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.

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