June 10, 2008

Thoughts on an exhibition

Peter Brown of the Eiteljorg Museum asked several people what they thought would make a good "Native Americans in comics" exhibition. Here's my response:


Thanks for asking me about your proposed exhibition on Native American portrayals in comics.

I thought the two shows I participated in--at the Eiteljorg Museum and the Montclair Art Museum--went well. Naturally I'd like to participate in similar shows but on a grander scale: with more press coverage and attendance.

But it sounds as if you're looking to do something new, not merely repeat what's been done before. Therefore, some ideas:

  • Our discussions at the Eiteljorg and the displays at the Montclair introduced the subject of Natives in comics. I'd like to go deeper into the comics' content, analyzing the myths and stereotypes they present about Indians. This would be similar to the reviews and analyses I do on my website, which could provide material for your displays. Some examples of what I mean:

  • Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, et al. as chiefs:  You could display the covers of old comics from Greg Reinhardt's collection. Juxtapose them with paintings and photographs of traditional chiefs from non-Plains tribes, and with photographs or videos of modern-day tribal leaders. This would show that most Indian leaders don't fit the mold of the stoic Plains chief in a headdress.

    The text accompanying these images could deconstruct the comic-book covers and tell viewers why these images were so prevalent. For instance, the "chief" stereotype helped depict Indians as a colorful and exotic remnant of the past. By favoring traditional chiefs over modern-day chiefs, the covers reinforced the idea that Indians were vanishing or had vanished. And that we no longer had to think of them as real or address their concerns and problems.

    You could compare a selection of images of Indian warriors in comics--Turok, Butcher, Scout, Warpath, Ripclaw--to the reality of being an Indian warrior: preparing days in advance, praying and fasting, seeking signs and omens, counting coup rather than actually killing people. Similarly, you could compare a selection of mystical Indian characters--Coyote, Shaman, Talisman, Manitou Raven--to the roles and work of actual Indian medicine men and priests.

    The "white Indian" phenomenon:  A display could compare "white Indians" such as Firehair, White Indian, and Scalphunter to actual whites taken captive and raised by Indians. This could explore why such characters were so popular: because publishers pandered to their white readers, who couldn't imagine that Indians were real people with complex lives, personalities, hopes and dreams.

    Yakari:  This Belgian comic-book series features the adventures of a young Sioux boy. From what I've seen, it's almost devoid of any real Sioux culture. A display could compare Yakari's circumstances to those of an actual Sioux boy growing up in traditional times. This would show how comics tend to ignore the complexity and depth of Indian cultures.

    NFL SUPERPRO #6:  A display could blow up images from this comic and point out the mistakes and stereotypes one by one. The accompanying text and photographs could show viewers what the Hopi and Navajo cultures portrayed in the comics are really like. You could do similar analyses with other notorious Indian comics--e.g., SCALPED, COWBOYS & ALIENS--as well.

    Wyatt Wingfoot and Jim Thorpe:  The Wingfoot character is clearly based on Jim Thorpe. A display could compare and contrast the two, showing the parallels between the real-life athlete and the fictional character. (Consider how Stan Lee presumed that a college-bound Indian had to come from a super-advanced civilization.)

    The Super Friends' Apache Chief:  Compare and contrast to real Apache chiefs and warriors, both traditional and modern.

    Jack Kirby's ETERNALS:  Compare and contrast to Inca and Mesoamerican mythology, art, and architecture.

    Little Sure Shot and Johnny Cloud:  Compare and contrast to actual Indian military veterans.

  • Along the same lines, you could compare the iconic superheroes to their mythical Indian counterparts, noting the similarities and differences. For instance, Superman vs. the Hero Twins or the Monster Slayer. Spider-Man vs. Iktomi the spider. Batman vs. Coyote and other trickster figures. Wonder Woman vs. the Navajos' First Woman or the Lakotas' White Buffalo Woman. Jack Kirby's Fourth World vs. Native legends of the fourth world. You could extend this to parallels outside the comics field but within the realm of pop culture--e.g., Hercules, the Iliad and the Odyssey, King Arthur, Western gunslingers, Star Wars.

  • We didn't get a chance to do much with the Healthy Aboriginal Network's animatics videos. You could do a whole program based on these and other comics-style videos: Raven Tales, Raccoon & Crawfish, Roy Boney's work, etc. Ideally you could contrast these authentic videos with stereotypical old cartoons: Looney Tunes featuring Indians, Superman vs. the mad Indian scientist, Vavoom in Felix the Cat, Gumby and Pokey as Indians, Little Hiawatha, Adventures of Pow Wow, Go-Go Gophers, Lone Ranger and Tonto, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Paw Paws, Bravestarr. Some of these might be in the public domain, so getting permission to show them might not be a problem.

  • You could commission writers and artists to retell the origins of classic characters as Indians. For instance, what if Superman had been an Indian baby who rocketed to earth in the 19th century and was found by a traditional Indian couple? What if an Indian boy saw his parents murdered by US soldiers and decided to become a Batman-style avenger? You could do something similar for Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Thor, Iron Man, and so forth.

  • These Indian-style origins could be just one or two pages long. You could compile them into a separate publication--a comic-book handout like the one the Montclair produced--or include them in the exhibit catalog. The creators might be willing to do this free, or you could pay them a small stipend.

  • Don't overlook opportunities to do tie-ins with existing and upcoming projects. Michael Sheyahshe's book on Native Americans in comics is about to debut. The Healthy Aboriginal Network continues to publish interesting comics. Arigon Starr is producing radio plays and a comic book about her Super Indian character. Chad Solomon is doing a lot with his RABBIT AND BEAR PAWS comic strips and books. The TRICKSTER anthology should be worth discussing and exploring. The PEACE PARTY graphic novel will come out in several months. Etc.

  • Some people at the Edmonton Small Press organization in Canada want to do an exhibit of Native comic-book artists in the next year or two. They hope to blow up the art digitally and display it gallery-style. Perhaps you and they could do something in tandem: You display the art and then send it to them or vice versa.

  • We've talked about having a booth at the San Diego Comic-Con devoted to Natives in comics. We could do some sort of cross-promotion with your exhibit. For instance, we could show a computer video of the exhibit or display panels from the exhibit.

  • That's all for now. I'll probably think of something else as soon as I send this. Oh, well!


    P.S. For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

    1 comment:

    Rob said...

    Response from Professor Greg Reinhardt:

    Good grief: Rob is a wellspring of wonderfully creative ideas--what brainstorming! His ideas alone will give us loads to talk about today.