Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection is a beautifully realized book that arose out of a good, original idea. Comic book artist Matt Dembicki writes that he happened to find the book American Indian Trickster Tales by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes at his local library. “The stories were serious, funny, mischievous, naughty, allegorical. I was hooked; I couldn’t put the book down.” Dembicki soon embarked on the task of recruiting Native American storytellers to share trickster stories with 21 different comic book artists.
“Finding willing storytellers wasn’t that easy,” he writes. “After all, there’s some heavy historical baggage between Native Americans and whites, and several people I approached about the project were unsure of my intentions.” Dembicki persisted, and eventually convinced a group of storytellers to collaborate with artists. Each storyteller chose the artist he or she wanted to work with and approved the storyboards. The results are delightful: a collection of illustrated tales that are by turns funny or sad, but are always inventive and surprising.
One of the most beautiful tales is Dayton Edmonds’ “Coyote and the Pebbles,” illustrated by Micah Farritor in pencil and gray-washed colors that give it a somber atmosphere. In it, a group of nocturnal animals consult the “Great Mystery” and ask for more light. The Great Mystery tells them to gather pebbles and “draw a portrait of yourself in the sky, as high as you can reach.” Coyote, the trickster of this story, is late for the meeting, but determines to make the best portrait of all. Instead, he trips, scattering his pebbles and spoiling the other animals’ self-portraits in the sky, resulting in the current arrangement of stars.
Coyote, a capable trickster, also turns up in “Mai and the Cliff-Dwelling Birds,” by Sunny Dooley, illustrated by J. Chris Campbell in bright, whimsical colors. In this one, coyote is a goofball who makes the birds teach him how to fly, and ends up losing his eyeballs.
The most common trickster in the collection is the rabbit, who challenges two buffalo to a tug of war and tricks them into pulling against each other in Michael Thompson and Jacob Warrenfeltz’s “Rabbit and the Tug of War,” loses his long tail in Tim Tingle and Pat Lewis’s “Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale,” ingeniously convinces a wolf to become his girlfriend in Greg Rodgers and Mike Short’s funny “Giddy Up, Wolfie,” causes the alligator to lose his beauty in Joyce Bear and Megan Baehr’s “How The Alligator Got His Brown, Scaly Skin,” and talks a wildcat out of eating him in “How Wildcat Caught A Turkey.” In these stories, the rabbit proves himself canny, nimble, and witty. The rabbit hasn’t gotten this much respect since Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
Perhaps the only animal that upstages the rabbit in this collection is the amazing dog in “Puapualenalena: Wizard Dog of Waipi’o Valley” by Thomas C. Cummings, Jr. and Paul Zdepski. In this story, the crafty dog is charged with the seemingly impossible task of recovering the Chief’s prized conch-shell trumpet from a group of zany-looking spirits. But Puapualenalena proves himself up to the task. Zdepski’s vibrant illustrations bring the Hawaiian setting to life.
Another story whose illustrations stand out is “Horned Toad Lady & Coyote” by Eldrena Douma and Roy Boney Jr. Boney has created a charming creature who is equally lady and horned toad, a formidable figure who doesn’t have time to be bothered as she works on her pottery in the southwest desert.
Trickster will appeal to people of all ages, and it will introduce Native American trickster tales to an audience who might not have otherwise encountered them.