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Review: Trickster

The trickster is, by far, one of the most ubiquitous figures in folklore, occurring in cultures as geographically and temporally removed as ancient Greece and the antebellum American South. Tricksters serve numerous roles: they can be beneficial pranksters who help level the playing field between gods and men; they can be subversives, challenging authority and cultural norms; or they can be fools whose outrageous schemes backfire again and again. In many cultures, trickster figures embody all of these roles, as the heroes in creation and fire myths, the jesters in role-reversal stories, and the cautionary examples in parables about greedy, slothful, or deceitful behavior.

Edited by Matt Dembicki
Ages: 10 and up
2010, Fulcrum Books, ISBN: 978-1-55591-724-1
$22.95, 232 pp.

The twenty-one stories in this “graphic collection” focus on the tricksters of Native American myth: coyote, rabbit, raccoon, and raven. For each contribution, editor Matt Dembicki paired an artist with a Native American storyteller, compiling tales from tribes across the US, from the Yup’ik of Alaska to the Penobscot of Maine, the Navajo of New Mexico, and the Winnebagos of Nebraska. The stories run the gamut from comeuppance theater — as in “Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale,” in which we learn how rabbit traded a magnificent plume for a cottony stub — to celebrations of animal cunning — as in “Azban and the Crayfish,” in which a raccoon dupes unsuspecting crustaceans into becoming his supper. Though most stories feature animal tricksters, a few human characters play a similar role: “Moshup’s Bridge,” for example, tells the story of a powerful warrior whose efforts to build a bridge across the ocean resulted in a string of islands instead, while “The Yehasuri” documents the mischievous handiwork of the Catawba region’s own little people.

The text is uniformly excellent; the scripts capture the cadences and performing styles of each of the contributors, preventing the stories from sounding too homogenized or stiff. In the best of the collaborations, the artist does a fine job of echoing the speaker’s tone, putting the images and words on equal footing. The artwork in “How Wildcat Caught a Turkey,” for example, has a loose, sketchy feel, that mimics the rabbit trickster’s verbal improvisations as he talks his way out of becoming a wildcat’s dinner; there’s a playful, rude vigor to Jon Sperry’s art that matches the tone of the rabbit’s dialogue, here voiced by Cherokee storyteller Joseph Stands With Many. Other pairings are similarly fruitful. Megan Baehr’s Crayola-colored landscape and simple but expressive animal designs bring comic life to Joyce Bear’s “How the Alligator Got His Brown, Scaly Skin,” while the sepia tones and horror-movie tropes of Jim8ball’s “The Dangerous Beaver” underscore both the humor and the darkness in Mary Eyley’s story about how beavers lost the taste for human flesh.

The sensitivity and craft with which these stories are told make Trickster a solid addition to school libraries serving readers in grades five and up. Though there’s no objectionable content — the few moments of violence are handled in a broad, cartoony fashion — the syntax and language are best suited to older students. (The collection was not designed to be a children’s book, and makes no concessions to grade school reading levels.) The sheer diversity of visual styles will appeal to a wide range of readers, while the thematic unity of the stories will appeal to educators wishing to explore Native American cultures as part of their American History, English, or Social Studies curricula. Recommended.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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