Kyle Charles thought it was a prank.
It was an email from Marvel, the entertainment behemoth, asking the Whitefish Lake First Nation artist to illustrate a special Indigenous comic book issue.
He read it again and again, looking for signs of a hoax or forgery — anything to discredit the email’s authenticity. Instead, the Edmonton-based illustrator recognized the name of the Marvel editor at the bottom of the letter.
“I was like, ‘oh my God, this is actually real,” Charles said in an interview Saturday.
“So after that I immediately called my parents and my brother and let them know, ‘Marvel just offered me a job — I can’t believe this.'”
Marvel will release an issue Wednesday spotlighting some of its famed Indigenous superheroes. While those characters have often been crafted by non-Indigenous creators, this issue is commanded by a slate of Indigenous writers and illustrators.
It’s an important step from one of the comic industry’s leading brands, Charles said.
“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines while someone scores touchdowns using our stories and our culture,” he said.
“If anyone should be benefiting from those, it should be the people who actually grew up in the culture and have distinct voices inside that culture and understand that culture better than anyone on the outside.”
For the Marvel’s Voice: Indigenous Voices issue, Charles was tasked with illustrating the story of Dani Moonstar, a Cheyenne heroine from the New Mutants series who can conjure dreams and telepathically connect with other life forms.
Charles said he wanted to lend her character a “devil-may-care” attitude reminiscent of the Indigenous women and matriarchs closest to him — embodied by a cheerful, humorous disposition even in the face of adversity.
It’s a joy and humour he also associates with childhood trips to the Whitefish Lake First Nation reserve, about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
“Going back home and just getting to laugh with people and see all my people laughing, and you just don’t get to see that here, you see a lot of the struggle and strife that we experience as a community,” he said.
“I just try to bring all the influence of the Indigenous women into this project and do right by them.”
Charles worked for two months on the project beginning in August, often pulling 18-hour days in the lead-up to the deadline, hunched over his drafting table in his north Edmonton home studio.
It’s all worth it, he says, to know a young Indigenous comic book lover will be able to pick up the issue and see themselves reflected back in the pages.
“It’s everything,” he said. “It is the driving force. It is the absolute reason I want to take all this time and hard work and put it into that.”
Throughout comic-book history, Indigenous people have been regularly portrayed as sidekicks or outright villains, built on racist stereotypes, said Niigaan Sinclair, an Anishinaabe writer and associate professor at the University of Manitoba.
Sinclair helped organize the Mazinbiige Indigenous Graphic Novels collection at the university, a wide-ranging catalogue reflecting on Indigenous representation and production of graphic novels.
According to Sinclair, the collection can be divided in two parts: books about and books by Indigenous people. He said about three-quarters of the collection is Indigenous stories written by non-Indigenous writers. But that trend is beginning to change, with smaller publishing companies leading the way.
“Now what you’re seeing is Indigenous stories are best told, most interestingly told, most creatively told by Indigenous creators,” said Sinclair, who contributed to the Indigenous graphic novel anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold.
Charles, for his part, left an illustration job two years ago to focus on freelance work and devising his own comic imprint, Unregistered Studios, to platform Indigenous creators.
Now he has one of the largest platforms in the industry with Marvel.
“I’ve been drawing since I was three years old. I’ve never wanted to do anything else in my entire life,” he said.
“It’s wonderful to see an industry leader take giant steps forward … I’m proud that I grew up loving Marvel.”