Researcher Hope Nicholson and Canadian Comics' Golden Age
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The Golden Age of comic books is best known for having birthed superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But these characters are all-American inventions. At the same time, Canada was in the midst of its own Golden Age of comics. Spawned by a Canadian wartime trade prohibition known as the War Exchange Conservation Act, these two golden ages played out concurrently, but entirely independent of one another.
Many of the comics from this period of Canadian comic history remain in museums or private collections, but over the past few years, researcher Hope Nicholson has worked tirelessly to collect and archive two of these titles in book form. The titles are Nelvana of the Northern Lights, about a heroic Inuit goddess, and Brok Windsor, about an adventuresome doctor in a strange land. We spoke to Nicholson about her background in comics, and why preserving Canadian comic book culture is important.
You were a producer on a documentary about Canadian comic history. Is that how you first got into both Brok and Nelvana?
I'd been involved in research about Canadian comic books for years before the documentary, Lost Heroes, came out. When I first heard about the documentary, I was actually pitching my own, but it wasn't picked up. So I heard about this other project and I emailed them. I told them I had all the licenses, information for the comic books, and a vast store of visual artwork, and said that they should hire me to be a producer. And then they did. So that's how that happened.
Often people think that I gained an interest in comic books because of the documentary, but it was actually the other way around. I was hired on the documentary because of my passion for these comic books.
So you were always into comics?
Yeah, I've always been very much into comic books. I read comic books fanatically as a kid. I would go to the quarter bins and pick up my favorite issues, which of course were always several years old because they were in the quarter bins. But yeah, I built up my collection from that. The only ones I splurged on were Elfquest, because they were always hard-to-find issues because they were an independent publisher. That cost me quite a bit of allowance. But I had every single issue, every single graphic novel, every trade paperpack, and yeah I also had a lot of Marvel comics, a few DC, and First Comics as well.
I remember reading about Nelvana, but I'm not familiar with Brok Windsor. Can you explain his story?
Like Nelvana, Brok Windsor is a 1940's Canadian comic book. But unlike Nelvana he was not published in Toronto – he was published out of Vancouver. And he has a connection to my hometown of Winnipeg, which is that the artist and writer John Stables was from Winnipeg and based it on a local Winnipeg resident named Brok Windsor.
The easiest way to describe the comic is that it's kind of like a mix of Flash Gordon and Robinson Crusoe, and just a lot of Canadiana. So it's about a guy who discovers a magical island in the middle of Lake of the Woods in Canada. It's an island full of tall, aboriginal, technologically advanced civilizations and all sorts of monsters and ghosts and fun stuff.
What drew you to that story? When did you come across Brok?
I found out about him about the same time I found out about Nelvana and all the other Canadian golden age characters, so that was about 2006 or 2007 I think. But I never saw any of the work, I only knew his name and that he was the most popular character published by the Vancouver company and that was it. There was so little information about him, and that's because Nelvana was actually written up in a history book, but those historians only had access to Toronto-published comics, not the Vancouver-published ones. So I had to hunt down the Vancouver comics from collectors across the country—different collections for the most part than Nelvana—and put them together into one book.
So Toronto had one comics publishing house, and Vancouver had one?
Well, Vancouver had one publisher called Maple Leaf publishing that produced comic books. Toronto had three different publishers—Anglo American, Bell Features, and Hillborough Studios—and then Montreal had Educational Projects. Their main character was called Canada Jack.
Would you consider these Canadian analogues to DC or Marvel?
Yeah, so during World War II, Canada issued the War Exchange Conservation Act. It banned American comic books from entering the country, so we didn't have access to Superman or Batman or Wonder Woman or any of those characters.
Canada entered the war before the US, so there were reasons behind these economic measures. America wasn't really an ally till later on, so we decided not to buy things from the states as a method of conserving the sterling dollar, the commonwealth dollar, inside Canada and not wasting it outside. I'm sure it loosened up once the US entered the war, but I'm not a war historian.
So, the ban resulted in Canada's own comics like Brok and Nelvana. Now, these were largely undiscovered, or un-rediscovered at least. If you hadn't done this archival work, these comics might just have languished in basements or a few in museums. What's attractive about this archival or reprinting work, for these comics?
That's a good question. You know when you're a kid and you read a lot of adventure stories? Stories of people discovering these lands and going on adventures and breaking new territory. It's all very exciting. But when you grow up pretty much everything has been discovered. So going back and discovering these comic books was something that was very exciting to me. To be able to translate my interest and passion into something that other people could access... while there may have been a few people interested in these comics, they wouldn't spread it around, they would just collect them and put them away and never talk about them. So it was really important to me to see if I could get other people as excited as I was.
But it was really the research that fascinated me because no one had ever done this. They had done a little bit of research but no one had found the real Nelvana of the Northern Lights, or the real Brok Windsor, and—using my skills as a researcher, which is what i'm trained to do—I was able to find the real people behind these comic books. I can't tell you the thrill that's involved in that, when you make a discovery like that and you put a million different tiny pieces together until you're on the phone or face-to-face with someone's family. It's absolutely crazy. It's a rush.
So aside from archiving this important artwork and these books from this era, you're also preserving an important part of Canadian culture, right? It never occurred to me that there was a concurrent comic universe in Canada—so the fact that this exists at all is wild. Is that something you think about in doing your work?
I think about Canadian culture quite a bit. That was a lot of my focus in university. And there are definitely aspects of comic books that are very very uniquely Canadian in ways that you'd never see in America. A lot of times in Canada we stress about what our national identity is. We know what we're not. We're not America. But when you ask someone what we are, there's always a jumble of answers and no clear consensus. I think a lot of that is because we forget our own culture, we forget our own products. And bringing these things back I think is a way of kind of helping us to remember a bit of our cultural basis, for better or for worse. Some of these comics were pretty racist, and a lot of people didn't want to think that about Canada, but that's a fact. We were based on that just like any other country. So yeah, I think it is important and another thing that will eventually sneak through the school system, and people will become aware of these. People have been trying to bring attention to these comics for years, but this is the first time they've ever been able to actually be read them, so I'm hoping that at least a few people will access them and start asking questions about what Canada is.
What's the current state of Canadian comic book production?
Well Drawn and Quarterly, our biggest Canadian publisher, is just having their 25th anniversary this year. A lot of Canadian comic books capture this other element from Canadian pop culture or literature, which is that they're weird. They're offbeat. They're not good at following strict genre rules. I think America is very good at that, very good at genres. So if you're good at it, why should we bother trying really? That's why we're good at these strange stories, stories about survivalism rather than winning, stories that use different kinds of narrative and visual forms, stories about weird sex—which is quite popular. So I guess that kind of sums up Canadian comics, it's kind of like a more independent vibe. It's very artist, very literary oriented.
What are your hopes for Canadian comic culture?
Well the one thing I'd really love is, in Canada we have these things called Heritage Minutes, which are commercials that play all the time on television that go into a specific aspect of Canadian culture. And I would just absolutely love to have one of them feature a comic book that's not Superman. We have one with Superman because the artist briefly spent time in Canada, and I just really would like a Heritage Minute around comic book history.
New content [using these properties] I'm interested in, but also very hesitant about. I think what some writers and artists have done using classic golden age characters—it makes them become something they're not. So that's something I have reservations about. It's something I'm interested in—Agents of Atlas, by Marvel, this revamp of 1940's Marvel characters was fantastic. I really loved it. I thought it was true to the spirit of the times. It still had a good modern feel, they got you excited about the characters. But then I've also seen things like Dynamite's Miss Fury where they take this feminist icon and turn it into a T&A comic.
Right now with all these comics, they were all created and drawn and written by the same person. So they've never had any other influence other than their creator. They're like this pure little crystal of creation. But if someone else was to touch it, it's going to change how you think about that comic book inherently. It's something I'm interested in, but I would approach it with reservations, and i would only approach it with the full permission and participation of the of the creator's estate.
Are you planning to continue doing Canadian golden age archival work?
I am, but it's not the only kind of project I'm interested in. A few months ago I served as an editor for a Kickstarter project called Moonshot, which is an anthology of new aboriginal comic book stories. I was not the publisher so I didn't run the campaign, but I am the editor and I am involved in choosing the artists and stories and everything. But it got me kind of interested in exploring aspects of comics that aren't just archival, but that are situations that haven't been shown that much in the past. So I'll still keep doing archival work because I have those connections, but I'd also like to branch off and explore some new stories if I can.
If you could be either Nelvana or Brok, who would you rather be?
Probably Brok. He seems to have a good humor about him. I don't want to say that Nelvana is an ice queen, because that's literally what she is, but she has a lot of responsibility. Brok seems like he's a lot more carefree, a lot more able to go on adventures as he pleases.
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