Natives in comics: 'Born an Indiginerd'

Patty Talahongva

On the Indian Country Today newscast for Friday, September 18, 2020 is guest Dr. Lee Francis IV, Johnnie Jae and Weshoyot Alvitre

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today

On the Indian Country Today newscast is guest Dr. Lee Francis IV a publisher and comic book store owner, Johnnie Jae and Weshoyot Alvitre a comic artist and illustrator. 

Dr. Lee Francis IV

“The first memory that I can kind of think back to when I was a kid was really here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this place called Duran Central Pharmacy. There was a spinner rack and my dad we'd go down there and have breakfast or lunch or whatever. And my dad would just let me get whatever comment I wanted. So I remember grabbing comics at the time, but like my earliest memory of comics was the Marvel Almanac. Essentially it was a comic book of superheroes and their powers. So I always loved to check out powers the superheroes had and how they would exist in the world. And it was really exciting. So that's what I was always looking for.”

“I remember when comics popped up to a dollar when I was in my tweens. I actually used to clean for a bookstore in exchange for comic books. So I'd vacuum and I’d spray the windows and I do the whole thing (because) they couldn't really pay me because I was too young to get actually paid. They'd just be like, yeah, pick out some comics and take them home. And I was like, this is the greatest job ever. I was so excited about the fact that I got to take comic books home. So it was always really exciting for me because I gravitated towards superheroes and the images and the stories. It was always just really exciting and dynamic for me.”

Johnnie Jae

“Well I've always been a bookworm. I'm very nerdy and not an outdoorsy kind of kid. I used to have to go and stay with my aunt and uncle during the summers. They lived out in the country and they rarely had TV. While most of the kids could go out and play, I am photosensitive. So I had to stay in doors a lot. My uncle Dale decided to show me his treasure trove of comics. He had these amazing old school Conan the Barbarian & X-Men comic books. Like many of them were still in black and white and he just opened up this whole new world for me. Cause I started reading these comic books and reading about these people that had super powers. What I love the most about it is that a lot of them were just ordinary people to begin with that developed these powers and then had to struggle to figure out how to use them. Then also where they fit into the world. That kind of resonates with being a human being. We're all just trying to figure out where we fit in the world and just trying to discover what gifts we have to offer the world as well. It just opened up a whole new world for me and ever since then, you know, it's just Indiginerd. I was born an Indiginerd and I'm going to die an Indiginerd.”

Weshoyot Alvitre

“Yeah, I actually wasn't that familiar with comic books for a long time. I was more into animation. My mom one day, she went to a yard sale and she picked up this long box of Marvel Flair cards and brought them home. And that blew my mind. There were so many different characters and there's holofoil cards and each card was generally like a painting, all traditional art. I swear, I kept those for years until I was in college. I used to pour over them, reading the stats on each character. But I didn't actually know that all those characters were part of comic books and that there was this broader universe that you could go into a bookstore and there were books on all these things. So that took me up until my high school years, I think before I went into a comic book store for the first time. And then it was just my life.”

“You know back when I was buying books, from the very beginning, I was often drawn to comics from overseas markets. So I was heavy into Japanese Manga which was something that was just a very small section of the comic book market. I didn't look for Native representation, not much. Except for occasionally in the Marvel Flair cards an Indian character would pop up and I was like, Ooh keep that one on the side. Cause that's kind of cool and I can relate to that. But yeah I didn't see very much. It wasn't until I was doing work in my college years that a colleague of mine, when I was working for Howard Chaykin. He gave me a book called Comanche Moon to read. And that was one of the very first representations of Native people that I had seen besides Western comics.”

Dr Lee Francis

“I don't think I really recognized immediately. Much like most of our population I fell into the Spiderman universe I loved Iron Man because I love technology. So that's kind of where I always gravitated towards. It wasn't actually until I started getting into middle school and high school where I would always recognize the Native character. Like it was really cool, but I didn't recognize the problematic nature of some of the Native characters coming into that, right. Like it was really great and the one I always remember distinctly is Rainmaker from Gen 13. This is shortly after Image (comics) had launched. (And I thought) how are they going to be able to build a team? It was sort of the cheesecake era of comic books and she (Rainmaker) was sultry, and sexy, and all the curves and all the rest of that. And she was Native And she was a lesbian Oh my God, that's the greatest thing for a 13 year old Native kid. My gosh, I can't even imagine. And it took a little bit of time. It took a couple of years where I started to (really see problems in some of the Native characters). And especially since it was a white writer and a white artist. That's kinda what I remember from my comic book time. And it still wasn't really until I hit about like late high school and college where I really started to look for it and then recognize the absence of Native characters.”

Johnnie Jae

“I don't think I ever really thought about like Native representation in the comics that I was reading. , and it wasn't until I actually did see native representation that I was like, Oh, this is really cool. But then it also didn't really resonate with me because there was nothing to this character that was native, except for kind of like that stereotypical image. Like there was no talk about the community that they're from, you know, just how they grew up. You know, it was just like, well, here's a Native character, but that's all, it was like, there was no depth to it. So it was kind of like, it's cool to see, but it didn't really stick with me. So I just kind of pushed it aside. And even now this hero and it's red wolves. So, you know, it's still just like a point of contention with me where I'm just looking at this character and I'm thinking there's no say that even though I know writers, who've worked on his story and have done such amazing work to really update his story and to try and give him a story and give him death, but still, I don't know if it's just this bias.”

Weshoyot Alvitre

“For me personally, I am trying to basically create my own characters and work on characters that are Native. For a long time, when I first started in comics, I didn't explore any Native things because there weren't Native publishers. And I knew from the get go that things were going to be handled with white editors with white oversight and probably censorship. So I never felt like I had a secure space to actually explore any of those things. And I also didn't want to get exploited right off the bat, so for a long time I didn't touch Native stuff and it wasn't until I had met, Michael Sheyahshi online, heard about his book and then he introduced me actually to Lee Francis and from there it was sort of like, he established a safe place for Native comic book writers and Native writers, Native artists to discuss and create in a safe area.”

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. Based in Phoenix, Arizona. Talahongva enjoys hiking, reading and traveling to new places.

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