December 05, 2007

The origin of Tom Kalmaku

For someone conceived as a racial joke ("Pieface"), Thomas Kalmaku has come far. Here's the scoop on one of the first (perhaps the first) modern Native characters in comic books.

Tom "Pieface" KalmakuYears ago, Thomas Kalmaku's father and a trapper named Jimmy Dawes discovered a gold mine in the far north. The two became partners and made a map of the area, which they split between them as a token of their partnership. Dawes returned to the United States to raise money to work the mine. The elder Kalmaku fell sick and died soon after, but not before passing the map to his son Thomas. Jimmy Dawes never returned.

Kalmaku's Inuit Alaskan tribe was poor and needed the revenue that could be generated from the mine to survive. Tom went to Coast City, California to search for Dawes and took a mechanic's job at Ferris Aircraft Corporation to support himself and the tribe. While at Ferris, Tom picked up the nickname "Pieface" and worked closely with test pilot Hal Jordan. Tom and Hal would become the best of friends.

Apparently, others knew of Tom's map, as his half was soon stolen. Jordan changed into his Green Lantern identity to help find both parts of the map. After the map-stealers were defeated, Tom donated the mine to his tribe.

During a fist-fight Green Lantern had had with the map thieves, Tom noticed the similarity of Hal and the emerald warrior's right hook. Having inadvertently discovered Jordan's secret identity as Green Lantern, he offered to have his memory erased by the power ring. Jordan declined, and trusted Tom with the knowledge.
Comment:  This is a recap of the story in GREEN LANTERN (first series) #2. It was retold in "A Piece of the Pie" in SECRET ORIGINS #36, which is where I read it. Even though "Pie" is only six pages long, the plot is all there.

I didn't read much of the original GL series before Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams took it over. So I don't know much about Tom Kalmaku from firsthand experience. I believe the comics portrayed him as a smart-talking "grease monkey" with all the stereotyping that implies.

But the character had depth from the beginning. And he's only grown in complexity since he's appeared in such comics as NEW GUARDIANS and GREEN LANTERN: LEGACY. He's arguably one of the best Native characters in superhero comics.

The SECRET ORIGINS story highlights what makes Kalmaku so interesting. He learns engineering skills at an Alaskan Air Force base and uses them to support himself. Even while earning his keep, he focuses on what will benefit his Inuit people. He's a well-adjusted family man (at this point) with a loving wife and children. He thinks and speaks like any well-educated person (no rough "Injun" dialect like that given to Marvel's Thunderbird.) He notes the inappropriateness of his "Pieface" nickname but says he liked it better when Green Lantern wasn't politically correct. His journal-keeping marks him as perhaps the most overtly literate Native character in comics.

Amazingly, the Kalmaku story is the least significant one in SECRET ORIGINS #36. The comic also recounts the well-known origin of Green Lantern. Even better, it explores the origin of Poison Ivy (a Batman foe) in a story written by Neil Gaiman (SANDMAN). This story doesn't go anywhere, but it's a gem of sharp writing. Compared to the usual superhero tale, it stands out like a sore (green) thumb.

Considering you can get SECRET ORIGINS #36 in a back-issue bin for a dollar or two, it's a great buy. Rob says: Check it out.

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