Keep Living the Stories: ‘Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection’ Celebrates Being Aboriginal
In 2014, Toronto publisher Alternate History Comics launched a Kickstarter for an anthology of indigenous comics, with the goal of “showcasing the rich heritage and identity of indigenous storytelling.” The resulting anthology, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 1, is now available, and it presents a unique and much needed look into aboriginal storytelling in multiple aspects.
It’s easy, as an indigenous person, to slip into what sounds like hyperbole when discussing a project like this. This is one of the most important comics of the year! But it’s easy for the same reasons that make it hard for any statement to actually be that hyperbolic; the blunt reality of comics as a business and popular medium is that there really aren’t that many aboriginal stories being told, and what few aboriginal characters there are usually employ crude stereotypes. These stereotypes aren’t continued out of any real sense of hatred, but out of the almost complete lack of aboriginal people involved in the telling of these stories.
This is the most easily apparent area of Moonshot’s importance: the fact that these are all comics featuring aboriginal characters in stories by aboriginal creators. It seems like such a little thing, but it trickles through in every moment reading the book. And more than that, they’re stories told by so many different aboriginal peoples!
As the book’s editor Hope Nicholson says in her foreword; “There is no single, homogeneous native identity.” That seems like an obvious statement, but it’s seldom actually implemented in comics. Aboriginal superheroes often seem to be invariably Cheyenne or Cherokee, which can give the impression that they’re the only two peoples that writers know. The specific representation usually falls into a glib pan-aboriginalism of tipis, reservations and invocations of “our people.”
In contrast, Moonshot openly celebrates how many different aboriginal peoples are represented in the book. Cree! Caddo! Anishinabeg! S’Klallam! Métis! Inuit! Tlicho! It feels silly to enthusiastically name them, but they deserve to be named, and they so rarely are. If nothing else, Moonshot is a book that, as a basic level, gives voice to the under-spoken truth that, while many aboriginal people in North America are connected by traditions, stories and migrations, the idea of a single “aboriginal” identity is a misguided creation by a colonial system that was never meant to serve those it categorized.
The only pan-aboriginalism worth celebrating is one of many voices, and this book contains more of them than is usually seen in one place. That feels like a revolutionary act in a medium and culture that rarely appreciates this integral distinction.
Similarly, a common criticism of the anthology format is that of inconsistency in art, where multiple styles are forced to coexist whether they do so naturally or not. Truthfully, there are stories here that are less polished than they could be, and there are aesthetics that clash. Any anthology will be a mixed bag in this regard, and the lettering is often in need of a polish. However, the book’s celebration of aboriginal voices helps smooth rough edges.
What does an aboriginal person look like? In most comics, it’s a broad nose, brown skin, warpaint, leather, and breeches. But in a book where there are so many different artists, this narrow idea is widened, as even otherwise recognizable features and patterns are presented differently.
Compared to the writers, few of the artists have their aboriginal background listed, so it's not clear how many of them are aboriginal. Even so, the fact that aboriginal people and stories are presented so many different ways in Moonshot is a testament to how fruitful a collaboration between non-indigenous and indigenous creators can be; a telling contrast to one-sided representations. As Caddo scholar and contributor Michael Sheyahshe states in his introduction, the book works both as a representation of indigenous peoples and as an example of what a cross-cultural collaboration can look like when it’s successful.
What’s fascinating (and profoundly instructional) about the stories is how they represent indigeneity and its history in so many different ways. Some of the stories, like “Ochek,” by David Robertson and Haiwei Hou, and “Coyote and the Pebbles,” by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor, are relatively straightforward adaptations of aboriginal creation stories. In “Ochek,” a fisher (a member of the weasel family, not a fisherman) sacrifices its life to bring summer and warmth to the earth, and his son remembers him by looking at the night sky. “Coyote and the Pebbles” tells the story of how a mistake by Coyote --- sometimes a trickster, sometimes a guide, sometimes a storyteller, and here, all three --- had a role in the creation of the stars, and how the other animals still punish him for it.
At a simple level, these are pleasant, affecting stories from a culture that isn’t wanting for myths. But these are our stories, and seeing them continue is important. Reading “Ochek” and “Coyote and the Pebbles,” I remembered being told similar stories as a small child. I’d forgotten them --- after all, there are a lot of creation myths, and almost as many Coyote stories, so it’s easy to forget specific ones --- but here they were, on the page, in a form I’d never seen them before, told by people I’ve never met.
In that moment, I felt my history and my culture. Not as an old story I’d forgotten, but as something alive and changing. Something that is out there, still, that I can touch. This might sound like such a little thing, but North American culture is filled with images of aboriginal people as we were: the proverbial injun. Dead. It so rarely includes our stories and ourselves.
These stories are a reminder that we are alive, that we are a line through to our pasts, and that we have never been broken. Ochek’s son remembers him by looking at the stars. Stories like this are a the same reminder to us. We are alive.
Moonshot is all about this line, from the past and through more contemporary times. Elizabeth LaPensée and Claude St. Aubin’s “Copper Heart,” set in a 1905 mining town, tells a story where connection to the old stories literally saves lives. Ian Ross, Lovern Kindzierski and Peter Dawes’ “Home” presents a counterargument to Indiana Jones’ famous line, “This belongs in a museum,” where an indigenous man in the modern day repatriates the remains of one of his people that have been greedily 'preserved' for public display. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s genuine.
Unilaterally successful is Richard Van Camp, Rosa Mantla and Nicholas Burns’ story “Tlicho Nàowo,” where an ehtsi teaches her grandkids about the titular holiday --- loosely similar to Dia de Los Muertos --- and the importance of remembering one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed; of respecting that line throughout our peoples, as well as its continuance. It’s a sweet story, where kids initially more interested in Halloween are transfixed by their ehtsi’s story, which ends with a prayer and appeal for all. It’s a quiet moment, common and important all the same. This and “Copper Heart” present the closest thing there is to a single Moonshot thesis: that we continue as peoples, and so do our stories. It’s important that they are told and shared, because it’s how we stay alive. LaPensée’s narrator in “Copper Heart” instructs us “to keep living the stories.”
Where does this line of stories take us? Moonshot very interestingly presents not just the pasts and presents of indigenous peoples, but some of its futures. Todd Houseman and Ben Shannon’s “Ayanisach” is a spin on the sci-fi dystopia where an invading settler force that disrespects the land has brought about ruin, and like “Home,” it’s politically blunt, with the name of the European settler analogue being named the “dispectors.” In general, Moonshot is at its weakest in these blunt moments, but “Ayanisach” is also a story about families and the preservation of culture through oral storytelling, and it’s more successful as a message of hope through storytelling.
Extremely interesting, however, are Arigon Starr & David Cutler’s “Ue-Pucase: Water Master” and Sheyahshe & George Freeman’s “Strike and Bolt.” These two stories present something I’ve never seen before: traditional stories set in an optimistic future where aboriginal people have spread to the stars.
As “Ochek” and “Coyote and the Pebbles” discuss earlier in the anthology, many aboriginal people view the earth as a reflection of the stars above, and the stars as a source of teachings. The indigeno-futurism presented in “Ue-Pucase” and “Strike and Bolt” are a natural extension of this idea, and frankly, given the often fraught discussions of aboriginal politics in daily existence, it’s refreshing and very much appreciated to see these futures where aboriginal people have thrived and shared their teachings through the galaxy.
David Cutler’s Legion of Superheroes-evoking costumes and George Freeman’s Jack Kirby-esque designs are a striking reprieve from the grit and violence often associated with aboriginal stories in the real world. To get not only aboriginal science fiction but some that is bright, shiny and aspirational, is immensely important in how it shows a positive alternative to real traumas. Simply put, there aren’t that many stories like this for aboriginal people.
One of the most striking effects of the anthology, however, can be seen in the first story of the book, which isn’t original to Moonshot. “Vision Quest: Echo,” written and painted by David Mack, was originally published by Marvel Comics as part of its Daredevil series at the time. In that context, Maya Lopez’s story is often one of violence: the death of her father; being sent to kill Daredevil; the expression of her superpower of mimicry as largely a tool of violence.
After her introduction by Mack, who is of Cherokee descent, Maya was rarely written as indigenous, with many teams instead focusing on her Latina roots. She was last seen in Brian Michael Bendis’ Moon Knight, being ignominiously killed to give Marc Spector motivation. In Moonshot, however, coming after Jeffrey Veregge’s moving pinup “Preserver,” discussing basket weaving as a preservation of stories and acting as a prelude to old stories made new like “Ochek,” Maya’s story is very different. It sets the stage for the book’s theme of continuance. It speaks profoundly and movingly of the powers of storytelling as shamanism --- think Grant Morrison with less irony.
But most importantly, Mack's piece discusses positive aboriginal relationships and identity and the healing nature of community and the reservation, told with Indian Sign Language. It reclaims Maya’s indigeneity, simply by presenting it in a different setting and context.
This context of positive indigeneity is so important and so, so valuable. The common narrative of aboriginal people in North America is one of violence and struggle: against colonialism and against the issues in our communities. A lot of media, both by indigenous and non-indigenous artists, represents this, in good ways and bad.
But pay attention. When given a book to share their own stories, the aboriginal creators in Moonshot overwhelmingly rejected this grittiness. Instead, they told stories about their ancestors and their families. They told stories about sacrifice and sometimes sadness, but balanced with a sense of joy, strength, continuity and purpose. They drew a line from their past to themselves, pointing towards possible futures where they thrived and loved each other like they always have, and always will.
I can’t deny a need to talk about the negative stories and realities, too. There’s room for those stories. But sometimes, what you need to keep going on is to be shown that you can.
It’s easy to view praise like this as hyperbole. Michael Sheyahshe introduces the book by saying, “Hyperbole aside, this has to be the greatest collection of stories from indigenous people to date.” He’s not wrong. Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection is important. It’s an invaluable collection of indigenous stories that shares us in our multitudes, across time and space. It’s also not just a great collection of indigenous stories; it is, simply, one of the most important comics of the year, and of my life. I will be returning to it when I need to be reminded that my line keeps going.