ALBUQUERQUE — On a Saturday afternoon in late November, 12-year-old Tyra Chinana arrived at the world’s first-ever Indigenous Comic Con decked out in costume: sparkly knee-high boots, feathery black and silver wings, and thunderbolts framing a red T on her t-shirt.
“I’m a T-bird,” Chinana explained, striking a fierce pose, with one fist raised in the air and a stuffed wolf tucked under her other arm. “Do you know what DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline] is?” she asked. “I went to North Dakota and felt really bad for the people there — if the pipeline goes through and it leaks, the water from the river goes into people’s faucets and to the plants. So I’m a water protector.”
Organized by Lee Francis, CEO of Albuquerque’s Native Realities Press, Indigenous Comic Con (ICC) took place over three days in November at the city’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. The model on which it was based isn’t terribly different from other cons (aka comics conventions): gathering artists, writers, illustrators, creators, and fans in one place to celebrate and discover contemporary Native nerd culture. The event featured performances, panels with topics like “Indigenous Women in Film” and “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse: Rez Style,” a game room, a cosplay competition, and programming for kids. Including the 45 vendors and 35 participants (artists, musicians, etc.), 1,100 people attended, according to Francis.
The con also served as a corrective: Native people are notoriously underrepresented in media, and they’re often misrepresented by others, too — think of the Cleveland Indians mascot or Johnny Depp as Tonto. But the idea that Native artists aren’t pop culture creators is false. The evidence that they’re drawing comics, designing video games, and sculpting flying saucers was in abundance at ICC, as was the implicit yet cogent notion that the best people to tell Native stories are Native people themselves.
While some of ICC’s offerings were typical of a more mainstream con (cool merch, like screen-printed canvas bags featuring Zia sun symbols, plus a gigantic Lego ship and Star Wars fandom in force), indications that ICC is distinct were everywhere as well. For instance, potter Marcus Wall of Jemez uses traditional methods to sculpt statues of bears, and he makes his living selling them, as do many Native artists. But recently, he decided to branch out, and for ICC brought sculptures of gas masks, aliens, and spacecraft, based on experiences he’s had near Dulce, New Mexico, the site of numerous UFO sightings.
Even the Star Wars fans brought a Native twist. Teenage brothers Kirk and Nicholas Tom of Gallup, New Mexico, showed up in stormtrooper and Boba Fett costumes that Kirk had made himself from floor mats usually used to pad kindergartens. He found templates for the costumes online and constructed them using YouTube tutorial videos. As a finishing touch, he weathered the costumes “like they’ve been through battle” and added a Native prints to Boba Fett’s armor.
“I got into Star Wars watching the movies over and over,” Kirk explained, “but we’re the only ones in our area who are into this stuff.”
The strongest showing at the con was, fittingly, the comics themselves. A 12-year-old named Lia hovered near artist Jonathan Nelson’s table, waiting for him to sign her copy of The Wool of Jonesy, a comic about a sheep growing up on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area.
“I’ve never been to a comic con before, but I like to draw, mostly anime and Native stuff,” Lia said. “This is eye-opening.”
Like Jonesy, Nelson is Diné (the word many Navajos prefer and use to refer to themselves) and grew up on the Navajo Nation. The Wool of Jonesy is told entirely in pictures that Nelson sketched in pencil, switching between aerial views showing the sweep of the landscape, wide mesas, and power plants and close-ups of Jonsey shaving off his wool with a buzzer. He then drags it away in a wagon to sell at the the trading post. The comic is deceptively simple and light-hearted, but on repeat readings, Jonesy’s shifting postures when the trading post owner rejects his wool are both subtle and exact. The edges of his what-now angst become sharper and his directionlessness more apparent as he flops around on his bed in the middle of the afternoon, surfs the net, and throws rocks at glass bottles.
While The Wool of Jonesy doesn’t appear to be explicitly political, Nelson said politics are inherent in all of his work. “When you’re Native, you’re a political figure as soon as you’re born. They give you a certificate of your Indian blood, which comes with pitfalls and advantages.” He added that the cattle guards and fences drawn throughout Jonesy represent the borders Natives are often expected to cross as they move back and forth between the reservation and the rest of the world.
Other comics represented at ICC resemble the DC and Marvel universes more closely in feel and style: buxom heroines and heroes with rippling abs; bold, colorful graphics accompanied by sound-effect insertions like “SWOOSH,” “SMACK,” and “YAARRGH!” One of the best examples of these was Jon Proudstar’s Tribal Force series. When it debuted in 1996, Tribal Force was the first comic to feature a team of all-Native superheroes, a distinction since recognized by the Smithsonian. While the action in Tribal Force (which is tentatively set to relaunch soon, after a long hiatus) will appeal to workaday comic book consumers, the themes of the series focus on social issues Proudstar saw on his reservation, like sexual abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). One character, Gabe, whose power is transforming into a Hulk-like behemoth endowed with super-strength, has FAS and is mute as a result, and struggles with substance abuse himself.
“A lot of people don’t want to write about this sort of stuff because of the questions you get asked,” Proudstar said from behind his booth at the con. “I’ve worked with survivors of child molestation on Indian reservations, and it’s a huge problem. We lost seven girls to suicide in one year. [The character] Nida is a survivor of child molestation. And Gabe has FAS and uses sign language. He has a superpower, but it doesn’t cure his FAS, because these are the remnants of what happened.”
Proudstar created Tribal Force in part because he was sick of non-Native creators getting Natives wrong. “It can feel like a kick in the teeth,” he said. “The industry doesn’t understand the need for continuous effort. Marvel and DC tend to whitewash: if there are Natives, they’re an amalgam. You see a lot of feather bonnets. If you don’t spend time with Indian people, how are you going to know what they’re like?”
One non-Native creator whom Proudstar admires is Timothy Truman, his booth neighbor at ICC. While he says he has some Native ancestry, Truman is a self-described “white guy from West Virginia,” armchair historian, and the creator of Scout, an ’80s-era comic that takes place in a postapocalyptic future and stars Emanuel Santana, an Apache.
Truman said he started drawing during Reagan’s rise, seeing his work as a way to make political statements in the context of an adventure story. “The current political situation is begging for me to get back into it,” he said. Next year, Truman will revive the series with his son, Ben.
“Scout was the first time I’d seen Natives portrayed this way,” Proudstar broke in. “This guy could be my uncle.”
“The fact that Native creators like Jon like my work is a high compliment,” Truman said. When asked how he manages the delicate process of writing about a world of which he is not a part, Truman said, “I try to be respectful. I try to listen. I try to watch the news, and I try to absorb work from non-white scholars.”
At the other side of the cultural center, in a room much smaller than the ones that held vendors and artists, Renee Nejo was demo-ing her new video game, Blood Quantum, which refers to the method used by the US government to determine whether or not someone has enough Native ancestry for tribal enrollment. In Blood Quantum, the player cares for “drawplets” — cute, anthropomorphic droplets of water that live in villages. The player must give their drawplets purpose and protect them from other drawplets who come to take them away in order for the village’s “spirit level” to increase, thus producing more baby drawplets. Unlike many other video games, when a drawplet dies, the loss is permanent.
“I meet people all the time who don’t even know what blood quantum is, and this game is my experiment in teaching them about it,” Nejo explained. The imagery in the game is deliberately not Native in style — we see no tipis or dress usually associated with Native American culture; the landscape consists of blocky islands floating in space — in part because Nejo doesn’t want to affirm any players’ pre-conceived notions of what is or isn’t Native.
“I can’t explain to people why they should care about Native issues or Indigenous rights, but I can try to show them why they should, and that’s what I hope they take from the game,” Nejo said. “Even in some small way, I want players to see what it is to fight to see something flourish — to keep it alive.”
Indigenous Comic Con 2016 took place November 18–20 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 4th Street SW, Albuquerque, New Mexico).