Graphic Youth: Trickster

Posted by on November 12th, 2010 at 1:00 PM



Trickster: Native American Tales
Edited by Matt Dembicki
Fulcrum Books; $22.95
232 pp. color softcover
ISBN: 9781555917241

Trickster is a materially ambitious comics anthology of Native American short stories involving the titular archetype. Its reach is admirably expansive in geographic terms, from here in Maine down to the South (“How the Alligator Got His Brown, Scaly Skin”) across the plains to the Southwest (“Horned Toad Lady and Coyote”) and on to Hawaii. It pairs 21 Native narrators/authors with a like number of artists, some themselves American Indians, to produce 21 stories depicting the many guises of the clever protagonist and his handiwork. Contributions range from six to 14 pages with an average decidedly skewed toward the larger figure.

Editor/contributing artist Matt Dembicki traces the book’s genesis back to his enthusiasm for American Indian Trickster Tales by Ortiz and Erodes, a compilation in which he found diversified legends that were “serious, funny, mischievous, naughty, allegorical.” For this collection, Native storytellers chose their artistic partners from a pool of artists provided by Dembicki. Authors additionally exercised storyboarding approval for the adaptations. This was Dembicki’s strategy to avoid the potential pitfalls of cross cultural collaborations, a solution that fully intended “to provide an opportunity to experience authentic Native American stories, even when it sometimes meant clashing with Western vernacular.”

The results in Trickster exemplify Tolstoy’s pithy observation about the happiness of families, especially the bit about the unhappy ones being unhappy for differing reasons. The happy comics in Trickster work well for the same, self-evident reasons while it remains difficult to generalize where the less successful efforts go awry.

Most narrators have a characteristic voice. Many of them reflect the traits of the evolved storytelling customs of their People and pattern of their language, if not of their own individual, personalized style. It is plain that transmission of some tales stems directly from an oral tradition with rhetorical conventions designed for speech. Such recitations were meant to stimulate, inspire and entertain listeners, especially as crucial aspects were left to an audience’s engaged imagination. Translation into comics can be thankless.

Illustrators display a pronounced range of visual styles, including cartooning’s shorthand, realism’s fidelity, animation’s dynamic and computers’ modeling. As a whole, they are dutiful. If comics represent the marriage of pictures and words, more than a few of these interpretations are pictures of words. Nor is earnestness necessarily an advantage when attempting to capture the funny, mischievous and naughty. (In that this is a volume fit for children, there is an additional handicap: the need for tact. In one story, a buzzard gets his head stuck up the ass of a vengeful shape-changer. The presentation is confusing and stilted both visually and verbally, dulling action and compromising, I think, original sensibility).

Individually, segments routinely have their decided and often distinctive visual virtues. In some ways this only serves to highlight the nagging shortcomings of others, including awkwardness in page construction or flow of reading. Pacing can be drawn out to diminishing returns; too many pages impede the deft timing of a satisfying con. There are instances where graphic choices are infelicitous and even the curious occasions where picture is divorced from word (when the text explicitly states two sticks are driven through some fish, it’s unfortunate to show only one, children’s ability to count being what it is).

The missed promise of the volume is that stories seldom come together to reflect the vital nature of culture and format in flattering union. One that does is the punchy (literally!), antic “How Wildcat Caught a Turkey” by Joseph Stands With Many and Jon Sperry. Rendered with non-realistic cartoon straightforwardness, the uncomplicated plot centers on the faked death of wildcat as aided and abetted by rabbit under duress. The story’s success lies in the narrative momentum and visual expressiveness, particularly in the trickster’s sheer gusto in just waling on the faker in order to prove, beyond all doubt to any observer, that the cat is persuasively demised. The unbridled, joyous enthusiasm with which rabbit carries out his part of the deal is emblematic of the robustness of a living, sustaining, relevant lore that often goes missing elsewhere.


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