It was on one such excursion, to Chicago’s Field Museum somewhere around 1992, that LaBan conceived of Muktuk Wolfsbreath. The Field had just revamped a large section of their Native American exhibit, a part dealing mostly with Northwest Coast cultures, with an emphasis on that region’s version of shamanism. A remarkable collection of artifacts–masks, carved totems, the contents of sacred bundles–were displayed in a darkened room, where the exhibit cases only lit up as you approached them, an effect that both helped preserve the objects and dramatize them. Accompanied by grainy black and white video loops of turn-of-the-century rituals and a soundtrack of chants and drumming, the whole thing was quite evocative. Somewhere in there the realization that shamans were kind of like detectives, in that they brought about change by discovering the source of problems, clicked with that classic hard boiled voice, and, suddenly, there was an idea for a character. At the time, LaBan, who’d recently bailed on his first “alternative” comic book series, Unsupervised Existence, was working on the first book of a second series, Cud. The first Muktuk Wolfsbreath story–set in Siberia, home of the classic shamans–appeared in there, and the positive response was immediate. LaBan eventually wrote and drew two more Muktuk stories himself and wrote a 3-issue Muktuk miniseries for DC, which was drawn by Steve Parkhouse, and appeared in 1998.
The DC series sold only moderately and unsure what else to do with the character, LaBan shelved him and moved on. Over the years, though, he continued to hear every so often from Muktuk fans, looking for art and asking him if he’d ever write more. The answer was always “no,” but when, one day, when considering his options for a thesis project that would allow him to complete his Masters in Interactive Design, he decided a web comic would fit the bill and that Muktuk Wolfsbreath would be the perfect concept to build it around. And here we are.
By the way, as noted above, Muktuk Wolfsbreath is Siberian, not Native American or Eskimo. Also, this comic is not intended to be an accurate depiction of either Siberian tribal culture (not that there’s just one) or of shamanic practices (which no longer exist, at least as they did before 1918). LaBan is a cartoonist, not a scholar, and has neither the time nor the patience to do serious research. That being said, there is a spirit he hopes to capture–dark night, arctic cold, skin tents lit by smoldering fires and echoing with the deep, hollow beat of the drum.
Laban also provides some background on shamans in his Reviving Wolfsbreath blog:
What's a Shaman
One point that particularly bugged me, now that I'm an expert on the subject, was the description of the George Clooney character and his mentor, a military hippy, as "shaman," because they had some sort of psychic abilities. For the record, a shaman is NOT someone who merely possesses psychic or even magical powers. Witches, witch doctors, wizards, mediums--none of them are necessarily shamans, though shamans may do all of these things. A shaman is someone who takes himself and/or others on shamanic journeys in order to effect one outcome or another. Frequently, these journeys are taken in the context of public rituals and performances, though I haven't made that a huge part of my particular stories (as I've said before, I'm not writing an anthropology text and I've changed facts as it's suited me). In that sense, the frequent descriptions of Jim Morrison and Patti Smith as shamans is, in fact, accurate. Rock and roll shows, particularly ones with a lot of audience involvement, are similar in a lot of ways to the public performances of Siberian shamans.
A couple things make this a superior comic. One, as indicated above, Laban has a good idea what a shaman actually is. He doesn't make his shaman into a garden-variety wizard or warlock.
Two, he treats his characters as real people with flaws and foibles. They don't talk and act like savages or noble savages. They talk and act like the people next door, because every culture throughout history has been concerned with sex, wealth, and power.
The setting is Siberian, but the culture is related to those in the North American arctic. In any case, it's indigenous. This is an excellent example of how Native-themed comics should go: with enough authenticity and entertainment value to satisfy everyone. That's why the original MUKTUK WOLFSBREATH is on my list of recommended comics and this revival belongs there too.
For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.