Please note: Adrian Dingle was the name he used as author and artist and throughout this biography he will be referred to as Adrian Dingle, however his full name was John Adrian Darley Dingle.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005
John Adrian Darley Dingle was born at Barmouth, North Wales in 1911 and came to Canada (Oakville, Ontario) at the age of three. During the 1930s, he worked as a commercial artist to supplement his career as a painter. In 1941 Dingle and a group of associates co-founded a Toronto comic-book publishing firm, Hillborough Studio, which, in August 1941, issued the third Canadian Golden Age comic title, Triumph-Adventure-Comics.
During World War II the Mackenzie King government had the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA). Here historian Ivan Kocmarek explains what that act did:
“WECA” is an acronym for the War Exchange Conservation Act brought into being by the parliament of Canada on Dec. 6, 1940 prohibiting the importation of “non-essential” materials into the country including magazines and comics from the U.S. This produced a comic vacuum in our country and before March (though the cover dates were indeed March, we well know that comics physically appear on newsstands at least a month ahead of their cover dates) of the next year a few enterprising young men in Toronto and Vancouver had Better Comics No. 1 and Robin Hood Comics No. 1 in the hands of eager kids across the land.
As long as the war was on, American comics couldn’t find their way into Canada legally and this First Age of Canadian Comics flourished, producing two more central publishing companies, Bell Features out of Toronto and Educational Projects out of Montreal, along with a few smaller ones that appeared in 1945-46. Roughly 30 or so titles were produced and probably just over 700 separate books were issued (I believe this is what the online database we are working on will show).
The War Exchange Conservation Act was repealed in stages after the war and, in spite of the wonderfully “garish” American quickly returning to our newsstands, our First Age Canadian Comics kept on being produced in a waning, swan song of an effort right up to the start of 1947. At the same time in this dénouement morphed into a reprint industry that remained solid right up almost to the time of the Comics Code.
Among the characters featured in Triumph-Adventure Comics #1 (8/41) was Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights, one of the first Canadian national superheroes and one of the earliest superheroines in comics (predating Wonder Woman by three months). Nelvana is the 3rd Canadian superhero to debut, following Vernon Miller’s IRON MAN (Better Comics #1, 3/41)) and Ed Furness’ FREELANCE (Freelance Comics #1, 7/41). Hillborough also issued a single issue of a second title, Top Flight Comics, which is now regarded as one of the rarest comic books of the Canadian Golden Age.
Nelvana was said to have been created after hearing tales of the arctic from Group of Seven artist Franz Johnston (1888-1949). Some even go so far as to list Johnston as the co-creator of Nelvana, but given the 23 year age difference between Johnston and Dingle, the younger Dingle was likely studying under Johnston, who taught art classes in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art (where Dingle studied primarily under J.W. Beatty) and Georgian Bay. However they met, and wherever the stories were relayed, Adrian Dingle gave Johnston credit for inspiring him to tell the stories of the Inuit myths as comics mere months before William Moulton Marston and artist H.G. Peter would adopt the Greco-Roman myths into the world of Wonder Woman.
Dingle converted these reported tribal legends about the hideous witch-like daughter of Koliak, King of the Northern Lights to a story of a beautiful superheroine living among the Inuit peoples. Nelvana’s superpowers included turning invisible and traveling at the speed of light along a ray of the Aurora Borealis aka the Northern Lights. She visited lost kingdoms under the ice, journeyed to other dimensions and fought against the Axis Powers during World War II, eventually taking on the secret identity of secret agent Alana North.
Cy Bell recalled: “He [Adrian Dingle] started out as an opposition of mine. When I put out DIME and WOW and ACTIVE and some of our first books, TRIUMPH came on the market. Their book came out two or three times, but on the second or third edition they failed to show. So I went around to see the reason it didn’t show and they said they couldn’t finance it and they were going to go out of business, so I gave them the deal that I would take over the title, continue publishing their book, and that they would work for me. That’s how I acquired the Kulbach brothers, and Adrian Dingle, who became, later on, our art director.”
Following the merger, as art director at Bell Features, Dingle not only continued to work on Nelvana but also created a number of other notable characters, including the Penguin and Nils Grant, Private Investigator. As well, Dingle produced a large number of covers for various Bell titles.
Nelvana appeared regularly in Triumph-Adventure Comics, and was even given her own one-shot title. However in 1947 Bell Features shuttered it’s comics division and some characters, including Nelvana, were sold to F.E. Howard Productions. Nelvana would make her final comics appearance in Super Duper Comics #3, and as usual it was written and drawn by Adrian Dingle. Aside from one story that was co-written with another writer, Adrian Dingle wrote and drew all of the Nelvana stories to be appear so the series maintains a consistency that was unusual in the Golden Age.
At first, the stories are reminiscent of the works of cartoonists such as Jerry Robinson and Joe Shuster, action-packed and fast paced — these were filling the void left by the absence of the American comics such as Batman and Superman, but as the series evolves Dingle’s style is very reminiscent of American contemporaries like Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino, with nice big splashes and clean lines. Nelvana herself spends more time in civilian garb and adopts a secret identity.
After the collapse of the Canadian comics industry in the late 1940s, Dingle combined his fine-art career with book and magazine illustration. In his later years, he was recognized as a major Canadian landscape painter.
On his comic book days, Dingle wrote:
“The era of the comic book was a very exciting one in my career. It meant a great deal to me. We had rather grandiose illusions of where it might end because the American distribution was cut off and Canada was then getting ready to distribute comic books across the border and we had all sorts of wonderful ideas of solid gold Cadillacs and everybody was talking exorbitant salaries…”
Adrian Dingle passed away in Erindale, Ontario in 1974, he was only 63. He was survived by his wife of 22 years Patricia, and his three sons John, Christopher and Brian, and his two grandchildren at the time Geremey and Tyler.
In 1971 Dingle’s Nelvana loaned her name to one of Canada’s most important animation studios when founders Michael Hirsh and Patrick Loubert purchased the Bell Features archives and reprint rights from Bell’s capital investor John Ezrin. They published the first book on the Canadian whites using the material entitled The Great Canadian Comic Books and ran a traveling museum exhibit with the material. They also named their studio after Dingle’s character. They would later donate the material from Bell Features to the National Archives where they reside to this day. Nelvana Animation was acquired by Corus Entertainment in 2000.
In the late 1970’s, Canadian creator John Byrne (also inducted into the Canadian Comic Book Creator Hall of Fame) created Alpha Flight for Marvel Comics in the pages of the Uncanny X-Men. Alpha Flight was made up of characters he had designed while an art student in Calgary. One of the members of Alpha Flight was Snowbird, who was later revealed (in Alpha Flight #7) to be the daughter of Nelvanna, Goddess of the Northern Lights and daughter of Hodiak, the King of the Northern Gods.
In 1995, Nelvana became one of five superheroes celebrated in a popular Canadian stamp issue.
Ty Templeton would use a modified version of the character in his Golden Age Canadian Comics inspired Northern Guard, published by Moonstone in 2010. In this version Nelvana was re-imagined as Nanook Iluak, (secret identity of Anne Knight) and wears a fur bikini and cape. Only two issues were published before Moonstone pulled the plug.
In late 2013, researchers for the Lost Heroes documentary secured permissions from Corus and the National Archive to reprint the Bell Features stories in a new print collection. The editors crowdfunded the printing of the collection with the support of a selection of modern Canadian comic artists.
An overwhelming success, Adrian Dingle’s Nelvana of the Northern Lights, edited and restored by Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey brought Nelvana back into the public eye. The collection was later reprinted and distributed by IDW Publishing of San Diego, CA.
Biography compiled by John Bell, appended and updated in 2016 by Kevin Boyd
Fine Art Biography
John Darley Adrian Dingle was born in Barmouth, North Wales. He came to Canada with his parents in 1914 and settled in Oakville, Ontario.
Adrian Dingle left an insurance job to study art and, in 1931, took instruction from J.W. Beatty at the summer school of the Ontario College of Art.
Adrian Dingle later went to England where he worked as an illustrator, studying art in his free time under James Bateman and John Mansbridge. He exhibited portraits with the London Portrait Society.
On his return to Canada, Adrian Dingle became a regular exhibitor at the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) annuals and with other groups. Much of his work was sold through the T. Eaton Company’s Fine Art Gallery.
Adrian Dingle continued to work as an illustrator, and also taught art in Kitchener and Etobicoke.
Much of Adrian Dingle’s painting was done in oils and he was known as a prolific painter.
During the summers, Adrian Dingle travelled to the East coast where he painted Cape Breton Island and other areas. During the winter, the painter seldom went beyond a 50-mile radius of Toronto. Adrian Dingle also painted in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, the British Isles and Massachusetts.
Adrian Dingle became an OSA member in 1961 and served as president from 1967-70. Adrian Dingle became a Royal Canadian Academy member in 1968.
Adrian Dingle’s work is represented in Ontario museums, as well as corporate and private collections.
Source: A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker. National Gallery of Canada, Artists in Canada database.