Drawn from Real Life: Hillborough Studio’s First Canadian Comic Book Heroes

By Meaghan Scanlon

In August 1941, a small Toronto-based comic book publisher called Hillborough Studio released the first issue of its first title, Triumph Adventure Comics. The series is an anthology, with each issue containing several one-page humour strips along with a few longer feature stories. These features showcase heroic characters like Cape Breton strongman Derek of Bras d’Or and Inuit demigoddess Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

The fact that these characters both have distinctly Canadian identities is no coincidence. The first issue of Triumph Adventure Comics includes a letter from the comic book’s editor to its readers, which notes that the stories in issue no. 1 “all have a Canadian background, which will delight you not only in this edition, but in the many issues to follow.” Who would produce these Canadian stories? Naturally, the editor says Hillborough employs “the best artists in Canada.”

The team of artists and writers behind Triumph Adventure Comics sometimes drew on real-life Canadians for inspiration. The creators of Derek of Bras d’Or based the character on Angus McAskill (sometimes spelled MacAskill), a Cape Bretoner famous for his incredible strength and gigantic stature. McAskill, who was almost eight feet tall, toured the world as a curiosity during the 1840s and 1850s.

A black-and-white photograph of two men standing: one is very tall and the other is very short.

Angus MacAskill and Tom Thumb. (MIKAN 3531760)

Although Nelvana of the Northern Lights is a fantastical figure, she too is partly based on a real person. Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston had encountered an Inuit woman named Nelvana while travelling in the Northwest Territories. He told his friend and fellow artist Adrian Dingle about the woman, and Dingle transformed her into the mythological, superpowered daughter of the Northern Lights portrayed in the comics. For more on Nelvana’s real-world origins, check out the Library and Archives Canada podcast: Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada.

Colour cover of a comic book showing a woman leaping into the air over an arctic landscape. It is titled: “Amazing Adventures in the Life of Nelvana of the Northern Lights by Adrian Dingle.” Other text on the page includes: “Eskimos. Mounties. Trappers”

Nelvana, drawn by Adrian Dingle on the cover of Amazing Adventures in the Life of Nelvana of the Northern Lights! Published by Bell Features, ca. 1945. (AMICUS 36013050)

Early in 1942, Hillborough was absorbed by another Canadian comic book publisher called Commercial Signs of Canada. The merged company was renamed Bell Features. Continuing with Hillborough’s nationalist mandate, Bell Features would spotlight Canadian characters throughout most of its existence. Nelvana, featured regularly in a series now entitled Triumph Comics, became one of its flagship characters. Derek never reappeared.

Be sure to visit Library and Archives Canada’s exhibition Alter Ego: Comics and Canadian Identity to explore more of the ways Canadian identity has been portrayed in comic books. The exhibition features selected reproductions of comic book art by Canadian artists. Alter Ego runs from May 12 to September 14, 2016, in the lobby of Library and Archives Canada at 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa.

Additional resources

Meaghan Scanlon is the Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

1 thought on “Drawn from Real Life: Hillborough Studio’s First Canadian Comic Book Heroes

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 1st, 2016 – Unwritten Histories

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