Author: Jon Proudstar with art by Chris Williams
Publish Date: October 2023
Publisher: Machine Comix
Where to buy: https://machinecomix.launchcart.store/shop/comic-books
By Matt Peters
After it debuted in 1996, Tribal Force became a bit of a paradox. The comic was meant to be a series, but after its first issue, subsequent issues never appeared. The title faced a variety of setbacks that left its future uncertain, but even so, it went on to have an influence far beyond its modest run. As the first comic book to feature a team made entirely of Native American superheroes, it became a precursor among comics and graphic novels by and about indigenous people, and it eventually garnered the attention of the Smithsonian Institution. More recently, it made its long-awaited comeback with a rebooted first issue.
I first learned about the original Tribal Force comic while reading a book by Michael Sheyahshe, a scholar from the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma. Sheyahshe has worked as a digital designer, writer, illustrator, animated film director, and cultural consultant, among other pursuits. In Native Americans in Comic Books: A Critical Study, Sheyahshe drew from his own experience as an indigenous artist and writer to provide a detailed look at Native American comic book characters, taking stock of what their writers and artists got right and wrong about cultural representation. It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that in most cases they got things wrong, their ideas about Native Americans shaped all too predictably by Hollywood movies and settler-colonial histories—and informed by little or no personal connection to the communities being portrayed.
Sheyahshe, though, held up one example as an unusual exception. Tribal Force brought a new level of sensitivity to its character portrayals, a testament to the care and respect put into them by writer Jon Proudstar, whose own heritage is Yaqui, Jewish, and Latinx.
I read Sheyahshe’s book shortly after its publication in 2008, and a few years later, I met Proudstar at Tucson Comic-Con, where he was selling and signing photocopied reprints of Tribal Force. Remembering Sheyahshe’s praise for the comic, I didn’t think twice about getting a copy. While I was at his table, I asked Proudstar about the future of the comic. The outlook then was still more fuzzy than firm.
Eventually, though, things started lining up again for the long-absent superhero team. Gene Jimenez, who had worked as the colorist on the original comic, reached out to Proudstar about reviving the project. The timing seemed right for both of them.
If Proudstar’s name sounds familiar, it’s partly because he’s also an actor, most recently known for playing Willie Jack’s dad in the Hulu series Reservation Dogs. With money from that show, he was able to invest in a reboot of Tribal Force, securing a new artist and publisher for the comic.
Another reason Proudstar’s name might sound familiar is that it’s a pseudonym, which takes a cue—but also a slight orthographic departure—from John Proudstar, the Marvel character also known as Thunderbird. When Marvel introduced the Apache superhero in Giant-Size X-Men #1, published in 1975, there was a paucity of well written Native American characters. The writer-actor Proudstar, who was also an avid reader of comics, found inspiration for his pseudonym in one of the few superheroes that resonated with his own experiences of culture and identity.
Today, though, the landscape is a lot different. Since its original publication in 1996, Tribal Force has been followed by a groundswell of graphic storytelling by Native American creators. Enough had been published by 2017 to fuel the launch of a specialty shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Red Planet Books & Comics. The store catered to “Indigenerds,” stocking Native-authored titles like If I Go Missing, Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, Deer Woman, and Ghost River. The shop eventually relocated to North Carolina, joined the media company A Tribe Called Geek (ATCG), and rebranded itself ATCG Comics and Books, becoming part of a bigger venture to produce and promote Native American pop culture.
Suffice it to say both the original and rebooted Tribal Force are worthy reads for the place they hold in comics history. The significance of the original was recognized by the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which included the comic in one of its exhibits.
But the comic’s relevance doesn’t end there. It also tackles real-world issues that affect Native American communities. In addition to acting and writing, Proudstar has spent more than 30 years as a counselor of child survivors of physical and sexual violence, working frequently with youths from the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham reservations. As he told the Arizona Daily Star, many of his story ideas are rooted in that experience. “I saw what the kids were going through. The suicide rate was just horrible.” Proudstar created Tribal Force to give those kids culturally relevant heroes—as well as some examples of healthy ways to deal with trauma.
The rebooted first issue of Tribal Force focuses on a character named Nita, a seemingly ordinary Navajo girl whose childhood is stolen by her father’s violence. When her abusive father is away from home, Nita copes with her trauma by escaping into her dreams and drawings. In both, she frequently conjures images of a super-powered figure from beyond the stars. Named Thunder Eagle, he wears a red and gold costume with circular earrings, wrist gauntlets, a metallic belt, and calf-high moccasins.
As life with her father becomes more insufferable, Nita withdraws further into her art and otherworldly visions. But what seems like a realm of fantasy, a product of Nita’s wild imagination, is really one of magic. She sees into parallel worlds, and there are hints that she can destabilize the barriers between those worlds. In a story sequence in which Nita is being bullied at school, dark clouds start to gather in the sky overhead, churning in dark circles until a bolt of lightning tears through the sky and strikes the building.
The worlds beyond Nita’s ordinary reality are populated by indigenous deities, including Hopi Kachinas who observe her struggles from afar, unable to intervene in her world but hinting that she possesses latent powers that will change the trajectory of her life. As Nita’s story unfolds, more deities appear, including Little Big Horn, a four-armed giant with superhuman strength.
Throughout the comic, Proudstar proves to be an expert writer, adapting indigenous beliefs and legends into superhero storytelling, melding deep tradition with sci-fi futurism. But within that universe, Proudstar still grounds his work in contemporary human experiences.
For this reboot, Proudstar partnered with artist Chris Williams, whose panels are rich with color and details. Williams’ art is stylized and expressive enough to give the story energy—but still tempered enough not to distract from it.
The reboot is a welcome return to the world of comic book publishing, as well as a promising platform for addressing health and social issues in Native American communities. The first issue introduces a few characters who, judging by some of the variant covers, will soon become part of the titular team. The comic’s comeback has given readers ample reason to hope for a longer run this time, with plenty of adventures for the super-powered ensemble.
Matt Peters is a project manager and communications coordinator at Health Sciences Design, an interdisciplinary health innovation program at the University of Arizona. He is a longtime Marvel fan whose interest in comics and health communication drew him to the graphic medicine community.