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The Naïve Sidekick: The Representation and Categorization of Native Americans in the Red Wolf Story Arcs

By Holly May Treadwell

[Comics] can illustrate action-packed snapshots of popular society, and in these snapshots, one can study a minute and pristine microcosmic universe. 

– Michael A. Sheyahshe 3

Introduction

The recent boom in blockbuster adaptations of superheroes and the subsequent rise in comics sales (Drum) has brought comics into the mainstream media. This new-found position means that Maurice Horn’s warning that comics must “be called into account on aesthetic and ethical grounds” (62) is even more important. Early comics were plagued with racist stereotypes, and even today many comics “repeat the sins of their literary ancestors, particularly in representing Indigenous people in only one or two generic fashions” (Sheyahshe 10). The importance of recognizing and analysing such representations comes from the fact that “comics have always reflected people’s likes and dislikes, preferences, and prejudices” (Pewewardy, American 193). Indeed, as Michael A. Sheyahshe writes,

Comic books can reveal more about popular society and culture than just the black-and-white idea of good versus evil […] A comic book can inspire and teach. More importantly, comics can provide their audiences with a clearer view of ingrained societal and cultural attitudes. (Sheyahshe 3)

The consideration of comics as pseudo art (Kukkonen 114) and “juvenile, disposable trash” (Versaci 2) has meant that they have had more freedom in their ability to comment on and critique societal attitudes and political events, resulting in their depictions of life being far more accurate than a novel or TV show, which are often heavily censored. As the recognition of this potential grows, recent years have seen the publication of works such as Sheyahshe’s Native Americans in Comic Books, Fredrick Strömberg’s Black Images in Comics, Frederick Luis Aldama’s Multicultural Comics and his edited collection Graphic Indigeneity, and Binita Mehta and Pia Mukherji’s Postcolonial Comics, which have opened up the field to include issues of representation, especially surrounding race and colonialism. However, exploration of the latter in the field often excludes popular superhero comics and focuses instead on autobiographies and other non-fiction works. Similarly, many studies into racial representation in comics focus on twentieth-century works, and far too many of these ignore Native Americans. Aldama and Sheyahshe’s works are much-needed changes from this trend. However, Aldama’s work focuses mostly on Australia and on Indigenous-made comics, leaving unexamined the mainstream comics that hold the potential to be most damaging to the Native American and First Nation communities they depict. In addition, Sheyahshe’s 2008 publication preceded Marvel’s All New, All Different reboot and thus does not examine the recent reboots of characters such as Dani Moonstar, Warpath, Black Condor, and Red Wolf (who was Marvel’s first Native American superhero [Saunders et al 146]). As such, Sheyahshe’s work missed out on the opportunity to examine the “all-new” Red Wolf in his role as the lead in his own comic and as a main character in an Avengers storyline. This study therefore picks up where Sheyahshe left off and takes Aldama’s work in a new direction. It takes a critical approach to the use of stereotypes in the writing and illustrating of Red Wolf: Man out of Time (2016; henceforth cited as MooT), Occupy Avengers 1: Taking Back Justice (2017; OA1), and Occupy Avengers 2: In Plain Sight (2017; OA2).

This study focuses on issues of animality and nationality through the ways dominant portrayals liken Native Americans to non-human animals; indeed, all aspects of the Naïve Sidekick stereotype involve traits commonly attributed to both non-human animals and to Indigenous peoples. There is a long history of animalization as a tool of human oppression and it was this dehumanization that was used to “justify” colonial atrocities such as the Native slave trade and the Trail of Tears.1 As Cary Wolfe states, “you can’t talk about race without talking about species, simply because both categories—as history well shows—are […] constantly bleeding into and out of each other” (Wolfe 43). This study aims to acknowledge this historical animalization of Native peoples and examine the ways in which it still haunts contemporary Native characters and communities. Furthermore, this animalization often historically focused on Indigenous people’s physicality (Green 327; see also Feest 46; Matijasic 31-50) so it seems especially necessary to explore the progress and lack thereof in the comics medium, which depicts characters visually as well as textually. According to Richard King, comics in particular have “relied on stereotypes, which perpetuate dehumanizing images as well as anti-Indian racism,” which have “diminished the power and humanity of Indigenous peoples, simultaneously excluding and exploiting, appropriating and erasing, silencing Native nations while celebrating fictional versions of them” (215-216). Thus, Red Wolf’s name, the dehumanization of Native Americans and the continuous likening of Native peoples to non-human animals call for the exploration of the interactions between animality and nationality in comics. This study responds to this call, focusing on the period from 2016 to 2017.

To thoroughly examine how animality and nationality interact, I focus on the dominant portrayal of Native characters in visual media and use this category as a basis from which to compare the writing and illustrating of Red Wolf and the other two Native characters present in his story arc, Silas and Frank Fireheart. Whilst white characters exist free from categorization for the most part and are presented as three-dimensional, Indigenous comics fans such as Sheyahshe realized that the Indigenous heroes he read about “seemed to more readily fall into certain categories” (Sheyahshe 2), and Dustin Tahmahkera explains how these “repetitious Indian characters” are “built on centuries of such binaries” and continue to reinscribe “historical and contemporary dominance over the Indigenous” (Tahmahkera xii-xiii). Thus, the main question this paper aims to answer is: How do the depictions of Native characters in these comics (particularly Red Wolf as a Southern Cheyenne character) destabilize or further construct existing problematic categorizations? Secondarily, this study will examine what needs to be improved in these representations to portray Native American characters as full, complex humans with agency over their own stories rather than caricatures. To answer these questions efficiently, I have broken down the categorizations into their main components, which are outlined below. These divisions allow me to examine in more detail exactly where and how representations destabilize or stabilize these categorizations and allow or disallow the characters agency. It is also worth noting that the categorizations I have chosen to use are not of my own invention; they have come out of a long background of research into the representation of Native Americans in both the comics medium and more general Western media. 

The oldest and most wide-spread depiction of Indigenous peoples in Western media is that of the Bloodthirsty Savage (Green 324), who is “often crazed, seeking vengeance or just malicious fun” (Berkhofer 98). Native characters in this category are presented as lacking rational thinking and are instead driven by instinct. They are depicted as primitive in their attention to vengeance rather than “justice,” and enjoy causing pain and destruction. Native characters nowadays are less often presented in this way, and as media grew out of the brazen depiction of Native characters as Bloodthirsty Savages, another stereotype emerged: “Indigenous characters evolved slowly from the despised faceless nemesis of the hero to the simple-minded helper. Some Native characters even became popular enough to warrant their own comic book title, but always under the guise of their dutiful subservience to the white man” (Sheyahshe 9). Out of the Bloodthirsty Savage grew the Naïve Sidekick, and this stereotype is still prevalent in modern popular culture due to its slightly subtler racism in comparison to the “savage”.2 In contrast to the “Noble Savage,” which depicts a romanticized view of supposedly simplistic societies, the Naïve Sidekick is constructed through four key components: simplicity, haplessness, lack of so-called higher thinking, and the position of sidekick. This is a well-established category, although the specific phrasing is not pre-existing and comes from combining many scholars’ discussions of the concept. The Naïve Sidekick category draws on the dominant portrayal of Native characters as “child-like,”3 “bumbling” and foolish,4 in need of/dependent on white people,5 naïve,6 and as Sidekick/the White Man’s Helper.7 By combining the central concepts of these discussions into a brief but clear summary, I arrived at the “Naïve Sidekick.” It also displays the animalization of Native Americans through the overarching view that animals lack intelligence and exist to serve humans’ purposes, whether that be as slaves or entertainment, as this consideration of animals as human sidekicks without intrinsic value was also the dominant colonial view of Indigenous peoples.

As Aldama explains, such “denigrative stereotypes” are often reproduced in mainstream comics when the creators fail to take care over their “(mis)representation of Indigenous subjects and experiences” (Aldama xi-xii), and these misrepresentations “destructively delimit” attitudes towards Indigenous experience (Aldama xii). Indeed, Aldama further states that this stereotyping continues to “haunt the existence of Indigenous peoples across hemispheres and continents” (Aldama xii). Aldama’s statements reflect and reinforce the importance of studying such stereotypes as explained by Cornel Pewewardy over twenty years prior:

America cannot truly understand the real issues of contemporary American Indian lifestyles and worldview without understanding the popular Indian images of the past, present, and future. Understanding the contemporary images and perceptions of American Indians in comic books is extremely important, not only for Indian people but also for the mainstream culture. (Pewewardy, American 198). 

Indeed, this statement continues to be relevant to our contemporary media, and the “vast matrix of Native American (mis)representations have yet to be fully articulated or understood” (Raheja 191). As such, by examining the ways in which the Red Wolf comics both construct and deconstruct this category, this paper aims to show the continuing existence of racist stereotypes, how these allow or disallow the character agency, and to outline the progress made in moving away from this category as a foundation for future depictions. By doing so, I aim to demonstrate how, with the increasing diversity and representation of minority and Indigenous experiences in comics, creators risk reinscribing harmful tropes by failing to include Indigenous creators and by failing to recognize these legacies of anti-Indigenous media.

“Higher” Thinking

In the category of the Naïve Sidekick, there are four main traits that demonstrate both the characters’ naïveté and their perceived animality. The first of these traits is a lack of “higher” thinking, by which I refer to the cognitive capacity for imagination, interpretation, and critical thinking. Traditionally, animals have been considered to lack “all higher cognitive function” (R. Byrne 114); for a long time, scientists were reluctant to even confirm the existence of “consciousness in other-than-human animals” (Waldau 155). Similarly, “Native peoples have been firmly placed in the lower echelons of intelligence by many Euro-Americans since first contact was made” (Kilpatrick xvii; see also Gobineau 391-413), and even today philosophical thought is often assumed to be beyond their culture (Pomedli xi-xii). These perceptions of non-human animals and Native people have obviously been proven false (R. Byrne 120-122), yet these problematic categorizations persist in contemporary representations.

The most obvious and famous example is Tonto, from The Lone Ranger (Lansdale et al), whose name literally translates to “silly”, “fool”, and “dumb” in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian respectively. Another example is Frank Coraci’s recent film Ridiculous 6, starring Adam Sandler, which has come under fire for insulting Native Americans, mocking their culture, and playing on “dumb Native” stereotypes (Schilling; Moyer). The 2015 film is an explicit example of the continuous presentation of Native Americans as lacking intelligence. It is worth noting that the filmmakers have attempted to defend such presentations by claiming that they were part of the satiric nature of the film (Moyer), but the stereotypes that it presents are too prevalent and too much the norm in Western culture for the film to avoid feeding into and enforcing such dangerous and disrespectful views. The problem that arises with such depictions is outlined by Berger, who explains how the “circulation of images that deny or question the humanity of […] politically disempowered groups plays a supporting role in normalising discriminatory, violent, and potentially even genocidal behaviour against individuals from those groups” (Berger, Sight 133). Considering, then, the continuing institutional racism faced by Native American communities, depictions such as Tonto and the characters in Coraci’s film cannot exist innocently or ironically; they can only add to the discrimination already faced by these groups.

Occupy Avengers 1 also stabilizes this trope by presenting Red Wolf as incapable of understanding tactics, as he asks Barton “Why are you taunting [an enemy]” (OA1 29). Barton replies that he is “messin with his mind—creating a tactical advantage” (OA1 29). Insults have a negative effect on one’s mentality due to the influence of social hierarchy on the human psyche: Insulting, belittling, or mocking someone, as Barton does, undermines that person’s conviction and confidence. Red Wolf’s question and Barton’s subsequent explanation imply Red Wolf’s lack of understanding of these tactics and indeed the fundamental psychology on which they are based. He appears unable to figure out the consequences of Barton’s words on the man’s mentality. This naïveté is even more problematic if we consider the following infamous words quoted by Freud: “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilisation” (Freud 36). The statement is intended to be witty, but it highlights an underlying racist perception: that of colonial intellect vs primitive violence. Indeed, Barton here represents the “civilised” psychological tactics, and Red Wolf only understands physical violence, reinforcing the idea of Native simplicity even in a comic as recent as 2017.

However, this presentation of Red Wolf as naïve is somewhat destabilized in Occupy Avengers 2, where Red Wolf states that they “are in position” through a walky-talky (OA2 5). If we take this scene in isolation, it implies his involvement in a calculated plan and thus the capacity for rational deliberation rather than reliance on instinctive aggression and naked impulse as the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans usually shows (Anderson 304). Moreover, his involvement indicates a level of cleverness, critical thinking, and imagination, especially by demonstrating his understanding of the plan through the imperative, “MOVE!” (OA2 74). This command shows that he knows their cue and is taking a position of leadership. However, this increasing understanding of tactics coincides with the increasing “Americanization” of the character. At the end of Occupy Avengers 1, Red Wolf and Barton “team up” (OA1 43), and when we rejoin them in volume 2, Red Wolf is dressed in jeans and a checked flannel shirt (fig. 1; OA2 5), and there are far fewer references to his culture. Furthermore, Red Wolf is positioned facing the camera, whereas we only get a side view of the other character, indicating Red Wolf’s prominence and encouraging the reader to focus on him. This agency, however, is marred by his correlative “Americanization.” This correlation between his expanding knowledge and the comic’s increasing focus on him alongside that Americanization actually reinforces the stereotype and affirms the destructive view that “Native people will survive only if they disassociate themselves from the deadly rhetoric of ‘Indianness’” (Pulitano 146). 

Occupy Avengers 2 continues to iterate this stereotype through humor. Native people are often presented as stupid and bumbling (Sheyahshe 6, 87; Pewewardy, Studies 23; Stedman 245), and comedy is often “based on notions of the ‘stupid Indian’” (Sheyahshe 87). In the classic comic strip Red Ryder, the eponymous hero’s sidekick, Little Beaver, is a prime example of this, as his “buffoonery” provides comic relief for the white hero and demeans the culture he is supposed to represent (Sheyahshe 41). Moreover, the dominant and most accepted theory of humor in modern psychology and philosophy is the “Incongruity Theory,” first discussed by Beattie, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard, and developed by modern researchers such as Hurley, Dennet, and Adams; Suls, Two Stage 81-99; and Deckers and Buttram. According to the incongruity theory, humor requires three key abilities: imagination in the ability to “mentally represent the set-up of the joke”; critical thinking in the ability to “detect an incongruity”; and interpretation to “resolve the incongruity by inhibiting the literal, non-funny interpretations, and appreciating the meaning of the funny one” (Gibson; see also Suls, Cognitive 39-40; Deckers and Buttram 53-64; Hurley, Dennet, and Adams 45-52). Essentially, humor requires the capacity for the kind of “higher” thinking explored above. In line with the presentation of animals and Native peoples as lacking this capacity (Hanson and Rouse 34; Roberts 25), Native characters are typically presented as being “bereft of a sense of humour” (Sheyahshe 21). Some examples include the Native characters in White Indian (Franzetta), Shaman in Alpha Flight (J. Byrne et al; Mantlo et al), Marvel’s American Eagle (Moench et al), DC’s Tomahawk (Kubert), and Thunderbird in the X-Men (Moore at al; Wein et al), all of whom lack a sense of humor and instead remain stoic and serious.

Red Wolf is presented as lacking the abilities of humor—particularly the ability to inhibit the literal—as he fails to understand Barton’s pun and explains to him that “There is no such thing as ‘vantastic’—that word does not exist” (fig. 2; OA2 46). This misunderstanding is made even more insulting by the relative obviousness of Barton’s word play. In addition, we can see that Red Wolf has searched the word on his phone to find out the meaning (fig. 2) and has concluded that the word does not exist as, we assume, no results matched his search. However, even when predictive text is turned off, smartphones and most search engines will suggest a similar word that the computer believes the writer may have misspelled or mistyped; when I typed “vantastic” into an online dictionary, it suggested, as one would expect, that I might mean “fantastic” instead. It would be surprising, then, if Red Wolf’s search did not offer him the same alternative, in which case he appears even more lacking in intelligence by failing to connect the similar phonetics of the two. Once again, a front view of Red Wolf is offered here in comparison to a side view of Barton, but this focus functions to highlight Red Wolf’s misunderstanding. Indeed, this dynamic emphasizes his role as comic relief, as does the smirk on Barton’s face, indicating that he is amused by Red Wolf’s naïveté and thus encouraging the reader to laugh at him, too.

Occupy Avengers 2 does a better job at destabilizing this category through Silas and Frank. The failure of most mediums to present Native humor is, according to Vine Deloria, “a great disappointment” (V. Deloria 146) as humor is a “vital element of Native life,” so the depiction of Native characters as “always either very serious or very malevolent” (Sheyahshe 15) is wildly inaccurate as well as insulting to their intelligence.  Whilst this is the case for Red Wolf, who is never shown smiling or laughing across all four comics, Silas and Frank are often shown smiling and laughing (fig. 3 and 4; OA2 84) and are even shown playing a prank on a Hydra soldier (fig. 5; OA2 96). Whilst this joke is not exactly an example of complex humor (indeed the slang word, sucker, and nature of the prank appear rather juvenile), it is a refreshing change from the presentation of Native peoples as lacking humor and from the tendency for comic relief to come at the expense of Native characters. This scene lends more agency to Silas and Frank by encouraging the reader to laugh with these characters instead of at them. In addition, figures 3, 4, and the bottom-left panel of figure 5 are illustrated as low-angle shots, presenting the cousins as courageous and important by having the reader look up to them. Therefore, the comics do not stereotype all their Native characters as lacking any “higher” thinking, but most of Red Wolf’s depictions still imply an absence of critical thinking, imagination, and interpretation. 

Simplicity

The second trait of naïveté is simplicity: Native peoples are frequently stereotyped as being akin to animals and “primitive children—in a rude state of nature they are nobly innocent” (Bird 3). “Benevolent” terms such as “innocent” “indicate a lesser intelligence” (Kilpatrick xvii). Despite the above depictions of Red Wolf as lacking the capacity for “higher” thinking regarding tactics and humor, he is never presented as outright witless. Indeed, in scenes such as the one in figure 6, he is even presented as incredibly capable and intelligent, and more so than the police officers who are supposedly in charge of the situation (MooT 51). The non-Native officers show their lack of understanding—or perhaps lack of willingness to understand Red Wolf—by musing that he is “not right in the head,” exhibit their incompetency by assuming that the crime was the work of a rival gang, and demonstrate their ignorance by referring to Red Wolf as “Apache Joe” (MooT 49-51). The latter is worth further consideration, as this homogenizing and outright racist way of referring to Red Wolf is spoken by a police officer, through which the comic could be commenting on the institutional racism within the criminal justice system. This interpretation seems even more likely if we consider that the comic appears to use this racism to educate their reader by having Red Wolf correct the officers instead of answering their question, and he does so without apology or hesitation. Red Wolf explains that he is Cheyenne, not Apache, and he teaches the officers and thus the reader the correct word for his cultural background: Heevahetaneo’o, meaning “Cheyenne of the South” (MooT 52). This response further counters the officer’s homogenization by emphasising the diversity amongst Native American cultures as Red Wolf demonstrates that there is a difference not only between Cheyenne and Apache, but also between Northern and Southern Cheyenne.

In comparison to the officers’ incompetency, Red Wolf is given all the agency in this scene: In the space of the page in which the above racist comments take place, Red Wolf silently walks around the scene, surveys it from different angles, and corrects the white detective’s assumption (fig. 6). Red Wolf explains that there were just three men, not an entire gang, and he is able to track their movement, where they went, what shoes they were wearing, and recognize that one of them had a limp. When asked how he knows all this information, Red Wolf simply replies that he “looked” (MooT 52), implying the ease with which he is able to interpret the environment. This reply also suggests that he believes this ability to be easy and simple, especially as he does not feel the need to explain exactly how he has come to these realizations, assuming the answer is obvious.

On the other hand, this competency stems from another stereotypical portrayal: the “Ecological Indian,” who possesses innate tracking abilities and a proficiency in reading the environment (Sheyahshe 55-57; 79; 89). This ability is somewhat appropriate for Red Wolf, whose animal namesake is indeed an expert tracker (Marshall Cavendish 2398-2408), but the consistency with which this ability is randomly and unjustifiably allocated to Native characters overshadows this justification with its animalizing implications. The tracking ability plays on Native Americans’ “presumed closeness to nature” (Krech 22; for more on the Ecological Indian, see Krech’s full text) and animalizes them through the association of tracking with predatory animals. 

Despite this problematic ability, the scene does continue to show Red Wolf’s competency, capability, and agency through the imagery. The middle right panel of figure 7 shows Red Wolf front and center, and the bottom panel shows him positioned ahead and looking back at the officers (MooT 52). His literal position in front of the others reflects his psychological position as “ahead” of them; he is leading the way in discovering information that will help to track down the attackers whilst the others are still debating irrelevant theories. Red Wolf is also depicted using arm gestures to explain his knowledge to the officers (middle right of fig. 7), which is reminiscent of the way one might attempt to explain something difficult to a small child. His expression is one of concentration and his extended arms give the impression of control as he appears to grasp the scene in his arms. In contrast, the supposed experts in the background have body language and expressions of confusion: the sheriff’s eyes are narrowed, the lines on his forehead indicate that he is frowning, and he is standing with his hands on his hips, all of which can indicate inquisitiveness or assertiveness (Parvez). The former would suggest that the sheriff did not pick up any of the information that Red Wolf gathered and is curious as to how he did so. The latter could indicate a feeling of inferiority; Red Wolf has proved himself to be more capable than the sheriff, who may be attempting to compensate for this challenge by taking up an assertive stance. Similarly, the officer on the left looks surprised and somewhat gormless with his arms hanging uselessly and passively at his side but also slightly outstretched as if he has been stopped mid-action, suggesting his incomprehension. Finally, the officer in the background is fairly expressionless, this blankness also indicating that he does not understand what Red Wolf is explaining. This scene, then, certainly destabilizes the notion of Native people as “incompetent” (Green 327) and gives Red Wolf agency over his own story.

However, in Occupy Avengers 1, the depiction of Silas and Frank falls into several stereotypes: “Whatta you think they’re sayin’? / Bad guy stuff, bro. / Bad guy stuff? / Yeah, it’s always bad guy stuff—they’re laughing about their plans coming to frutation. / You mean fruition. / That too.” (OA1 29). The phrase “bad guy stuff” is vague and informal and demonstrates a lack of real knowledge in addition to implying a sense of innocence and simplicity through the connotations of “bad guys” vs “good guys,”8 that is, the child-like tendency to see the world as divided into “good” and “bad.” This simplicity is reinforced by Silas’ confusion over the words “fruition” and “frutation.” This confusion makes him appear illiterate and attempts to provide a sense of comedy at his expense, thus using the character as a form of comic relief. This step backwards between Red Wolf’s solo comic and the Occupy story could be explained by the lack of a Native American consultant in the latter; Jeffrey Veregge acted as designer and consultant on the Man Out of Time story, but David Walker’s writing did not benefit from any such input.

The presentation of Silas and Frank as simple is rectified slightly in Occupy Avengers 2 as their conversations become far more substantial whilst their use of modern contractions and slang continues. For example, Frank quotes a famous Native American saying: “Today is a good day to die” (OA2 85), which, although debated, is most often attributed to Crazy Horse (Kramer 169), and they also refer to Custer (George Armstrong), who was a US officer in the American Indian Wars and was defeated by Crazy Horse (Brimmer 32), demonstrating a connection to and awareness of their culture. The cousins also reference several important texts: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (OA1 26) by Peter Matthiessen, and Custer Died for your Sins (OA1 38) by Vine Deloria Jr. These texts explore and outline injustices toward Native Americans, both historically and in the modern day, also indicating knowledge of their culture, political awareness, and suggesting that they are well read. Moreover, this intertextuality functions as more than merely a demonstration of their erudition; they also hold the potential to teach the reader about the erased history and ignored present of Native American communities by directing the reader to these resources. The inclusion of Matthiessen’s text is a particularly bold statement on the necessity of hearing the Native Americans’ side of the story as the book was hugely controversial and a lawsuit was filed against Matthiessen and his publisher by Governor William Janklow and FBI agent David Price who accused him of telling a “one-sided” account of Leonard Peltier’s story and of the FBI’s conflict with the American Indian Movement (Mehren; McDowell; Mitgang). Thus, these intertextual references act as much-needed reminders of Native American history and as counter-narratives to the mainstream, white-American versions of events.

The comic goes on to educate the reader even more explicitly when Silas and Frank directly reference events in Native history, such as Frank’s question in Occupy Avengers 2: “You ever hear of Wounded Knee?” (OA2 82). Here, Frank directly references the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, “where 120 men and 230 women and children were encamped in a military controlled area and then strafed by carbines and shrapnel cannons” (Roberts 56), killing nearly 300 of the 350 people (Brown 444). The other characters ignore Frank’s question (perhaps assuming it is rhetorical), but if we also consider that Frank is looking through the panel directly at the reader, rather than at the other characters (fig. 8; OA2 82), the framing seems to imply that this question is directed at the reader. Frank’s question, then, acts not only as a reminder of this often-omitted colonial horror, but also comments on and critiques this omission itself by questioning the reader’s knowledge and challenging us to learn this history, in turn destabilizing the category of the naïve, simple Native. In addition, the cousins are illustrated in relaxed poses: Frank is leaning against a wall with his hands in his pockets, and Silas sits with his hands resting on his knees. There is no tension or aggression in their poses, making their statement less of an attack on the reader than a learning opportunity and implying their confidence with both themselves and their assertions. 

Moreover, Frank’s statement that “Hydra can’t do anything worse to us than what’s already been done” is a haunting reference to the genocide and dispossession committed by settlers against the Native Americans (Dippie; Marks; Roberts 51, 182; Sivasundaram 157; Peterson 7; Gruen and Weil 480; P. Deloria 4; Martin 63; Seshadri 7). At this point in the comic, the evil Hydra have taken control of the United States of America and are committing genocide both through physical violence and by cutting off access and food supplies (OA2 69). Whilst such an apocalyptic scenario is new and terrifying to most characters, Silas and Frank remind the reader that both direct and indirect genocide is nothing new to Native communities. In addition to the violent holocaust of the Native population of America (Jaimes 3) and the forced sterilization of their people (Jaimes and Halsey 323), the US government took control of “Indian land, lives, and resources through such legislation as the General Allotment Act […], the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934” (Jaimes and Halsey 323). Indigenous populations were also depleted by the introduction of European infectious diseases (McBrien 120) and the malaria and tuberculosis caused by “malnutrition, lack of sanitation, overcrowded labor settlements, and lethal exploitation” (McBrien 120; see also Packard 55; Arnold 77). Indeed, Native populations continue to suffer overt, subtle, and institutional discrimination (Tighe 10) that has resulted in them being “the most economically impoverished ethnic group in the United States” (Tighe 1); they have been forcibly removed from their land, confined to reservations, their access to resources has been restricted, they have fewer educational and employment opportunities, suffer increased levels of homelessness, are subject to more violent crimes than any other group, and experience the highest rate of incarceration (Tighe 1). Frank’s brief comment, then, alludes to this long history and the continuing reality of discrimination and suffering, as does the illustration of the panel itself: The red lighting connotes blood, danger, and courage, reflecting the bloody massacre and continual genocide against their people as well as the resiliance of their community and their continuing resistance to colonial regimes. Through this brief panel, then, the cousins are further shown to be well read and well versed in Indigenous history. Therefore, the end of the second volume does deconstruct the category of Native simplicity through the Fireheart cousins, who act as teachers to the reader whilst still talking like modern teenagers rather than caricatures.

Red Wolf’s apparent simplicity is also challenged somewhat, as he has a smartphone (fig. 9 and 10; OA2 7), which he uses to google things about the modern world that he does not understand, from which we can assume that he is actively learning. Indeed, the writer of Occupy Avengers, David Walker, stated that he intended to develop “Red Wolf as this guy who has his smartphone with him at all times” (qtd. in Richards) and is “constantly learning” about the world around him (qtd. in Richards). Furthermore, Walker’s statement that Red Wolf’s phone is “one of his first weapons” (qtd. in Richards) suggests that knowledge and understanding are becoming key strengths of his. Evidently, Red Wolf’s adoption of a smartphone is intended to be an empowering move that allows him to learn information for himself rather than remaining clueless or relying on other characters to explain things to him. In some ways, it gives the character more agency, but again this development coincides with his increasing Americanization which detracts from this apparent progress.

Haplessness

The third trait that demonstrates naïveté and perceived animality is the presentation of Native characters as hapless. The white hero is seen as “the protector of the helpless red man” (Sheyahshe 39) and the Native sidekick is dutifully subservient to him (Sheyahshe 9). This “paternalistic attitude” (Sheyahshe 39) is reflective of the colonial “view that Indigenous people need to be saved from their animal-like existence by the knowledge of the West” (Green 328), when in reality “forced assimilation by law was instituted as a federal policy” (Cook-Lynn 5). This attitude is still prevalent in the form of the “white saviour complex,” which refers to white people’s tendency to present themselves as “saving” or “helping” people with darker skin whilst actually serving their own interests (Bakar), and these attitudes are still too often reflected in the media. 

Man out of Time successfully destabilizes this trope. Whilst colonists were (and even current Western society is) “sure that the Indians needed them” (Pearce 8), Red Wolf is not depicted as needing any white hero. On the contrary, Red Wolf is persistently shown as the saviour of both the sheriff and the deputy. For example, when the sheriff and deputy are surrounded by drug dealers shooting at them, Red Wolf manages to tackle the gunman who was about to shoot the sheriff in the head (fig. 11; MooT 39). Here, Red Wolf is drawn leaping from the roof and descending on the gunman with his arms raised despite being handcuffed. The moment captured in this panel makes Red Wolf look like he is flying against a bright blue sky, and the reader looks up at him as he saves the sheriff’s life. These details present him as a hero—someone to look up to literally and metaphorically—rather than as a victim in need of saving. This trend continues throughout the comic as Red Wolf retrieves an escaped criminal (MooT 60-61), saves Deputy Ortiz from a deadly snake (MooT 68), defeats the time-travelling villain all by himself, and again rescues Ortiz from a gang with the help of a pack of wolves (MooT 114-115; 119-120). At no point in the comic does a white character come to his rescue, nor come to the rescue of any of the people of color; Red Wolf is the saviour, and the white characters are relegated to the roles of villain, clueless police officer, or weak-willed government official—a refreshing subversion of the usual role allocation. 

Occupy Avengers 1, on the other hand, was criticized for stabilizing the hapless Native trope by glorifying the white saviour complex (Schmidt). The first issues do indeed take agency away from Native characters, as Barton shows up and intends to save the reservation by discovering the source of the water contamination—something the Native people it affected were apparently unable to do (OA1 42). Marvel appears to have responded to this criticism to some extent, as it is Silas and Frank who discover the water pumping station in the second issue. However, this response is undermined by two problems: firstly, the cousins stumble upon this discovery by accident whilst following Red Wolf and Barton; secondly, and more concerningly, the water supply for the reservation had been contaminated for five years (OA1 4). Both problems deny agency to the Native characters, especially through the Native locals’ apparent inability to notice an enormous water station positioned on tribal land and their mere acceptance of their water being contaminated for half a decade. This enforcement of the white saviour trope thus interrupts this story’s potential to be a refreshing depiction of problems faced by real Native populations and a deep commentary on the Standing Rock protests that were occurring during the writing and publication of these issues.

However, the comic does go on to destabilize the depiction of the helpless Native and give the character more agency. Red Wolf is referred to as Barton’s “guardian angel” and saves him from imminent death (OA1 16), which indicates that Barton would have failed his mission to save the reservation’s water supply if not for the help of a Native character. This phrasing, however, does carry problems. Firstly, the “guardian angel” concept places a very Christian lens on the Native character and could be seen as an attempt to Christianize and “white-wash” him. Even though the phrasing is part of Barton’s own thoughts and may reflect his own Christian perspective, it may have been more appropriate to choose a Native concept—even “spirit guardian” would be more appropriate to Cheyenne animist beliefs. In addition, the phrase “guardian angel” describes a being who serves the one they guard—whose whole purpose is to protect them—thus implying that Red Wolf is there to serve Barton rather than just to exist as a Native character in his own right. Finally, the comparison of Red Wolf to an angel removes him from the realm of human and ascends him into the spiritual realm, which reflects another stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans as inherently and unwaveringly spiritual beings (see Sheyahshe’s discussion of the “Instant Shaman” trope, 55-78). Thus, the comic’s attempt to subvert the trope of the hapless Native falls into other stereotypes and in fact perpetuates the idea of the subservient sidekick.

The comic does a better job of deconstructing the stereotype in regard to Silas and Frank: The cousins save Barton, Red Wolf, and themselves from Hydro Man by using a Taser. This scene first counters the “white saviour/helpless Native” stereotype by presenting two Native characters as the saviours of both another Native and a white character and by presenting them as their own heroes. The comic thus shows that Silas and Frank do not, in fact, need saving or protecting by any white character; they are more than capable of looking after themselves and other people. Moreover, their victory over Hydro Man does not stem from any physical violence or brute force; Silas’ use of the Taser to incapacitate a water-based mutant demonstrates a high level of critical thinking, inventiveness, and cleverness. In this way, the cousins are far removed from the “child-like dupe” stereotype that Bradford Wright outlines (“Interview” 10) and thus subvert the problematic presence of the white saviour complex from earlier in the issue.

Occupy Avengers 2 continues to improve its deconstruction of the hapless stereotype and continues to present Silas and Frank as clever and capable. Figure 12, for example, shows the cousins organizing and handing out food supplies in their local area after hijacking a Hydra truck (OA2 69). This drawing—especially the placement of the cousins on top of the truck and therefore raised above the heads of the crowd—presents these Native characters as capable heroes and leaders not relegated solely to leadership in their Native communities, but elevated to leadership in multi-ethnic communities like the one depicted here. Their suitability as community leaders is further shown when, during one of their raids, Silas says to the crowd, “We’re here to liberate this food caravan and give it back to the people that need it most—you, your families and your communities” (OA2 69). This short speech presents the cousins as valiant leaders: They could have easily used their prowess to store food and supplies for themselves, their team, or their own Native community, but they instead risk their lives to help everyone in the area. This presentation of their capability is emphasised further when they are told that they “need to lead another raid on one of Hydra’s food collection operations” (OA2 84). The verb “need” indicates the importance of their job and how crucial they are to the plan to take down Hydra. Indeed, the fact that they are “leading” the raid further demonstrates their competency, cleverness, and agency, while also indicating expertise in missions requiring meticulous planning. This volume, then, effectively destabilizes the hapless Native stereotype by successfully presenting Silas and Frank as capable heroes rather than hapless victims.

Sidekick

The fourth and final trait is the position of sidekick; indeed, Native Americans “were most often [depicted] in subordinate positions as laborers, sidekicks, or faithful Indian companions” (Pewewardy, Studies 12; see also Savage 7). Whilst this stereotype may be well intentioned and is certainly a step up from the “bloodthirsty savage,” it is still, as Wright points out, degrading (“Interview” 10). In Red Wolf’s own comic book, Marvel effectively  destabilizes the Native-as-sidekick trope, not only by giving him his own comic book (which is a huge step for Marvel and Native comics fans everywhere), but also by portraying him as a sheriff and thus the leader of the community (as discussed previously). Whilst he does work alongside Sheriff Knight and Deputy Ortiz in a technically subordinate position, he is consistently shown to be the one in control of the story and with agency over the situations. As we have seen, it is Red Wolf who saves Deputy Ortiz from a deadly snake (MooT 68), defeats the time-travelling villain (MooT 114-5; 119-120), realizes something is wrong when the sheriff gets bitten by the snake (MooT 64), recognizes the man responsible (MooT 68), finds the caravan where the snake handler lives (MooT 89), and so on; it is without a doubt his story and the creators do not allow him to be overshadowed by any non-Native hero. 

Moving into the 2017 Occupy Avengers, the depiction of Red Wolf begins to stabilize this category of “the White Man’s Helper” (Green 327), through his role as Barton’s sidekick (Cundle). For example, Red Wolf in Occupy Avengers 1 aids Barton’s investigation of the water contamination by acting as a guide for Barton to view the reservation and talk to the people affected which would otherwise have been difficult as they do not usually welcome strangers (OA1 4). Thus, Red Wolf’s involvement in the plot reflects the tendency for Native characters to be used as “plot devices” to “move the story along and make the central character (most always a white man) more heroic” (Sheyahshe 9). Perhaps the most prominent example of his relegation as a secondary character appears on the cover page of the first volume which depicts Barton standing amongst a group of people, but Red Wolf is nowhere to be seen despite his prominence in the storyline and the comic itself (fig. 13). Barton is positioned at the front of a large and diverse crowd, which alongside the subtitle, “Taking Back Justice,” implies the notion of “people power.” However, the clear dominance of Barton in the image somewhat thwarts this empowering implication. Whilst the background figures stand forward and appear confident and defiant, Barton’s body is slanted, bringing his muscular arm and weapon into focus. His bow also stretches across the image in front of the other people, implying that it is Barton and his abilities that will be the focus, rather than the concept of people power that the title implies.

Furthermore, Barton’s arm and bow mirror the arrow that extends out of the ‘p’ in the title, which is pointing down directly to Barton’s bow-wielding arm. The arrow in the ‘p’ itself also exerts the prominence and importance of the character, as he is known for his use of a bow and arrow. This cover is extremely misleading as at no point in the Occupy Avengers storylines does Barton lead or even act as part of a large crowd of ordinary people: The characters who do this are, as we have seen, Red Wolf, Silas, and Frank. Therefore, whilst the subtitle claims the comic embodies the notion of people power and the cover page attributes that power to Barton, it is actually the Native characters who encourage and embody this notion. In addition, whilst Red Wolf appears roughly as much as Barton, his omittance on the cover page implies his subordinance to the white character. The secondary cover of the first volume represents the characters more equally (fig. 14), but it still implies that Red Wolf is less significant as he is positioned behind Barton and is partially covered by his shoulder. The later issue covers continue this trend: Red Wolf is not omitted from them—indeed, he is included in every issue cover with Barton—but he is always placed at least slightly to the side or behind him, demonstrating the continuity of his relegation as secondary to the white hero and of his lack of agency in the story.

Conclusion

In this study, I have examined how the depictions of Native Americans in the Red Wolf story arcs both destabilize and further construct the categorization of Native characters as Naïve Sidekicks to establish continuing issues with the representation of Native peoples and to acknowledge any progress made in the comics medium. This study has shown which aspects of this category remain and which have been deconstructed by the comics. Red Wolf: Man out of Time does not stabilize any of the aspects of the Naïve Sidekick and instead deconstructs and even actively criticizes the simplicity, haplessness, and sidekick aspects. Occupy Avengers 1: Taking Back Justice stabilizes all four of the Naïve Sidekick tropes but simultaneously deconstructs the hapless stereotype. Finally, Occupy Avengers: In Plain Sight both stabilizes and deconstructs the lack of higher thinking stereotype, but more thoroughly deconstructs the qualities of simplicity and haplessness of the Naïve Sidekick.

By examining the representation of Red Wolf across three contemporary comics from 2016 and 2017, this study has discovered an inconsistent improvement in the application of racist and dehumanizing categorizations. Red Wolf’s solo comic from 2016 most reflects the slow but steady real-life progress regarding Native rights and the recognition of their historical and continuing oppression—recognition visible in movements such as Native Lives Matter and declarations such as The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Taonui)—by criticizing the societal and ingrained racism faced by Indigenous communities. A few aspects of the problematic categorization of Native peoples remain, such as the presence of an innate tracking ability, but this comic generally sets a good example for how future depictions of Native characters can destabilize this category and present their characters as fully and complexly human rather than as caricatures. Overall, Red Wolf has the most agency in this comic and is never presented as naïve. This generally successful deconstruction of the category and rejection of Native animality can be attributed to the presence of Jeffrey Veregge (S’Klallam) as a consultant during the creation of the comic, especially considering the inconsistency of the following 2017 Occupy Avengers comics, whose lack of any Native consultant is apparent. Certainly, some aspects of this category appear more present in the Occupy comics, such as the white saviour complex and the Native as sidekick trope. Some of these problematic depictions from the first volume are rectified by the second thanks to criticism from readers, although one cannot help but think that the presence of a Native consultant (or writer or illustrator) could have prevented these issues from arising in the first place. Other depictions, unfortunately, become more prominent as the series progresses, but Walker’s Occupy comics do have some shining lights: The intertextual references are a particularly good example of how to interact with real-world issues, bring attention to Native writers, and raise awareness of the historical and continuing oppression of Native peoples.

By examining the comic in relation to this category, it becomes clear exactly where and how contemporary depictions of Red Wolf still contribute to and stabilize out-of-date stereotypes. This methodology made recognizing the stabilization and deconstruction of this category much easier and aided my analysis by creating a clear framework grounded in existing scholarship. Indeed, by examining the specific aspects of these categories, it has become clear that the most prevailing aspect is the position of sidekick, which is only destabilized by one comic. The recognition of this area as the most persistent will hopefully make writers more aware of the ways in which their depictions can inadvertently construct racist and dehumanizing categories and allow more focus to be put into destabilizing and criticizing these aspects in future comics. This does not mean that the other three aspects should be ignored; indeed, all tropes must be critically examined and all creators must work to destabilize them.

It also becomes clear that the key to better representation of Native characters in comics is writers’ awareness of the historical and problematic categorization of Indigenous peoples and understanding of how they contribute to and stabilize racist stereotypes. Much of the racism that appears in these otherwise progressive stories is societally ingrained and is perhaps less recognizable to white writers and artists. Indeed, most non-Native creators of visual media “have come by much of what they presume to know about Indigenous peoples from the rich cultural assemblage of uncritical assumptions and stereotypes” (Howe et al x). Considering this, the presence of Native writers, illustrators, or consultants at the very least is crucial to achieve consistent progress in the representation of Native characters. By demonstrating the ways these comics reinscribe harmful tropes when they fail to consult Indigenous creators, and by increasing awareness and understanding of these anti-Indigenous legacies in media, this paper hopes to contribute to better representation of minority and Indigenous experiences. Indeed, with recent publications such as Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Super Indian by Arigon Starr, and even Marvel’s recent publication Indigenous Voices and upcoming publication The United States of Captain America featuring a Kickapoo Captain—both of which are created by Indigenous comics creators such as Darcie Little Badger and Kyle Charles—perhaps we are already seeing a shift towards Indigenous self-determination in comics.

There are many more categorizations of Native characters that play a part in contemporary representations: The romantic, ecological, and extinct Native are all common portrayals that require critical examination yet exceed the capacity of this study. The Romantic Native,9 Old-World Being,10 and Ecological Indian,11 for example, are worthy of examination as their continuing inscription in visual media is evident in many contemporary comics. In addition, there are plenty more Indigenous characters that deserve academic attention: Dani Moonstar and Bishop are prime examples of complex and continuously present Indigenous characters that the field of comics studies would benefit from examining. As we can see, plenty more work needs to be done to hold creators accountable for their depictions of Native characters, and there is plenty more opportunity for further analysis of the role of these categories, and others, in popular comics.

Notes

[1] See Roberts 51, 182; Sivasundaram 157; Peterson 7; Gruen and Weil 480; P. Deloria, 4; Martin 63; Seshadri 7.

[2] The Noble Savage, a well-recognized category, this paper considers as the segue between the Bloodthirsty Savage and the Naïve Sidekick, the latter focusing more on subservience and less on “savagery.”

[3] See Raheja (190-191), Wright (“Interview” 10), Anderson (302), and Green (327).

[4] See Pewewardy (Studies 9), Wright (“Interview” 10), and Stedman (245).

[5] See Pearce (8), Roberts (25), and Green (327).

[6] See Raheja (190-191), Roberts (25), Sheyahshe (15), Kilpatrick (xvii), and Bird (3).

[7] See Sheyahshe (9, 39), Green (327), O’Neill (24), Keiser (78), Friar and Friar (1-12), and Bataille and Silet (116).

[8] I would like to note that the phrases “bad guy” and “good guy” are androcentric, and I do not promote the exclusion of women that these phrases reflect, but the use of these terms is appropriate in this particular context.

[9] Pewewardy (Studies 5; 16), P. Deloria (4), Stedman (89-90), Anderson (302), Kilpatrick (xviii), Krech (19), Bird (3; 4; 10), and Lent (211-219; 224-225)

[10] Stedman (247), Pewewardy (Studies 19), Leask (“Not so”; “Slurs”), Brodeur, Bird (4), Steele (46), and Lent (222).

[11] Roberts (182), Kilpatrick (xvii-xviii), Green (328), Schlesier (9-12), and especially Krech.

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