Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Trickster" anthology

from "Dangerous Beaver" (art by Jim8ball, as told by Mary Eyley)

By far one of the best and most interesting comics I've picked up while in Maine is "Trickster - Native American Tales/A Graphic Collection" edited by Matt Dembicki (2010 Fulcrum Books). This publication features a collection of Native American comics: twenty-one stories are recounted by contributing representatives from such nations and tribes as Winnebago, Choctaw/Chickasaw, Aquinnah, Wampanoag, Blackfeet, Pueblo, Abenaki, Cherokee and others. Dembicki orchestrated this project's collaborative process by pairing up writers with carefully selected artists, and the result is a beautiful, rich and rewarding anthology showcasing a diverse range of artistic styles.
Dembicki, one of the contributing artists himself, addresses the trepidation of approaching this project from the perspective of one who has heightened awareness and sensitivity of the "heavy historical baggage" accrued by generations of white folks who really don't have all that great of a track-record on such matters. In the afterward, Dembicki clearly states his inspiration and motivation behind developing "Trickster":
"I hope this book serves as a bridge for readers to learn more about the original people of this land and to foster a greater appreciation and understanding among all inhabitants."
Coupling these narratives with comics results in a distinctly powerful and unique medium, and despite it being a genre that's particularly guilty of perpetuating stereotypes, this book successfully navigates the potential moral minefield of culture appropriation by treating the project with respect and careful authenticity. On an interview for NPR's Weekend Edition, Dembicki said:
"It wasn't easy convincing everybody," Dembicki says. "Some people really couldn't see it being done this way. Other people had some cultural issues. They were very adamant — these were mostly oral stories; they were told orally, and they should be told orally."

Four different takes on Trickster
(Clockwise from upper left: art by Jon Sperry, Mike Short, Jacob Warrenfeltz and Pat Lewis)

Posted above is a sample of four different panels showing just how different the rabbit character is portrayed in some of the stories, which serves to illustrate the diverse range of styles contained in this volume. This visual diversity in turn reflects the tonal and textual range of storytelling techniques and voices both heard and seen throughout "Trickster." It is revealed, for example, why geese fly in a "V" formation; how islands and stars were formed; explanations are given as to how the alligator got scaly skin, how the coyote got yellow eyes; how the buzzard became bald, and even why the rabbit's tail looks that way.
Along with these creatures a host of other characters appear in the stories: the horned toad, crayfish, mink and wolf are pitted in a battle of wits against the myriad manifestations of the Trickster, whose the archetypal shapeshifting spirit inhabits raccoons, coyotes, a wildcat, rabbit, dog, a human being and my personal favorite, a beaver. 
As a long-time Alaskan it was refreshing to read of different takes on the Trickster mythos, but along with a beluga whale, another familiar arctic character debuts in the wonderful Yup'ik story "Raven the Trickster," by John Active and illustrated by Canadian artist Jason Copland. Another Alaskan connection is represented with what I believe is the only Native American artist in the collection, Dimi Macheras. He is also the creator, along with writer Ishmael Hope, of the phenomenal comic "Strong Man" from the Association of Alaska School Boards. And my current state of Maine is also included with a story as told by Penobscot Nation member John Bear Mitchell in "Espun & Grandfather."

Which leads me to perhaps the only criticism I have of the collection - a mild observation at best - in the curious and regrettable imbalance of Native American artists, of which there are only a few (at least from what can be ascertained by the contributor's bios). However this brings up what I believe is perhaps one of the strongest selling points behind this publication's accomplishment: the potential of comics is how they can be both such a personal and public form (and forum) by which to address issues, or simply spin a good yarn. So this collection serves as a prime example of potential empowerment for people, whatever their background, to embrace, explore, promote or even challenge their particular cultural or social history. A copy of "Trickster" belongs on the shelves of every village library, classroom and art studio across Alaska, and one would hope that this first pebble cast into the cartoon pond will continue to ripple out and in turn inspire others to pick up a pen themselves. As I've told many a student in my own comics class, never mind consuming the generic, mass-produced, commercialized crap that's out there: it's your tale, you tell it. And I couldn't think of any better way to foment a creative impulse than by handing someone this book and then asking them afterwards to draw their own story. And the collaborative nature of the medium encourages the folks who maybe don't draw so well to perhaps find someone else who can, or vice-versa, and begin a creative process together.
You can listen to an Inkstuds interview with Dembicki, and also follow further reviews and news about "Trickster" plus preview more images at the anthology's blog.


  1. I love this book. It's a fantastic collection.

  2. I always thought geese flew in a V so that no one would be lined up directly with the unsphinctered asshole of a bird in front of them.

  3. Better yet, my favorite has always been Q: "why is it that one of the two arms of the "V" is always longer than the other?" A: Because there's more geese in it....