Protector of Innocence (2007), by Jolene Nenibah Yazzie. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian
When comic artist and skater chick Jolene Nenibah Yazzie was younger, she used to compare herself to Wonder Woman. She has long, sleek black hair like the superheroine, and she looked up to her. “You know, how she kicks butt and stuff,” says Yazzie, laughing. But now, when she’s not working as a graphic designer at the Santa Fe Reporter in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she’s creating her own Justice League—a cast of female warriors that reflect her Navajo roots. (Sometimes she even puts red stars on her characters’ foreheads to hearken back to Wonder Woman.) Three of her digital prints are on display at the National Museum of the American Indian, as part of the Comic Art Indigène exhibition.
How did you first get started with comic art?
I think ever since I was small I was into drawing, trying basic stuff. I think the colors are what really grabbed me the most. I had two older brothers. They were really into skateboarding and comic books, and I think I was trying to impress them. That’s pretty much how I got into it.
What fascinated you about the superheroes you saw in comics growing up?
When I was in first grade, every Friday we would have an elderly person come in to tell us our Navajo creation stories. They would really get into character. The superheroes kind of had the same stories, so I think that’s what really connected me to it.
So do you see your comic art as a natural outgrowth of more traditional storytelling?
I wouldn’t necessarily say traditional. Since there are already the creation stories, I kind of wanted to build my own characters. Most of the women characters I built have to do with my mother and my sister. They are based on them.
Can you describe some of your characters?
There’s one character called the Mother of War. She’s based on my mother because she went through a lot of stuff when she was younger. My mom is a rape survivor. I wanted to create a character out of my mother in respect of that. So she starts this whole big war that nobody knows about. These different characters show up because they went through the same thing. Throughout my life, I’ve met some girls who have been through that, so I kind of capture their strength into that one character.
All superheroes have injustices that they fight against. What do yours fight against?
I believe they’re fighting against everything as far as racism goes, just being a woman of color.
What do you hope young girls especially see in your women warriors?
I hope they can find the strength in themselves that they can be their own role model. To tell you the truth, I’m not trying to be a role model or anything, but some people tell me that. It’s hard to be a role model. You have a lot of responsibility.
You’ve started a company, Asdzaan (“Women”) Skateboards, selling them word of mouth from your bedroom-cum-studio.
My older brothers were skaters and I was trying to impress them again. That’s how I got into skateboarding. And I noticed that skateboards had really cool pictures on them. I knew I was never going to become pro or anything so I thought might as well put my drawings on them. It was kind of a childhood dream that I finally accomplished.
What’s next for you?
I think it really depends what my next lesson is going to be. Most of those drawings were based on growing up, with my mom telling my sister and I what she’s gone through, and life experiences. It just really depends on what’s going to happen next. I think that’s what my art is based on.