The cover of Thunderous by Helena- based poets M.L. Smoker and Natalie Peeterse

For the past decade, comic books and graphic novels have grown in popularity, with Hollywood movies and TV series adaptations — especially from Marvel — finding critical acclaim. Last year, the graphic novel industry posted $24 million in sales, an increase of 171% over 2020. But the increase in titles and revenue is maybe less interesting than a shift in content.

While Japanese graphic novels have been popular for decades, a new wave of comic stories from around the world, focused on a variety of cultures — India, Australia, all across South America — are coming out of small and medium-sized publishing houses. That environment has given a new Native American-centered, young-adult graphic novel called “Thunderous,” by two Montana writers, an opportunity to reach a wider audience. 

“Thunderous” is about a Lakota teenager from South Dakota who yearns to fit in. The main character, Aiyana, worries that what makes her different — her Lakota heritage and connection to her previous home on a reservation — are what she needs to hide. And despite loving her family, she pushes them away to seek acceptance among her classmates. Not long into the story, Aiyana is transported into a world of talking animals and a special quest that will transform her. The characters, themes and lessons of the story are rooted in Lakota storytelling, and while Aiyana is not a hero with superpowers in the Marvel sense, her journey has a classic hero’s-origin-story flavor. 

“It’s a story about a really reluctant hero,” says “Thunderous” co-author M.L. Smoker. “She’s got to figure things out for herself to be the hero of her own story and to really begin to think about others.”

Smoker and her co-author, Natalie Peeterse, are both Helena-based poets. Smoker is a member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, has published a poetry collection called “Another Attempt at Rescue, ” formerly worked in the Indian Education Division of the state Office of Public Instruction, and currently works as the Indian Education Practice Expert for Portland-based Education Northwest. Between 2019 and 2021, she shared the role of Montana Poet Laureate with Melissa Kwasny. Peeterse, who co-runs Open Country Press, a Montana literary publishing company, has published two collections: “Black Birds: Blue Horse, An Elegy” and “Dreadful: Luminosity, Letters.” Neither had written a comic-style story before.

Early last year, a media group called Curiosity Ink Media, which partnered with the independent comic publishing company Dynamite to produce original stories with diverse perspectives, approached a Lakota friend of Smoker’s. They wanted him to create a young adult story with Indigenous characters. He already had several projects on his plate, so he asked Smoker if she wanted to take it on. Smoker says the companies didn’t have any particular ideas for the story,they just knew they wanted to support a Native project.

The poster for Thunderous by Helena-based poets M.L. Smoker and Natalie Peeterse

“It was a big deal,” Smoker says, “because less than 1% of children’s literature is by or about American Indians, which is a very deplorable number. My friend told them, ‘Hey, I know the person for this.’ And so he called me and asked if I would be interested in writing a children’s lit piece based in Indian Country.”

Smoker and Peeterse are longtime friends and collaborators. They spent time with each other through the pandemic, which brought them even closer together, and made Peeterse the obvious choice as writing partner.

“As a poet, I was apprehensive about writing dialog and characters in this new setting,” Smoker says. “But I knew I wanted it to be funny. We got through the pandemic together with our families with a sense of humor and appreciation for one another. I knew it would be fun to collaborate.”

The humor in “Thunderous” is grounded in the world of teenagers and young adults. Aiyana responds to the talking animals with a balance of reverence and teenage disbelief, which gives the story a modern authenticity, but also allows her character to take the weighty lessons of experience seriously enough that she is transformed into a stronger person by story’s end.

Smoker and Peeterse tested that story against a tough audience: their two graphic-novel-reading 9-year-old daughters.

“We had a little peanut gallery,” Peeterse says. “We would knock around ideas in front of the kids, and they’d be like, ‘Mom, that’s so dumb.’ So that was helpful. They would either think it was cool or roll their eyes. They had lots of feedback.”

A page from the graphic novel Thunderous by Helena-based poets M.L. Smoker and Natalie Peeterse

Graphic novels are centered on visual art. Dale Deforest, a Navajo illustrator and graphic designer, created the main work for “Thunderous.” Barcelona-based artist Oriol Vidal drew the cover. Smoker says they insisted on having a Native artist do the bulk of the drawings as a way to support Native artists and inspire emerging comic illustrators.

“Hopefully he will inspire another generation of kids that are already into comic books, already into all the Marvel stuff,” Smoker says. “We want it to really provide a gateway to that universe to help Native kids be like, ‘I can draw that. I can do that.’”

Though it was a new experience for the authors, there were some familiar elements that echoed the process of writing poetry. 

“It was sort of like a poem in that you change one part of the story and there’s a domino effect to the rest of the story,” Peeterse says. “And the culmination of Aiyana’s journey is like the turn of a poem. The moment she has her epiphany, that’s straight poetry, right there.” 

Poets are by nature economical with language. Still, writing a graphic novel meant giving even more space to the illustrations and paring down the story. That aspect was especially difficult for Smoker and Peeterse because “Thunderous” is a retelling of a Lakota story that involves four days and seven traditional values. In the end, they had to condense Aiyana’s journey to two days and focus on three values: generosity, kinship and fortitude.

Fortitude isn’t exactly the right word for the concept, Smoker notes, but it’s the closest English equivalent they could find. And that was the other challenge. The concepts and text of “Thunderous” are based on the Lakota language. And there is no exact translation. Even the Lakota spellings were difficult to pin down because the stories have been spoken more often than written. The authors were able to get feedback on language and dialog from tribal members, but there was almost never agreement, even among Indigenous consultants. 

One thing they did want to do was offer some Lakota words within the story without explanation, though they do provide a glossary, which they included in the hope of piquing the interest of Native and non-Native kids interested in language.

For Smoker, providing an entertaining story for kids and adults was part of the goal, but getting the words right was of the utmost importance. “Thunderous” is conceived as a franchise, so the poets will have more opportunities in the future to explore the Lakota concepts further and pursue the goal of honoring the Lakota storytelling tradition.

“Anybody can write a story about Indigenous kids, but how you represent them and their culture and identity is really, really important,” Smoker says. “So we spent a lot of time talking about that and working through it and just hoping that people see that intent, and that they are appreciative and like it.”

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Erika Fredrickson is a freelance journalist based in Missoula, where she writes about technology, the environment, and lifestyle. She was the arts editor at the Missoula Independent for 10 years before it was shut down in 2018.