Of all the entries in the “Graphic Classics” series to date, I suspect that Native American Classics will be the least familiar to the general readership. If volume 22 in the series, African-American Classics featured works that many literate Americans might have considered obscure, the 24th collection takes us out into the literary frontier. Still, editor Tom Pomplun, with associate collaborators John E. Smelcer and Joseph Bruchac, maintain their steadfast eyes on the essentials of graphic adaptation.
The pieces in this collection primarily come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and largely can be divided into two categories: stories about life in the frontier and fables that have clearly been passed down through the generations. Of the former, one highlight is the collection’s opener, Zitkala-Sa’s “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” (as interpreted by Benjamin Truman, Jim McMunn and Timothy Truman).
It tells of the internal conflicts faced by a mission school-educated Sioux man who returns to his tribe as a Christian missionary. Shunned by his tribe, he winds up being condemned by both worlds, leaving the reader to ponder what historically has been done to young native peoples in the name of “salvation.” Per the majority of the book’s story entries, the McMunn/Truman art aims for a naturalistic illustrative style, while the fables play with more stylized renderings (e.g., Buffalo Bird Woman’s “The Story of Itsikamahadish and the Wild Potato,” which depicts its coyote formed protagonist in the style of a Warner Bros. Cartoon). There are a lot of Earth tones in this book; when more cartoony bright colors show up, it’s almost startling.
A good many of the tales focus on the relationship between human protagonists and nature: in Charles Eastman’s “On Wolf Mountain,” (adapted by Joseph Bruchac and Robby McMurtry), a wolf named Manitoo comes up against a tribe of Lakota and a pair of white sheep herders in the midst of a harsh Big Horn Mountains winter; the former respect the creature as fellow natives of the land; the latter see both wolf and native peoples as obstacles to “civilization.” McMurtry’s linework, which at times reminded me of William Mesner-Loebs’ great Journey series, is suited to the tale’s Jack London-esque tone. McMurtry reportedly died from a gunshot just weeks after finishing the art in this piece, and his expressive art has me curious to seek out some of his historical graphic novels.
In a work adapted from a more recently published story by associate editor Bruchac, “Two Wolves” encounter each by a late night campfire; the first is an “Indian boy” bounty hunter hired to track the wolf responsible for the deaths of several sheep in the area. The two bond over a meal, though we’re never sure until the end if either will try to kill the other before the night is out. Illustrated by John Findley (best known for the western horror series “Tex Arcana”), the more modern tale fits comfortably within the thematic confines of its 19th and 20th century forebearers.
A few pieces strive for more direct social commentary: Handsome Lake’s “How the White Race Came to America” (adapted by editor Pomplun and artist Roy Boney Jr.) is an example of the Senecan religious leader’s curious blending of Native American and Christian religious beliefs, which tells the story of how the devil sent white settlers to America. Royal Roger Eubanks’ “The Middle Man” depicts how the Dawes Act of 1887 paved the way for “a thriving industry of unscrupulous individuals that bought and sold land and mineral rights,” fleecing the Native Americans who originally held the property in the process. More an essay (complete with footnotes) than a story, “Middle Man” does provide a glimpse into the ways that institutionalized racism – one aspect of the Dawes Act stipulated that full-blood Native landholders had more restrictions placed on them than mixed-blood Natives, for instance – aided in the exploitation of indigenous peoples.
The fables tend toward the more lighthearted or uplifting. Bertrand M.O. Walker’s “The Prehistoric Race” (adapted by Pomplun and artist Tara Audibert) retells a comic legend of how a turtle outsmarted a group of his fellow creatures in a race across a lake; Buffalo Bird Woman’s coyote story is a broadly comic piece whose punchline revolves around flatulence, while Elias Johnson’s “The Hunter & Medicine Legend” (adapted by Andrea Grant and Toby Cypress) tells of a hunter brought back to life by the animals who consider him their benefactor. There may be more talking animals in the book than there were the last five “Graphic Classics” volumes, but it’s well in keeping with the history of comic books.
This is another strong and illuminating set from Eureka Productions’ “Graphic Classics” series.