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Native American Super Heroes Take Over the Heard Museum

The Heard Museum is currently hosting an exhibition on Native American superheroes and the comic-book writers and artists who've created them.

The story goes: A few years ago, the Heard Museum branch in Scottsdale, Arizona (which closed in 2014) hosted an exhibit that featured a ceramic vase on which the artist had painted an image of the Incredible Hulk and his father as a boy reading a comic book. That got Ann Marshall, director of Curation and Education at the Heard Museum thinking about super heroes and their place in American Indian culture. The result is an exhibit that opened May 16 called “Super Heroes: Art! Action! Adventure!” The show will be up through August 23.

“Our overall wish for this summer experience is to create a place where children and adults can talk together about what makes a superhero, meet some familiar and some new superheroes, and think about how people can find the superhero in themselves," said Marshall. "Many American Indian artists are making art associated with superheroes, which provided the inspiration for the Super Heroes exhibit."

RELATED:Native American Comics Creator Showcase: Theo Tso and Captain Paiute

Captain Paiute art by Theo Tso. Source: Facebook.com

The exhibit is meant for children and adults but it’s for the young at heart, to be the good guy, to fight the bad guys, be the hero, the warrior, having special powers, having animal totems, living the legends. These ideas have all inspired American Indian artists and graphic novelists to create new Native super heroes who confront Evil and defend Good in their communities.

One of Jason Garcia's painted clay tiles.

Clay artist Jason Garcia (Santa Clara Pueblo) has enjoyed creating comic book heroes on his clay pieces for years. Tom Farris (Otoe-Missouria-Cherokee) decided to bring Superman into his tribe so he replaced the Super S with the Cherokee letter pronounced “soo”.“The two constants of my childhood were American Indian art and comic books," Farris said. "Growing up the child of art collectors, I was surrounded by amazing Native art; however, I was more interested in the art I found in my comics. Masters of the craft like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Jim Lee.” Kickapoo artist Arigon Starr created a cast of characters inhabiting Leaning Oaks Reservation, where a janitor at the Leaning Oaks Bingo Hall ate some commodity cheese tainted with “Rezium”, which turned him into Super Indian. Navajo artist Jonathan Nelson has created Jonsey the Sheep, who’s also a superhero with a high school degree in The Wool of Jonsey.

Panels from Arigon Starr's 'Super Indian.'

Anishinaabe artist, Jay Odjick has Kagagi: the Raven, Kagagi is from the Algonquin word for raven. Odjick’s story revolves around the legends of the evil Windigo, who has preyed on humans since ancient times, when a high school boy discovers he has the power to transform into the superhero Kagagi and battles the Windigo. Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo) has taken the story of the real life hero Po’Pay who led the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and imagined his return in 2180 supported by a cast of warriors, the Spirit Army.

Theo Tso's Captain Paiute

Theo Tso (Las Vegas Paiute) creator of Captain Paiute, Indigenous Defender of the Southwest was at the Heard Museum for a special book signing on May 30 and was also in town for the Phoenix Comic Con where he had a booth with other Native artists representing INC Comics (Indigenous Narratives Collective). Tso was excited because it was the first time his art was in a museum exhibit and he got to explain his art to people at his book signing. He started as a kid, making comics instead of doing his assignments, and he recalls a particular issue of X-Men as a tipping point. The comic book introduced a new hero—a Native, with not-so-cool superpowers. “So I went home thinking about that, and I went through my collection of comics at home, and not one comic featured a Native American in a starring role. They were always the shaman, or the sidekick, never the starring role. So that’s where the idea for Captain Paiute came along.” After Theo was rejected several times by the big houses, he revamped Captain Paiute and he now does the Comic Con circuit. The INC crew attended WonderCon in Anaheim California, Phoenix Comic Con and the massive San Diego Comic Con. Jonathan Nelson, Arigon Starr, Michael Sheyashi, Kristina BadHand, and Lee Francis make up the INC crew.

INC Comics has merged with and will now be housed and produced by Native Realities Press. INC will continue to create new Native and Indigenous focused comic books, but can now function within a press dedicated to producing work for youth and adults across the spectrum. Native Realities Press—"A New Press for an Indigenous World"—is also calling for books and manuscripts, starting with young readers, books for children, from ages 3 up to young adult; and they are considering comic books and graphic novels.

RELATED:Native American Comics Creator Showcase: Jay Odjick and Kagagi

I talked to Lee Francis who manages INC and NRP: "Native Realities was the original online journal of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. It was dedicated to producing work by emerging writers or professionals who wanted to explore other genres. As INC has developed over the past couple of years, we still saw a need for more diverse books, especially in the children's/young adult genre. And so, we brought Native Realities back as a press to focus on meeting that need for Native/Indigenous-centered stories for youth of all ages. INC Comics was a natural fit with Native Realities Press and since I was the publisher for both, it was better to align the work since both have a focus on producing specific content. Native Realities Press is currently open to submissions until we fill the editorial calendar and then we may switch to an open reading period. But right now we are looking for good stories to publish! We hope to have of new comics and publications for the fall/winter."

The Heard Museum will be holding family friendly events in July and August. Jim Kristofic and Nolan Karras James (Navajo/Apache), author and illustrator of The Hero Twins: A Navajo-English Story of the Monster Slayers, will have a book signing in July. Their book, told in English and Navajo, is a story of two brothers who must save their people from monsters with the guidance of friends, family, and people of wisdom. On August 1, the Heard will hold a Back to School Party, celebrating a “Super-Summer” with Damon Begay (Navajo), creator of Interstellar Comix. See the exhibit's webpage for details; space is limited, so e-mail dbegay@heard.org for applications.

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM

July 1, 2015