Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
I don’t think you can do your best work if you’re writing for somebody else, because you never know what that somebody else really thinks or wants. – Stan Lee
The first comics I remember reading were in the Sunday paper. Peanuts, Garfield, and Hägar the Horrible were some of my favorites as a child. These comic strips provided a story that I found exciting and relatable on some level. And then there was the Family Circus that kind of taught me life lessons…even if I didn’t need them. Comic books have had this effect on readers since their inception. The most popular comic books have been superhero comics, but there are also the ones that depict everyday life.
Like most television and movies, there aren’t many Indigenous people in popular comic book series. And the indigenous characters that do make an impact are written and drawn in a stereotypical fashion. Buckskin outfits, broken English, and spirit animals are just some of the misrepresentations depicted in comic books. Thanks to writers like Dr. Lee Francis IV, Indigenous people have comics that show readers the native reality of the world.
Francis is from the Laguna Pueblo and resides in New Mexico. He is the CEO and Publisher of Native Realities, owner of Red Planet Comics & Books in Albuquerque, NM and organizer of the Indigenous Comic Con, that just celebrated its third con. Prior to all of this, Francis spent fifteen years in education. He has always considered himself a writer, poet and activist as well as generally creative.
Dr. Francis also writes comics himself. His first comic, Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers Volume 1, won the American Indian Youth Literature Award, presented by the American Indian Library Association in 2018. Francis collaborated with other Indigenous comic book writers and artists to write the first anthology about Code Talkers from various tribes who served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. This is just one way native writers are changing the narrative about Indigenous peoples. And the reason I wanted to interview Dr. Francis about his work.
NOETTA HARJO: How did you get started in comic books?
LEE FRANCIS: I started Native Realities in 2015 with the idea to publish Native comics and books for ages 0-24. Over the next few years, that focused more and more on Indigenous pop culture publications including games, toys, and collectibles. As a comic book writer, I was first published in Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers Volume 1.
NH: Who inspires you?
LF: I have a number of inspirations: Arigon Starr, Tim Truman, Michael Sheyahshe, Weshoyot Alvitre, and Elizabeth LaPensée. Non-native folks like Jeff Lemire, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and many of the amazing industry writers have also been quite influential.
NH: What are some of your favorite comic book series?
LF: I am a big fan of Saga, Super Indian, and a bunch of independent works. I love finding local comics as well, the ones you can only buy at local bookstores and comic shops.
NH: You just published your first comic book, Sixkiller. What was the primary influence for this story?
LF: It began as an idea to adapt Native stories, in this case Cherokee traditional stories, with western literature, i.e. “What would a Native Alice in Wonderland story look like?” I connected with Roy Boney Jr. and we began to develop the ideas of this woman, Alice Sixkiller, who would journey down the “rabbit hole” through Cherokee history and mystery.
Then the Violence Against Women Act was passed and it left out protections for Native women. I was very upset. So I figured I would do what I do best, write about it. Alice seemed like a great outlet and the story changed from the simple exploration to a revenge story: Alice seeking revenge for the murder of her sister. To summarize: Alice in Wonderland meets Kill Bill set in Cherokee Country LOL!
NH: What are you working on now?
LF: Weshoyot Alvitre, who illustrated Sixkiller, and I are working on a graphic novel about the Conestoga Massacre in colonial Pennsylvania. We are working with the Library Company in Philadelphia and it has been an amazing experience. I am also writing some modules and expansions for a few role playing games.
NH: What comics do you recommend to our readers?
LF: Well, Sixkiller, obviously! LOL. Seriously, I think there are so many wonderful comics out there. I would recommend finding Native and Indigenous works and also supporting local comic artists. The more support the more we get to be artists and writers.
NH: Why comic books? Why not film or television like everyone else, LOL?
LF: Ha! I like the idea of combining art and words. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of film and tv as well but I think there is something meaningful and powerful in pages and panels and the styles of art and illustration that can create something magical.
NH: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into the comic book industry?
LF: Listen, take criticism, learn from whoever can help you create and get to where you want to be.
NH: Red Planet Comics & Books is your comic book store. Tell me more about how that came to being.
LF: We opening Red Planet last June (2017) as an extension of the Indigenous Comic Con and because we needed office space! Seriously, as we expanded we needed a new location to store all the books, merchandise, and equipment from the comic con and the publishing. We found an open storefront and figured it would be cool to have a place where folks could buy our work and the work of all our friends all year round!
NH: Speaking of Indigenous Comic Con. That is a huge undertaking. What inspired you to start the Indigenous Comic Con?
LF: Two reasons: 1) I wanted to find a way so showcase all the incredible pop culture work being done by Native folks and 2) I wanted to create something where I could hang out with all the cool Native folks doing incredible pop culture work. It’s been pretty successful on both counts.
NH: What are your long term plans for the Indigenous Comic Con? Any chance you will expand to other location?
LF: Well, we are already in the process for THREE locations in 2019: back in Albuquerque, Denver Colorado, and Melbourne Australia. Hopefully, we can have a bunch of these all throughout the country.
NH: Any advice for anyone who wants to start their own comic con?
LF: Be patient and get a great support team! I have some incredible folks who have helped us to expand year over year.
NH: On Twitter, you describe yourself as an “Indigenerd poet, activist, educator, comic creator.” What does being an Indigenerd mean to you?
LF: It means being someone who desires to see dynamic and authentic representations of Native people in popular culture. It means not having to sacrifice my Indigenous identity in favor of my nerd identity.
Thank you to Dr. Francis for taking the time to chat a little about your work in the comic world!
I love that Dr. Francis takes historical events and issues that affect Native communities and uses them for storytelling in the comics medium. For years, non-native creators have had a say in how we look, speak, behave and live in literature, on stage and screen. And, because of this, the world has been deceived about who Indigenous people are. And it’s time to change that narrative. Indigenous people are now telling their stories in different mediums. We have yet to cross into the mainstream entertainment but we are getting close and Dr. Francis is part of the reason.
Since the Laguna Pueblo do not have a written language, I will borrow from the Kiowa and say Aho for reading.