Montana Free Press: Graphic Novel Brings Native History to Life

The cover of Thunderous by Helena-based poets ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse. Courtesy Image

Montana poets embrace native culture in new graphic novel

The Lakota storytelling of “Thunderous” seeks to honor native traditions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

By Erika Fredrickson

Montana Free Press

Over the past decade, comic books and graphic novels have grown in popularity, with Hollywood movies and TV series adaptations — especially from Marvel — earning critical acclaim. Last year, the graphic novel industry recorded sales of $24 million, an increase of 171% over 2020. But the increase in titles and revenue may be less interesting than a content change. While Japanese graphic novels have been popular for decades, a new wave of comic stories from around the world, focusing on a variety of cultures – India, Australia, all of South America – are coming out of small and medium publishing houses. This environment has given a new Native American-centric young adult graphic novel called “Thunderous,” by two Montana writers, an opportunity to reach a wider audience. “Thunderous” is about a teenage Lakota girl from South Dakota who yearns to fit in. The main character, Aiyana, fears that what makes her different—her Lakota heritage and connection to her old home on a reservation—is what she has to hide. And although she loves her family, she pushes them away to be accepted by her classmates. Shortly after the start of the story, Aiyana is transported to a world of talking animals and a special quest that will transform her. The story’s characters, themes, and lessons are rooted in Lakota storytelling, and while Aiyana isn’t a hero with superpowers in the Marvel sense, her journey has a classic tale flavor to it. origin of heroes. Smoker and his co-author, Natalie Peeterse, are both Helena-based poets. Smoker is a member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, has published a collection of poetry called “Another Attempt at Rescue”, previously worked in the Indian Education Division of the State Bureau of Public Instruction, and currently works as a Indian education practice expert for Portland. based at Education Northwest. Between 2019 and 2021, she shared the role of Montana Poet Laureate with Melissa Kwasny. Peeterse, who co-directs Open Country Press, a literary publishing house in Montana, has published two collections: “Black Birds: Blue Horse, An Elegy” and “Dreadful: Luminosity, Letters.” Neither had written a comic-style story before. Early last year, a media group called Curiosity Ink Media, which has partnered with independent comics publishing company Dynamite to produce original stories with diverse perspectives, approached a Lakota friend of Smoker. They wanted him to create a young adult story with native characters. He already had several projects on his plate, so he asked Smoker if she wanted to take on that. Smoker says the companies didn’t have any particular ideas for the story, they just knew they wanted to support an Indigenous project.

Thunderous by ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse

Thunderous poster by Helena-based poets Helena ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse Image courtesy © Curiosity Ink Media LLC

“That was a big deal,” Smoker says, “because less than 1% of children’s literature is by or about American Indians, which is a very deplorable number. My friend said to them, ‘Hey , I know the person for that.’ And so he called me and asked if I would be interested in writing a children’s play based on Indian country. Smoker and Peeterse are longtime friends and collaborators. They have spent time together during the pandemic , which brought them even closer and made Peeterse the obvious choice as a writing partner.”As a poet, I was dreading writing dialogue and characters in this new setting,” Smoker says. knew I wanted it to be funny. We have come through the pandemic with our families with a sense of humor and mutual appreciation. I knew it would be fun to collaborate. The humor of “Thunderous” is rooted in the world of teenagers and young adults. Aiyana responds to the talking animals with a balance of teenage reverence and disbelief, which gives the story a modern authenticity, but also allows her character to take the heavy lessons of the experience seriously enough that ‘She turns into a stronger person at the end of the story. Smoker and Peeterse tested this story against a difficult audience: their two 9-year-old daughters who read graphic novels. “We had a little peanut gallery,” says Peeterse. “We could come up with ideas in front of the kids, and they’d be like, ‘Mom, that’s so stupid. So it was useful. They would think that was cool or roll their eyes. They got a lot of feedback. »

Thunderous by ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse

A page from the graphic novel Thunderous by poets Helena ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse. Image courtesy © Curiosity Ink Media LLC

Graphic novels are centered around visual art. Dale Deforest, a Navajo illustrator and graphic designer, created the main artwork for “Thunderous”. Barcelona artist Oriol Vidal designed the cover. Smoker says they insisted on having an Indigenous artist do the bulk of the drawings to support Indigenous artists and inspire emerging comic book illustrators. “I hope he inspires another generation of kids who already love comics, already into all the Marvel stuff,” Smoker said. “We want it to really provide a gateway to that universe to help Indigenous kids think, ‘I can draw this. I can do it. Although this was a new experience for the authors, there were some familiar elements that echoed the process of writing poetry. “It was a bit like a poem in that you change part of the story and there’s a domino effect on the rest of the story,” says Peeterse. “And the culmination of Aiyana’s journey is like the turning point in a poem. By the time she has her revelation, it’s pure poetry, right there.

Thunderous by ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse
The cover of Thunderous by Helena, Montana, based on poets ML Smoker and Natalie Peeterse. Image courtesy © Curiosity Ink Media LLC

Poets are by nature sparing with language. Yet, writing a graphic novel meant giving even more space to the illustrations and stripping down the story. This aspect was particularly difficult for Smoker and Peeterse because “Thunderous” is the retelling of a Lakota story that involves four days and seven traditional values. In the end, they had to condense Aiyana’s trip into two days and focus on three values: generosity, kinship and courage. Fortitude isn’t exactly the right word for the concept, Smoker notes, but it’s the closest English equivalent they could find. And that was the other challenge. The concepts and text of “Thunderous” are based on the Lakota language. And there is no exact translation. Even Lakota spellings were difficult to pin down as the stories were told more often than written. The writers were able to get feedback on language and dialogue from tribal members, but there was almost never agreement, even among the native consultants. One thing they wanted to do was offer Lakota words in the story without explanation, although they did provide a glossary, which they included in hopes of piqueting the interest of interested Native and non-Native children. by language. For Smoker, providing an entertaining story for children and adults was part of the goal, but finding the right words was of utmost importance. “Thunderous” is intended as a franchise, so poets will have more opportunities in the future to further explore Lakota concepts and pursue the goal of honoring the tradition of Lakota storytelling. “Anyone can write a story about Indigenous children, but how you portray them, their culture and their identity is really, really important,” Smoker says. “So we spent a lot of time talking about it and working on it just hoping people would see that intention, and appreciate it and like it.”


Erika Fredrickson is a freelance journalist based in Missoula, where she writes about technology, the environment, and lifestyle. She was an arts editor at the Missoula Independent for 10 years before it closed in 2018.


Note: This story was originally published on Montana Free Press. It is released under a Creative Commons license.

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