LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Throughout history, generations in every world culture and society have passed on wisdom through stories. The ancient fables and tales offer life lessons and they all contain archetypal characters. Consider the trickster - a creature or being that loves to create chaos.
In Native American traditions, it takes many forms and appears in many stories. The first graphic anthology of some of those tales has just been published. "Trickster" combines folklore and comics.
Matt Dembicki, who founded a comic creator's collaborative here in Washington, edited the collection. He also one of the illustrators, and he's here in our D.C. studio. Welcome to the program.
Mr. MATT DEMBICKI (Editor, "Trickster"): Thank you.
HANSEN: In Native American lore, how many and what are the forms that the trickster takes?
Mr. DEMBICKI: I think there's many forms, and depending on the geographic area of the tribe it will kind of dictate which animal or being it is. I think people are very familiar with coyote and the rabbit - perhaps not so familiar with the raccoon and the raven.
HANSEN: What was your vision for this collection?
Mr. DEMBICKI: Initially, the way it started is I was reading a prose book about tricksters, Native American trickster stories, and I just became fascinated with it. Coming from a cartoonist point of view, I started doodling and seeing what I could do. I wanted to kind of incorporate perhaps some of the Native American look to the illustrations.
And as I was doing it, it kind of dawned on me that this would be perhaps a really interesting collection.
HANSEN: How did you pair the storytellers with the illustrators?
Mr. DEMBICKI: The storyteller would send me their story or they would recite it over the phone or something and I would transcribe it. And I had like a pool of cartoonists and I would kind of determine which three or four would do a good job illustrating it. And I made sure that they had a selection of styles from a cartoony style to a more realistic style. And then I would send samples to the storytellers, who decided who they wanted to work with.
And so it kind of gave them a little bit more buy-in to the process so they were more comfortable with it and to kind of, I guess, represent the vision they had for the story.
HANSEN: The styles really, it's a wide range. I mean, youve got those moody, dark figures, you know, that you'd see in like "The Dark Knight" or something like that. And then, I mean, there's one story: "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale." That's hard to say three times fast. This one reminds me of the old Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Tell us all a little bit about this one.
Mr. DEMBICKI: Well, that one was illustrated by Pat Lewis, and he's very influenced by the Warner Brothers-type of style from the '50s cartoons, like Tex Avery. And, like you said, it's just completely wild and it's fun, it's different. And that's just kind of in terms of different styles artistically, it worked out that way.
I think it kind of represents what the storytellers themselves were like as individuals, what their preferences are. Some people prefer more realistic, some people like the kind of fun, cartoony aspect of it.
HANSEN: Yeah. There's another one that I want you to talk about, and this is one that our listeners can actually hear. Joseph Stands With Many reads the story at an audio slideshow at our website, NPR.org. But tell us the back story of "How Wildcat Caught a Turkey."
Mr. DEMBICKI: What I like particularly about this story is kind of the simplicity of it. You know, it's not text heavy. And that's kind of one of the great things about cartooning is Joseph provided the story and John interpreted it in cartoons.
HANSEN: John the illustrator?
Mr. DEMBICKI: John Sperry, yeah. He's the person who did the artwork for it. And as you see, almost the first three pages are text-less in terms of how you move the story along. And it's not until the fourth page that you get some of the text in there. And a lot of it kind of focuses on food. The wildcat catches the rabbit and the rabbit says, look, if you let me go, I promise you I'll be able to provide you with a meal, some turkeys over there.
And so the wildcat decides to kind of go with what the rabbit is telling him. And so he plays dead and kind of tricks the turkeys into coming over and looking at the wildcat. And of course the wildcat is not dead, he was just playing possum, essentially.
So that was - I noticed that was kind of a theme in some of the stories in terms of playing possum.
HANSEN: Yeah. I'm speaking with Matt Dembicki, who is the editor of a new anthology of Native American tales called "Trickster."
Are there more tales to be told? I mean, do you think you might branch out to other cultures or other archetypal characters?
HANSEN: At this point, I don't think so. The reason is, this project was really intense. To find the storytellers and make them feel comfortable with the process, I think all of the storytellers, except for maybe one person, weren't familiar with - well, they were familiar with comics - but they weren't familiar with how we'd be able to translate these stories into a comic form.
There's a little bit of doubt about how we're going to do it, some cultural sensitivity. And so, I think just winning the storytellers' confidence in that the book would be presented in an appropriate light took a while.
HANSEN: How did you finally get the confidence? I'm imagining you picking up the phone and calling one of these storytellers and say, how would you like to work on a graphic collection? I mean, what would you say on that particular phone call if they said, well, why would I want to do that?
Mr. DEMBICKI: Yeah, that was tough. It wasn't easy convincing everybody. Some people really couldn't see it being done this way. Other people had some cultural issues. You know, they were very adamant about - these are mostly oral stories, you know, they're told orally and they should be told orally.
I had some interesting stories about some people who went back to their tribal elders and told them about the project, expecting them to say, well, we don't want to do this, we don't know where it's going to go. They came back and they said, you know, they're into it. They want to do it. And I think the reason they wanted to do it was with all the competing media for people's attention, I think they felt they were losing a hold of their storytelling tradition and they wanted to preserve some of these stories in a different format.
And it wasn't the ideal format for them but they wanted to make sure it was there, you know, to preserve it for their own children and for everyone else as well.
HANSEN: Matt Dembicki is an illustrator and the editor of "Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection." Thanks for coming in.
Mr. DEMBICKI: Thank you.