Native superheroes should be drawn from real life

Will Marvel’s Snowguard, an Inuk teen, break stereotypes?

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West. 

Like countless kids across this country, Lee Francis grew up reading comics, imaging himself a part of spectacular worlds filled with powerful heroes. And like most fans, he looked for himself in those heroes. But Francis’ family is Laguna Pueblo, and the Indigenous characters in mainstream comics he encountered were rife with stereotype. So when he got older, he started his own comic book company and went on to establish Indigenous Comic Con.

This gave Native writers a chance to create heroes that the current generation could see themselves in, accurate representations of Native characters. “You’re trying to undo 400 years of pop culture misrepresentations and stereotypes,” Francis said, adding that many of those stereotypes continue to surface in graphic novels today. “I may not be able to stop you from doing that, but I can put more things in play.”

Last month, Marvel Comics put one such thing in play — potentially — when the industry giant behind Captain America and Spider-Man announced it would introduce a new female Indigenous superhero: Amka Aliyak, alias Snowguard, a 16-year-old Inuk from Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

Snowguard writer Jim Zub, an Anglo-Canadian who also writes for Avengers and Samurai Jack, among others, told me that when he was creating Amka’s backstory, he wanted her to be the exception, not the rule. Zub reached out to Nyla Innuksuk, a member of the Inuit community who helped him not only create the character but to also understand her world. This, he hopes, will give more dimension to the character, something the comic world needs.

Marvel writer Jim Zub said he wants Amka to be a Native character not just through her powers but through thoughtful illustrations of what life for real Indigenous teenage girls in Nunavut is like.
Jim Zub/Line Art by Sean Izaakse/Colours by Marcio Manyz/Marvel

While Amka’s powers are based on animal traits, a characteristic often ascribed to Native heroes, and she has Inuit tattoos on her face and arms, Zub said her realistic story, background and look are all part of a research process that will remain ongoing.

“I’m not trying to piggy back on someone’s culture as a gimmick,” he said. “There is a sense of we’re using aspects of it to tell a story, and so it’s finding the balance between carefully showing elements of it that are real but not dipping our way into full-blown stereotypes, overboard to a point where it doesn't feel genuine.”

Zub said he wants Amka to be a Native character not just through her powers but through thoughtful illustrations of what life for real Indigenous teenage girls in Nunavut is like. “She’s not just there for the Native story,” he said. “She is a person that we get to know, and they hang out and go on adventures together. I think that that ongoing representation has value.”

There have been dozens of Native characters in American comics over the decades, but rarely have they been thoughtful or insightful illustrations of Indigenous people. Face paint, leather fringe and feathers typically adorn these heroes, as if cultural identity must be tied to their power. But that identity is fabricated, crafted by writers with no knowledge of Indigenous communities who utilize popular myth to create their characters.

Francis, who produces comics about Native superheroes and Navajo Code Talkers and anthologies of art by Indigenous women, said he wants young Indigenous readers to find the same inspiration in comics he did but without the reinforcement of false narratives and myth.

“We’re not the Tontos in these stories anymore,” Francis said. “It also helps break down those mythic qualities of the noble savage.”

Snowguard could do something similar, perhaps. Accurate representations of Indigenous characters can show broader audiences that Native Americans are regular people, not ones defined by popular myth. As a child, Francis gravitated toward Forge, an Indigenous Marvel superhero whose design did not rely heavily on his Native identity; Forge also built high-tech weaponry. “It’s not based on (stereotype), he said. “He’s a nerd. He makes techno stuff, and that’s awesome.”

Francis said he was thrilled to learn that Zub made so much effort to consult Inuit people when creating Amka, but he would also like to see more Native writers at the larger comic book companies. Not only would it be a career-builder for any number of talented Indigenous writers, it would be an excellent way to explore true Native identity and showcase it to a much wider, non-Native audience.

“You could engage in the same identity issues we’re seeing in Black Panther,” he said, referring to a Marvel superhero that upends stereotypes about Africa. “There's so much potential.”

Wado.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the title of the comic book series Black Panther.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Founded by sportsmen and women in 1936, the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to protecting, conserving, and enhancing Idaho's natural resources,...
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...