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RICH INTERVIEWS: Weshoyot Alvitre Artist/Colourer for Sovereign Traces: Not (Just) (An) Other Vol. 1

 July 24, 2018

First Comics News: You worked on the story “Deer Dancer” who is the Deer Dancer?

Weshoyot Alvitre: Deer Dancer is a poem written by Joy Harjo. I envisioned this mythic type spirit as Deer Woman, who goes into this bar, and entrances everyone there, makes them question everything in their lives in how they each react to her boldness. And then she disappears and whats left is the stories of how each person there saw her and reacted to her presence. I think the poem ties directly into Deer Woman mythology, where the concept a deer woman is presented to reflect the things that could pull us from whatever path we are on in life, and also to remember the old ways. I also wanted to touch on the issues of alcoholism, MMIW as a result of alcohol, and the female. So there are nuances of the detrimental effects, the realism of what can happen to native women in rural settings, etc.

1st: What are the symbols you drew on the back of the woman’s hand?

Weshoyot: I actually really wanted to emphasize the authorship of Joy Harjo on this piece. I was given 3 poems to choose from. At that time, I had never read anything by Joy Harjo. I read them and Deer Dancer immediately stayed with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how she described so many things and the mystery that laid in that poem. That particular page, is a portrait of Joy I found online, and I believe the marks on her hand was a henna tattoo, but I am not entirely certain. She used it as an author photo for a few things. I chose this particular image though, as I felt like she possesses this strong voice, almost masculine in the way she writes about viewing the ‘Deer Dancer’. I imagined her as a patron at the bar, observing, but also knowing that this was not an ordinary woman, but one of myth. The way she writes is almost something of a ceremony. I wanted to add that element to the visuals, so that there was less division between the mythical and the real, as I feel that if you are sensitive enough, you see these nuances in your day to day. The tattoo design is an attempt to tap into that primitive thinking we all have within ourselves and something she’s tapping into in her descriptions. I was hoping it made the reader stop and wonder why I devoted a singular page spread to her, who she was, etc. And hopefully, if they are familiar with Joy’s work, they will realize it is her. And if they are unfamiliar with the work, perhaps a little digging will make them realize its an homage to her as a woman, writer, and storyteller. After working on this project, I dove into her writing and she is one of my favorites because of her truths and eloquent way of expressing herself.

1st: What do you think about to achieve the amazing looking deer that you do?

Weshoyot: I grew up on a large open piece of land with Deer. There were not many people unless we went into town, so I spent my first 5 years or so wandering the open land, trails, etc and really able to observe, listen and have that quiet that no one is allowed these days. I am forever grateful for that time as I feel it heightened the sense I use as an artist, in observations and in translating nuances into my drawings. I remember we would see them at a distance, and often see their tracks, but they were elusive and had sharp hearing. I referenced images of deer and combine them with those memories. I thought about the things a deer would think about out in the snow, looking for small amounts of food to eat, and knowing if they weren’t careful, they could be food. Eat or be eaten. I wanted to bring that sense of heightened anxiety and feeling of life/death that they always have, to the people in the bar and the deer dancer woman. My goal was to parallel the deer and the woman and the sense of fear, juxtaposed with unnatural grace. A deer in its environment is seen as graceful and delicate like a woman can be perceived. And yet, that deer may be on alert, graceful because it’s trying to move silently without being seen or heard by predators, trying to be as careful as possible to preserve its life. I wanted to show that, because I feel like that is what it’s like to be a woman. You may be perceived as one thing when the things going through your mind are completely the opposite. And I think something that we humans don’t pay attention to, or inebriate ourselves from being turned into these acts of self-preservation, of identifying distractions or gut feelings of uneasiness. We are no different from deer.

1st: What type of person do you draw the Deer Dancer as?

Weshoyot: I wanted to draw her as someone who walks in that place, disrupting the day to day normalcy that’s settled. So many of the people are there to either escape the day, escape the responsibility in their lives, so they drink to get a break. I wanted to have her as a figure who saw past all this from the minute she walked in, and got straight to the point and shocked everyone, making everyone take a look in the mirror. I feel like that’s what this poem does, and how its created in the character of the deer dancer.

1st: How do you think the expressions on the bar’s occupants are seen as?

Weshoyot: I feel like some are angered, some are shocked, some are reveling in it. Everyone has a different reaction to unexpected boldness, and I hope those individual reactions are shown in the bar occupants.

1st: The coloring is subdued was this on purpose for a reason?

Weshoyot: Yes. Ultimately I was trying to capture that cold, desolate feeling of a bar out in a rural place. I imagined this bar far north, in the snow. Where it’s not just a place to drink, but a rare place of socialization…a place to find warmth, in alcohol, in companionship. I imagine living in a place, such as Alaska or Canada, makes one long for the company of people sometimes, to break the open space and silence, that draws so many people there. I also wanted a strong bold palette of the woman’s red dress, amongst neutral tones in the bar, and also the stark white of the snow. This, partially to tie into the sexuality, and to potentially tie it into a dialogue of Native woman, sacredness, and MMIW. So yes, the coloring was very purposefully done.

1st: What was “The Moon of Letting Go” about and how did you illustrate the main character to look?

Weshoyot: ‘The Moon of Letting Go’ is a story by Richard Van Camp. It was imagined as a graphic novel, and the pages in existence were for a publication pitch. Its currently on hold but something we would like both like to finish in the future. Richard gave me some wonderful reference photos of his to use for characters, so there was a lot of guidance on his behalf for the look.

1st: How do you feel your work on the “Tenth Muse” influenced your comic book career?

Weshoyot: I feel like my experiences on that book showed me what not to do. While on that book, I got the experience of sexism at San Diego Comic-Con, of a project that despite a contract, would never pay me for my work, of how people may wine and dine you, but self-preservation is key. I learned a lot in a small amount of time, and glad I removed myself from that company. It is the textbook example of how new talent in comics are taken advantage of with disillusion of grander, and how many are chewed up and spit out and bitter because of it.

1st: What comic book that you have not worked on would you most like to?

Weshoyot: I always say that I would love to work on an ECHO storyline, with David Mack writing. The character he created struck a chord with me when Native Female representation in comics was non-existent. Hellboy or Umbrella Academy would also be dream projects

1st: What are you currently working on?

Weshoyot: I am currently working on a video game called “When Rivers Were Trails”, a book for Penguin’s new imprint KOKILA, written by Cherokee author Traci Sorell and a few side projects with Lee Francis & Native Realities.

1st: What is the tattoo of on your right arm and why did you decide to get it?

Weshoyot: The tattoo on my lower right arm is of a petroglyph called the ‘Hemet Maze Stone’. It is located in Hemet, Ca. and has been attributed to the tribes in an around the area, including the Tongva and Cahuilla. My dad used to have a photo of it framed in our home growing up, and I used to sit and trace it over and over again. It is believed to be tied into the creation story and the universe. I had wanted to get it as a tattoo since I was a teenager.

1st: What does your being Tongva/Scott-Gaelic mean?

Weshoyot: My dad is Tongva, and my mom is Gaelic and Scottish. So while I relate to my Native heritage and ID as Tongva, I always make a point of saying I am mixed and that my mom is Scottish.

1st: Would you like to encounter the Deer Woman?

Weshoyot: I ‘m not sure. And I am not sure that I haven’t already encountered her, or many like her.

1st: What would you like to say to those who have enjoyed your comic book work?

Weshoyot: Just to thank them for taking the time to read the work, and that I hope my images and writing allow for stories to come across. Thank you for being supportive of my voice and art.


Smash Pages Q&A: Weshoyot Alvitre on ‘Sixkiller’ and more

August 9, 2018

Weshoyot Alvitre has been working in comics for years now as a writer, artist and colorist. She’s drawn covers for Satellite Falling, 10th Muse, and Tribal Force, drawn stories for Once Upon a Time Machine and Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, and contributed to Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream. She’s colored Tribal Force and the upcoming Scout: Marauder, co-edited and contributed to last year’s acclaimed Deer Woman: An Anthology and has drawn the cover for the upcoming ninth volume of the acclaimed Dirty Diamonds anthology.

Michigan State University Press has just published Sovereign Traces Volume 1: Not (Just) (An)Other, which includes a poem by Joy Harjo that Alvitre adapted and illustrated. Native Realities Press has also just released Sixkiller #1 by Lee Francis and Alvitre. A new series that Francis described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Kill Bill in Cherokee country,” the book is a stunning writing debut by Francis. The two projects also represent Alvitre’s best work to date, beautifully rendered with dynamic page designs, and make the case that Alvitre is no longer a promising young artist – she’s arrived. Her influences can be seen in her pages, but the result isn’t derivative of anyone and her work is simply stunning. She was kind enough to answer a few questions.

I always like to start by asking people, what brought you to comics?

I think the ultimate thing that brought me to comics is story. When I was a kid, I loved animation. I loved The Little Mermaid. I was obsessed with that film as it was unlike anything I had seen before. I asked how it was made. The story, the songs, the colors – the animation was just wonderment to me at a young age. Then my mom bought me a small graphic novel adaption of it. They had broken it down, probably using key frames from the animated piece. And in that moment, the breakdown of singular images to tell the same story hit me like a ton of bricks. After that, storytelling through sequential art became my passion. It took me many years to understand how animation worked, how comics worked, etc. but it really spurred my interests and directed them through the first 15-20 years of my life.

So what is Sixkiller? What is the book to you? 

Sixkiller is a bit of a revenge book. It takes place in Indian country, and revolves around the main character Alice, coming to terms with her sister’s murder. It ties in mental health issues, and crosses lines of what’s real and whats on the other side of reality. The book to me is a jumping ground to try some new things with my art style, and also something new in interpreting this setting.

When Lee first mentioned this, what made you interested in drawing the book?

When he pitched the idea to me, he said it was like Alice in Wonderlandmeets Kill Bill. I have always been a huge fan of both, and quite honestly, I thought it was rather bold of Lee to describe it that way, as I had sort of pegged him as a safe, superhero style writer. He surprised me with this, I won’t lie. That unexpected boldness combined with the writing skills I knew he had got me very excited about the project. Years ago, while I was in college, I did a few pages of a darker Alice in Wonderland-style story. I still have the pages and have always been a bit fond of them. So having an excuse to dive back into a similar realm was very enticing to me, especially with the overlapping Native elements, like the living fetishes. I have always been a huge fan of the original illustrations of the book done by John Tenniel. They’re detailed and dark, despite them being for a children’s book. I told Lee outright I wanted to try to mimic a bit of that dense inkwork for this book. And from years of studying Victorian Illustration, I felt like if given the time, I might be able to pull it off.

How do you and Lee work together? What’s your working relationship like?

I think we are both excitable, a bit neurotic, but with common goals in mind. We were both super excited when we initially got this project off the ground, and of course we often are working on multiple projects at once. So this particular book did get pushed back during production. However, I feel like the art and final visuals of the book are some of the best work I personally have put out, and something that I am really proud of to have in the Native Realities library. I love working with Lee as he gives me a lot of freedom to take the book in the direction of my choosing. I appreciate that he trusts me to do that with his writing. And I also feel that he gives some very good editorial feedback during the process and afterwards, so we have really discussed the entire issue and book thoroughly and its something very thought out in the end. I have a lot of respect for his viewpoints and his writing. So I would say its a pretty damn good working relationship. The fact he is flexible with my art style time frame helps matters too. I couldn’t realistically do this style of art on a monthly book, and I appreciate him respecting that, so we have a beautiful product in our hands at the end.

How long and how big is this series?

That I am not entirely sure. I told him I am in it until the end. It does have an end, but I will leave that up to Lee to answer more thoroughly.

Just to turn to another project of yours, for people who don’t know, what is the story of deer woman?

The story of Deer Woman, from what I understand, is a solitary figure of oral history and storytelling. The concept of a deer woman appears in many traditional stories. In many, she is a lone creature, luring men, predominately, away from the true paths in life they should be following. She is a reminder of how straying from original teachings (in regards to family, in regards to treating other people, life choices) can be detrimental to your health, your well-being and ultimately, your life. She overlaps many teachings, and I think in that, she is an incredible muse and jumping ground for Indigenous storytelling.

How did you get involved with Deer Woman: An Anthology?

I was working with Lee and had met Elizabeth LaPensée through him. He put a call out looking for a co-editor for an unnamed book, and because the assembly, creation of a book from an editorial standpoint really interested me, I threw my hat in the ring. I was in journalism in high school and the behind the scenes work, in regards to organization/page layout/etc. is something I really love. Lee then let me know what the project was, and the fact Elizabeth was heading it, and it just felt like a dream project.

What was that process like? How was the work divided between you?

I think Elizabeth handled the majority of the workload. I feel like I was there as a shadow, an assistant, to see how she did things, to help give input into the layout, and also into the pieces made for the anthology. We had a few submissions that felt better suited for another anthology, so there was some editing in regards to choosing art and story that really supported the concept of Deer Woman, but also something that formed reflecting the strength and tenacity of Indigenous women as storytellers and as artists. The organization felt very organic, stories and art would come in, and we would discuss, and absorb each piece. The power in that was that with each finished submission, you could see this amazing energy growing, knowing these stories would all be within a book cover, and that it would be in the hands of more people than just ourselves. It was powerful being a witness to watching it take shape and materialize.

Could you talk a little about your contribution to the book?

My contribution to the book happened a bit by accident. It was something I created, that needed to be said and put down on paper – but I wasn’t entirely sure through what means it would ultimately be published. Elizabeth felt that it would serve best within this anthology and so I really trusted her. My piece is on Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. It was a piece I did before learning about recent cases, before Wind River, but seemed even more striking after cases like those. I put myself in a dark place. I thought about the cycle of being a woman, through life and death and birth. I thought about unifying blood within, from being native to being human, to how it is a sacred color. There are a lot more things I could write about my piece, my thoughts on it are incredibly dense, and I tried to minimize the words and images, but do so in a way that would hopefully make a strong impact. I sat with it a long time before doing art for it. And I sat with the words for a long time before finally committing the final version.

You’re also part of a group show that’s opening in Minneapolis, Bring Her Home: Stolen Daughters of Turtle Island.

Yes, I submitted, with approval, the 3 pages of art I did for the Deer Womananthology to this show. It was hand selected by Angela Two-Stars, whose grandmother was a victim of MMIW and who is also the curator of the show. I was fortunate enough to speak with her on the phone prior to the show opening. Her vision for the work supporting the show is that it presents the issue at hand, but also shows hope, and does not exploit the pain or the issue. I have a lot of respect for what she has done with this show, and the incredible talent she has hanging on the walls. I am honored to have my art within it.

You have a story in Sovereign Traces Volume 1 that just came out. How did you end up adapting and illustrating Joy Harjo’s Deer Dancer?

I was asked by Elizabeth LaPensée if I would like to contribute and of course I said yes. She gave me several pieces to read through and to choose from to illustrate. Joy Harjo’s piece spoke to me. I couldn’t get the visuals out of my head and so I told her I wanted that piece. I’m rather embarrassed to admit I was not familiar with her writing. I didn’t take but one Native studies class in college. They just didn’t offer them. But after discovering her voice through this poem, I went on a ravenous Amazon book buying spree and ordered several of her books. The way she writes is something else entirely. Its absolutely inspiring, hits so many feelings I have experienced but perhaps not been able to put words to. She is one amazing woman and I would love to do more art in response to her words in the future. I was honored to have been able to work on this particular poem for Sovereign Traces.

I know that you’re working on a few different projects. What are you working on now and what are you thinking about going forward?

As always, I have my hat in a few different areas. I am currently working on a children’s book through Penguin, written by Traci Sorell, who is of Cherokee heritage. I am also working on a video game with Elizabeth LaPensée. I am continuing on several projects for Lee Francis and for Native Realities as well. Moving forward, in comics, I really want to lend my art to telling stories which I feel are important in current representation as native peoples. I also want to provide my own personal perspective on historically based material. I didn’t have any Native artists, writers or examples to look up to growing up. Most books about Natives, were not written or illustrated by Native people. So I am doing my small part to try to change that so my children have a different experience with representation when they grow. I find that doing the work I do is very healing for me in many ways. Eventually I would like to do a graphic novel based on my tribe, the Tongva of Los Angeles basis, and to bring light to some of their stories, and people, specifically Toypurina, which is not well known to current people living here in the state of California.


Weshoyot Alvitre, illustrator of “Sixkiller” comic

JULY 24, 2018

Last week, the first copies of Sixkiller, the latest comic from Native Realities press, were sent out across the country. Described as “Kill Bill meets Alice In Wonderland” by author Lee Francis IV (Laguna Pueblo), the comic tells the story of Alice Sixkiller, a Cherokee girl on a quest to avenge the murder of her sister. Alice has schizophrenia, and her journey involves coping with her condition as she encounters beings from the stories and legends of her tribe. Francis is the founder of Native Realities press, which publishes books and comics by and about Indigenous people.

Sixkiller is illustrated by Tongva-Scottish artist Weshoyot Alvitre, a veteran illustrator of comics, books, and video games, including several with Native Realities. I spoke with Alvitre about her part in creating the world of Sixkiller.

Stacy Pratt (FAAM): Lee Francis describes Sixkiller as “Kill Bill meets Alice in Wonderland set in Cherokee country.” How did you come up with a style for your illustrations, especially the main character, Alice Sixkiller?

Weshoyot Alvitre (WA): The minute I heard the pitch to this story a light in my brain went on that maybe…just maybe I could try something I have always wanted to try with the art style in this book. I have always been a huge fan of the original illustrations to Alice in Wonderland. I had always wished there were more drawn, as they both complement the writing style of book but also make it weirder and more iconic than anything ever could have. There have been many artist renditions of the book over the years, but the odd proportions, fantastical imaginings and whimsy of those original illustrations really have held ground over time. I told Lee from the beginning that I wanted to try to pay homage to the original Alice illustrations. I had seen Jeremy Bastian call back to this era of illustrations in his Cursed Pirate Girl series and his style overall. I had been working in a lot of Victorian reproduction work for some commercial art I was doing years prior to the book. I felt like I had enough under my belt to attempt it and create a style I had not yet played with before. The timeline for this book also allowed me that artistic freedom. I don’t think I could have tried this on a monthly book. It’s rather time-consuming.

FAAM: It takes a long time to produce a comic book. How long were you working on Sixkiller, and what made you decide to take it on?

WA: I was working on Sixkiller on and off for over a year I think. We had one project fall through, and Sixkiller was then pitched. But I was also working on various side shorts, coloring Tribal Force [also from Native Realities], and doing some of my own pieces as well. Lee allowed me the time not only to play with the style but get it down before I started on final pages as well. I think after I drew up the initial cover teaser image to issue #1, I realized that the style I wanted to have for the book could actually be brought to life. I had worked with Lee on various things before, so I trusted him as a writer. But when I read the script to issue #1, he actually surprised me as I didn’t expect a book quite this dark and gritty behind the guy who is so upbeat.

FAAM: You and Lee aren’t Cherokee, but this comic is set in Cherokee country. How did you approach working with the traditions of a different Indigenous nation?

WA: Lee let me know from the start he was using several colleagues of his as reference and overview for this story, for language and alphabet research, etc. for future issues. I have trust that when Lee does a story, he will stand behind it 100% and not only do his homework but also make sure it has been read over thoroughly, and various cultural sensitivities are well discussed. We actually made a change to one of the pages in this book, and it was in regards to how one of the women in the book was shown. He not only addressed concerns about how a woman may perceive it but also hit on the fact that some of our readers will be trauma survivors. And I think after seeing a response to Deer Woman [also from Native Realities], it was eye-opening in how to handle future books and readership.

Art from Sixkiller. Photo courtesy of Native Realities and Weshoyot Alvitre.

We had a few conversations on the best way to handle the original image visually, so we were respectful to a variety of potential triggers. Being a woman myself and a storyteller, I felt the original image helped to move the story along, but I had not thought about how hard it may be for some to see, even in the comics medium. And so it was changed, and a lot of that approach to sensitivity was from Lee having various conversations from many aspects of readership.

In regards to this story taking place in Cherokee country: It is something I considered before taking the book on. I never want to step on toes or into tribal customs or stories that are not my own. With that being said, I also feel the need to help bring a modern story like this to fruition, to give representation where there is none. I feel that both Lee and myself really put time and energy into doing justice to the people we are creating within the story. And I hope that this book gives a representation of modern Native voices where there is currently such a lack of it in the comics medium. I can only try the very best I can. And if I miss something, I hope that a future dialogue can be brought up to discuss better ways to create or represent.

FAAM: Most Native people recognize the Tongva, but your nation doesn’t currently have federal recognition. How has that affected you as an artist working with Indigenous-based projects like this one?

WA: Honestly for the longest time, I refused to attach my name to any Native projects. Growing up was a combination of seeing my dad in his ties with Native issues, and the effects and complications of intertribal and governmental politics in regards to federal recognition, legitimacy, funding and forwarding representation and sovereignty. In school, I was constantly pulled in “Indian Education” taught by non-natives or called out in various opportune times in classes from elementary school all the way into college as “the Indian” in class. In college, I was constantly trying to find merit and portfolio based art scholarships because I did not qualify for any of the many Native based ones due to the lack of federal recognition and tribal ID #. It wasn’t until I was interviewed by Michael Sheyashe many years after I started working in comics, and was not only introduced to more working Native artists within comics, but also this voice of the Indigenous perspective that so many of us had that worked so well in the sequential art genres [that she began working on Native projects].

Art from Sixkiller. Photo courtesy of Native Realities and Weshoyot Alvitre.

The issue of federal recognition, or lack thereof, still affects me in some ways. I was just sent an invite to be included in a show within the Santa Fe Indian Market, but I won’t qualify due to my lack of tribal credentials in regards to federal recognition. I learned early on that sovereignty is something no one and no government can take away or interfere with. Although there are currently stirrings within younger generations of Tongva here in southern California for federal recognition, after decades of mudslinging and fractured factions, it still has wrinkles to work out. I do hope the work I create is an example of the person I am and a reflection of how I was raised. I am currently working on putting my own voice to stories from my tribe, and I hope I can devote my time and energy in the future to breathing life back into our people, as it is much needed.

FAAM: The #drawthisinyourstyle challenge based on Alice Sixkiller was great! What was it like to see renditions of this character you lived with for so long come across your social media?

Yes! I was really surprised to have so many amazing artists do their own renditions of the character. I had been advertising the book on and off for the last year, but I figured it would be some time before I saw a response or got feedback on her. So to have some of my favorite current Native comic artists, like Dale Ray Deforest and Shaun Beyale, try their hand was quite the compliment!

FAAM: You have several projects going on right now, including When Rivers Were Trails. What can you tell us about them?

>Yes, currently I am doing a book with the Cherokee writer Traci Sorell, for Kokila Books, which is the newest imprint from Penguin. I feel so blessed to be working with Namrata Tripathi on this, as she is heading this new imprint. The goal is for much-needed diversity in literature for children and young adults, which is exactly what Lee Francis is doing with Native Realities in the comics medium. So I feel so honored to be working on projects for both these areas with the same goals in mind. I am also working on the video game component to the Lessons of Our Land curriculum by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation with recent Guggenheim Award recipient and celebrated game designer Elizabeth LaPensée. The game is called When Rivers Were Trails. This game is being described as a “Native Oregon Trail” in which you play as a Native character during the 1890s and experience the effects of westward expansion and colonialism and see the resiliency of people of the era. The game is set to work with classroom education and reach 400,000 students. I was fortunate enough to write in a few scenes as well, to give representation to my tribe, so it felt good to be allowed space to test my writing chops.



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