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Rascally Rabbit and Bear Paws

An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Rascally Rabbit and Bear Paws:

My review of the series
In May 2005, Chad Solomon showed me an initial version of Rabbit and Bear Paws. Here are my "deep" (i.e., superficial) thoughts:

The strips themselves are okay. There are some things I like and some things I'd change.

Keep up the good work!


P.S. I'd be curious to see how your art looks when you're trying to draw realistically rather than comically.

Solomon asked what I'd change in his comic strip, to which I responded:

Well, for starters, I should say that your artwork looks nice. That's why I asked about your realistic style. Judging from your cartooning style, I thought it would be good.

However, the characters look too exaggerated to me. Bear Paws, the big, fat hulk. Was any pre-Columbian Indian boy ever this big and hulking?

And Rabbit, the wide-eyed little waif. I included a similar figure in my Stereotype of the Month contest. This character, Tommy Mohawk, is basically your Rabbit with a haircut. Is that a good image for Native people?

Moreover, every Indian (except cute li'l Rabbit, I guess) has a big hooked nose. I have a perennial problem with that. A few Indians have noses like that, but most of them don't.

I criticize these caricatures whenever they come up in the media. For instance:

"9-foot, muscle-bound" Indians intimidate Conn. reporter
Sports Wear Indian figure
Eaton Reds Indian mascot

KARN radio talk show calls rude people "little Indians"
Teacher uses "Ten Little Indians" poem as a study guide
Teachers defend use of the "Ten Little Indians" song

They're fairly common in Native comic strips too. In particular, I'm thinking of Tumbleweeds with its Bucolic Buffalo and Screaming Flea. So I can't say I'm happy to see these stereotypes again.

I'd make the characters more realistic if I were you. Not totally realistic, but not so extreme either. Look how Gene Gonzales did it in BROWSER AND SEQUOIA, for instance:

Splash page

I'm also not crazy about the Native kids having magic dust that turns them into animals. If the kids have it, why not every Indian in the tribe? Are they all going to turn into eagles, squirrels, or whatever when trouble looms?

The magic dust reinforces the stereotype that all Native people are magical beings—i.e., mystics and shamans with otherworldly powers. It may pose practical problems, too. If the kids can change their shapes whenever they want, there's not much dramatic tension. It's hard for normal people to challenge or threaten shapeshifters.

I wouldn't necessarily abandon this idea, but maybe you could have some evil shaman put a shape-changing spell on them. Maybe they can't control the changes, and change at unpredictable moments. That could be good for some fun.

Everything else looks pretty non-stereotypical, which is good. I trust you'll continue to make the scene look as if it's Woodland (Iroquois), not Plains (Lakota).


The new, improved version
In August, Solomon sent me the present version of Rabbit and Bear Paws. My reactions:


The latest four-part strip is an improvement over the previous version, I think. It introduces the characters and their foibles without immediately plunging them into a misadventure. It's good to see what usually happens before they go off to have adventures with the redcoats.

I think the artwork is great: rich, vivid, colorful. And the culture looks authentic to the time and place. I still might want to hire you for a comic-book project.

I still have reservations about the big, hulking Bear Paws and the little wide-eyed Rabbit. And about the powder that makes their everyday lives seem magical. And about obvious names such as Clover Blossom and Grey Stone. (When his parents named him as a baby, did they know he was going to be a grey-haired pillar of the tribe? Good guess!)

It's great that you got a quote from Neal Adams. I'd definitely use that in your marketing efforts. But note that he didn't say anything specific about your work. His quote could apply to any decent Native-themed comic—including mine.

I showed your latest strips to my girlfriend, who liked them because they looked good and seemed authentic. She's a teacher who's always searching for multicultural materials. But she spontaneously compared them to Donald Duck-style Disney comics, as I did. She thought they were most appropriate for young readers (i.e., pre-teens), as I did—not "young readers of all ages."

That's about all I have to say for now. I look forward to seeing more of the strips.

Rob Schmidt


The discussion continues
Solomon defended his work on several counts. For starters, he claimed Rabbit and Bear Paws wasn't just for the young but for the young at heart. He added that most of the storylines were for adults rather than children.

My response:

So far every comic strip I've seen has a young feel to it and a young theme or storyline. What's the adult theme or storyline, if there is one? I hope it's something other than changing into an animal to avoid doing one's chores, because that's about as young as it gets.

Solomon noted that Ojibways often change their names over a lifetime. My response:

Yes, but do they always change to names that are obvious if not stereotypical? Is every woman named after something soft and weak—a flower or baby animal? Is every man named after something hard and strong—a rock or big animal? I doubt it.

Solomon said he made Bear Paws overweight to inspire Native kids to become active. My response:

I asked my girlfriend, who teaches overweight Latino students, if she thought her kids would be more inspired by a jumbo- or regular-sized character. In other words, would they rather see themselves as they are or as they could be? She said the latter—the skinny version—which is what I expected.

As for the characters changing into animals, Solomon said the Ojibways have a traditional medicine, a "spirit powder," that does the trick. My response:

Well, until I see this medicine actually transform someone into an animal, I'm going to be skeptical. My impression is that most Indian ceremonies of this type imbue a person with an animal's physical and mental traits, but don't change his body physically.

Changing into animals in a story is okay if it's set in the distant, mythical past. Or if it occurs because of a one-time spell or curse. But to suggest the Ojibway people routinely turned themselves into animals during America's real, documented history is problematical at best.

But I shouldn't be too negative. Except for these things, I like what you're doing. As I said before, keep up the good work!

A Native teacher replies (1/17/06)

While the humor is entertaining, I think the pictures are too stereotyped for me. I wish the artist would revise the images so I could concentrate more on the humor — or the message. Not sure how much should be allowed for artistic license, but we have been fighting this image thing for a long time.

There you go. It isn't just me who thinks Rabbit and Bear Paws are somewhat stereotypical. Let's hope the characters evolve over time.

More on Rabbit and Bear Paws
2nd Rabbit and Bear Paws collection
Rabbit and Bear Paws helps readers
Pix of the 2007 Comic-Con
Rabbit and Bear Paws at Comic-Con

Where to find Rabbit and Bear Paws
Aboriginal Youth Network
Say Magazine
Official Rabbit and Bear Paws website

Related links
Native comic strips vs. comic books
Comic books featuring Indians

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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