is it about the medium that you think makes it survive in an age of digital media—where it’s taking over—what is it about the hardcopy comic books that make it endure?
HN: Well, I think a lot about that is the disposable nature of them. They are very thin, kind of flimsy, easy to take around with you, fun to read, printed on glossy paper makes the colour pop, and there is definitely a textural quality that I think is really hard to replicate, well impossible to replicate, on a digital device. That said, I can also put a lot more comics on my Kindle or what have you. It’s difficult, as you don’t want to zoom in on every panel. With a comic book in particular, your eye wants to wander around the page, sometimes you want to look at the top panel, sometimes you want to look at the bottom, and with a digital device that’s fairly portable it’s not that easy to do. I think definitely the medium being a lot different from books, where it’s not a strict right to left progression, it’s all over the place. You let your eye wander to wherever the artist guides you or to wherever you want.
TT: Which is really interesting because you can even interpret it in a different way I suppose, you know, by letting your eye… you can sort of jump ahead. It’s not possible with a traditional book, I think. It’s an interesting distinction.
HN: Not at all. A lot of artists play with that too. They know that you know when you turn the page you are just as likely to accidentally see the last line of the last panel as you are to see the first line. A lot of times that’s played with, especially with repeating visuals and things like that. It’s definitely an interesting medium that a lot of people don’t realize is very nuanced and very different from any other forms of medium.
TT: Do you think it’s a source of inspiration for people to, you know, sort of step out of their day-to-day lives and jump into a superhero’s perspective for a while?
HN: I suppose so, I mean, I definitely really liked superhero comics growing up, especially ones that blended people’s personal lives. I guess the most popular one of that [type] would be Peter Parker and Spiderman because there was the combination of him doing his regular things, going around high school, being a nerd, getting picked on and then going on these adventures. I never personally liked Spiderman, myself, because when I was growing up, at that time, he was off doing clone adventures and stuff that was very high concept. But I was reading a lot of Dazzler, which was about a struggling musician by day who would accidentally be drawn into all of these superhero battles by night and make friends with the Avengers and the X-Men, but still wanted to pursue her day job, so that was really fun for me. So yeah, there is a part of wanting to see yourself reflected, I suppose, in a more superhero sense, but there is also a need to be grounded in some sort of reality and some sort of human connection to the character.
TT: Yeah, well that makes a lot of sense, why that sort of Peter Parker/Spiderman thing is so popular. It makes it easy for people to identify with, I think.
HN: And you see that too with the popularity of new characters like Ms. Marvel, the Kamala Khan character, because people… now you know, not everyone is a Peter Parker. Some people are obviously women, or Muslim or gay and it’s really necessary to see themselves reflected in these comic book characters as well. It was great when X-Men was coding it and, you know, making mutants synonyms or metaphors for racial or sexual kind of crises, but at a certain point you actually need to see the characters identities reflected in the real world too.
JO: Here is Tom’s conversation with Rachel Richey about the role LAC played in the republishing of
Nelvana of the Northern Lights and other comics.
TT: Did you use Library and Archives Canada’s collection a lot for that project?
RR: We used it a little bit lighter on
Nelvana, just because at the time it was easier to kind of get it from different private collections, especially because a lot of them are local. A lot of the collections, you know, scanned it in and sent some things. We had a few scans from Library and Archives Canada, but I’d say that the other later projects were heavier on those things. I mean as it stands right now, I have several books lined up for the future. I used it for
Johnny Canuck, I will use it for
Mr. Monster almost exclusively for the next book and as well as
The Brain and so many characters coming up,
Polka Dot Pirate, you know, the complete
Wing is coming as well. There is lots of it, Library and Archives is very present in this.
TT: When you were going through the collection at Library and Archives were you surprised by anything you found in there? By the size of the collection?
RR: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean basically I love school, I love learning, I will never not. I just have that need to learn, right?
TT: Me too.
RR: Yeah, right. So when I got to Library and Archives and when I got the job working on the collection and researching it, it was basically like I was getting paid to go to school. It was like all the best parts of school.
TT: That’s like my job.
RR: Yeah, you understand. It was like the best parts of going to school and none of the bad parts, like I didn’t have to write any papers, I didn’t have to get certain grades, and you know I was getting paid to do it. It was amazing! It is the best job I will have ever had probably. This collection, that was another thing that was really just amazing for me… is that it spans, you know, Golden Age comics and it went right up until [the] early 2000s. It has everything in between from every era of comics that you can imagine. There is the black-and-white boom in the late 80s, tons and tons of self-published indie books, like almost complete runs of the Golden Age books, sci-fi magazines from the 70s, early Captain Canuck books, just such a rich collection and so full.
Cerebus is in there, like tons of
Cerebus… amazing collection. Really, truly, an amazing collection.
JO: We asked Library and Archives Canada special collections librarian Meaghan Scanlon to tell us what comic book-related resources are available at LAC and online.
Meaghan Scanlon: LAC’s collection of comic books is actually quite large. It’s more appropriate to even say collections because there are a few distinct ones. Two of them are special collections, that is collections that were given to LAC as collections and they are treated as separate…
MS: Yep, as separate collections by LAC. So the first of these special collections is the Bell Features collection, which is 382 Canadian comic books published in the 1940s by Bell Features which was one of the major World War II era Canadian comic book publishers. This collection was actually originally Bell Features own archive of its publications, so it’s quite complete, and it has been fully catalogued. If you search for the Bell Features collection in LAC’s online catalogue, you will find a record that gives more details about exactly what titles there are in the collection. The second special comics collection at LAC is the John Bell Collection of Canadian Comic Books. This is the most significant collection we have and as far as I know, it’s the only collection of comic books in a research library that’s specifically dedicated to Canadian comic books. There are about 5,000 comics in that collection, in French and English and a couple in Inuktitut and some other languages as well. It’s a wide range of material, mainly comics published by Canadian publishers but it includes also self-published comics and zines, and also comics by Canadians published outside Canada; as well as more ephemeral things like educational comics published by the provincial and federal governments, and promotional giveaway comics from stores and restaurants. It’s really like…
JO: It’s a pretty broad range of…
MS: Yes, it’s very interesting. That collection unfortunately is uncatalogued, but we do have a list of the whole thing. So on top of these two special collections, comics published in Canada are also scattered throughout LAC’s general published holdings because these have been acquired over the years via legal deposit. Legal deposit is LAC’s main collecting mechanism for published materials. Legally, every Canadian publisher is required to deposit two copies of all their publications at LAC, so obviously we get, well hopefully we get, comics published by Canadian publishers. This would include graphic novels published by, you know, mainstream publishers as well as comic books published by publishers dedicated to comics. So there is no guide to these holdings, but they’re all catalogued and they are available for researchers. To find them you would just search in our catalogue for the title you want.
JO: Right. So they are just interspersed throughout the regular collection.
MS: Yeah, they are not kept together. It’s not an autonomous collection.
JO: Do they have a subject headings [system] that is used?
MS: I can’t say for sure that all of them do. I think if you searched for “Comic Strips—Canadian” a lot of things would turn up, but probably not everything.
JO: On top of the vast collection of comic books, what other related resources are available at LAC?
MS: Well, we do have a fair bit of original artwork. Some related to Bell Features, the Bell Features collection that I mentioned earlier, came with archival material. So there is textual records about business records from Bell Features as well as original art. We also have some original artwork related to
Captain Canuck, the series by Richard Comely. I believe that was first published in the 70s, I want to say. We have some original art from Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette from their series
Angloman. Then John Bell, who donated his collection of comic books, also donated some original artwork and kind of ephemeral material, publicity materials related to comics that he collected over the years. Of course LAC also (as I mentioned through Legal Deposit) collects all books published in Canada, so we have books about Canadian comics in the collection. John Bell also wrote two books, one called
Canuck Comics which was published in 1986. That one is a checklist with a few essays on the history of Canadian comics and he put together the checklist, I believe, while he was building his collection. So most of the comics on the checklist are in the John Bell collection, which of course is now at LAC. So that’s a pretty good resource. He wrote
Invaders from the North, published in 2006, which is a book-length history of Canadian comics focusing mostly on English Canada, but that’s a really good resource too. LAC also has two websites about Canadian comic books. One of them is Beyond the Funnies: The History of Comics in English Canada and Quebec and that one does have a section dedicated to French Canadian comics, which was written by Michel Viau who is an expert on that. Then the other website at LAC is the
Guardians of the North site that’s on the national superhero in Canadian comic art. It was based on an exhibition put on at the Museum of Canadian Caricature in 1992 that was curated by John Bell. There is also a physical exhibition catalogue that goes with this, also called Guardians of the North that we have in our collection in French and English.
JO: Here’s a continuation of Tom’s conversation with Rachel Richey.
TT: Why do you think it’s important for Library and Archives Canada to maintain a comic book collection?
RR: So I think it’s important for them to maintain a comic book collection because it is a part of popular culture. Popular culture is often diminished because it’s fleeting, because it has no, maybe, intellectual or academic… or people just kind of feel like its superficial so it’s not worth anything. But it is basically grassroots, it is basically folk, like no matter what, this is what people on their day-to-day life want to read. This is why comics from the 40s are worth thousands of dollars, because people in the 40s thought it was pointless and were going to throw it away. But people 70 years later… that’s something that I would want to read, I would want to access, I would want to have. So it’s really important for Library and Archives to maintain this collection for people to return to. And again, like I was saying before, with the zines, I say superhero stuff or anything else is grassroots or is ground-level comics, but there is probably over six or seven hundred small independent self-published zines. You’ve got individual Canadians making comics themselves because they love their stories, what they’re making, what they’re thinking and it’s just such a perfect examination of a certain culture of Canada that you don’t see in magazines. That’s important. That’s really important.
TT: Right. And as a document of the times, as well to see what the kind of topics were, the fears were, that sort of thing.
RR: Exactly. That is ground level right there. That is primary documents, it’s almost as good as an interview. You’re getting it from everybody. That’s good stuff that deserves and needs to be protected. And that’s something that, again, popular culture in whatever country doesn’t really get so it’s important to preserve that.
JO: Here’s Hope Nicholson talking about some of her upcoming projects.
TT: So what’s your newest project? What are you working on right now?
HN: Well, I guess its
Brok Windsor. He’s at the printer right now. That was another 1940s comic book that was printed in Canada and came along a few years after
Nelvana. The creator of
Brok Windsor was actually a Winnipeg artist who moved to Vancouver. He then created a character called Brok Windsor who’s kind of a medical doctor, who’s also an adventurer who gets lost in the land beyond the mists, in the middle of Lake of the Woods. And he goes to this magical land where everyone is a giant. There is advanced technology. Everyone is also Native, which you really don’t see in comic books of that time period, or even today. It’s still a very stereotyped kind of thing. Which is part of the reason I’m doing another project called
Moonshot, which is a collection of indigenous comic books that focus on different identities and communities from across Canada and the United States. It kind of shows a lot of fantastical stories, but also very small traditions and things that people just really aren’t aware of.
TT: I heard some mention of a super-secret project with Margaret Atwood? Are you allowed to say anything about that? A little hint for us?
HN: I’m allowed to say I’m working on a super-secret project with Margaret Atwood. Yes, I don’t know how much she wants me to say about it yet. I’ll wait for her to take the first strides for that, but she did say I could mention that I was working on a super-secret project with her. It’s coming along well, I can say that. I’m very excited of course. It’s going to be something unlike what I’ve done to date, definitely, and yeah, when she approached me I was just kind of floored. I still kind of doubted myself, and every so often I have to double check my emails to be like, all right…
TT: Is this really happening?
HN: Well, for a while I actually went to go meet her to talk about the project and she didn’t show up because unfortunately her assistant put in the wrong date in her calendar. I’m like okay, so it’s clear someone is just fooling around with me and they just have a fake email address and whatever, but I still show up the next day because she emailed and said to meet up. Then she actually showed and I’m like okay, I haven’t been catfished. That’s how she learned what the word “catfished” meant.
JO: Tom asked Rachel Richey why she thought the campaign to republish
Nelvana of the Northern Lights was such a success.
Nelvana we were asking on the Kickstarter, we asked for $25,000 and you know I was expecting to make it. I mean we had someone backing us up just in case, but I was expecting to make $25,000 maybe a week before the end of the 30-day period. We made $25,000 before we had our launch party. We made $25,000, five days into the campaign.
Nelvana exploded. Women are, especially in comics and comic culture, are kind of desperate for a strong good group of female characters. I mean there is some more than ever now, I mean there is a female Thor, Miss Marvel who is out right now, there is Squirrel Girl, I could go on for ages. There are tons, it’s a booming culture. Women readership is the most consistent readership. But within five days, we raised our goal and then we doubled it. We more than doubled our goal over the period of the month. It was reassuring from the Kickstarter that there was an interest here.
TT: That proves the importance right there in a sense.
RR: Exactly, you know, exactly. Immediate validation, I couldn’t have asked for…
TT: It must have been so exciting.
RR: It was so exciting. We raised it in the first couple of hours, I think we raised like $5,000 and I was on the floor. I could not believe it, I can’t believe this is happening at this rate. We were going to have a launch party for the campaign to draw the attention of local comic fans and we had it at the Silver Snail. Half an hour before that party started the campaign was funded, so it turned into our success party instead of our launch party. It was really surprising. It was the same thing with
Johnny Canuck, we asked for $23,000 to publish it and distribute it and we got $31,000. The next book that will happen,
Mr. Monster, that one is a much smaller book so hopefully the costs will be low on that one, but I expect it to be as popular because that character was readapted by an American artist in the 80s and was very popular in the 80s. I really think that one will be a big one as well. People want to read these comic books. They are a treasure trove.
TT: It sounds like you’re going to be working in this field for a while.
RR: Yeah, I’ve committed… I feel like I’ve done my civic duty as well. Can I just say that after this I feel like I’ll retire intellectually and I’ll just read them. I’ll go back to doing that. But yeah, definitely, the next two to three years of my life I’ve set aside to just at least put out the most popular ones. You can tell which ones were the most popular when they were being put out, so put out the ones that I know will at least translate the best into modern culture. I want to do Major DomoandJojo, Polka-Dot Pirate (who is another fantastic female character). She’ll be another small book. Rex Baxter who is kind of like a sci-fi hero. He’s fantastic. Thunderfist, so good. There are two splash pages, one of them he is fighting a robot and then the other one he is fighting dinosaurs. That’s the one I’m going to do after
Mr. Monster, so good, so, so good, I can’t even tell you how amazing these comic books are. I know what I’m doing, that’s good to have direction.
JO: To learn more about comic books in Canada, please visit us at collectionscanada.gc.ca/comics. Also, don’t forget to check our blog,
thediscoverblog.com, for more content. You can find the content quickly by selecting
Literature from the category list on the right side of the Web page.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Rachel Richey, Hope Nicholson and Meaghan Scanlon.
For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at