Jeff Lemire has created a DC Comics super hero based on a young Cree female from a northern community. That northern community is also in Canada. Her civilian name is Miyahbin but over the past few months, through online interviews and social media buzz, we’ve come to know her as Equinox, a member of Justice League United.
Waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy: In reading online media coverage, it’s obvious that there’s a keen interest in the contributions Equinox’s character will make in terms of representation in comic books.
Jeff Lemmire: For me it’s been an interesting experience learning more about Cree culture and First Nation culture. You know, I think I’ve said this before in an interview but for me, whatever stories I decide to tell or books I do, it’s always a way to learn something, to challenge myself. I grew up in southwestern Ontario, really far southwestern Ontario, in Essex County, and there’s not a large First Nation or Aboriginal community down there. Also, it wasn’t something I was ever, as a kid, really exposed to. It was just another a part of the country that I didn’t really know about. You read stuff in books in school or whatever but I didn’t know any Aboriginal people growing up at all, so I felt like this might be a good way to create a project that was accessible to young people who are in other communities, just to start to scratch the surface of other cultures that are out there and hopefully create something that’s a positive representation. I feel like the Canadian media, when we do see things about First Nations or about First Nations culture, its either hardships they faced or negative stereotypes and things like that. My experience is, while limited, in Northern Ontario and Moosonee and Moose Factory and has been so positive. I met so many amazing, welcoming, funny, warm, people and I wanted to create a character that embodied that.
WCS: I think your experience speaks so much to the majority of peoples’ experiences in Canada in terms of being distanced from any relationships, knowledge or awareness of Indigenous peoples here in Turtle Island, as we call it. Your method of using a comic book and your art and creativity to create an entry for other people, a younger audience, or even audiences of all ages is really brilliant and beautiful. In terms of representation, the importance of having Equinox come out into the world can’t be overstated. In thinking about her aesthetic, her beautiful outfit that you’ve created, you've captured the spirit and beauty of the fancy shawl dancer.
JL: Yea, exactly. Just to be clear, I’m working with another artist on the book; I’m the writer. There’s an artist from the UK named Mike McKone. Poor Mike, I think he may have been to Canada once, but certainly not Northern Ontario and he’s so out of touch with what I’m trying to do and he’s been such a good sport. I'm sending him tons of reference photos from my trips. I can’t believe the job he did with the character and designing the costume and everything based on no first hand knowledge. It’s pretty stunning actually. He really pulled off, I think, something beautiful, and I’ve only heard positive responses about the costume and her look. And, you know, the photos I did send him were based on traditional dance and things like that and he took that and instead of just interpreting it straightforwardly he put a really modern, sleek, superhero spin on it in a way that still honours it but it’s cool and new and I think he couldn’t do a better job. I’m glad you agree.
WCS: We have Equinox’s demographic and her costume, I’m just wondering if the storyline reflects the realities of Indigenous peoples?
JL: I’ll be perfectly honest; it’s very hard for me to get too political in a super hero comic book published by an American publisher. They’re interested in me telling an entertaining story, a super hero comic, so there are certain limitations, clearly, in what I can show and I didn’t really get into it in depth; it was a matter of choosing my battles. So for me, the battle I knew I could win was in creating this character, and creating a character that was full of life and positive and that would be something hopefully young people would enjoy and can hopefully educate them a little bit about Cree culture. I knew if I could do that, this would be a victory. Going beyond that is a little out of the bounds on this project but it is something I am exploring in other projects currently.
WCS: Well, this seed is the perfect one, so let’s relish this. In thinking about the relationships Equinox has with the other characters of Justice League United, I’d like to hear some or your thoughts about these relationships, not necessarily details but just what your sense is of them.
JL: Just putting her in this comic and making her work as a superhero as part of this DC Comics universe has been really interesting. I try to give every character on the team, whether it’s Equinox or Hawkman or whoever, a different point of view and a different personality so they all bring something different to the dynamic. I tried to think beyond her Cree heritage, being Canadian, and First Nation. What else? What’s her actual personality and perspective? What does she bring to the team? I thought a neat way to approach what I’m writing was to think of her from the reader’s point of view, in this crazy larger-than-life world. She’s someone who grew up in a small community, an isolated community, and hasn’t left it. And then, to not only leave it for the first time but to experience all these crazy, cosmic superhero traditions going on around her; so she becomes, in a weird way, the most grounded and down to earth character, providing readers a new point of view into this crazy universe. So that’s kind of how I’ve approached it and in a lot of ways I think that’s a good way to approach it because hopefully the creation of Equinox will bring some new readers to DC Comics who probably haven’t read a lot of comics before. If I can use her as an entry point as well, into that universe, I thought that would be a smart way to approach it.
WCS: I like that you’re using the word grounding. In some of your interviews I’ve heard you talk about her powers, about her relationships with the land and that blew me away. I thought, this is fantastic, this is what we’re ready for; we need to be hearing this.
JL: Yeah, a lot of that came from spending time in the schools with the kids up in Moose Factory and just asking them, “What kind of traits do you think a hero should have if they’re from the area? What kind of powers?” And over and over again they would all say she has to have the connection with the land. Over and over again … so, you know, when you hear it so many times there must be something there. That’s really what I hooked into in trying to come up with her powers and everything else. I’m glad that you liked that.
WCS: Yes. It’s so important in our day and age with the environment, all the work—the well- being of the environment. What better way to bring out that message than through a comic book?
JL: No kidding. If there were really superheroes in the world, what’s one of the things they would need to work on? It’s the way we’re treating our planet. The other thing is First Nation culture is so far ahead of the rest of Canada in their relationship to nature, the world and the land and that’s something pretty inspiring.
WCS: I spoke with my friend in Fort Albany (James Bay area) and told her I was having this conversation with you. It was important for me to hear her thoughts because I’m not Mushkego Cree, I’m not in the James Bay area and I’m distanced from many of the realities that motivated Shannen Koostachin, the young Cree education activist who died in a car accident in 2010 and is said to have inspired this character. I asked what she thought about this project with Equinox and the first thing she wanted to know was what Koostachin’s family thinks about it. She also shared her hope that Koostachin’s memory and her work in education, work that’s connected to her family, peers and community, would not be exploited. So in thinking about these things, exploitation and appropriation, I’m not sure if people have asked such questions of you in these areas?
JL: I actually want to clarify that. When I did the first interview for this project months ago, they asked me about Shannen Koostachin and if she was an inspiration and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s a very inspiring story,” and from that it sort of turned into, as the story was re-presented online, as though the character was inspired by Shannen. But she actually isn’t, for all the reasons you just said. I would never presume to appropriate a story that is so real and then turn it into a cartoon, especially without her parents', her family’s, awareness or approval. That’s something I would never do. So when I said she was an inspiration for me in creating a teenage character, definitely, but it’s no way based on her or drawn from her story, much for that reason. As much as I take pride in my work I would never belittle or exploit a story just to tell people some pop culture or popcorn story. Her story is much more important than that so I’m glad you brought it up.
WCS: I hadn’t read that angle of it anywhere so it’s good that it’ll be in this interview.
JL: Yeah, it’s great. I’m just clarifying because as soon as I said that she was inspiring it turned into this character being based on her and I cringed thinking “Oh, I hope her family doesn’t think I’m exploiting her,” because that wasn’t the case at all.
WCS: I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Moose Factory and Moosonee and when we go to these new places and have cross-cultural experiences, they can often be provocative. Can you share a fun or funny story about your experience there?
JL: Oh god, well, I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for but this is the first thing that comes to mind. I knew it would be cold but I think I was not prepared for how cold it would be. So in Toronto, I’m a big city boy, I went and got all my quote unquote “warm, super warm clothes” and then I got there and we had to snowmobile. We had to snowmobile for, I don’t know, it was a couple hours each way on this ice highway and we were with highschool kids who had clearly been on snow machines their whole lives and were much more comfortable. I was so cold! I’ve never been that cold in my life, I thought I was going to die. And these kids are just zipping around just like it’s any other day. You’re like, okay, yea …. It was so cool to be out there with the kids. And we checked the trap lines with the kids at this camp. The kids were so into it.
WCS: What a fantastic experience. Will comics be sent to them or the communities?
JL: Yes, we’re sending a bunch of copies and I’m donating, buying these graphic novel collections for each of the schools along the whole coast. We’re just in the process of trying to make the contacts to send them up. So definitely, that’s the other thing too: obviously I’m not Aboriginal or from the area and as good as my intentions are, I can never create an authentic story. My hope, my real hope, is that maybe one of these kids I talk to or give copies to or talk about comics with, in ten or fifteen years from now, will end up making their own comics and telling their own stories. That will be the real victory of the project.
WCS: The story of you coming from southwestern Ontario and being really distanced from any of this, to now, is a story too. It’s a story of how it [making connections and understanding] can be done.
JL: Yeah, it’s about opening a dialogue between white Canada and First Nations and trying to open those lines of communications. Using story and art as a good way to do that.
WCS: So how has this project changed you?
JL: When you’re in the middle of something it’s hard to see how you are being changed by it. I feel like this is something that I’ll look back at a year or two from now and see how my life has changed in a huge way. Just in a practical way, I’ve made a bunch of really great friends up there and I feel like I’ll be visiting every year. I already have my next trip planned to the area. And you know, just meeting new people and sharing new experiences and stories changes us all in ways we can’t fully understand when you’re still in the middle of it, when you’re still in the middle of the project. But, you know, it’s certainly opened my eyes. Like I’ve said, I’ve never really spent any time in any Aboriginal community and being there first hand, getting a sense of what’s really going on and what the people are really like, putting a human face to all the things you see on the news and everything just changed me. It widened my perspective in a lot of ways.
WCS: Well, Toronto is an Aboriginal community, too.
JL: Yes, yes it is. Every community there and everything gets lost in the jumble.
WCS: Yes. The whole world is in Toronto but there is a fascinating history there too. So one more question. How do you hope this project will change us?
JL: Well, I hope it opens a dialogue with people who normally wouldn’t [access it]. I guess a lot of people who read the comics are from the States and maybe they have no concept of what any of our First Nations issues are; I just don’t think they have any awareness of what’s going on in Northern Ontario and this is a great entry point into North America that they probably have no awareness of. Hopefully it’s a great way for kids in our country, whether they’re Aboriginal or not, to just start thinking about First Nation culture and communities,and other parts of the country that they don’t know about. Hopefully it will provide a positive point of view or role model into that for them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.