IPI #4 – Elizabeth LaPensee
In this deployment of IPI, we spotlight Elizabeth LaPensee, a Ph.D., Student at Simon Fraser University in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology and Research Assistant for the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (“AbTeC”), “a series of projects investigating innovative methods for First Nations to participate in networked culture to tell our stories while populating and shaping cyberspace itself.” Beth “is an Irish, Anishinaabe, and Metis writer specializing in video game industry” and her creativity has now spilled over into the comic industry.
Beth has recently ventured into the world of comic books with her work with the Zeros2Heroes people, “a thriving network that connects thousands of creators, producers, and fans of comics in a collaborative and creative environment.” In addition to these enormous milestones, Beth proves her continued status of ‘Mega Cool’ with her JTHM reference (Squee !, indeed).
Beth takes time to explain things (slowly!) to Michael Sheyahshe (Caddo) about her recent work in comics and Indigenous representation.
Michael Sheyahshe (“MS”): Background info: what is your tribal affiliation and where are you from?
Elizabeth LaPensee (“ELP”): I’m a half-breed border crosser. My mother is Anishinaabe and Metis from the LaPonsies with family out in Bay Mills and Sault Ste. Marie stateside. My father’s Irish through and through. I was born in Anaheim, California, the city of Disneyland, and grew up in Oregon. I’ve since been in Vancouver, British Columbia and will be making my way out to Edmonton, Alberta soon with my husband Myron Lameman from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. Anywhere with birch trees feels like home to me!
MS: Did you have a lot of cultural interaction growing up? (Family gatherings, dances, ceremonies, etc.?)
ELP: My mother is a big source of cultural and spiritual inspiration for me. Okay, my brother and I usually snickered at her for all of her weird quirks (like collecting pine cones wherever she goes), but I truly feel her giveaway spirit really gave a good context to all of our community interaction. As an urban Native, the Native Student and Community Center at Portland State University in Oregon was the main source of my friends and the gatherings we shared there. My mother also runs Native Film Festivals for free with big feasts, so I’ve always helped out with community events. Powwows, storytelling events, donated elder lunches, visiting speakers like Gary Farmer, youth conferences where I’ve held video game design workshops, you name it.
That place was truly the center of my social life where I took part in helping with many gatherings. I miss it very much but return when I can.
MS: When did you first get into comics?
ELP: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac! Squee! There was this Pegasus Books place in Oregon I’d go to when I was younger. I was into more avant garde edgy comics–not the classic superhero stories.
MS: Do you have a favorite comic; title or type?
ELP: The Watchmen, of course, not to be boring or anything. I also fell in love with V for Vendetta, which I only read after the movie came out and so many people said I just had to read the comic, and of course, much like book adaptations, they were right. But my favorite of all
time has to be Transmetropolitan, for its quirky characters, themes, and journalism quips (I double as a game journalist).
MS: Tell us more about the comics you’ve been working on; how did it all start / come about?
ELP: Nis, a dear friend of mine, pointed me to the Zeros2Heroes and Aboriginal Peoples Television Network collaborative contest for Aboriginal Canadians to enter the contest. My husband and I went away to working on some concepts and responded to feedback from the community which gave us the opportunity to see these ideas come to life.
Fala, a Native urban fantasy rendition of Alice in Wonderland, is inspired by our friends from a short film script I was writing with them in mind before we heard about the contest. With the help of editor Julian Lawrence and artist Patricio Plaza, we get to see Cowboy Smithx as Trickster, Duane Howard as Badger, Senaqwila Wyss as Fala, and Justin Rain and Shane Zwack as Ace and Spade in comic book form.
Fala’s one of those girls who plays video games, but she’s still cool, and of course, often too cool to bother to finish her homework or help out her single mom. Sent out to the woods for a homework assignment on edible plants, Fala gets lost (or rather tricked) and finds herself led down a path of life lessons in a dark, strange rez town.
The West Was Lost is a manifestation of Myron and I in Native steampunk–a subgenre I believe we’re creating originally here with the help of the editor Andrew Foley and artist Frank Grau, Jr. We hope this one can turn into a series. In the full arc of stories, Nezette is chosen as a leader of a group sent from the Sovereign to help the people of the west rid the land of the Zhaagnaash and the Windigo spirits within them. She takes up arms with her trusted friends and family at the coaxing of the well-meaning trickster Nanaboozhoo and starts on a path without end with love and loss met along the way.
MS: When can we expect to see them and will they be available to buy?
ELP: Probably no later than October 2008, although you never know. You can watch Zeros2Heroes for updates!
MS: Keeping in mind any of your other talents, what is your specialty?
ELP: I’m great at keeping descriptions short because of my experience as a video game writer. (Programmers and artists don’t need pages upon pages to wade through.) I’m a writer to the core and this contest has really brought my creativity back. I took a stint away from creative
writing following my Masters in Writing at Portland State University to be a game journalist and take up the challenge of a Doctorate at Simon Fraser University. But in the end, academic and journalistic writing styles aren’t my passion. I’ve really rediscovered the direction I originally wanted to head in life since childhood by having this chance.
MS: Did you get special training and/or education for the comic book work?
ELP: Editors Andrew Foley and Julian Lawrence are walking me through edits. Experiential learning is the best kind, because I’ll actually remember it. For example, I’ve learned that I need to write the script for the artist, not for the community readers! Meaning if there’s a secret mysterious surprise, I need to be open about spelling it out on the panel description, otherwise the artist won’t know where the story is headed and what to draw. Writing for comic books is great but definitely requires its own style separate from game writing and
MS: Have you worked on any other comics?
ELP: Not yet! Believe me, I have an epic book series I’ve been detailing out since I was about twelve that I’ve realized needs to be told in comic book form. When I first started writing it, I kept thinking that words just didn’t cut it. Finally that thing can see the light of day if I can find an artist and editor willing to work on a first issue for pursuing a publisher.
MS: What are some comics with Native American characters in them that stand out to you?
ELP: Although controversial, I have to admit that Myron and I enjoy Scalped. Sure, it’s not made by indigenous people, but I feel the people involved are making a shot at proper representation. That, and, where else can you find a comic entirely about modern Natives put out by a big publisher?
MS: What is your opinion about Indigenous characters in comics? Do you feel we portrayed properly?
ELP: Rarely. I won’t even open The Red Prophet to give it a try because all I see on the cover is a stereotypically aged Native man with a little white boy named Alvin and think–yeah, another outlet where the focus is on the non-Native character. Of course I could be completely wrong about the series, but I do judge books by their covers. Much like video games, we’re often shaped into stereotypes. Halfbreed heroes who slay Indians until they too discover their Indian roots and all is forgiven, the busty hot Native chick who means business in tight skinned leather, you name it. As more of us grow up playing games and reading comics, the more we’ll get involved in making our own representations, and I’m looking forward to it.
MS: Do you know of any other Natives in the “biz” (comic industry and/or video game industry)?
ELP: Steve Sanderson is a great artist who has merged the Japanese manga style with his own to tell unique indigenous stories through comic books. His work has been put out by the Healthy Aboriginal Network.
And of course Chad Solomon, co-creator of the Rabbit and Bear Paws.
Sadly there are few of us in the video game industry. In fact, as of the 2005 International Game Developers Association diversity survey, there were maybe 44 people total who identified as Native. Efforts like the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace ‘Skins’ project from new media artists Skawennati Fragnito and Jason Lewis at Concordia University in Montreal offer game development related education to youth, which I hope will bring more of us into the industry so we can explore video games as a medium for telling our stories.
MS: Any words of wisdom for others (Native or non) looking to do what you do?
ELP: Get started! Find a team, get your friends together, do whatever you can do to get a strong portfolio going for game development. You don’t even need money for higher education–you just need the portfolio and skills if you can learn them on your own, so don’t doubt yourself if
you can’t get into the expensive schools. The more you create, the more examples and experience you’ll have, even if things don’t go perfectly every time (and they won’t). You’ll learn from errors if you try! Really, I feel the same can be said of comic books and many other creative industries.
MS: Anything I’ve missed here? Anything you’d like to ‘plug’ (upcoming shows, debuts, etc.)?
ELP: Thank you to everyone in the Zeros2Heroes community who voted for Fala and The West Was Lost! And a special shout out to Tenzil, who gave us advice along the way and answered even our tech related questions.