January 22, 2014

"From Super-Chief to Tonto"

From Super-Chief to Tonto: What comics tell us

By Niigaanwewidam SinclairGraphic novelist theorist Scott McCloud argues in Understanding Comics that "when we create and read comics we are really constructing reflections of ourselves over and over and over again."

In other words: we are telling stories to figure ourselves out.

This makes the history of indigenous representations in graphic novels so fascinating and one reason why we started a graphic novel collection both about and by indigenous peoples here at the University of Manitoba.

Called the Mazinbiige collection, it refers to an Anishinabe word meaning beautiful images and writing—something fairly easy to see in the dozens of texts by indigenous storytellers and artists representing their cultures and communities.

Something harder to see is in the approximately 100 graphic novels created by non-aboriginal artists in the collection that represent indigenous peoples in generally inaccurate and potentially damaging ways.
Sinclair goes through five categories of stereotypical characters:The Warrior

Angry and usually accompanied by a spiritual entity, warriors like Joshua Brand in Image Comics’ Shaman's Tears and Marvel Comics’ John Proudstar (aka Thunderbird) of the X-Men are isolated men with an axe to grind.

The Artifact

Off the pages of a textbook, clad in buckskin, and carrying archaic beliefs and weapons, characters such as Gold Key Comics’ Turok, DC Comics’ Super-Chief, and Eclipse Comics’ Scout: War Shaman are vestiges to a dying way of life in a modern world.

The Sidekick

Usually a decoration for a stunning, heroic, non-native hero, athletic and noble servants like Dell’s Tonto in the Lone Ranger comic books may have been ignorant or just played the role to please his handler, but either way relished in the role.

The Shaman

In his study Native Americans in Comic Books, Michael Sheyahshe writes that there is a popular “assumption that within every indigenous person there hides a potential shaman with 'magical' abilities to communicate with supernatural forces."

The Wannabe

Not an aboriginal character, but a non-aboriginal who is captured and/or raised by indigenous peoples, this character’s superpowers are gained simply by exposure.
Comment:  Most of the "warriors" are artifacts and most of the "wannabes" are warriors.

I wouldn't have labeled the range "From Super-Chief to Tonto," since those two characters span only a few years in the 1950s. "From Turok to Scalped" is a better summary of the genre.

I guess "From Super-Chief to Tonto" could be a commentary on the limited range of Native comic-book characters. Like they go all the way from A to B.

For more on the subject, see Mazinbiige Comic-Book Collection.

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