In this essay, I would like to examine Native American and Aboriginal Australian characters in comic books. I will examine some Indigenous superheroes through the biggest comic book industries Marvel and DC. First I will write about the first American superhero then, I will examine the birth of Native American superheroes and Aboriginal Australian superheroes from the “white artists” point of view and then I will write about the comic books by Native artists and from their perspective. The negative representation and old stereotypes, racism towards Indigenous people is not a new phenomenon and it is everywhere thus my main focus and research were based on the negative representation and the distorted image of Native, Aboriginal people in the comics. In my essay, I would like to examine the power of comic books made by Indigenous people and the positive reinforcement of the comics on the Indigenous people both in the United States and in Australia. Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans have been misrepresented in comic books, stereotypes, caricatures and negative representations formed the superheroes’ personality and thus the Native people’s as well, but nowadays the world has changed, many artists think there is a need for an authentic representation of Native, Indigenous superheroes.
America’s first superhero is now on the scene, the year 1936 changed a lot in the worlds of comic books and also in the media, this year marks the debut of the first superhero comic-strip character, The Phantom (Patrick 133). The first American forerunner superhero was The Phantom, created by Lee Falk, he was the first the costumed hero in the medium the first fictional hero to wear the skintight costume and he was the first shown in a mask with no visible pupils, though he has no superpowers unlike most other superheroes, he is tough, strong and athletic, he relies only on his intelligence and strength (Patrick 133). His character was contradictory, he was not a Native hero, but he treated the black people fairly, thus he rather has found popularity through the eyes of the international readers more precisely in
Australia, it has been published in Australia since 1948 and it is still popular today (Patrick 133). The Phantom established the future of the great blockbuster superhero movies, comic books, video games. Why do we adore superheroes or why do we like to identify with them? According to Peter Coogan, the writer of SUPERHERO The Secret Origin of a Genre “a superhero genre central conceit’s is the superhero’s metaphoric nature” (Coogan 14). The author claims that in the superhero genre itself, “superheroes stand as metaphors for freedom-the freedom to act without consequences and the freedom from the restrictions of gravity, the law, families, and romantic relationships. Superheroes are also a metaphor for efficacy-they can accomplish anything they set out to do-and they are often used in this sense in advertising” (Coogan 14). This part of my essay proves why there is a need for Native, Indigenous superheroes, people want to identify with heroes, heroes stand as a metaphor for freedom so here is the chance and hope that trough superheroes Native and Indigenous people can experience hero stories, or through stories they can be free and accomplish goals, which they could not for decades.
DC and Marvel comic books are world-famous and they create the most astonishing superheroes and always challenge one another. I did a little research because I was curious whether these two industries have ever created Native superheroes. According to Christopher Peruzzi who is a comic book superhero historian, and he wrote an article: “Who Are The Native American Heroes of Marvel Comics” claims that Marvel Universe produced thirteen Native superheroes (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of Marvel Comics?, hobbylark.com). I think this is quite a small number in contrast to all the other “white” superheroes. The other great thing I have found while I was doing this research that to my surprise I thought Marvel is going to represent the Native heroes in a negative manner, distorted image though, Peruzzi claims that “from the thirteen of these superhero characters
twelve of them are good guys” like Warpath, Black Crow, Danielle Moonstar, Talisman (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of Marvel Comics?, hobbylark.com).
Peruzzi brings a great example which gives an explanation for my judgment that I thought these superheroes were going to be the villains and bad guys, he says when he was a kid and “played with Cowboys and Indians, he thought, in his generation, that the cowboys were the good guys” (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of Marvel Comics?, hobbylark.com). Later he admits he was blind or uneducated as a child and now “he is smartened up as a grown-up, hopes he can educate Marvel readers about this ethnic group” (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of Marvel Comics?, hobbylark.com). Basically, Marvel created a positive insight of Native superheroes, role models with more or less success because Native superheroes are still rare in movies, video games or in comics.
The “Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero” article claims that Marvel is up to something with Native heroes, Marvel created the first Native American superhero comic book series, Red Wolf (Renee Lewis, Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero, america.aljazeera.com). This is not America’s first Native superhero but definitely the first Native American superhero comic in the United States. One of the superhero’s creators said: “The character uses grit, wits, and knowledge of his environment to battle crime and holds his own in the universe” (Renee Lewis, Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero, america.aljazeera.com). Nathan Edmondson, the Marvel writer, said: “Red Wolf will not be linked to any existing Native American tribe” (Renee Lewis, Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero, america.aljazeera.com). “I think it’s worth pointing out that character from the made-up tribe is no win for diversity,” Navajo
journalist Lita Nadabah Beck said on Twitter (Renee Lewis, Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero, america.aljazeera.com).
In contrast to DC, the industry neglected the Native American superheroes. Peruzzi made another research “Who Are The Native American Heroes of the DC Universe” but now from the DC side, this was quite disappointing, “there were not many characters, and DC came up with weird and stereotyping names, caricatures, characters like Pow Wow Smith, Scalphunter, Firehair, Strongbow, Dawnstar” (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of the DC Universe? hobbylark.com). Peruzzi summed up that basically, DC made Native superheroes the way people perceived them, “in a Caucasian’s view of what they perceive one to be” (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of the DC Universe? hobbylark.com). DC made these superheroes wrong, it made a bad decision when “it started to give the same talents and powers, abilities that the Native had, like hunting, tracking, horseback riding or being a shaman” (Christopher Peruzzi, Who Are The Native American Heroes of the DC Universe? hobbylark.com). Nowadays Marvel and DC Comics made a bigger stress on including more Native American characters though some of the superheroes were characterized by stereotypes by DC industry (Renee Lewis, Marvel Comics brings back Native American superhero, america.aljazeera.com).
Though in 2016 everything has changed, Native superheroes were born from Native artists in the United States when Dr. Lee Francis came up with an idea and established Native Realities Press. There was a drastic need for Native representation in the world of comics and books and the lack of opportunities for Native artists, his plan was to show what’s happening now with Native people, to show actual realities. “Native Realities was originally the online journal of Wordcraft of Native Writers and Story-tellers that Francis started back in 2000” (Lee Francis, Empowerment Through Storytelling, mag.indyfestusa.com). Francis says in the
interview that “we were one of the first online journals, though I didn’t know it at the time” and the journal ran about three years, but Francis realized there was a need to expand beyond the offerings of INC (Lee Francis, Empowerment Through Storytelling, mag.indyfestusa.com). Francis said, “in other words, we needed more than just comics, we needed books by Native authors directed toward a Native audience, from a Native perspective” (Kristina Bad Hand, Empowerment Through Storytelling, mag.indyfestusa.com). The next step after the press was that he created the first Indigenous Comic Con and Red Planet Books and Comics in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Red Planet Books store “features comics, toys, games, kid’s books and pop art from Native and Indigenous artists, as well as new and old books by Indigenous writers from around the world” (Lee Francis, About Us, redplanetbooksabq.com). “We want to highlight the amazing work that Native and Indigenous folks are doing in and around pop culture and get folks excited to come visit our shop and everyone is welcome,” says Francis, “we want to create a place where people can hang out, peruse some comics, play some games, and enjoy some time with us” (Lee Francis, About Us, redplanetbooksabq.com) Native Realities was established because Francis felt that we, the world and especially “Native people do not need more Native villains”, instead “the world need Native superheroes and moral relativism” (Monica Brain, The Stan Lee of Indian Country: Comics Publisher Dr. Lee Francis, indiancountrymedianetwork.com).
Native Realities is an all-Native press with a creative mandate to publish stories that empower Native and Indigenous youth. Instead, the stories coming out of NR tell of the lives the dreams of Native and Indigenous peoples in modern and contemporary times. Native Realities shares the stories of superheroes across Native cultures. They create the most original and authentic representations of Native and Indigenous peoples through comics, graphic novels, and games that educate and entertain children, youth, and adults. In order to change the stereotypical representations of Native
people, one had to start with pop culture (Kristina Bad Hand, Empowerment Through Storytelling, mag.indyfestusa.com).
Native artists, illustrators could present their works in the first Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2016. This is a new opportunity to educate younger people and kids, they are getting inspired by superheroes that look like them. The Indigenous Comic Con gives a chance so that Native people could celebrate Native culture, and artists can introduce people the Native culture. This event helps Indigenous people to deal with real issues they face and gives them hope and it gives a chance to Native American artists to express themselves in a more accurate way and challenge, defeat the old stereotypes, caricatures.
The first Indigenous Comic Con is a world’s premier gathering for Indegenerds and all things Indigenous pop culture. “The nerds are creating their own superheroes (an indegenerd being anyone who is interested in more accurate and diverse depictions of indigenous people in popular media) using the same pop-culture mediums they’ve loved for years but never felt ownership of” (Megan Cavitt, Native Realities: Authentic Indigenous Representation In Comics, bookriot.com). The nerds whether they Indian or non-Indian fans, follow the spectacular works of Native American created comics.
Arrigon Starr and Jonathan Proudstar were not the only one among the Native creators-illustrators game designers, artists, and actors-present at Indigenous Comic Con. The Comic Con offers a wide variety of programs and activities to all ages from artist forums, comic books signings, cosplay events and it is a great attempt to create a Native community in the mainstream Comic Cons (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com). Many artists, illustrators stood up for themselves and expressed their opinion about stereotyping Indians, Native culture and they
emphasized the importance of comic books from Native people towards Native and non-Native audiences and the success of Comic Con.
Arigon Starr says that “ten years ago, this comic con wouldn’t have been possible”, “this event marks a huge turning point and shows that there is a need, movement and a market for this” (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com). Arigon Starr, who is the creator of the Super Indian comic series claimed that:
We were either shamans, mystic boogeyman, or pocahotties (Pocahontas hotties) and so often Native folks are never shown having a sense of humor and being funny is important to my work. There is a lot of social consciousness evident in Super Indian, but disguised in humor. You can look at it as satire or parody – but underneath the yuks, it’s great to explore issues of identity, community and how Native folks are perceived because seeing those kinds of stereotypes in comics made me determined to do something for those that never had representation, it’s exciting to see all of doing this (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com).
We can find so many comic books on the website of Native Realities and we also have the chance to order comics from there. Tribal Force, The Wool of Jonesy, Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, Deer Woman these are just some comic books you can find on the website and get a little insight into their worlds. This event which is the first of its kind in the world, “represents the growth of the subcultural vanguard of indigenous-created media that is slowly working its way into the multibillion dollar comic industry” says Samuel Gilbert (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com).
Jonathan Proudstar, creator of ‘Tribal Force’-America’s first all Native American superhero comic said that “we have been prostituted and raped in the story world, the power
of the media is that it has taught us Natives that we don’t have a space. So it is our job to carve out that space” (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com). Proudstar added, “On many reservations, the education system is very poor and you have 8th and 9th graders reading at a 3rd grade level and comics are a way to start to teach these kids about their culture in a way that makes, has relevance, and is cool” (Samuel Gilbert, Native Superheroes Battle Old Stereotypes at the First Ever Indigenous Comic Con, vice.com). Now the world has a more authentic representation of Indigenous people which take back stereotypes. Native superheroes from Native creators could destroy the stereotypes and can show what is hidden under the surface, what is happening now with Native people.
Aboriginal Australians also had to face with stereotypes which led to racism and prejudice, the humiliation of everyday racism and the encounter of negative stereotyping that, affect the Indigenous people is hard to fight against with. Comic books offered a help to break this barrier and if we look back, we can find a number of examples that prove the appearance of the Indigenous Australian superheroes.
Luke Pearson collected in his article some of the most famous Indigenous superheroes, from the 1940s there were several comic book series published that included a cartoon strip featuring Indigenous characters for children, like Molo, The Wombat, Condoman, Gateway or Betty Clawman (Luke Pearson, The Wombat to Kaptn Koori-Aboriginal representation in comic books and capes, sbs.com.au). Later, from the 1990s superhero characters like Shard, Dreamguard, Super Boong, Dark Ranger, Manifold, Kaboomerang, Ubby, Thunderer, or Captain Reg Saunders were the hits, nowadays, for instance, Cleverman or NEOMAD are popular among the Aboriginal comics (Luke Pearson, The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal representation in comic books and capes, sbs.com.au).
Condoman took its visual cue from Lee Falk’s Phantom, which has a long history as the most popular comic character within Aboriginal Australia. Condoman created as a tool for the promotion of safe sex practices, sexual relationship and he shifted these into superhero stories in the early 1980’s (Roslyn Hirst, Indigenous Australians in Comics, nla.gov.au.). Basically Black was a program which featured Super Boong. Super Boong was a parody of Superman, Super Boong was a unique show, since “it gave a glimpse at black Australian people, away from the evening news where Aboriginal people were invariably portrayed as victims or criminals and the show was imbued with a deliberate layer of social commentary which acted to tackle racism head-on” (Cleverman-The First Aboriginal Superhero? koorihistory.com).
The representation of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders continues to grow in comics. Ryan Griffen also thought that Australia needs more and more Indigenous superheroes or at least more authentic representation of Aboriginal superheroes so he created Cleverman for his son. Ryan Griffen as he said as a “light-skinned Aboriginal person with his wife” strongly embraces his Aboriginality, Griffen as a kid, often felt that he “constantly had to fight for his aboriginality” because he was discriminated and he also experienced racism (We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son, theguardian.com). His aim was in making an Aboriginal superhero is that “his son could connect with it and he wanted a character which could empower his son to stand and fight when he has to face racism” (We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son, theguardian.com). Cleverman would teach a moral lesson, not only for his son but to anyone who feels connected with the superhero (We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son, theguardian.com). Cleverman is a superhero who characterized by Indigenous mythology with contemporary superhero traits. “Cleverman is set
in a near-future Australia in which ancient creatures, the “Hairypeople”, have re-emerged to take their place alongside humans, but coexistence is not so easy, with government agencies unwilling to recognise the Hairypeople (or “Hairies”) as citizens and limiting their movements to a heavily policed Zone” (Liam Burke, Cleverman: An Indigenous superhero series with a political streak, abc.net.au).
The other most recent Indigenous comic is NEOMAD, a “sci-fi punk, with bright coloring and some absolutely amazing panels” (Roslyn Hirst, Indigenous Australian in Comics, nla.gov.au). “It was created with the help of over 40 young people in the Ieramugadu (Roebourne) community through a series of workshops in scriptwriting, literacy, Photoshop, filmmaking and sound recording over an 18 month period, they can paint a thousand words with body language and expressions, and share a lot more meaning than the written word” (Roslyn Hirst, Indigenous Australian in Comics, nla.gov.au). The goal of the NEOMAD is to connect the people to their country, places and it wants to bring attention to the Indigenous culture.
Comics are a great source of knowledge and it is a great way to tell stories, it can entertain and teach lessons to people. Readers can identify and connect with the superheroes, stories. Native, Indigenous superheroes help to ethnic tribes to feel safe, battle the stereotypes and face racism. There are a lot of Native and Indigenous stories, themes, and comics all around the world and I think I just barely introduced some of them. I hope I will encourage some people to read comics about these ethnic groups, so they can learn some truth about them, especially those comics by Native, Indigenous artists.