Tom Pomplun's brilliant Graphic Classics series has traditionally focused on old Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror/Adventure writers like HP Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker and Ambrose Bierce. He's also done a few anthologies, like Adventure Classics, Western Classics, and Fantasy Classics. But he took a new turn into social consciousness when he published African American Classics, a volume focusing on forgotten and lesser know African American writers and poets from the turn of the century. That's the road he continues down with Native American Classics.
Of all of Pomplun's books, Native American Classics may be the toughest to enjoy. Because as important as the book is — and I think this might be the first of its kind — it is full of recrimination and bitterness. For the most part, these are not happy stories; don't expect light-hearted japes of Coyote and Raven. These are the stories of a vanishing people seeing their land and culture taken from them by force by a people who preached a loving God with one hand and practiced murder with the other.
It's hard not to read these stories — actual stories written between 1850-1914, by people who lived through what they are writing — and not feel some sense of guilt. I always had my "Get out of guilt free card" because I am part-Cherokee. My Grandmother is a Cherokee Indian born and raised on the reservation in Oklahoma. But that didn't help me here. Reading these stories I felt the burden of heritage and ghostly fingers of shame point at me from the distant past.
Even with that burden, I love that Pomplun made American Classics. It's the kind of book that should be available in every school library across America. (Actually all of his Graphic Classics books should be, but that's another issue). Just as he did with African American Classics, Pomplun has drug some of these silenced voices out of history and paired them with modern creators. Almost all of the creators have some connection to Native American history, either by interest or by blood. The creators biographies are as interesting as some of the work here.
My favorites in Native American Classics are:
Anoska Nimiwina (1899) by William Jones
Adapted by Joseph Bruchach; Illustrated by Afua Richardson
This is really the stand-out piece of the collection, in both art and story. It tells the origin of the Ghost Dance, the sad last attempt by the Native Americans to appeal to the spirits to drive out the White Men who were stripping them of livelihood and dignity. Richardson's art is stunning here. It's simple line drawings, but the coloring gives it a painterly quality that is beautiful. And the story also, sadly, illustrates why the Tribes lost so much. They couldn't put aside their tribal quarrels to band together and fight.
How the White Race Came to America (1912) from the teachings of Handsome Lake
Adapted by Tom Pomplun; Illustrated by Roy Boney Jr.
A fable about a deceived priest of good intentions and the Devil who couldn't stand to see a land as blissful and sin-free as America. Pomplun puts it together in a good adaptation, and Boney Jr's art — while a little bit unpracticed and crude — lends a nice fable quality to the piece.
The Stolen White Girl (1868) by John Rollin Ridge
Illustrated by Daryl Talbot
A fanciful poem, and one of the few with a happy ending. Daryl Talbot's art has an almost Stan Sakai-feel to it, and even though the subject is horrendous it's carried off in a way that lets you believe it.
A Prehistoric Race (1920) by Bertrand M.O. Walker
Adapted by Tom Pomplun; Illustrated by Tara Audibert
One of the few myths in the volume, this finally answers the question why turtles taste so much like every other kind of meet. A light, happy story this is a breath of fresh air amidst the heaviness, with brilliantly fun art by Audibert.
The Soft-Hearted Sioux (1901) by Zitkala-sa
Adapted by Ben Truman; Illustrated by Tim Truman, Jim McMunn, and Mark A Nelson
There is nothing fun or light-hearted about this tale of an Indian boy who turns his back on his people and heritage in order to become a Christian and teach Christianity. But the boy soon finds himself abandoned by his new faith, and has no one to turn to as he is neither White nor Indian. The Father/Son team of Tim and Ben Truman do an amazing job as always, although some fill in artists stepped in when Tim Truman was sick.
The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato (1914) by Buffalo Bird Woman
Adapted by Tom Pomplun; Illustrated by Pat. N. Lewis
Another fairy tale, this talks about the dangers of eating too many wild potatoes — the gas that will take you to the skies. Lewis does a great job with this story in a cartoony style that had me cracking up. A nice, essential laugh in the midst of the gloom.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.