October 23, 2008

Top five Native heroes

The top five Native American characters in comics

Darcey McLaughlin--Geek WorldThe creative forces behind most comics are mainly white men, and they brought to their works clichés and outright prejudices when it came to the presentation of minority characters.

Native North Americans were no different in how they were treated by most comic book creators, and often fell into the typical stereotype of the savage Indian, particularly during the boom in popularity of western comics during the 1950s. Even when creators thought they were doing good, Natives were often portrayed as clichéd characters with names and powers that are defined by their heritage.

In fact, there is a great book called Native Americans in Comic Books by Michael A. Sheyahshe that takes a critical look at the role of Natives in comics. Well worth the read.

Still, there are some great Native characters out there that many people may not know about. So today I thought we'd take a look at five of those characters.
McLaughlin's top five and why they're on his list:Shaman

What's interesting about Shaman is initially he rejects the idea of magic of the Shaman, refusing to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. It is only after personal tragedy that he embraces his mystic heritage, eventually finding himself fighting alongside super-heroes.

Sarah Rainmaker

She is modern in appearance and a typical modern woman. She is an unabashed liberal always taking up one cause or another, and she is presented as bisexual, although the creators were often criticized for doing this simply for the enjoyment of young male readers.

Forge

In the world of comics this former member of the X-Men is unique in that he is a native character without a clichéd name or powers. In fact Forge is a mutant with a super-human ability to invent mechanical devices. Forge is another character who throws off the ways of his ancestors, forgoing magic for technology.

Dawnstar

Strikingly beautiful with long raven black hair and large white wings, Dawnstar is from a colonized planet called called Starhaven. She has the ability to fly (hence the wings) but can also survive in deep space without the use of technology.

Turok

Most people likely know Turok through the video games that have been released, and many likely don't realize he started out as a comic book character.
Comment:  Clearly McLaughlin is going for the "most original" or "least stereotypical" characters, not simply the ones he thinks are "coolest" or "best." With that in mind, let's consider his list.

McLaughlin's first four choices are supportable for the reasons he gives. But I don't think many people would include Turok.

Fighting dinosaurs rather than cowboys, Indians, or supervillains doesn't make Turok less of a stereotypical warrior. He's a key figure in the history of Native comics, but he's not stunningly original. He's an Indian version of the savage hero in a "lost world"--e.g., Tarzan or Conan.

On the other hand, I think most people would include Danielle Moonstar. Despite her convoluted powers and history, her characterization has generally been rich.

Many people also would include Tim Truman's Scout. But I wouldn't because I consider him a variation on the stereotypical warrior.

Another top five

Here's an alternative top five for you and McLaughlin to consider. I'll limit myself to superhero-style comics and exclude my own Peace Party.

Wyatt Wingfoot
Tom Kalmaku
Moonstar
Arak
Black Crow

If we add Scout and Daredevil's associate Echo, that gives us twelve. I'd also include American Eagle, except he's appeared only once in his revamped incarnation.

If you forced me to pick a second five, I'd probably go with Shaman, Forge, Echo, American Eagle, and someone else. Perhaps the little-known Super Shamou. Scout, Rainmaker, and Dawnstar might make my second ten, and Turok might make my third ten.

In any case, I suspect that most people who endeavored to pick a top five would draw heavily from this baker's dozen of characters.

For more fan favorites, see Loren Javier's Favorites and Comics Picks and Pans. For those who limited themselves to Marvel or X-Men characters, see Poll on Marvel's Native Superheroes and Most Popular Native X-Men. For more on the subject in general, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

9 comments:

Genevieve said...

Hey, what about Nelvana of the Northern Lights, one of comics' first superheroines (debuting 4 months before Wonder Woman)? She's Canada's first national superhero, and only their third superhero ever. More info here, here (coincidentally enough, this page lists Franz Johnston of the 1920's Group of Seven as coming up with the concept for the character), and here (she's been on a postage stamp). The children's animation company, Nelvana, took their name from her.

dmarks said...

Is she Native/First Nations? The Wikipedia entry does not mention it. Maybe it should.

Genevieve said...

Well, according to the Toonopedia (selected quotes):

"Nelvana was the half-human daughter of King Koliak, god of the Northern Lights, part of an ancient Inuit (formerly called "Eskimo") pantheon — at least, according to tales brought back from the far north by painter Franz Johnston."

"(Painter Adrian) Dingle's first story arc, appearing in Triumph Adventure 1-7, started with a call for help from an Inuit community, whom Nelvana had sworn to protect, and led to a direct confrontation, in the Arctic region of North America, no less, with agents of Hitler himself — just about the time of Pearl Harbor!"

"Some of Nelvana's super powers were tied to the Aurora Borealis. She could travel at the speed of light by riding one of its rays. She could disrupt radio communication and call on other electromagnetic phenomena, enabling her to do anything from melt metal to control the weather. Using a magic cloak, she could alter her appearance, including turn invisible. Also, she could communicate telepathically with Tanero (her brother). She was friends with Arctic wildlife, and was once seen riding a polar bear. With a physical resemblance to the people who first told stories about her (unlike The Bird Man), Nelvana is very likely the world's first non-Caucasian superhero."

"...she even survives, in a way, in modern comics. Marvel's character Snowbird, an early member of Alpha Flight, is said to be her daughter. Marvel spelled the name a little differently ("Nelvanna", possibly to avoid copyright entanglements), but it's pretty clear who they were talking about."


I included that last quote because I find it funny; Snow Bird is like, super-duper blondie blue-eyed white.

~~~~

So, short answer: yes, because she's definitely intended to be and depicted as an Inuit character and a defender of Inuits, but how effective (or subvertive) that was would have to be analyzed by someone more familiar with the comic. I haven't read the actual books, so I don't know how bad or good the "Eskimo" depictions was for this particular publication, especially given its age.

And I'm pretty sure the original "legend of Nelvana" story is total bunk; can anyone confirm/deny this?

Nelvana's other powers include her transforming herself into dry ice, apparent immortality, and very interestingly, her brother Tanero (with whom she shares the psychic link) can be transformed with her magic cloak from his light form into human form. Her brother, I would assume, is either a full god or a demi-god like she is, but this is particularly interesting because according to this page, Tanero "must not be seen by Whites while in human form".

TODD TAMANEND CLARK said...

As of today, my top five Native American comic book characters are:

AZTEC ACE
COYOTE
ECHO
LUBA
SARAH RAINMAKER

Anonymous said...

Hey Gang,

Certainly some great names listed so far! Here's my Top 5:

Echo/Ronin - Maya Lopez in general

Ripclaw - "savage" tendencies but I have a soft spot in my heart for him

Forge - forementioned reasons & longevity

Dani Moonstar - forementioned reasons & longevity

Black Condor - mysterious charecter from Uncle Sam

Groan...cheer...discuss...Thanks Rob!

Rob said...

I think Nelvana is a real Inuit goddess. But every posting seems to be about the comic-book character, so it's hard to find information about her.

Nelvana's Wikipedia entry says the following:

"The character was created, written and illustrated by Adrian Dingle, who was inspired by tales brought back from the Arctic by Group of Seven painter Franz Johnston. He converted tribal legends to a story of a superhero living among the Inuit peoples."

I suspect Nelvana belonged to one of those "raceless" foreign races that often look white. From what I've seen of her, she had an Anglo body type and hairstyle and "Asian" orange-tan skin. I doubt she or her people had many Inuit attributes other than the names and the legends.

Anyway, I don't know enough about her to include her in my top five. She gets points for being perhaps the first Native superhero, but this list isn't about firsts. My guess is that she was generic in execution--looking vaguely ethnic but acting white--even if she was Inuit in principle.

Rob said...

As for the other suggestions:

I'd probably put Ripclaw in my bottom five if I had to come up with one. He's almost totally a generic savage, which makes him almost totally a stereotype.

Black Condor seemed mainly like a tough guy (i.e., a neo-savage) when I read his debut. I didn't like the apparent invention of a Navajo "condor legend" to explain him.

I think Coyote had all the attributes of a credible Native trickster. But I'm not sure the comics ever said he was Native or his powers came from a Native source.

Therefore, he's in a gray area as far as I'm concerned. He might be a top-ten character if he were clearly Native, but his ambiguous origin makes him a second-stringer to me.

Another good choice might be Cusick of the Tuscarora (from TIMESPIRITS). The question there would be whether TIMESPIRITS counts as a superhero-style comic book.

Jeff Stevens said...

I like all of Rob's choices and I think I'll throw in a personal fave - Wyatt Wingfoot. I know some feel he was perhaps not representative enough of a specific cultural tradition/tribe, but I think considering his versatility and the time period (the late 60s) he came from it can be overlooked. I like the fact that he was a robust, intelligent adventurer and didn't have the typical warbonnet/tomahawk accoutrements usually accompanying native characters. Of course he instead had the one outfit (red t-shirt and jeans)like he was one of the Scobby Doo kids. He was also a romantic interest for arguably one of the sexiest female suerheroes - She Hulk.
And I will limit myself to the Lee/Kirby and Byrne incarnations. Whatever came next I am not sure.

Rob said...

True, Wyatt Wingfoot belonged to the fictional Keewazi tribe. But most of these characters have flaws. Few of them are more than somewhat authentic.

Tom Kalmaku is the only of the McLaughlin/Schmidt top 10 who strikes me as authentic. Other mostly authentic characters might include Echo, the revamped American Eagle, and little-known heroes such as Tribal Force, Strong Man, and Super Shamou. As well as my own Peace Party, of course. ;-)