Where the Indigenous and Comics Meet

BY Arts Desk  April 7, 2009 at 5:13 PM EDT

The introduction language greeting visitors to “Comic Art Indigene” at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., attempts to explain the relationship between two entities not often linked: American Indians and comic art. In times past, both were considered “primitive and malignant” forces on American society, but both are actually “complex and adaptive.” “It is only natural,” the introduction says, “that this marginal art appeals to oft-marginalized indigenous people….”

Marginal is an apt word when talking about comics. It has a double meaning: it’s a reference to its outcast status, but also to the physical margin of the printed page. In a comic book, the margin is where the rest of the comic universe has been cropped or hidden from the reader. Until recently, American Indians appeared only as stereotypes in comic books, their real narratives and folklore obscured by generic images of teepees and headdresses. This exhibit shifts the focus of the comic panel to expose the true culture the old comics left out.

'Tewa Tales of Suspense'; courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution[View a slide show of some of the comic art on exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.]

The show starts off with an arresting pairing: a large, digital print of a 13th century rock painting from Canyonlands National Park depicting a figure holding a red, white and blue shield. In contrast is a smaller image inset on the banner, a familiar modern icon: Captain America, the Marvel Comics hero. The resemblance between the two figures — a 20th century symbol of American patriotism and an ancient symbol made by the first Americans — is striking.

While some contemporary American Indian comic artists create heroes who have the look of the X-Men, like the comic book Tribal Force others go a more satirical route. “Frybread Man,” a Superman send-up, is “Faster than a speeding arrow…more powerful than a mighty buffalo…able to leap tall pueblos in a single bound….” In his comic strip, Marty Two Bulls Sr. (Oglala Lakota) takes on racial stereotypes, the consequences of environmental destruction and economic struggle (in “Hunting for Dollars,” a man with bow and arrow rides a horse amidst a herd of giant dollar signs). In an ode to “underground comix” artist Robert Crumb, Two Bulls created “Mr. Diabetes,” a take-off on Crumb’s Mr. Natural (instead of “Keep on Truckin,” Mr. Diabetes says, “Keep on eatin’”.)

Though most of the works in this exhibit are on paper, the traditional material of comic art, it’s a less traditional material in Native American art. Several artists bring a comic aesthetic to traditional crafts, creating beaded bracelets and belt buckles showing Wonder Woman and Batman, making Spiderman the subject of a traditional Pueblo ceramic figurine.

Before coming to Washington, “Comic Art Indigene” was at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Sante Fe, N.M. You can catch “Comic Art Indigene” at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington through May 31.