A Chat With Arigon Starr, Creator of 'Super Indian' Comics
Multi-talented Arigon Starr has been a creative force in Indian country for years, primarily as a musician. She has released four albums; her first, Meet the Diva, won a Nammy Award for Best Independent Recording, and her most recent, The Red Road, was named the Best Contemporary CD at the 15th Annual First Americans in the Arts Awards.
These days, though, she's concentrating on a different creative endeavor: Super Indian Comics. ICTMN caught up with her fresh off an appearance at Phoenix Comic Con 2012 to get the scoop on the story she's telling and the unconventional way she's getting it to the public.
How did Super Indian come about?
Super Indian has been a long time in the making. The comic started as a ten-part radio comedy series I wrote for the Native Radio Theater Project and Native Voices at the Autry. After the original series aired on Native Voice One in 2007, I started creating the comic book world based on the radio series. Super Indian was then launched as a webcomic in April 2011 — and I've been updating the book every Monday with a few new panels. There are now three "issues" of the comic — and two and a half of them are part of Super Indian Volume One.
You have a Native protagonist – “Once a Rez Boy, Now a Super Hero” is the tagline on your site. Can you tell us about his evolution – how you came up with him, and what sort of origin he has in the comic books?
Super Indian definitely came from a humorous place. I modeled him after the classic Batman TV show from the 1960s with Adam West and Burt Ward. Most hardcore comic book people dismiss that series, but it really influenced my storytelling. So often Native folks are never shown having a sense of humor and being funny is important to my work. You only have to give a listen to my song “Junior Frybread” or experience some of the characters in my one-woman show “The Red Road” to know my engine is fueled by laughter.
Another big influence on Super Indian is Spiderman. As you may know, “Spidey” got his powers from being bitten by a chemically altered spider – and a similar accident happens to Super Indian’s alter ego, Hubert Logan. As a child, he participated in a commodity cheese-eating contest. That cheese was tainted with Rezium, an experimental food additive cooked up in a secret government lab. Mad scientist Dr. Eaton Crowe had hoped to create a race of Jim Thorpes ... but got Hubert Logan/Super Indian instead.
What storylines has he encountered so far?
In the unpublished “Origins,” Super Indian gains his powers and meets some of his most dangerous foes. One is homegrown nemesis, Derek Thunder. Derek is much like Lex Luthor, an evil super genius. Derek also ate the tainted commodity cheese and has similar, if not greater powers than Super Indian. We also meet the unassuming, non-Indian history teacher Jorgen Storm. Jorgen is very interested in tribal lore and studies with tribal medicine woman (and Hubert’s grandma) Flora Logan. Storm steals an enchanted wampum belt and becomes “Wampum Baggs,” a villain intent on gaining further power from the tribe and banishing their tribe into oblivion.
This storyline and the current storyline (issue #4, “Technoskin”) loosely follow two of the episodes from the original “Super Indian” radio series. “Here Comes The Anthro” and “Hubert’s Blog” kicked off the webcomic series back in April 2011 and tell the evolution of Super Indian’s powers and persona. “Hubert’s Blog” showcased the problems of Hubert living in the shadow of his Super Indian persona – and the trouble that publishing the unblemished truth about tribal life can cause.
A lot of times, when you have a comic character tied to a group of people or a culture, you tend to get conflict against issues or issue-driven antagonists, as opposed to say, a Lex Luthor-style mad genius who simply wants to rule the world. On a scale of social consciousness vs. mindless fun, where does your work fall, and are you mindful of maintaining a balance in any way?
There is a lot of social consciousness evident in “Super Indian,” but disguised in humor. You can look at it as satire or parody – but underneath the yuks, it’s great to explore issues of identity, community and how Native folks are perceived. I really mulled over what tribe Super Indian would belong to when I was creating his world and decided that, to keep it fair, he would belong to the fictional Leaning Oak Tribe. I know that my own community, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, is very protective about what details they divulge about lifeways and traditions. There are also a lot of rivalries between tribes and I didn’t want Super Indian to be dismissed out of hand because of this.
You’re publishing a comic for free, online, in small installments, then selling a collection on paper – this is a model that would have been unfathomable to comics creators 15 years ago. How’s it working out—what advantages or disadvantages does this process offer?
Offering anything for free is a disadvantage. Your audience expects to get the print version for free, and that is not going to happen with Super Indian. This model is like those folks at Costco or Sam’s Club offering tasty bites in-store -- then letting you know the full version is available for a price. The real test for a printed version of Super Indian was at the recent Phoenix Comic Con. It was gratifying to know there is still a segment of the audience that wants a printed book.
What the print version offers that is totally different from the free online webcomic is that you’ll see full pages of artwork, as opposed to the half-page version online. I also created special extras, including a series called “Real Super Indians” that feature spotlight art and biographies of Native superstars like Maria Tall Chief and Jim Thorpe.
It seems there are several interesting American Indian writers and artists producing comics today—do you have the sense there is a community of Native comics creators?
A resounding YES! There is now a group of Native comic creators called the "Indigenous Narratives Collective" (INC), a division of the non-profit group Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.
Jacques La Grange, who’s the creator of Shadow Wolf and a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, worked hard to curate a “Natives in Comics” panel for two years running at the annual Phoenix Comic Con. At this year’s convention, we had a group booth that featured the newly designed INC logo created by Navajo comic artist/designer Jonathan Nelson. Also participating were Jon Proudstar (Tribal Force) and Ryan Huna Smith. The panel was a huge success that had a standing-room only audience that made a big impression on the Phoenix Comic Con organizers. We also had lots of Native community members attend the panel and stop by the booth who were thrilled, amazed and grateful we were out there being a voice for the people.
We are planning on taking a group of Native comic creators around the country to more Comic Conventions and will be hosting a free Native Comics Workshop at the Heard Museum in Phoenix on July 28th.
What’s next for Super Indian—both the fictional character and about the series?
Super Indian is going to take on Derek Thunder in the currently running issue “Technoskin.” No longer a silent partner to Wampum Baggs, Derek will reveal his own evil plans and a giant metal robot that’s intent on destroying Native culture.
The webcomic will continue as “Technoskin” has new content coming through February 2013. If you want to read ahead, you’ll need to buy “Super Indian Volume One” to find out if Derek Thunder is successful or not! You will believe an Indian can fly! AAAY!
I’m revamping the art for “Origins,” and will expand the story into a longer graphic novel. There’s a lot of detail I left out trying to cram the story into a 23-page issue.
It’s the hope of everyone involved with the Indigenous Narratives Collective that all of our work will entertain and inspire other Native folks to create their own comics. We’re so fortunate that there’s already a wealth of talent out there in Indian Country to sustain this initiative. There’s room for all kinds of storytellers in INC’s world.