Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection

TricksterIn his editor’s notes for Trickster, Matt Dembicki expresses his desire to present authentic Native American folk tales. It was important to him to find Native American authors, give them a forum in which to share their stories, and then stay out of their way. It speaks well of Dembicki’s dedication to this ideal that his name doesn’t appear on the cover or title page of Trickster. He lets the authors and the stories speak for themselves and only puts his name after his brief notes at the end of the volume.

The 21 stories collected here are all Native American folktales centered on a trickster, an archetypal character with power and cunning but not an over-abundance of scruples. Several stories feature coyotes or rabbits in the trickster role, but we also see ravens, beavers, tiny people, and weird old men. These stories come from distinct cultures and are united not by a shared mythology but by the common theme of a clever rogue trying to use his brains to get ahead.

Sometimes the trickster succeeds and sometimes he fails miserably. Sometimes he’s a hero and sometimes he’s a villain. Interestingly, the trickster is often neither and instead inhabits a moral gray area. In one story, a raccoon plays dead on the riverbank until several tasty crayfish come to gloat over his body. When they start to dance around him, he leaps up and eats as many of them as he can grab. It’s not exactly heroic, but raccoons have to eat and those crayfish kind of had it coming.

Any fan of folktales will feel right at home with the sort of dream logic where a dog can cast a spell and do a little dance or a story comes to an abrupt end because a coyote gets fed up and turns everyone else to stone. These stories aren’t compelling because they’re meticulously crafted slices of verisimilitude, but because they’re goofy and wry and because it’s always fun to watch the clever get one over on the strong (or, for that matter, to see the not-quite-as-clever-as-they-thought-they-were get their comeuppance).

The art is hard to critique because it’s so varied. There are 21 different artists and each brings a distinct style. The first story is done in moody, shadow-drenched watercolors and the last story is garishly cartoony with bright pink trees and an electric blue coyote. But as much as the art varies it always feels appropriate to the story it’s helping to tell. The moody art of the first story evokes the sadness of the coyote’s howl after a backfired scheme makes him a social outcast. The cartoony art of the last story captures the slapstick humor of Coyote’s repeated attempts to fly despite the other animals’ derision and his obvious lack of ability.

My only serious complaint about Trickster is that I would have liked more cultural context for each story. A short bio for each author is given at the end of the book, identifying which tribe they’re from, but it’s needlessly difficult to flip around between pages matching story to author to tribe. I finished most stories wanting to know more about the people who produced them (a reaction I suspect the editor and authors were aiming for), and a few brief annotations either in the table of contents or at the start of each story would have made that impulse easier to follow.

Trickster : Native American Tales, a graphic collection
Edited by Matt Dembicki
Stories and Art by Various Creators
ISBN: 978155591724
Fulcrum Publishing, 2010