By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
June 22,2010 -- Trickster
(Fulcrum Books, $22.95) is one of those brilliant ideas that in retrospect is so obvious, people slap their foreheads and say “Why didn’t I think of that?”
editor Matt Dembicki rounded up Native American writers from across the United States, and paired them with a variety of artists (including himself) to relate tales of various Native American trickster gods. The result is more than 20 tales of pure, undiluted magic.
Trickster god stories are as varied as the tribes that told them as instruction, jokes, morality tales and more. Some trickster gods take on a specific form, others shapeshift into ravens, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, etc. The variety is just amazing, and no two tales are alike.
For example, in “Azban and the Crayfish,” a clever trickster takes the form of a raccoon, plays dead, and allows a crayfish to take credit for “killing” him. That just brings the crayfish close enough to eat, and a lesson is learned about bragging. But in “Mai and the Cliff-Dwelling Birds,” the trickster coyote is none too bright, and repeatedly injures himself trying to be a bird. Here the lesson is the futility of trying to be something you’re not.
Some tricksters can be helpful, as in “The Bear That Stole the Chinook,” in which Coyote rescues the wind from Bear after Owl and Weasel fail. Some are selfish troublemakers, like the egotistical trickster who ruins the order of the stars in “Coyote and the Pebbles.”
But whatever form the trickster takes, and whatever his scheme, it generally results in chaos or trouble for someone – sometimes the trickster himself.
I should note that trickster gods are not unheard of in comics. For example, Loki, the Norse god of mischief, has been a constant in Marvel’s Thor
comics since the early 1960s. Steve Englehart’s Coyote
was an influential book in the 1980s at Eclipse and Epic, with art by Marshall Rogers, Steve Leialoha and others. (It’s available in five trade paperbacks from Image now.) Anansi, the Spider God of West Africa and the Caribbean, has been hero, villain and supporting character in a variety of comics.
Which just goes to show that trickster gods and comics were made for each other. For proof, look no further than Trickster
* I found Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars: The Jesse Marsh Years
(Dark Horse, $19.99) educational for three reasons.
First, I didn’t know that John Carter joined fellow ERB creation Tarzan at Dell. He did for the three issues of Dell’s Four Color
reprinted here, but apparently didn’t prove popular enough to leap into his own series like the Ape-Man did.
Second, this book made me appreciate the Marvel Comics version of John Carter all the more, by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane, which appeared in the late ‘70s. This version by Marsh and writer Paul S. Newman isn’t bad, but it is literally bloodless and somehow static. Swashbuckling should be more fun than this looks.
And third, I’m beginning to see Marsh’s influence on later artists. Some of the blocking and body posture in Carter
I’ve seen in Gilbert Hernandez’s work in Love and Rockets
. (For the record, brother Mario writes an introduction here.) And here and there I see expressions and rendering that I could swear have been adopted by the likes of Pat Boyette (Peacemaker
) and Dan Spiegle (Blackhawk
* Let me state for the record that “Atomic Knights,” a feature that appeared in DC’s Strange Adventures
from 1960 to 1964, is unmitigated nonsense. But I enjoyed the Atomic Knights
hardcover ($19.99), reprinting all 15 stories from Strange Adventures
It’s one of the earliest examples of post-nuclear-holocaust comics extant, but in the hands of veterans John Broome and Murphy Anderson, it has a unique (and silly) twist: The last heroes wear ancient suits of armor that somehow, implausibly, ridiculously, ludicrously make them immune to radiation. So they become guardians of the wasteland, gadding about like Grail knights on mutant, horse-size Dalmatians.
Yes, it’s silly. And you have to overlook how the one girl knight is usually left at home. And they were waaaay too earnest about the nonsense around them.
But the leader’s name is “Grayle,” they ride giant dogs, they fight food-hoarding Fascists and they’re ancient knights in the future. So silly or not, it’s just plain fun.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at