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Native Comic Artists Inspire, Amaze and Amuse

NMAI E-Newservice, News Feature , Kara Briggs Posted: Mar 22, 2009

The NMAI exhibition shows the power Native heroes command across mediums from stone to newspaper, and even on the surface of a skateboard

WashingtonIn 1940, two young Jewish Americans who were outraged about Nazi atrocities created a comic-book icon, Captain America.

Captain America carries a red-white-and-blue shield, but it is an older heroic figure that introduces Comic Art Indigne, an exhibition that runs until May 31 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

This hero, also bearing a red-white-and-blue shield with stripes reminiscent of the American flag, was drawn 800 years ago by an unknown Pueblo artist on the wall of a cave in what is now Utah.

"The first time I saw that pictograph, I immediately drew that comparison between it and Captain America," said Tony Chavarria, the curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, N.M. "It comes from a time of drought and mass exodus of the Pueblo peoples from the Four Corners region. Like Captain America, it became an icon."

Chavarria, who is Santa Clara Pueblo, created the exhibition to celebrate the Native American artists who work in the tradition of comic art. The art of comic books, or newspaper funny pages, combines pictures and words to tell a story. Like ancient rock art or 19th century ledger art from the Great Plains tribes, it uses symbols like thunderbolts or feathers to convey a plot. Comic book heroes, like the Pueblo pictograph known as All American Man, often have secret origins.

Through the mid-20th century, comic art bold, graphic and colorful grew in popularity. Its form was dictated by the medium of newspapers, which would shrink the art and print it on low-quality paper. An overly detailed drawing would turn to visual mush. Yet this streamlined form of storytelling became art for the masses, for the disenfranchised, and for the American Indians.

"For me, because of my anthropology background, it's not only art that interests me," Chavarria said. "It's how art informs culture, and culture informs art. Today, we call it pop art."

The artists featured in Comic Art Indigne came to the field as children. Marty Two Bulls, editorial cartoonist, remembers, "My older uncles and cousin, they were always doing cartoons of one another."

Others, like Ryan Huna Smith and Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, grew up reading comics books.

For Smith, superheroes provided inspiration for "Frybread Man," a pudgy anti-hero, who was transformed when he ate radioactive frybread. Although "Frybread Man" was rejected by the publication of the Institute of American Indian Arts, for which it was created in 2003, the print remains Smith's biggest seller.

"I am basically a Star Wars generation kid," said Smith, who is Chemehuevi and Navajo. "Growing up looking at comics, watching cartoons, I was so influenced that as I progressed with my art, it became a part of what I do."

In 1996, he worked with a partner on what has become something of a classic comic book, "Tribal Force." Although there was only one edition, Chavarria said, it was influential for its attempt to present a superhero without insulting the image of Native people.

"I wanted to give insight into what it's like living on the reservation, being Native," Smith said. "I wanted someone who became a hero for the people of the earth."

Yazzie, who is Navajo, loved Wonder Woman and her streaming black hair, but longed for a genuinely Native superhero. In recent years, she has created a series of Native women warriors on skateboard decks. Ko' Asdzaa, Navajo for "fire woman," was among her first.

Jason Garcia's "BeholdPo'Pay" from "Tewa Tales of Suspense" features the historic hero of the 1680 Pueblo revolt against Spanish colonizers. The comic is drawn by the Santa Clara artist in the stance of the superheroes featured in the 1964 Avengers comic book, who "found themselves united against a common threat."

Not all Native comic art is about superheroes. Eva Mirabal of Taos Pueblo honed her cartooning in newspapers even before Marty Two Bulls.

Mirabal, a formally trained artist who died in 1968, joined the Women's Army Corps during World War II and was assigned to create a cartoon for WAC publications. Her character G.I. Gertie, who was not Indian, experienced the sometimes comic travails of wartime duty.

Two Bulls, who is Oglala Lakota and now freelances for Indian Country Today, likes his cartoons to make people think a different way about a subject.

"Cartooning is storytelling," Two Bulls said. "It was invented here in the United States. For some reason, we always look down on it, think it is childish. But I think it is a very mature medium that can tell a lot of different stories."

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