July 11, 2015

Review of Trickster

I posted several items about the Trickster anthology when it was published in 2010. Now I've finally read it.

Below are some dueling perspectives on it. First, the good news:

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic CollectionTricksy
By E. R. Bird on November 23, 2010

Nowadays, you can read through a big publisher's full catalog for the upcoming season and not find a single solitary folktale gracing their lists. It's sad really. Maybe that's part of the reason that Trickster, as edited by Matt Dembicki, appealed so strongly to me. This isn't just a graphic novel and it isn't just a pairing of smart writers and great artists. Dembicki has come up with a way of collecting a wide variety of Native American folktales into a single source, done in such a way that kids will find themselves enthralled. When was the last time a book of folktales enthralled one of your kids anyway? It's remarkable. Not that it's a perfect collection (there are a couple things I'd change) but generally speaking I hope Trickster acts as a sign of good things to come.

Trickster is a great example of the graphic storytelling form...
By Donald M. Wood on May 31, 2010

Trickster has a great variety of artists that fit well with each of the different stories. I also think that this book is a great example of how graphic storytelling can reach a greater audience than just the core comic reader.

Each of the stories showcase a different aspect of the trickster persona that makes up a great deal of Native American lore and cautionary tales. The stories vary from cartoony versions of characters, storybook style illustration and fully painted tales.

The production quality of the book is beautiful,the artwork is well represented here. I highly recommend this book!

A Very Lively and Readable Book
By GraphicNovelReporter.com on June 21, 2010

Folkloric stories are powerful. They can be emotional, funny, uplifting, or scary. But they always have pull to them, and that's why they continue to haunt and entertain people.

While there are special classes in school that teach mythology and folklore, it isn't always easy to find a class on Native American stories. Unfortunately, these stories are often pushed aside just as Native American culture and history can so often get left out of textbooks. Trickster: Native American Tales--A Graphic Collection is a unique remedy for this. In the form of a comic book, it tells 21 Native tales about tricksters. The tales range in style and emotion: Some are straightforward, some are humorous, some are frightening. All of them are interesting.
More glowing reviews:

Trickster's starred reviews
Journal Sentinel reviews Trickster

On the other hand

Then there's the bad news. Readers on the Goodreads site gushed less and opined more:

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic CollectionMiriam rated it 2 of 5 stars

On the one hand, I feel a little guilty giving this collection only 3 stars, because it is fabulous that they collected all these native american tales together and got various artists to illustrate them and paid for a high-quality heavy-paper glossy publication.

On the other hand, I feel a little guilt giving this collection as much as 3 stars, because man, it was pretty effing boring and the retellings were uninspired and most of the art was stunningly weak and cartoonish.

I am far from being an expert and I could easily come up with a more diverse, complex and interesting set of trickster tales. And I could relate them in a more interesting voice. Hell, I could even illustrate them better than most of these artists bothered to do. And since they actually make careers out of this I can only assume that the artists or the editor thought this over-simple, silly tone was appropriate to the subject matter. Wrong.

Seth Hahne rated it 1 of 5 stars

I frequently remark at the necessarily uneven tone of anthologies, with one story trumping another and the next falling far short of the bar set by the former. I expected this. What I hadn’t expected was for the bar to be set so low and for it to remain low for the book’s duration. These stories were almost* universally uninvolving and trite, offering no compelling reason to read further. It was only a personal need to perform my due diligence that pressed me to continue. Never a good recommendation for a book.

Almost exclusively, the writing in the book was limp. These stories of the Trickster (usually a coyote or rabbit or raccoon) were simply uninteresting. Perhaps they make a better oral tradition than a written one, but my feeling is that almost any of the stories could have been made more compelling with a steadier author’s hand. Many of the tales take forms similar to Kipling’s Just So Stories. How the alligator got his skin, how the rabbit got his tail, how the raccoon got short and fat, how the beaver stopped being an unbridled killing machine, et cetera. There’s meat there for some decent stories. Or at least some lame stories told interestingly. But it just never coalesces.

Samrat rated it 2 of 5 stars

Meh. I really wanted to like this, what with my fondness for native folklore and my work with a number of tribes, mostly in the northern Plains. It may be the graphic novel format alone, which I don't think I care for, or something else I can't put my finger on.

It felt shallow. This book could have really used a forward with information on the traditional role of the trickster and especially contexts with each story, at least a mention of the contributing tribe or region. A few of the comics just seemed inappropriately cartoonish and I wonder if the artwork was fully vetted--quite a bit of it seemed like Disney-Indian. (Much of the art and graphic design just wasn't to my personal taste, too. YMMV.) A tougher editor could have helped shape up some of these stories for the graphic novel format. There are just so many great collections of stories out there (for academic and popular audiences) that this one seemed like a hollow mish-mash with an adorable cover.

Raina rated it 3 of 5 stars

A collection of trickster tales from native tribes all over amerika.

I struggle with this one. On the one hand, it's a neat looking package. An awesome cover, glossy color images inside, with stories contributed by native americans and illustrations by comic artists. As an artifact, I think it's valuable in society.

But I'm not sure it's entirely effective. Many of the stories are extremely text heavy, and it's often hard to see the benefit the illustrations lend to the telling. Also, there's no extra information about where the stories come from, which areas of the country, what tribes, any kind of a context. There was one story set near Celilo Falls (on the Columbia River), and the dwellings were teepees. Maybe I'm ignorant, but I didn't think northwest Native Americans used teepees.
Rob's review

As you can surmise from my inclusion of negative reviews, I wasn't that crazy about Trickster.

I think I've read a book of Native trickster tales before. As with most anthologies, those tales were all over the map in terms of enjoyment. Same with these tales.

I'm not sure I can pinpoint the problem. In some cases the art was too childish or cartoonish. One reviewer complained about the "Ren-and-Stimpy style," which I'd concur with. In some cases the writing was too flat or uninspiring. Some stories were not begging to be told, or could've been told in a couple of pages rather than a dozen.


  • A good Indian bets a bad Indian that he can build a bridge before the crow caws at dawn. The bad man cheats by showing the crow a burning torch.

  • How did the alligator get its mottled skin? Rabbit lit his home on fire and he got burned.

  • Coyote summons the eligible women to choose a bride, but one isn't a virgin so he turns them all to stone.

  • Those might be three-page stories in text form. They aren't necessarily improved by making them 3-4 times longer.

    Indeed, I would've tried to make the stories as short as possible. Three pages of text condensed to one of illustration might've been a quick but enjoyable read.

    For anyone who's read multitudes of fairy tales and fables, it's relatively easy to visualize an animal-based story. It isn't like a superhero or sci-fi saga where the visuals are almost required. Trickster's drawings are sometimes better than what you might imagine, but sometimes worse.

    Diverse or generic?

    I'd disagree with those who said Trickster's stories showcase the breadth and diversity of Native cultures. Most of the human figures are generic half-naked Indians in buckskins or loincloths and feathers. Few of the stories use more than a couple of Native words or concepts. Most could've taken place anywhere with coyotes, rabbits, wolves, ravens, raccoons, and so forth--which was most of America, originally.

    I think trickster tales are supposed to be universal in nature, and Trickster's stories generally are. So they're more like Aesop's Fables or Just So Stories than Native myths and legends. That limits their appeal to aficionados of Native literature.

    This is where introductions might've helped: by giving the stories some context. What was this particular culture like? Why was this animal a trickster and not that one? What was the point of the story? How did it resonate with the people who heard it?

    Summing it up, I'd probably recommend Trickster only to fans of Native-themed literature and comics. Rob's rating: 6.5 of 10.

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