Rebooting the Force
Native superheroes' creator musters his powers for a comeback
By Cindy Yurth
CHINLE, May 27, 2011
They entered into a partnership to bring light and hope to troubled Native youth.
Perhaps their star rose too quickly, before they fully understood how to harness their newfound energy. Overwhelmed by their sudden fame, pursued by those who would usurp their powers for financial gain, they began to quarrel.
They went their separate ways, each taking the superheroes they had created with them.
For that was their superpower: to create superheroes out of mere imagination, ink and paper.
Known as Tribal Force, the four Native superheroes they created had entered the world with a bang, liberating the sovereign Sioux Nation from evil government forces (and capturing critical and popular acclaim among comic book aficionados).
Then, for nearly a decade, the superheroes went dormant. Perhaps they were in an underground lair, honing their powers. We can't say for sure.
But these were Native superheroes, after all. They weren't going to lie down and die just because their creators had given up on them.
Soon, the three created by actor/writer/filmmaker Jon Proudstar began haunting his dreams, demanding to be reincarnated.
"But I can't," he argued with them. "I'm just a writer. The man who drew you, Ryan Huna Smith, has gone his own way. I'm not an artist, and I have no money to hire one."
But Earth, Thunder Eagle and Little Big Horn would not be denied. Eventually, Proudstar picked up a pen and started drawing them himself.
"I was terrified," said Proudstar, now 44. "Ryan's such a good artist. I knew I couldn't make them look like he did. But one day I woke up and said, 'This is either going to be done or not, and if I wait around for somebody to help me out of the goodness of his heart - because I certainly can't pay anybody - then it's not.'"
So start watching for Tribal Force No. 2. It may be a while. It's being drawn, but Proudstar is still looking for the resources to actually publish it.
"It's tough, it's really tough," said the Yaqui/Jewish/Latino Tucson resident.
Sometimes he thinks back fondly to the late 1990s, when big corporations were offering him and Smith "ridiculous amounts of money" to buy Tribal Force. But Tribal Force, alas, was not for sale.
"We used sacred symbols in the book," Proudstar recalled. "And themes that the big publishers normally shy away from, like incest. Sexual molestation is epidemic on most of the reservations in this country. I don't want some publishing company to tell me, 'We love the concept, just lose the incest thing, OK?'"
Incest is an integral part of the backstory for Earth, a.k.a. mild-mannered law student Nita Nitaal Nakai.
In addition to his forays into the acting and film directing worlds, Proudstar has been counseling Native youth for 26 years. They are the inspiration for Tribal Force.
"These kids need heroes," Proudstar said, "even if they're fictional."
Proudstar wanted heroes his young clients could relate to - flawed heroes. Earth is an incest survivor, and Little Big Horn, whom Proudstar describes as "a Native Hulk," has fetal alcohol syndrome.
(Thunder Eagle is a god. Proudstar promises to reveal more of his backstory in future issues.)
As a youth, Proudstar himself waited in vain for a hero he could relate to.
"I was really into comic books," he recalled. "I was always getting in trouble for reading them in school. I kept waiting for Marvel or D.C. to come up with a minority hero. But they never did."
The world of Tribal Force, while a bit apocalyptic and fantastical, is in some ways very similar to the world Proudstar's young clients are standing in.
"Basically Thunder Eagle is trying to put this group together," Proudstar explained. "They have powers, but their power can only increase by learning their culture."
It's the same thing Indian youth are constantly being told, Proudstar said.
"We've put this huge responsibility on the shoulders of our younger generation," he noted. "They're supposed to save us. But we're not giving them the tools, and they're not all that interested to begin with.
"The members of Tribal Force are that way too. They're modern young people in the modern world. They don't care about saving their culture. But Thunder Eagle is telling them, 'You've been chosen; you have no choice.'"
Although Proudstar is Yaqui, he chose different tribes for his two main characters. Earth is Diné largely because Proudstar was dating a Diné woman at the time she was created, and his artist, Smith, was half Diné.
"I knew I wanted a Navajo in Tribal Force, because I'm drawn to Navajo stories," he said.
The book weaves in some Navajo concepts, like traveling between the Fourth and Fifth worlds.
Little Big Horn is Lakota, and Proudstar had to hit the books to make him an authentic character.
"White people always assume that, if you're Indian, you know everything about every tribe in the country," he said. "It's not true; I had to do as much research as anyone."
Since a new generation of readers has sprung up since the last book, Proudstar is going to reintroduce the characters and tweak them a bit. You'll see their backstories and how they develop into reluctant heroes. And, like him and Smith (who have since reconciled, by the way), they'll find themselves at odds at times.
"You get a bunch of Indians together, there's going to be some infighting," he said.
Meanwhile, Proudstar and Smith are still reaping accolades for the first Tribal Force, which has become something of a classic. It's still enough in demand that you have to wait weeks for a used copy to emerge on amazon.com.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian will feature the Force in its upcoming pop culture exhibition, and Proudstar and Smith have been slated to speak at the Phoenix Comicon scheduled May 26-29.
(If you don't think this is a big deal, consider that it features Leonard Nimoy AND George Takei, along with a zombie beauty pageant and "The Ultimate Geek Smackdown.")
Smith's superhero creation, the Apache energy being Gan, is scheduled for a comeback too. Smith and Proudstar are collaborating on a Gan book.
Proudstar enjoys connecting with Force fans on his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/jon.proudstar?ref=ts, and if you're seriously interested in seeing the new Tribal Force book while you're still young enough to read comic books in public, "Please send money!" Proudstar said. "I accept cash of any kind."