Trickster Tales: An Interview with Matt Dembicki and Michael Thompson
After thousands of years of oral tradition, some Native American tales have found graphic novel form with Trickster. The idea came from artist Matt Dembicki, who made it his mission to create a graphic novel anthology with Native American storytellers. English teacher Michael Thompson of the Muskogee tribe is one of those storytellers, having retold “Rabbit and the Tug of War” for the book. Dembicki and Thompson told GraphicNovelReporterabout the creation process and the importance of keeping Native American stories alive.
How familiar were you with Native American tales before this?
Matt Dembicki: Not very familiar. I was a fan of Ken Kesey and I came across one of the books he wrote. It was called Little Tricker: The Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. When I read that, I thought it was a really neat story, and I enjoyed the trickster concept. So I went to the library and did some research on it. I came across a prose anthology on the trickster stories and collected a bunch of trickster stories from across the country. A lot of them were kind of bawdy. As I was reading them, I started to think it would be an interesting exercise to illustrate some of the stories. Now, initially I thought of doing all the illustrations myself; as I was doing them, it started to dawn on me that this would be a really cool concept for a collection of comic stories. That’s how I got into it, and I contacted Native storytellers. It was an educational process for me in terms of getting the background for their particular stories and tribes.
Michael Thompson: I was pretty familiar. I’m a high-school English teacher and I’ve been teaching 32 years. In my early career, I taught at Haskell Indian College in Kansas and I had worked in Native theaters. I now teach in New Mexico and about 40 percent of my students are Navajo. I’m the department chair, and we’ve done quite a bit of work at my high school at trying to incorporate some awareness of the oral tradition and the whole history of literature and storytelling. It’s an area I’ve been looking at for a while, through the lens of the teacher and not necessarily as a storyteller. But in my own personal, private life, my wife is Navajo and my stepchildren are Navajo. We observe a lot of traditional Navajo ceremonies and we have relatives who are part of the Native American Church. I also participate in some sweat lodge ceremonies and other kinds of ceremonies in the summertime that are part of my own spirituality. I know stories from having been around ceremony. I’ve enjoyed Native stories for a long time.
How did you find the writers for it, Matt?
MD: I scoured as many sources as I could. I called colleges and universities that had Native American programs. I called Native American Centers. I called various tribes to see if they had any storytellers who’d be willing to participate. There were a couple of Native American storyteller groups—I contacted them. Some of it was word of mouth. It came about a year and a half to two years to find the group of storytellers. They all have different backgrounds. Some of the storytellers do it professionally, or they do it on weekends as a hobby or to promote their own tribal activities. Other folks do it for their own tribes or their own families.
How did you get involved with this project, Michael?
MT: My wife was a previous editor of the publication Tribal College Journal and I had done some writing for them, mainly some reviews. I ended up writing a feature story on the oral tradition being taught in English classrooms in the tribal colleges. So I interviewed a number of different professors at the tribal colleges about how they felt about teaching stories and oral tradition. I guess Matt had read the article I had written and he was looking for one or two more stories to complete the set. He called me up and asked me if I would be interested in working on a story. Although I’m not a traditional storyteller, I was familiar with a number of stories from my tribe, the Muscogee Creek Tribe. I thought that would be an interesting challenge and told Matt I would be interested in doing it. I talked to some people in my tribe and they felt the stories were okay to develop.
Why did you pick “Rabbit and the Tug of War”?
MT: I’ve always had a fondness for Rabbit as a trickster. In my tribe, Rabbit is the primary trickster figure. I had seen a couple of different Rabbit stories and there are other animal figures in the Muscogee story tradition that involve Alligator…and there’s a creature in Muscogee tales called the tie snake. The story attracted my attention in part because of the buffalo. It’s kind of an unusual story for a southeastern tribe because it has two buffalo in it. That just tells me a long, long time ago, there were still buffalo in the southeast. I like the idea of Rabbit having this interaction with Buffalo. And the second part of the “Tug of War” story involves borrowing the shoes of the deer. There’s another old legend that’s told in some Powwow circles about Deer Woman, a kind of woman figure, but she leaves deer footprints. I was intrigued by the possible connection between this old, old trickster tale and the legend of the Deer Woman.
Are any of the illustrators Native Americans?
MD: Yes, about four of the illustrators are Native American or come from Native American lineage. I was hoping to get a few more. One of the issues of the project was it was kind of a project of love. I didn’t have the money to pay them up front to participate in the project. Some people didn’t necessarily want to participate unless they would be paid up front. It was the same thing with the artists. Some of the artists said, “It’s a great project, but right now I’m focusing on projects that pay the bills.” When you work in comics and make an anthology, as a rule of thumb, about 25 percent of the artists will, for one reason or another, bail out of the project. That happened here, too, so I factored that in. I actually contacted a lot more Native American artists, but for one reason or another, they couldn’t commit.
Had you ever worked on a graphic novel before, Michael?
MT: I had not. I have had some talented students and relatives who have an interest in graphic books and doing graphic art. It was all new territory to me. I was happy that Matt was thorough about his insistence of having Native people working with all the artists. It was important to me that there was a lot of credibility and authenticity to the story part. It was nice to have someone who had some expertise and connections to artists. When I looked at the finished book, I told Matt, “To me, it reflects the diversity among Native tribes in the United States.” Sometimes, I think, people believe Natives are all the same type of tribe, that they’re more similar than different. I think the very visual differences and the different voices in these stories reflect how diverse Native people really are. It was a very unexpected thing; it surprised me and pleased me at the same time.
Do you know what Native American reaction has been?
MD: There have been a few articles written in local Native American papers that seem positive. It’s still permeating out there, but it seems so far people have been receptive to it. Initially, a lot of the storytellers wanted to run the idea past some of their tribal elders to make sure they were okay with it. It was interesting, because initially some of the storytellers were somewhat skeptical that the elders would be okay with it. When they got back to me, they said, “You know, surprisingly, the elders are all aboard.” I think they felt that some of these stories could be lost because these days there are so many things competing for kids’ attention that there isn’t much interest in the oral storytelling tradition. So they were concerned that so many stories—once some of the storytellers pass away—might disappear. I think that they felt the comics venue could be a popular way to reach out to Native American kids and non-Native American kids and make them aware of the stories.
MT: I haven’t spoken with any large white audiences, but I know maybe two dozen Native people who have seen the book at this point. Some of them are teachers I work with. They are very excited about it. I also work with a number of English Language Learners teachers, who have Native students. They were pretty excited about it because one of the primary needs of English Language Learners is text with high visual support. This kind of book might be helpful for people in all different areas.
Is there anything you want people to take away from reading this?
MD: Just to enjoy the stories and their different styles. Coming in, like most folks, I was familiar with tricksters being Rabbits and Coyotes, because they’ve been popularized by cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Wiley Coyote. But, for me, one of the interesting aspects was learning about the other trickster beings, whether they’re in human forms or nonhuman. I enjoy the Racoons and I really enjoy the stories about Ravens. I think folks will enjoy the wide variety of artistic styles. That was another way for me to make sure the storytellers were okay with working on the book; I don’t think any of them had any background working on the comics format. When I read their story, I came up with three or four different artists I thought would do a good job rendering the story, and let the storyteller pick which artist they wanted to work with. I wanted to make them comfortable, and they felt involved in the process as they went through it. I think the different artistic styles reflect the storytellers’ different personalities.
MT: One of the things they’ll see—what I mentioned earlier—are different perceptions of different kinds of tricksters. I think that’s reflective of the trickster tradition. Trickster figures can be almost deadly on the extreme end, and they cause catastrophe and disaster sometimes. And sometimes, on the milder end, they can be mischievous and humorous. A lot of tribes do consider trickster characters like Coyote a kind of holy figure, the whole idea of the sacred clown. I would encourage the readers to enjoy the stories on multiple levels. The drawings themselves are entertaining and beautiful. The stories in some cases are very, very humorous and in other stories there are deep and meaningful messages on how we behave with one another. Some of these stories can easily become teaching stories for right actions. I think readers will find one or two stories that particularly speak to them. There’s a story for almost everyone.
Anything else you’d like to add?
MT: If there are Native people who are willing to continue to share our storytelling traditions, I would really encourage that. We want our young people to learn to continue to tell stories. We want parents to share stories with their children. I hope this book can help promote that idea.