by Bevan Thomas
Darkness Calls by Steven Keewatin Sanderson is a powerful comic book that confronts psychological issues facing aboriginal youths today. The story’s protagonist, an aboriginal adolescent named Kyle, suffers from extreme depression because of problems at home and school and this depression eventually leads to thoughts of suicide. But then he hears the story of cultural hero Wesakecak the Trickster and the hero’s battles against the demon Wihtiko, and in his mind, Kyle transforms the legend into the sort of superhero comic battle that the boy doodles in his spare time. Through the story of Wesakecak, Kyle is taught to find strength in his artistic ability and in his cultural traditions, which gives him hope for his future.
Wihtiko is an inspired choice for the comic’s villain. Better known to Euro-North Americans as “Wendigo,” he’s a common villain in aboriginal folktales: a gluttonous demon whose voice entices people to follow him into the northern woods where he devours them or transforms them into beings like himself. The Wihtiko in Darkness Calls is true to form: Kyle’s depression and self-loathing given flesh who tries to lure Kyle away by whispering his name in the shadows. Wihtiko crouches in the industrial sprawl, the “dark forest” of the city, feasting on the misery of all those who he has driven into despair and suicide.
Even more compelling is Wesakecak. When the story begins, we see him as a traditional aboriginal warrior, standing in front of his teepee, putting on his garments of war. But then as Kyle gets more involved in it, we see Wesakecak putting on a superhero costume, and suddenly the teepee has become a skyscraper that the hero leaps out of, his form of travel is a motorcycle, and when he battles Wihtiko, Wesakecak unsheathes a katana, a Japanese samurai sword. Kyle sees the hero not as some ancient tribal warrior but as a superhero, part Batman and part manga samurai, who resonates with Kyle’s comic book heroes as well as with the world of his ancestors.
The message is effectively delivered, that aboriginal youths have the power to overcome despair by gaining faith in themselves and their culture, and a way to do that is to connect that culture with what they value in the modern world. By giving Wesakecak a motorcycle and katana, by giving Wihtiko a mechanical arm, Kyle makes those beings real for him, placing them in a context he can relate to. Even the medium of Darkness Calls speaks to that, using a comic book, perhaps the most iconic modern North American art form, to tell an aboriginal story. Aboriginals can combine their cultural imagery with the imagery of modern North American storytelling, creating from this synthesis something with personal meaning and power.
Though the art is sometimes rough and the dialogue occasionally too didactic, as a whole Darkness Calls is a well-executed story with an pivotal message and a lot of heart and vision. Comics are a great way to connect to youths, especially when the stories are being created by individuals of the same community and who understand the community’s pain.
Darkness Calls is published by the Healthy Aboriginal Network, a BC non-profit organization that produces comic books and DVDs created by aboriginals for aboriginals, addressing the problems that BC aboriginal youths are currently facing, such as gangs, dropping out of school, gambling, and, in the case of Darkness Calls, suicide. Information about the organization and its products can be found at www.thehealthyaboriginal.net.