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Thunderbird in the Comics

A response to my essay X-Men:  All-New or Same-Old? in Indian Comics Irregular #51:

>> I had to think about some of this stuff... <<


>> I don't recall reading much about JP, but maybe he lived up to his surname "Proudstar". I don't know, I'd have to read more about him. <<

That's one way of putting it. John Proudstar went up in flames intentionally like a proud star—a supernova of sorts. Dramatically, there's nothing wrong with that—except he was the first and only major Indian superhero at the time. It's a shame he represented more of the past stereotypes than the present reality.

What about my first point: that Thunderbird (or his writer) saw Indians as divided into two camps: warriors or squaws? Do you agree with this black-and-white split? Is it possible some Indians, even most Indians, don't fall into either camp?

>> To be honest, Native Americans are some of the most racist people I know. Just because we are targets, doesn't mean we are innocent of making racist or sexist remarks. <<

Yes, I understand. I don't have a problem with negative portrayals of Indians. As you'll recall, I had one Indian say the white folks smelled funny in PP #3. And the Indian vendors in #4 comment disdainfully on the Sampson family.

But again, Thunderbird was the standard bearer—the first and only at that point. It would've been better if he represented the best of Indian culture, or at least the reality of it—not the worst.

>> I guess I never knew that being malcontent and not appreciating what we have is a mainstream view of us. <<

I think that's a mainstream view of all minorities. "We" give "them" housing aid, welfare benefits, affirmative action programs...yet they're still complaining about racism, bringing up old grievances, and demanding reparations. Indians are a special case because they have treaty rights, but many people think of these as just another government giveaway. More handouts for freeloaders who won't work for their money.

>> Sometimes I use the terms, "ain't", "freakin' " and "ya". Does this suggest my lack of erudition? <<

Not unless they're the norm in your speech. Are they? They were in Thunderbird's.

I use colloquial speech like this too. And our characters have used these words, or words like them, as well. It doesn't signify much when someone uses such words occasionally. But when someone uses them frequently or regularly? Then it tends to signify a lack of erudition.

Many Indians, like many people in general, don't go to college or graduate school. My PEACE PARTY stories will reflect that. But again, I'm trying to portray a whole range of Indian characters—to reflect reality. Thunderbird was the first and only Indian superhero at the time, and he embodied these (mildly) negative traits. Why should the first and only character be more negative than average? Why should he be negative at all? What does that tell us about the mainstream view of Indians?

Let's compare Thunderbird the first Native X-Man with Cyclops the first Anglo X-Man. Cyke lost his parents at an early age and was raised in an orphanage. He probably had little adult supervision, few if any role models, and a spotty education. He's attended Professor X's school but never gone to college, as far as I know. He may have learned ju-jitsu and Shi'ar technology, but there's little evidence he knows anything about business, psychology, or English (to name some standard college subjects).

Yet Cyclops doesn't speak or act like an uneducated and unpolished misfit. He was a leader and role model from his first day at Xavier's school. As many people have noted, Cyke is so "perfect" he could be an Army drill sergeant.

But Thunderbird, who was raised in the bosom of his family, speaks and acts crudely. He's much more disobedient than the character raised without parents. How realistic is that? Does it sound like an unbiased creative choice to you?

The recent CHILDREN OF THE ATOM mini-series made Cyclops into the misfit and delinquent you'd expect. Its revisionist history only proves my point. For forty years white characters have largely been well-scrubbed and wholesome, while minority characters came from broken homes or troubled backgrounds. Finally, writers are making characters more diverse socioeconomically. More real, in other words.

>> My guess is that anybody with any sort of brains would know that Thunderbird is a character in a comic book, not a single representative of the entire Native population. <<

My guess is most people knew little or nothing about Indians in 1975 and thought Thunderbird was a fair example of them. Moreover, stereotypes can seep into the culture at large even if individuals know better. If that weren't true, why would people care about the Washington Redskins, the word "squaw," or sports mascots?

Because you could use the same arguments in these cases. They're just words and images, everyone understands they aren't real, so why bother protesting them? What's the harm if everyone knows Chief Illiniwek is a phony mascot and not a real Indian?

I've posted a few comments on this subject at Quotes on Native Stereotyping and "It's Just a [Fill in the Blank]." Check 'em out if you're curious.


The discussion continues....
>> Like I said, I'd have to read the entire comic, but from the excerpt, I read it that Thunderbird was bragging himself up- that he was a fighter, not a docile coward- while using lame imagery. <<

Yes. "Bragging himself up" was typical comic-book posturing. The "lame imagery" used to do this was stereotypical: dividing Indians into warriors or squaws with no third alternative.

>> I guess I never saw Cyclops as "perfect". I always thought he was filled with self-doubt. I haven't read these comics in ages, but I seem to recall that Scott was quick to blame himself for things that went wrong. <<

Yes, Cyclops was hard on himself, but his actions were rarely less than perfect. I'm not sure I'd call self-doubt a real imperfection, since you could argue it's healthy to question yourself occasionally. However you classify this trait, it pales besides Thunderbird's self-destructive urges. But Cyke was the one without a family environment, not T-Bird.

>> Perhaps he wasn't like this in the early X-Men comics, but when I read them I thought he lacked self-confidence. Now maybe I'm reading too much into this, but couldn't an orphan be unsure of himself? Pehaps blame himself for his situation? <<

Yes, and that's my point. In reality, it makes more sense for Cyclops to be consumed by doubt than Thunderbird. But in the comic, the writers went with the less sensible stereotype: that anyone from a poor minority culture must feel inferior to his more-successful Anglo colleagues.

Is that how you, as a Native journalist, feel toward Anglo journalists? I doubt it. Hence my criticism of this stereotypical portrayal.

>> Now I'm curious about this Thunderbird, I'll have to check around, my brothers probably have some issues with him in there. <<

There isn't too much to check. GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1, X-MEN #94-95, and CLASSIC X-MEN #3 cover most of T-Bird's short career. Bits and pieces have appeared during his brother's much longer career in NEW MUTANTS and X-FORCE.


More on Thunderbird
Thunderbird supposed to flunk
Proud of Proudstar

Related links
Thunderbird in the cartoons
Thunderbird the Shaman
Multiculturalism in the X-Men
Culture and Comics Need Multicultural Perspective 2000

Readers respond
"Thunderbird died a hero in the line of battle trying to do the right thing."
"[A] lot of the points that you covered had never occured to me."

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