Interview with Michael Sheyahshe

Posted on April 6, 2009, 1:38 pm, by Elizabeth LaPensée, under Artists, PEOPLE.

Michael Sheyahshe, who owns alterNative Media, is the author of Native Americans in Comic Books, which explores Native representation in the comic book field. Since it’s such a small world, he is also friends with Steve Sanderson, a comic book artist and writer who has participated as a guest mentor at the AbTeC Skins workshop for Mohawk youth in Montreal. Michael comes full circle much like the Skins project by acknowledging the images out there and re-envisioning them.

At the forefront, you run alterNative Media (aNm), a Native-owned studio that offers services in traditional and digital art as well as technology consultation and training. How did aNm come to be?

alterNative Media is the result and product of my personal interests in pop culture – comic books, video games, tv/film, and technology – my professional artistic expression, and my Native American heritage. The studio came about from a natural progression and foray into these various areas of my life. Initially, in the early days of being a business entity, we began as ‘alterNative Consulting,’ focusing primarily on technology and other technical services.

However, as the business grew with our client-base, the artistic portion – the studio – emerged at the forefront of the services we offered. Thus, it made sense to begin shifting the business focus towards more creative and artistic endeavors. It made sense, really, as we use technology extensively as the vehicle for our creativity.

Interesting development for you then! In your studio, how do you see traditional art influencing your 3D modeling and animation?

While I was accepted into the Academy of Art University for my MFA studies in 3D Modeling, it was under the condition that I take a few more “basic” art classes, as my two bachelor degrees did not specifically focus on fine art. I bring this up, because I believe my 3D art benefited significantly from this artistic exposure.

By exploring traditional art forms, I am able to make much more artistically-informed choices about the way I create my 3D art. This is true in all aspects of art, but especially so within 3D space, as the medium has been historically over-populated by individuals not trained. The artistic training allows me to add aesthetic choices, based on many aspects of traditional art, not simply ‘slapped together’ in a 3D model.

We’ve all seen these representations online and other places.  Usually it’s a 3D model or other media that exists simple for the sake of existing, not based on artistic expression or choices.  It isn’t surprising that some 3D models, animations, simulations, and video games have lacked in these traditional art choices, at least historically; after all, the software needed to create such representation in 3D is highly technological in nature and, until recent years, not geared with the artist in mind.

As an added benefit, I was very fortunate to take these courses, as I found that absolutely love doing pencil sketchwork and that I have a natural skill for sculpting.  The feel of clay in my hands is fabulous … and I would have never known that sensation, had I not been forced to explore these areas.

What are your interests in popular media such as comic books, video games, and digital media?

As far back as I can remember – which is pretty far, really – I’ve always had an affinity for pop culture and especially superheroes. From an extremely early age, I connected on a personal level with comic books, their characters, television, and film. My formative toddler childhood is filled with images of Ultraman (Japanese show), Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin (from the 1960s TV series), Spider-Man, Super Man (TV series from the 1940s), The Lone Ranger and Tonto (TV series from the 1950s), The Six Million Dollar Man, and (of course) The Bionic Woman. So, from birth, really, I’ve always had this deeply felt connection with popular culture.

As the years advanced, so did the technology. Many of us have stories of our ‘first’ video game console; mine was the Atari 5200 (I missed getting the earlier 2600 – I grew up on a farm, as was not as ‘in-touch’ with technology, as I am now). Of course, on those rare cases when we ventured ‘into town’ for groceries or other errands, I – like millions of other children – spent much time at those large arcade machines, playing Donkey Kong, Dig Dug, and Super Spy Hunter (which rocked!). On these excursions out to the fringes of civilization, I was able to visit the comic book shop occasionally. Thus, much of my boyhood on the farm was spent reading those four-color pages of adventure. That, plus a few subscriptions to Marvel titles, as well as some trading-reading-trading-again action between school chums, kept me well versed in the comic book realm.

Later, I spent many Sunday afternoons at a buddy’s house, playing Super Mario Bros., Contra, Duck Hunt, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. During and after high school years, Sega Genesis (Mortal Combat) and the original Play Station (Resident Evil) dominated my life. The N64 came out while I was still in college (I was there for quite a while…heh) and GoldenEye 007 as well as Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire consumed much of my beauty sleep and study time. Computing technology – and, occasionally, my financial situation – advanced during these years, so games like X-Com (still a favorite) and the ever-rockable, Duke Nukem 3D, offered me endless hours of enjoyment and entertainment. My college years also benefited from a small-ish comic book shop, located just off campus. It’s during this time, in college, that I began to explore the cultural representation of Native American characters in comics, which eventually turned into my book…

Speaking more to the comic book end, you’re also the author of Native Americans in Comic Books. You discuss both stereotyped representations as well as authentic representations produced by Native comic book artists and writers. What is your favorite Native comic book character and how did this play into your interest in writing this book?

Like many other Marvel readers around my same age, I grew up with a heavy ‘Mutant’ influence from both X-Men and X-Force. While I wasn’t aware of the X-Men’s Thunderbird brief existence until years later, his younger brother, Warpath, stood out to me during my adolescent years of comic readership. Certainly he has his own set of limitations, from a cultural perspective – ubiquitously heavy use of fringes and feathers in his costum, for one thing – he was certainly ‘identifiably Indian’ from a comic book standpoint. Thus, his character stands out in my memories as an Indigneous character that could be looked up to (he was phenomenally strong, had a huge physical presence, and was nearly impervious to all damage…what boy, Native or non, wouldn’t want to be like him??).

However, after what (I hope) we can call a more educated viewpoint on Native characters, there are a few that stand out as favorites to me. Ask almost any Indigenous reader and many will cite Tim Truman’s Scout character as a fan-fave – and I share this viewpoint. Truman’s handles the character with respectful exploration of Native culture and is fairly successful. While not officially a Native character, Terry Laban’s Muktuk Wolfsbreath: Hardboiled Shaman is one of those ‘have-to’read’ comics, based on the (three part) series’ representation of a shaman-as-detective character. However, one setback on this series, for me, is its setting in ancient history, which I see all-too-often in comic books with Indigenous characters.

Of course, there are a few comic characters that are not trapped in this historic-only setting; David Mack’s Echo character is good example of a Native comic book character not represented as only existing in the past. She is a female character that lives in modern times and whose character has even evolved to a ninja-like status in the Marvel universe, demonstrating her adaptability and continuance. Plus, Mack’s graphic novel, Echo: Vision Quest, is phenomenal, especially from an artistic perspective and is an important representation of sequential art.

Drawing from your extensive knowledge of comic books, what parallels of Native representations in other popular media have you noticed?

Similar to comic books, video games and other media need to be examined for their representation of us, as a culture and people. The list of cultural ‘ouchies’ in video games is exponentially longer than the list of Indigenous characters that depict us in a positive manner: The Native-woman-as-sex-object-object found in the Indian Maiden in Custer’s Revenge; Turok’s swinging braids in Turok: Dinosaur Hunter; the tomahawk-carrying stereotypes of Mortal Kombat’s Nightwolf; the shoot-the-attacking-Indians, represented as a faceless/nameless evil horde in games like, Gun; the continued objectification of the Indigenous female character, Tala, in Darkwatch; and obtaining spiritually-based powers, based only on Native heritage, like the Tommy character in Prey. The list could go on, but I’ll save that for another book.  Heh.

Yeah me too! I’ve written about all of those as well. On our end then, what do you feel is the importance of Native involvement in popular media?

Comics, games, movies, and television have always been a way to gauge how we, as a culture, are viewed by the dominant culture in America. Whether it’s the whooping, attacking horde of Indians in the early ‘cowboy’ movies, the notion of Native American as a crack-shot and/or expert tracker in comics, or the continued (mis)representation in video games (some mentioned above), pop culture media serves to mirror the emotional consensus of how mainstream America sees us.

Therefore, as I seem to continually be ‘preaching’ in various magazine articles and especially in my book, we Indigenous people must become more creatively involved in these various aspects of popular culture, so that we start telling our own stories. We must be the ones to say how we are to be represented, not merely sitting on the sidelines commenting about it. Perhaps this is another reason I’ve chosen the particular professional field(s) so prevalent in my life.

How do you think Native traditions can influence video game design?

Like many othes, Native American culture is vastly nuanced and infused with various inherent meanings and signifiers. Or to put it another way: any milleau based on storytelling – which almost all vestiges of popular culture are based on this – could benefit from the elements and specific worldview offered by any of our tribal communities. For example, in my Native American literature courses, I remember that presenting cyclical-plot arc (basically ending – in one way or another – where you started…in some ways, resembling various tribal worldviews and even, more specifically, the notion of the dance and life, as a continuous cycle) was a very “Indian” way of storytelling. Game design itself could benefit from this storytelling device, as it would provide innovative ways of gameplay and storytelling. This is only one, very narrow example. The potential for improvement in game design based on Indigenous notions is seemingly limitless.

Definitely want to talk more about this with you, since I’m working on just that. But what are you working on to this end?

Like everyone else, I have many projects making attempts to see the light of day. Ask any fan of comics or games and they will reply that there is always some comic or game hidden in the back of their mind that they will make someday…the same can be said of me, as well.  However more specifically and more concretely, as mentioned above, I’ve literally made it my business to get more involved from a creative standpoint in the way pop culture media represents us with my venture into the 3D realm. Additionally, my book and several articles point to this same point: as a people, we must do more from within these various media to make change.

Excellent! Looking forward to seeing more from you.

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  • Good interview. I hope you pointed him to the Skins blog, Beth. ( if not.) We should start a seminary: "Therefore, as I seem to continually be ‘preaching’ in various magazine articles and especially in my book, we Indigenous people must become more creatively involved in these various aspects of popular culture, so that we start telling our own stories. We must be the ones to say how we are to be represented, not merely sitting on the sidelines commenting about it. Perhaps this is another reason I’ve chosen the particular professional field(s) so prevalent in my life."

  • Jason Lewis

    I've already ordered the book.

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