Smash Pages Q&A: Elizabeth LaPensée on ‘Deer Woman: An Anthology’

The professor, writer and game designer discusses her latest anthology, a collection of stories about resistance, healing, empowerment and hope.

Elizabeth LaPensée seems to lead many lives. She’s an assistant professor at Michigan State University, a visual artist and also designs games like Thunder Strike and Honour Water. She’s also a comics writer and artist and editor. Her work has appeared in both volumes of the MOONSHOT anthology, and she’s also made a number of webcomics including The Nature of Snakes, Fala, and The West was Lost. LaPensée is also writing and drawing short comics and editing or co-editing a number of upcoming anthologies including Sovereign Traces: Not Just Another and Relational Constellation.

Her comic Deer Woman was a success and struck a chord with many readers and creators and this fall Native Realities Press is publishing Deer Woman: An Anthology, which LaPensée co-edited, featuring the work of a number of creators who use the story of the deer woman to tell stories of resistance, healing, empowerment and hope. After a successful Kickstarter, the anthology is out this fall and LaPensée spoke about the project and her work.

One question I always like to start with is how you came to comics?

I broke into comics thanks to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s Comic Creation Nation Contest in 2008. Pitches were voted on by the public through social media, so it was an amazing experience to win and suddenly get to work on the web comics Fala and The West Was Lost.

While the comics I write as commissions are often youth-friendly, the comics truest to me are edgier. I hope to broaden the range of Indigenous comics and comic characters by editing collections and continuing the kind work that puts into question who comics are intended for (“everyone” is the answer, of course).

Deer Woman was a comic that you made a few years ago that got a lot of attention. For people who haven’t read it, what is it and who is deer woman?

Deer Woman: A Vignette started as a free digital comic that tells a modern version of a traditional Indigenous story about a deer-like woman who lures in men who take advantage of women and puts an end to their ways. With her hooves. It got picked up by Native Realities Press as a print comic with a portion of the funding going towards Arming Sisters/Reawakening Warriors, a traveling self-defense workshop for Indigenous communities.

What is Deer Woman: An Anthology?

Deer Woman: An Anthology is a comic collection with many contributors which also supports Arming Sisters/Reawakening Warriors. In the introduction of A Vignette, I wrote that my greatest hope was to see other people tell their own versions of Deer Woman stories if that is appropriate in their communities. Although I received permission from elders and spoke with my family before moving forward with the first comic, for some communities it is against protocol to talk about or to depict Deer Woman. The anthology includes the voices of both established and emerging Indigenous women artists and writers including Weshoyot Alvitre, Jackie Moon, Darcie Little Badger, Renee Nejo, and more. This book is really thanks to Lee Francis IV who owns and operates Native Realities Press and the community who supported the crowdfunding campaign as well as the dedicated of all of the women involved.

You write, you draw, you edit, but you tend to work on many projects and collaborate with others. What do you like about collaboration?

Collaborations where I get to write and hand off the tough work of illustrating panels is awesome for obvious reasons. I’m kidding, but also not. It’s no surprise to me that the comics I write for other people to illustrate end up much longer than the ones I know I have to illustrate myself. I enjoy all ways of working and tend to run to comics as a break from working on games and stop motion animations which have such long development cycles and require intensive work on my part.

I edit collections mainly to provide space for more voices, especially as we’re at a critical point in establishing Indigenous comics. It’s vital to me that strong Indigenous writers get an opportunity to work in comics if that’s something they’re interested in, just as it’s important to ensure that new writers and illustrators have the same kind of chance I had, only I prefer to give them a more guaranteed scenario where they continue to own their Intellectual Property, rather than in a contest situation where they have to sell away their dream for a few bucks, which is ultimately what happened to me for several years. Sovereignty is essential.

Do you want to say a little about Sovereign Traces?

Sovereign Traces: Not Just Another is a comic collection from MSU Press forthcoming Fall 2017 with writers including Stephen Graham Jones, Gordon Henry, Gerald Vizenor, Warren Cariou, Niigaan James Sinclair, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Richard Van Camp, and Gwen Westerman, and illustrators and colorists including Weshoyot Alvitre, Tara Ogaick, Scott Henderson, Neal Shannacappo, Donovan Yaciuk, GMB Chomichuk, and Nicholas Burns. It differs from other collections in that it adapts stories and poems from established Indigenous writers into comics.

What was it like adapting a poem by Louise Erdrich into a comic for Sovereign Traces: Not Just Another?

Of course I was beyond myself hoping that I would do good by her work. I illustrated “The Strange People” because the poem lept out at me from the collection Gordon Henry had initially put together and that I later joined in on as a co-editor. With Deer Woman happening simultaneously, the poem felt like a natural fit and a first for me in illustrating for another writer. Although I have illustrated my own stories, I’ve never done that intensive kind of work for another writer. It was an intensive process and thankfully went well aesthetically thanks to the way Erdrich’s tone mirrors my art house style. It helped push my ability to tell stories through panels, which will echo through future work.

Pouring over your work I keep thinking about how we talk about representation, trying to make sure that fictional worlds look like the real world. You seem to be pushing for something else, though. Louise Erdrich is one of many people who have been doing this, but of bringing a different sensibility and approach to storytelling.

I’m not sure that I am purposefully pushing for something else so much as just expressing myself from a worldview informed by how I’ve grown up and who my family is. I’ve been drawing loopular infinity symbols, constellations, and rivers made of florals since I was in school kinda sorta paying attention in class. My work reflects Woodlands style as well as intricate scientific teachings. My hope is to reflect a way of knowing.

How open are people to that in the world of games and comics? Because of course neither are based on the traditional three act dramatic structure, is there an openness to other approaches and forms?

Most of my work tends to be non-linear, which may or may not read well to certain people. I balance experimentation and openness with more practical pointed forms of expression depending on what the work intends itself to be. For example, Copper Heart in MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Vol. 1 and They Come As Lightning in Vol. 2 are clear moment-to-moment stories, while The West Was Lost jumps back and forth through spacetime and comics like The Observing are more interpretive. Ultimately, it comes down to the story itself and what form of expression is most fitting.

You’re working in games and you’re making artwork in addition to working in comics, what is it about comics that makes you so interested and that you keep trying to explore with them?

Comics are brilliant because of the movement and expression that can be conveyed. I can share a moment or an experience in a way that echoes what I see when I write. Words, particularly English, just can’t fully portray the textures and feeling that I have when I’m writing, while comics can, and nicely enough in a process that moves faster than games. Ha ha.

I’ve also done some work in transmedia where comics and games merge or overlap. Comics can double as cut scenes in a game while also being expanded on and working as standalone content.

When does Deer Woman come out?

Deer Woman: An Anthology will be released at the Indigenous Comic Con in Fall 2017!

What are you working on and thinking about now?

I’m currently editing Relational Constellation, an Indigenous love comics collection which will be published through MSU Press in partnership with Native Realities Press. I’m also working on a futurisms collection but won’t be ready to talk about that for a few more months.

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