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KITIGAN ZIBI ANISHINABEG FIRST NATION, Quebec — Jay Odjick’s affinity for comics started early. He bought his first Spider-Man comic book for 20 cents at the age of four. And it wasn’t long before he felt the pull to write stories of his own.
“My mother says I started writing my own comic stories when I was around five,” Odjick said. “But the caveat I always add is that my mother doesn’t say I started writing good stories.”
Odjick has steadily improved his skills over the years. Now 39, he’s the creator of “Kagagi,” a graphic novel that’s professionally published and distributed across North America.
Like many graphic novels, “Kagagi” includes evil villains and superhuman powers. But what makes this comic book unique is that the characters and the storyline are deeply rooted in Algonquin culture.
Odjick, who is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg Algonquin First Nation in Quebec, is one of a growing number of indigenous writers and artists who are jumping into the billion-dollar comics industry. Many bring their own life experiences and cultural traditions to their stories. And critics say their work is starting to reshape the way indigenous people are portrayed in this popular medium.
I thought it was really important that I create heroes that young Natives could relate to.
Jon Proudstar, comic book artist
In “Kagagi,” Odjick’s culture plays a central role from the very beginning, as the storyline springboards off of the Algonquin legend of Windigo, the story of an evil creature with the power to possess humans and turn them into cannibals.
The victims become “kind of like zombies,” Odjick said. And the only person who can stop the Windigo? A 16-year old Anishnabe boy with superhuman strength and the ability to fly.
An animated version of “Kagagi” currently airs on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, a cable channel whose programming reaches about 10 million households throughout Canada. Each episode is broadcast in both English and Algonquin.
In a world where many indigenous tribes struggle to maintain their language, Odjick says he is excited about the opportunity to help preserve part of his culture “I’m not an educator,” he says, “but we can present language in a way that’s entertaining to [kids].”
Finding new heroes
According to Michael Sheyahshe, author of “Native Americans In Comic Books,” Odjick’s celebration of Native culture is a long way from how Native Americans were portrayed in comics when the medium first rose to popularity.
Sheyahshe, who is a member of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma, says when comic books first began seeing major commercial success in the 1940s, Native Americans were only written as diminutive one-dimensional characters and often portrayed as a threat to white protagonists.
By the 1960s and 1970s, though, Native characters began to play a more centralized role in storylines as various civil rights movements took hold throughout the United States. Sheyahshe cites Marvel’s Red Wolf, a nine-issue series that featured the publishing house’s first Native American superhero, as an example.
Still, Sheyahshe says that in that time period, almost none of the Native characters were the main heroes. “They’re the helpers. They did what they were supposed to,” he said. “[The heroes] couldn’t have gotten the job done without them, but [Native characters] didn’t have series of their own.”
Sheyahshe says it has only been in recent years that he’s begun to notice Native artists producing comic books starring Native characters. One of the first on the scene was Jon Proudstar’s 1996 series “Tribal Force,” a story about five young people granted supernatural powers in order to protect their land from being destroyed by the government.
Proudstar said he also takes great pride in his attention to detail. He didn’t just stick with characters from his own community near Tucson, Arizona. Each of his characters comes from a different tribe, and he spent a lot of time making sure their cultures were accurately and respectfully depicted.
“I knew very little about the Hunkpapa Sioux,” he says, “So I went to a couple of people who are Hunkpapa and asked them about their communities, what’s important to them.” His White Calf Buffalo Woman is one result of this research. After Proudstar learned that depictions of the White Calf Buffalo Woman are among the culture's most sacred images, he adapted her character to appear in the book as only a silhouette.
Proudstar said seeing Native American stereotypes and inaccuracies continue to show up in comic books was a big motivation for his work. But Proudstar also wanted to create a universe in which heroes face the same challenges that many Native kids face today, like living with the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and child molestation, problems that occur at higher rates in many Native communities than in the general U.S. population.
“I thought it was really important that I create heroes that young Natives could relate to,” Proudstar said. “I wanted to create heroes that taught these kids that they’ve got extra value because they suffered through that and survived.”
While larger publishers like Marvel and DC have been releasing more comic books with Native characters in the past few years, some have critiqued these books for presenting stereotypes, as many Native characters are still depicted with loincloths and feathers.
But according to Sheyahshe, indigenous comic book consumers are starting to demand better representations of the world around them, and a growing number of Native artists are providing them. “There has been a low-level explosion of Native comic books” since about 2010, he said.
Though many writers self-publish and distribute their work within their local communities, there are also a handful of small and medium-sized comic book presses with national distribution networks that carry the work of Native artists.
Toronto-based Alternative History Comics is one of them. In June it released “Moonshot,” a collection of indigenous comics by 18 Native writers and artists from a variety of different cultures. Included are both traditional indigenous stories and adaptations of tribal legends set in the future and in space.
“This is something indigenous writers and artists had been wanting for a long time,” company president Andy Stanleigh said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Finally’.”
“Moonshot” is the first book Stanleigh has published that contains stories from indigenous cultures with Native protagonists. He said the venture brought new considerations with it, especially when it comes to stories that had only been passed down orally. He explained that while some were easy to translate, others required explicit permission from elders to tell the story in a visual format.
Stanleigh, who is not of indigenous ancestry, said he pursued the book because he wanted to see more comics featuring Native characters that aren’t fraught with stereotypes.
“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it’s going to sell,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have started this project if we didn’t think it was something that was going to be big.”
For “Moonshot” contributor Arigon Starr, the growing presence of indigenous artists in comics just makes sense. “We’re all storytellers,” she said, “whether we choose to do this in artwork or in music or in comic books.”
There also seem to be more venues for their work. Broadband Internet and greater visibility for comics have helped people jump into the industry with greater ease. Unlike a generation ago, he believes many young Native people today actually feel as if they can become comic book writers. This, he said, is a good thing, because after so many years of being excluded or misrepresented, “we need to tell our own stories.”