Marvel Comics Publishes Native Anthology
In the past few years, the role of Native American culture in the broader scheme of American pop culture has undergone a serious reevaluation. In 2018, for example, the National Museum of the Native American in Washington, DC opened an expansive exhibit examining mainstream imagery from Indian motorcycles to cowboy movies to the U.S. military’s Chinook helicopters. Questionable corporate mascots, racist icons from an earlier era, are beginning to vanish (goodbye Washington Redskins). At the same time, a new wave of Native American artisans are starting to modify tradition and leave their mark on modern art. In 2013 Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, helped dub George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope into Navajo. At the same time, Albuquerque-based Navajo artist Ryan Singer’s increasingly popular work—shot through with references to Star Wars, comic books, punk rock and pop art—has been exhibited at prestigious institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
November 2020 was designated Native American Heritage Month. And as the month was closing out, Marvel Comics released its much-anticipated anthology Indigenous Voices #1. The 35-page offering handed over creative control of several Native American comic book characters to a host of award-winning Native artists and writers. In most cases, this was the first time these characters had ever been entrusted to people of Native ancestry. It’s not just representation that matters; it’s the ability of people to depict their own culture. And these days, Native American culture is an indelible part of pop culture—from movies to video games to comic books.
Native Voices actually began its genesis right here in Albuquerque. Lee Francis IV is the owner of Downtown Albuquerque’s Native American comic book store Red Planet. He’s also the CEO of the publishing house Native Realities, which was launched in 2015. And in 2016 he founded the Indigenous comic book/pop culture convention known as IndigiPop X. Many of the people involved in Indigenous Voices were guests at IndigiPop X. The powers that be at Marvel took notice of Francis’ efforts to spread Native American culture and reached out to him, looking for contributors to their newest, diversity-minded project. He was instrumental in connecting Marvel to a roster of talented writers and artists. No big surprise, really. Under Francis’ direction, Native Realites has published a number of Indigenous comic books in the past few years, including Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, The Wool of Jonesy and Deer Woman: A Vignette.
“The editorial team at Marvel contacted me and said, ‘Can you give us some recommendations?’ ” Francis’ response? “Absolutely!” A longtime comic book nerd with strong connections to New Mexico’s Native American art and literature scene, Francis was the perfect person to help bring Marvel’s vision to life. “It has catapulted myself, my friends and colleagues to the space where we need to be,” says Francis of the newly released anthology, which has spent the past few weeks flying off shelves nationwide. “It’s allowed the world to see Native artists. We’re finally getting recognized.”
With Francis’ assistance, Native Voices assembles an impressive, Avengers-style collection of creators to move Marvel’s Indigenous characters to the forefront. Geoscientist and Lipan Apache writer Darcie Little Badger joins acclaimed Whitefish Lake First Nation artist Kyle Charles to tackle the character Dani Moonstar from New Mutants (most recently played by Blu Hunt in 2020’s New Mutants live-action feature). Bram Stoker-winning horror writer Stephen Graham Jones of the Blackfeet Nation teams up with Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation artist David Cutler to take on the Blackfoot character Silver Fox. Among the New Mexico locals who contributed to the book is Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning Black/Ohkay Owingeh writer Rebecca Roanhorse, famous for her “Sixth World” series and for her 2020 horror/fantasy Race to the Sun, part of the “Rick Riordin Presents” imprint. Roanhorse teamed up with Tongva artist Weshoyot Alvitre to tell a tale of the superheroine Echo. The character first appeared back in 1999 in Marvel’s Daredevil series and was created by David Mack and Joe Quesada. Echo (a.k.a. Maya Lopez) is a deaf woman born with “photographic reflexes” that allow her to mimic nearly any physical skill.
Thanks to its sympathetic mix of creators and characters, Indigenous Voices proves there’s a palpable difference when Native American stories are entrusted to Native American artists. For Francis it’s about “context and nuance—elements that are added as far as philosophical underpinnings and a heart space, that non-Native writers don’t quite catch. Not that they can’t. It’s the ways in which you approach the understanding. What it means to live on the rez, to visit grandma, our food values. Non-Natives aren’t able to process it.” Francis equates Indigenous Voices to the time when African-American writer Christopher Priest took over Marvel’s Black Panther book and was credited with making it edgy, hip and timely. “Black Panther was an amazing character. Jack Kirby is the king. But then Christopher Priest came in and opened up a whole new dynamic. In the ‘90s and 2000s, he added a level of complexity and pathos that was not there before, because it was not lived.”
Francis sees an easy connection between Native American culture and pop culture. “Honestly, it’s the media we grew up with. How we’ve identified around true underdog stories, stories of liberty and equity. I did an interview with StarWars.net recently. The Rebellion is the Pueblo Rebellion. We did this back in 1680.” Although American pop culture blankets everything, Francis cautions that it hasn’t always been inclusive of minorities. “What we recognized [as Native Americans], I don’t think immediately, is that we’re not represented. But we could be. I still like Iron Man. I love Thor. I could then begin to unleash my imagination and see myself in those roles. So why don’t I? I need more Native comics, more creators of color.”
To get there, Francis is working hard to sell Native Realities through his comic book store. “I’m a facilitator, but also a distributor, a bookseller,” explains Francis. In order to see a follow-up to Indigenous Voices, “This has got to sell to a mass audience.” So far, it’s looking good. Red Planet has already sold out of its initial order of 200 issues and is desperately scrambling for more. Prices for several of the book’s variant covers have already shot through the roof. For Francis, it’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream and a great first step.
“I need to make sure we do get the next opportunity. I’d like to see some Native editors. This is some much-needed diversity, but often in the heat of the moment we miss out on the next step. Sustainability will come when we have some decision makers.” [ ]