Above: Lee Francis IV drawson his Laguna Pueblo heritage and doctorate in educational leadership. Illustration by Dale DeForest.
LEE FRANCIS IV GREW UP PICKING COMIC BOOKS off the spinner racks at Albuquerque’s Duran Central Pharmacy. Drawing upon his Laguna Pueblo heritage and a doctorate in educational leadership, the self-professed Indiginerd taught high school on the reservation, where he saw through his students’ eyes the lack of representational and non-stereotypical Native characters in pop culture. In 2014, Francis founded Native Realities Press, a publishing and distribution company that has released 15 original books, anthologies, and games. He followed it up by creating Indigenous Comic Con (now called IndigiPop X) to celebrate Native pop culture. To complete the nerd trifecta, the champion of untold stories joined forces with friend Aaron Cuffee III in 2017 to open Red Planet Books and Comics. The Albuquerque shop earned an international hat tip with a prestigious Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award nomination this year.
Growing up, I felt the absence of Native characters without feeling it. When a Native character did show up, I was really excited.
I loved my Iron Man and Spider-Man. But I also loved rooting for the character of Billy Sole, who is Sioux, in Predator. He almost makes it to the end and gets a warrior’s death. That was so neat for me to see.
In 2012, I started conversing with comic book artists about creating a publishing company with Native-centric stories that were more dynamic and wouldn’t have stereotypical or amalgam characters but would represent the diversity of tribes and nations.
With my PhD, I was trying to build Native institutions and Native schools to address issues of inequity and diversity. In many ways, comic book publishing dovetails with that work.
I ask educators, “What does your bookshelf look like? Is it diverse? And does it portray the locality you exist in?” I’m still changing systems; I’m just doing it through pop culture media.
We raised more than $60,000 on Kickstarter for the upcoming anthology A Howl: A Comics Collection of Wolves, Werewolves & Rougarou.
We allowed Indigenous artists to tell whatever story they wanted. There’s an Indigenous connection to wolves in the sense that these are our relatives, but also in the sense of how we see ourselves.
The artists are using the werewolf narrative, of a character trapped between two worlds, to identify what it means to be Indigenous in an honest and beautifully illustrated way.
These are the stories that aren’t told.
We’re also working on nonfiction stories such as the Conestoga Massacre of 1763 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; the life of Oklahoma activist and politician LaDonna Harris; and two-time Boston Marathon winner Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown.
That’s the gap that Native Realities was founded to fill.
There’s a care of putting pen to paper in comics and graphic novels that brings these elements to life more than other media.
We yearn for the day when we have a whole bookshelf in Red Planet filled with Native comics. We’re halfway there.
IndigiPop X is coming back in fall 2022.
Three years after our first event, Marvel put out an Indigenous Voices book.
Most of the people in the book were at the first Indigenous Comic Con. I believe it’s a direct result from the network and support we built at that event. It’s not to say the artists wouldn’t have found each other, but we built a quicker pathway.
The biggest challenge of our work is battling 400 years of indoctrination and propaganda.
For everything we’ve put out into this world, it’s still uphill. And a long uphill. Native identity in popular culture wasn’t formulated by us; it was imposed on us. That’s the work that must be done, so that Native folks get to define ourselves.