Friday, November 28, 2008

Of Neglected Traditions: Comics Starring Native American Heroes & Thanksgiving

I feel sorry for Thanksgiving. Wedged between the tummy-ache aftermath of Halloween and the hustle-bustle of Christmas, Thanksgiving has been reduced to a holiday footnote -- its decorations barely worthy of an entire aisle at department stores, its celebration diminished by headlines about Black Friday. It's definitely the most structured of the holidays, for those that follow its established traditions: parade, football game, meal, nap. That's Thanksgiving, in a nutshell, sans the obligatory turkey, pilgrim, and Indian arts and crafts, which have become the unfortunate target of political correctness.

Well, A Comic A Day isn't going to let this wayward holiday go down without a fight! After all, beneath its harvest hues and garnished gluttony, Thanksgiving is really about the battle between what one has and what one wants. So what if the pilgrims made nice for dinner? We're still into the business of acquisition -- if, hundreds of years later, the lines outside of Best Buy haven't taught us anything else. That's the Mayflower of the 21st century!

So, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I read three comic books starring Indian, a.k.a. Native American, protagonists. When one lists the different genres of comics, the "Indian protagonist" category is often lost to the western, or in some extreme cases sci-fi/fantasy, so I was genuinely curious to see if these issues, from three different publishers to boot, offered some legitimacy to this native niche. (More pointedly, when did "pilgrims vs. Indians" become "cowboys vs. Indians?") Here are the issues I read, with brief descriptions:

Showcase #87 (DC Comics, December 1969): I liked this issue right away, because its featured character, Firehair, is a red-headed Indian. Also, Joe Kubert's definitive style made this supernatural adventure all the more vivid, as Firehair is injured in a tussle with a Grand Canyon cougar and stumbles into a voodoo shaman's camp, where the mystic puts our wayward hero through some rather incredible paces, including a showdown with the very beast that "holds the world!" In the end, Firehair awakens and discovers that his terrible trial was just a fever dream, that the shaman and his people have been working tirelessly to nurse him back to health. Right . . .?

Shaman's Tears #1 (Image Comics, May 1993): I've read and reviewed Shaman's Tears #2, so I was eager to its prequel, to see how this series began. In this inaugural issue, Josh, the prodigal son of his tribe, returns home just in time to hear his mother's dying wish, that he fulfill his role as their people's "chosen one." As Josh endures a ritual that attunes his soul with the Earth, an organization dubbed Circle Sea Enterprises begins its legal battle to retain the rights to produce human/animal hybrids, presumably for military application. Thus, in both a scientific and spiritual sense, a connection and reliance upon the animal kingdom pervades this issue and promises a confrontation of food chain-climbing proportions!

Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #0 (Valiant Comics, November 1995): Following the "zero issue" trend of the early '90s, this installment with a concise synopsis of Turok's origins, including all of the significant Valiant crossovers up 'til then, too. Apparently, Turok, a strong teacher crossbred between two tribes, wandered into a mystical land of dinosaurs one day, where his protege married a jungle woman and many other Valiant heroes periodically ended up as different evil forces sought to capture the dimension's power. Turok eventually destroyed the land to prevent its power from falling into the wrong hands, and all of its inhabitants except him ended up in their respective eras. Now, in present day, Turok continues the traditions of his people, seasoned by the lessons he's learned from battle.

So, what do these issues have in common? I discovered two significant, prevalent themes amongst these three decidedly different issues:

1. Each issue boasts a tradition vs. progression diatribe, specifically between two characters that epitomize either side of the conflict. Firehair versus the Shaman. Josh versus his mother. Turok versus his apprentice. Interestingly, Turok is the only hero among these title characters that prefers "the old ways," but that his moniker is "dinosaur hunter" implies an inevitable sense of impending extinction, undoubtedly unintended by his creators. Still, this dichotomy makes for an interesting subplot, brewing beneath the surface of each series' main conflict and promising a simmering development of character dynamic. The real question is, can tradition and progression ever meet in the middle? Surely, one issue from these characters' multitude of adventures isn't enough to answer that, for them or us.

2. Similarly, each issue contains a definitive element of the supernatural, often contrasted by science, as if Native American culture is a source or beacon for all earthen spiritual phenomena. Firehair's trials, while eventually revealed as a fever dreams, are nevertheless presented with the expectation that readers will accept voodoo as a part of Indian culture. Shaman's Tears presents this contrast most decisively, adapting one's quest for an anthropomorphic spirit guide into freak hybrid genetics. While Turok's dinosaur land has unexplained origins (and reminded me of the recent IDW one-shot Lost and Found), the arrival of technology-based militant forces exposed its mystical context and was strangely reminiscent of the Nazi magic mythology of World War II. Are we really supposed to believe that Native Americans are this naturally transcendent? Further, is that the only basis for creating Indian-centric graphic fiction, as if they have nothing else to offer the comic book landscape?

Perhaps the two consistencies are tied together by their battle for identity. While the easy go-to for Indian-centric stories is their inherent spirituality, the juvenile voices of opposing progression might reflect the authors' need to find more -- to delve into the depths of their characters' more human side.

Now there's something to chew on this Thanksgiving. Really, before anyone claims political incorrectness or offense in the face of stereotypical Indian imagery, they should make an effort to understand the culture they've decided to "protect." Fire, tears, and dinosaurs . . . if these images are in any way analogous to Native American culture, these comic books might actually be a start. I'm always thankful when comics do more than simply entertain!


Rob said...

Thanks for posting this. I'd say your observations are right on. In fact, the two themes you noted are present in most Native-oriented comics, not just these three.

For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

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