Smash Pages Q&A: Lee Francis on The Indigenous Comic-Con and more

The publisher, retailer and convention organizer talks about Albuquerque’s upcoming convention, Native Realities Publishing and much more.

Dr. Lee Francis IV is the CEO and publisher of Native Realities Publishing, which has made a mark with comics like Tribal Force, Hero Twins and The Wool of Jonesy, and graphic novels like Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers and the upcoming Deer Woman: An Anthology.

Francis also runs Red Planet, a bookstore in Albuquerque, NM, and The Indigenous Comic-Con. The show takes place next weekend, November 10-12, in Albuquerque with additional events on Nov. 9. We spoke about publishing, the convention, and being an indigenerd.

What brought you to comics?

My dad was a technophile and a pop culture guy. We had computer systems and game systems at the house early on. My dad never dissuaded discouraged any type of reading, so for some people comic books were off limits, and I never had that. It was a natural fit a natural appeal with the family starting out. My dad and family members were writers so the art and storytelling that goes with comic books was an early draw.

Tell me about Native Realities publishing and what you’re doing.

We started in April of 2015 and the whole idea was to create comic books and graphic novels that were indigenous-centric, that feature Native characters at the center of the story. Stories that haven’t been told. Like our Code Talkers anthology. That was the driving goal. I started my career as an educator and what I noticed was there was not enough literature and work for my Native students. We’d been wanting to see more work that was accessible for student readers that would draw them in so that it could be scaffolded into building to higher levels of literature. My dad was the director of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers so I knew a lot of folks who were writers. Surveying the landscape there wasn’t anything there and so I wanted to start the company and put out work to fill that gap.

With Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers you were trying to make a comic that was educational, that was historical, that was targeted at younger readers. It straddled a lot of genres and audiences.

That was a fun exercise in that way. The main impetus for that was to tell stories that hadn’t been heard based on stories that I had been told from some of these code talkers that I had interacted with in my life and wanting to bring those stories to life. It’s not just Navajo code talkers. They were instrumental and integral to WWII and to the marine corps but the story goes deeper than that. It started in WWI and it had extensions out into these other wars where there were Native infantrymen who were being trained in the communications corps. Those stories became really important in wanting to develop that book to include action and adventure as well as something that could be used for educational purposes. We were very deliberate in doing that. There’s a lot of stories and history that maybe have been told but we wanted to bring them to life in a way that would be for younger readers.

You’re also putting out a wide range of other books like Tribal Force and Wool of Jonesy.

For Tribal Force we were able to work with Jon Proudstar on bringing back the first Native comic ever produced back in 1996. He did the first issue and then as he describes it, life got in the way. He wasn’t able to return to it for twenty years. We want to give his story its due and see that story all the way through. It was really exciting that we were able to work that out. Issue #1 is available and we’re working on issue #2 right now.

Wool of Jonesy is by Jonathan Nelson. I met him at one of the comic cons we did. The art is stellar. It tells a really simple story of growing up on the rez. Especially if anybody knows reservations in the Southwest, there are echoes through a lot of Native country, this rural reservation life. Jonesy is the anthropomorphized version of a Native kid growing up in a Native community. It’s just a lovely very elegant story. One of my favorites.

We just finished a kickstarter for our Deer Woman anthology. That came from Elizabeth LaPensee. She did some marvelous work on the first issue. We sold our first print run out and we were going to go into a second edition and she said, what about an anthology? Let’s get a bunch of native illustrators and creators together. We’ve got a couple of things coming up. We’re working on a story called Sixkiller, which is written by myself and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. It’s Kill Bill meets Alice in Wonderland set in Cherokee Country. It’s a story about a young woman seeking revenge for the murder of her sister and what she has to go through. That has a resonance. We’re getting ready to send to press Hero Twins. It’s the hero twins story in a modern setting, battling monsters based on traditional Navajo tales. We’re pretty excited about that. And then we have various indige-nerd paraphernalia. We’re working on a couple of games and turn some of these characters into toys and action figures.

Do you have a model or plan of where you want the company to be in a few years?

We just want to continue to expand the offerings we have. We want to be able to put this into the marketplace and build the indige-nerd line of t-shirts and posters and really establishing Native Realities as that one stop shop for indigenous pop culture. Our big plan is to move into digital media. We’re working on some animated stuff, game design, and just utilizing the resources that we have.

One reason I ask is I get the feeling that you’re trying to approach this not in a reactive sense of trying to correct pop culture, but you’re trying to build something else, something new.

Ultimately what we’re trying to do is in some ways simultaneously reactive and proactive. We are reacting to the current historicized – and often times stereotypical – representations of Native people in pop culture. I tend not to be one of those people who says, I’m going to boycott this. I feel that that doesn’t necessarily change the dynamic. Part of the goal is to try to get as much into the marketplace as we can. I think that’s where we try to be proactive by telling cool stories. Not just relying on the fact that it’s a Native superhero and redoing what people have already done, but with a Native artist. We want to tell stories that haven’t been told. We want to make sure that they’re indigenous-centric and native-centric. We want superheroes to be a part of that. We want Native people to really shine in these types of stories. So you have Tribal Force where it deals with issues on the reservation but it also deals with superheroes and time travel and superpowers and saving the world. That, I think, is the critical part of being proactive and progressive in the work that we’re doing.

You also opened a bookstore recently, Red Planet, and how does that fit in your plans because you seem to be trying to create a cultural hub.

Absolutely. It’s also why we started the Indigenous Comic con. We wanted to create a hub where people could come every year to be able to highlight work. It’s a place where we can showcase their work, because not everybody is doing full length comics. There are Native folk who have worked for Marvel or DC or Image and we can highlight their awesome work. The store is our office. It’s our headquarters, our warehouse, but at the same time it’s the dream of where I want to work everyday. I wanted to work in a bookstore. That’s where I always used to hang out. It gives me the opportunity to be in the space and continue to support the work of other Native writers. We have used books and new books and children’s books and all of our comic books. It’s a place where we can promote our work and become that hub.

Looking at Red Planet, you have movie nights and you have prose writers doing events and you clearly want this to be a space that’s not just about selling your books.

Absolutely. And the other part is, I know most of these writers. If you’re in town, we can hang out and celebrate your work. I think that’s the biggest motivation and drive for all of this. Celebration. There’s a lot of critical activism that’s going on that can be viewed negatively, that’s hard on the spirit to the folks that are engaged in that type of work – protests and rallies and community organizing. This is the flip of that. We’re organizing the community but we’re organizing around a literary celebration, around creative expression, that pushes the artistic boundaries of what native people are confined to. This gives that opportunity to expand in a place like Red Planet. Let’s come down and watch Game of Thrones. We just want everybody, native folk and non-native folks, to come down and celebrate this great work. With Comic Con I’ve had questions, is it just for indigenous people? No, it’s for everybody. Everybody is welcome. We’re highlighting and showcasing Native people within that frame, but we want everybody to come see it and enjoy it and have a good time.

This is the second year of the Indigenous Comic Con and I talked with Marty Two Bulls Sr. who said what a great time he had. You have people like Lalo Alcaraz and Tim Truman and you really try to get a lot of different people.

A lot of these folks are not necessarily doing specifically Native work. Tim Truman has done Conan, but he also did Scout. You have somebody like Marty who does political cartoons and he’s an amazing artist and illustrator and writer. When we invite guests it is really trying to showcase the broad perspective of Natives in pop culture. Last year one of my goals was, I want to have everybody in the house because we can all talk to each other. Beth [LaPensée] said that she really liked being able to come to Comic con and not feel like she had to explain everything. The indigenous explanation, our historical background, all the rest of that. No. I’m just going to come in and talk and you get it because we set up that particular framework. We don’t have to continually repeat ourselves for everybody who walks into that framework. We can say, here’s some gamers, here’s some video games, some of them are Native and some of them are not. Here’s some really cool art. Some of it’s Native, some of it’s anime, some of it’s whatever. That’s what we aim for when we try to put our programming and our guest list together.

You mentioned Scout and when I think about the representation of Native people and First Nations people in comics and pop culture, there are few and there are very few good ones – I’ll say that so you don’t have to – but Scout was a good one.

Absolutely. I know Tim Truman’s work and I read Scout and loved it – as many of us did. It’s about a Native character winding his way through post apocalypse dystopia in a way that propelled it forward. Michael Sheyahshe’s book Native Americans in Comic Books is this amazing academic text that looked at all these representations and highlighted the Native folks that were doing this work as well. I was reminded of this when I ran into Tim at Denver Comic con. Also because we want Native youth interested and to see that you can do this as a career. You can create something that represents you or that represents your community your traditions your values your identity – and you also draw Conan. You can do that. That’s what we want to project.

Same thing with Jeff Veregge. He’s doing covers for Marvel and infuses it with North coast design work. He’s done all this nerd work. Another book we have coming out is Jeff Veregge’s first foray into comics, not just cover work. That’s really exciting. I think Jeff was the first guy we reached out to last year. Here’s a guy working in the industry, making a living, doing some amazing work, and we wanted him to talk about that and showcase his work. Same thing with Elizabeth [LaPensée]. Same thing with Arigon Starr doing Super Indian. We try to find a balance between men and women. I think we’re 60/40 this year in terms of male/female representation. Women are a large demographic of people who love comic books and video games and pop culture. So we can say here’s Arigon Starr who’s working on the third volume of Super Indian, the longest running native comic. Here’s Elizabeth LaPensée who’s the queen of indigenous futurism and native gaming as well as an incredible artist and comic book person. That focus on the being indigenous as well as being in pop culture is really the underlying aspect of what we’re trying to do.

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