In 2015, Dr. Lee Francis saw a need for Native characters to be represented in pop culture. So he created a way to fill that void.
Today, his publishing house Native Realities has a catalogue of roughly 10 titles featuring indigenous characters and stories, in addition to posters, prints, and merchandise. He’s got a store in Albuquerque – Red Planet Books & Comics – that features comics, toys, games, children’s books, and pop art from Native and indigenous artists, as well as new and used books by Indigenous writers from around the world. And he runs the Indigenous Comic Con – a three-day, indigenous pop-culture convention that features the best Indigenous creators, illustrators, writers, designers, actors, and producers in the worlds of comic books, games, sci-fi, fantasy, film, television, and graphic novels.
“We really felt that what we needed was more of a presence in the pop culture field,” Francis said. “The majority of pop culture stuff that’s out there continues to fall into a particular line of tropes and misrepresentation of Native culture.”
That is a problem, he said, noting that indigenous peoples have their own amazing stories that translate well to the graphic novel format. By giving children and adults throughout Indian country their own Native superheroes, Native Realities is filling a need that is often overlooked by mainstream pop culture.
“It’s not all fringe and feathers,” he said. “We wanted more stories and more exciting representation. We don’t want to conform to this tragic example that’s commonly portrayed.”
The latest offering from Native Realities is Sixkiller #1, penned by Francis himself with illustrations by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva). In his first full comic book, he tells the story of Alice Sixkiller, whose sister’s murder leads her to embark on a mysterious journey of revenge. Sixkiller’s schizophrenia pulls her further and further away from reality, and it is only the stories and characters of her people that give her purpose and direction: to find her sister’s killer and exact vengeance. It is a surreal tale of intrigue, identity, blood memory, and issues of violence against Native women.
“With Sixkiller, we wanted to tell something that’s real,” he said. We wanted to tell something that didn’t rely on native stereotypes to define the character. We wanted to tell about violence against Native women, because there are gaps in the justice system for Native women.”
The products put out by Native Realities run a wide gamut. Some are history-based books like Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, which features nine original stories by Native American artists and writers documenting the heroic tales of Code Talkers from World War I through Korea. Hero Twins is based on a story that has long been an important part of the Navajo people and has filled the imagination of Navajo children for millennia. And others, like Sixkiller, are completely original works.
At the end of the day, Francis said, he just wanted to have a great superhero that reflects Native people as they are, and not by the ways that they’re often portrayed. And he wanted to provide products targeted toward “Indigenerds” like himself.
So far, the response has been tremendous. “I’m shocked that people come into the shop from Washington State or Idaho or Nevada and say they read about us online and wanted to stop in,” he said. “People are looking for this, the numbers for the Indigenous Comic Con keep going up, we’ve started getting requests from Canada, and more and more libraries are calling and looking for our products.”
Next year, Francis plans to hold the first annual Global Indigenous Comic Con in Australia. He’s got new issues of Tribal Force and Hero Twins on deck. And he’s expanding his community engagement to reach more of his fellow Indigenerds.
“This started as a slow build, but it’s taking off in a big way,” he said.