We reflect on indigenous history in Canada for this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, honouring the lost children and survivors of Indigenous residential schools, their families and communities. Part of this reflection includes reading and learning about the stories of indigenous people. The comics medium and vibrant community in Canada provides a unique way to engage with these stories and immerse yourself in their messages. The following article was written for our Sequential Magazine special 80th Anniversary of Canadian Comic Books issue we released at the beginning of this year. Its goal was to give an overview of indigenous comics after speaking with a few creators but there are even more to discover in Canada and I encourage everyone to support Canadian indigenous peoples comic creators.
The Past, Present, and Future of Indigenous Canadian Comics with Jay Odjick, Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer, Cole Pauls & Highwater Press
By: Riley Hamilton
The history of Canadians in the comics industry is one that is much longer and more important than may people realize. Canadians have been involved in the creation of many influential books including the father of superhero genre, Superman. What is considerably less well known is the small but dedicated community of Indigenous comics writers, artists, colourists, and letterers. Indigenous comics have gained more widespread recognition within the last decade due, in part, to advances in technology that have made self-publishing comics more feasible. Additionally, the appearance of publishers who have provided a dedicated space for Indigenous comic creators to bring their works to life. With their themes of resistance, protecting language, and emphasis on preserving cultural identity and traditions, these comics have seen an explosion in popularity and self-identified Indigenous comics have firmly established themselves in the Canadian comics landscape.
For much of the last 80 years of Canadian comics, Indigenous creators did not have the opportunity or the freedom to create and publish the stories that they wanted to tell. Publishers, with an eye towards what they believed to be their core demographic of young, white, men, were simply not interested in stories that they felt wouldn’t appeal to them. Regardless, many future Indigenous creators found themselves drawn to comics for the same reasons that others were, intense action, beautiful artwork, and compelling stories. Jay Odjick, a comic book writer and artist from Kitigan-Zibi, an Algonquin reserve north of Ottawa, learned to read by picking up 5 cent G.I. Joe and Punisher comics. As a 10-year-old he even created his own knock-off G.I. Joe characters and mailed them to Marvel’s headquarters in New York, even receiving a letter back, thanking him for his enthusiasm and encouraging him to keep practicing. He would eventually start his own business to self-publish his own original comic called the Raven, about a Indigenous superhero in his twenties fighting against supernatural forces.
Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer, a colourist and cover artist from the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, south of Montreal, who has worked at IDW on IPs such as Transformers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, was also a huge fan of G.I. Joe. He began collecting G.I. Joe books when he was 12. As he got a bit older, he was drawn to darker, anti-hero books like the Punisher and Todd McFarlane’s new series, Spawn. Image Comics, with its quality of art, colouring and glossy pages, completely drew Thomas into the comics world. By around 18 or 19, he knew he wanted to be a comic book artist.
Cole Pauls, a comic, and zine creator from the Yukon, grew up with comics and video games. As a teenager he would save up money from working summer jobs to visit Lucky’s Books and Comics in downtown Vancouver and would buy a thousand dollars worth of comics and other books. Around the same time, he read Nog a Dod, a collection of bizarre and psychedelic zines from a group of Vancouver artists, and was drawn to the oddball art styles he found therein. He self-published his first original, hand-drawn, and lettered zine at 15 using his scanner, printer, a stapler, and MS Paint to lay out the pages. He has been creating his own zines and comics in Vancouver ever since.
While many Indigenous comic creators were attracted to comics largely through reading popular mainstream books, when it came to their original works, they decided to use their creative talents to create stories that were decidedly different from traditional comics. Often their books deal with issues that their communities or Indigenous Canadians are facing, and they have focused their efforts inspiring Indigenous people, especially youth. Another major theme of many of these comics is the idea of cultural preservation and resistance to colonialism and assimilation as well as Indigenous sovereignty. These books also help to shed light on issues that the public, outside of Indigenous communities are often unaware of, intentionally or otherwise.
Jay Odjick’s book, the Raven, which was later republished by Arcana Studio as Kagagi: The Raven blended the traditional superhero story with elements of Algonquin folklore and mythology. Kagagi follows the story of a young Indigenous man who becomes a superhero and fights supernatural forces, including a Wendigo, an evil spirit from Algonquin folklore. Odjick wanted the story to be grounded and focus on an Indigenous teenager who was dealing with the same problems as any other Indigenous kid would, while also giving him superpowers and a cool costume. He mentioned that despite being a fan of Marvel and DC comics as a kid, he rarely saw any Indigenous characters in those books, let alone Indigenous superheroes. The ones that did appear were very stereotypical Indigenous characters, dressed in buckskin with a headband and loincloth, nothing remotely like anything Jay had seen in his daily life. “It was everything that’s wrong with representation of Indigenous people. I wanted to create a Native character that was just cool without the stereotypical look, dressing like it’s 200 years ago”. Kagagi proved popular and even spawned a 13-episode animated TV series that aired on APTN in Canada as well as in the United States and Australia.
Many Indigenous comics do not just take a familiar comic trope and blend it with Indigenous history or mythology, but often also centre around Indigenous culture, language and traditions, and a struggle to preserve them in the face of colonialism and oppression. Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer explained that one of the most influential people on his life and his artwork was the late Karoniaktajeh Louis Hall, an elder from his community and a fierce advocate for traditionalism and Indigenous sovereignty. His most well-known artwork is the design of the Mohawk Warrior Flag, that came to prominence during the Oka Crisis of 1990 and has become a symbol of Indigenous resistance and their struggle for sovereignty over their traditional lands.
The scourge of colonialism is also a major theme of Cole Pauls book Dakwäkãda Warriors, which he describes as a book about “two Indigenous Power Rangers, a Crow and a Wolf, fighting against a settler and a sasquatch”. The book is completely drawn and lettered by hand, with minimal use of digital art techniques and features two Indigenous heroes fighting against European colonizers (represented by the settler character). The book is drawn completely in formline, which is a style of Indigenous art, originating from the Pacific Northwest. Cole mentioned that he had been inspired to draw in formline, partly through seeing the artwork of Gord Hill, an Indigenous anti-colonial and anti-capitalist activist and a member of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw nation. Hill’s own comic, The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, about the history of Indigenous people’s conflict with European settlers from 1491 all the way to present day, was drawn and coloured entirely in a similar formline style.
Another common element of Indigenous comics is an emphasis on tradition and language, often overlapping with anti-colonial and anti-assimilation sentiments. The legacy of colonialism and assimilation is visible in virtually all Indigenous communities, and the most infamous and well-known form of assimilation are residential schools. Through the establishment of these boarding schools, whose objective was to strip Indigenous kids of their language and culture, while making them conform to white European standards, many Indigenous languages and traditions were lost. Even those languages that were not lost entirely, many are now only spoken and understood by a few members of the community. Comics provides a unique opportunity to engage people with these languages and comics have been a component of many language revival curriculums in many communities. When Cole Pauls wrote Dakwäkãda Warriors he wanted to incorporate Southern Tutchone into the book as much as he could and enlisted the help of Elders who provided the translation. The book provides readers a jumping off point to learn more about Southern Tutchone with the idea of getting more people interested in learning the language and, hopefully, sparking a revival in it’s use.
While individual creators have pushed the medium far in the last couple of decades, there has also been efforts from Indigenous owned and operated publishing houses to look much more seriously at comics as a worthwhile endeavour. One of the leading publishers of Indigenous comics is Highwater Press, which has been publishing Indigenous created comics for a decade. They have published comics like 7 Generations, Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story, A Girl Called Echo, Surviving the City and many more. Sasha Bouché, an editor with Highwater, explained that Highwater looks to publish “innovative Indigenous stories that are original and explore a theme or are done in a style that has not been done before”. While many of the comics that Highwater publishes are historical stories, they do not look for specific genres of comics or Indigenous stories and instead prefers those with a strong social justice message. While many of their comics deal with the traumatic parts of the Indigenous experience, many of their stories focus on more optimistic themes such as the importance of community and belonging. Several of Highwater’s comics have found popular success, the most well-known being This Place: 150 Years Retold, which is an anthology about the Indigenous experience in Canada. The stories within span a number of genres and time periods, with some focusing on the distant past, all the way to an Indigenous-inspired sci-fi future.
Highwater has also been working diligently to translate several of their comics into the native languages of the creators who created them. One of their series Det’oni-T’á Tai, a comic about three Indigenous men being sentenced by their community to live on the land for nine months, was published as a bilingual book in both English and Cree. Due to costs and difficulty in translation, Highwater has not been able to translate all their books, however it is an option that they are interested in pursuing more rigorously in the future.
For a long time, Indigenous comics in Canada were overlooked and virtually unknown amongst the wider Canadian comics community. Due to the talent, effort, and dedication of individual creators as well as Indigenous owned and operated publishing houses, these creators are receiving deserved recognition and experiencing success. Their books are helping to revitalize and renew interest in Indigenous languages and in Indigenous art, where they had previously been viewed as relics of the past. With young talent making themselves known, new books releasing to critical acclaim, and more opportunities for creators of all skills and ages to practice their craft, the future for Indigenous comics has never been brighter.
You can find Jay Odjick on Twitter at @JayOdjick, his personal website at kagagi.squarespace.com as well as his Warrior Up clothing line at teespring.com/stores/warriorup. You can find Teiowí:sonte on Twitter and Instagram at @teyowisonte along with his DeviantArt page www.deviantart.com/teyowisonte. Cole Pauls can be found on Twitter @TundraWizard and his personal website and shop can be found at tundra-wizard.myshopify.com. You can find and order all the books published by Highwater Press at highwaterpress.com.