‘Chickaloonies’ comic puts contemporary spin on traditional stories

A comic image shows a man with a spear hunting a small animal.
An image from the Chickaloonies comic. (Courtesy of 80% Studios).

Dimi Macheras, an Alaska Native comic artist, is releasing a new book heavily influenced by stories passed down to him by his grandmother.

He said growing up in Alaska, he always loved drawing, illustrating and comic books.

“My mom’s got pictures of me before I could even talk just constantly drawing and doodling,” he said. “In some of my earliest memories were cartoons on the cereal boxes and action figures, toys like He-Man and stuff.”

Macheras is Ahtna, a citizen of the Chickaloon Native Village. He was born in Anchorage, and grew up around the Matanuska-Susitna area.

As a kid, Macheras said, he was obsessed with animals taking on human characteristics — anthropomorphism.

“When the Ninja Turtles cartoon came out, and I think it was ‘87, that was it for me, that was kind of like my entry point,” he said. “It’s something that I just became obsessed with … I found a connection there with the traditional stories that grandma passed down because she would explain that the animals and humans could talk and that they’d have human characteristics.”

Macheras said he would illustrate his grandma’s stories and she would encourage him.

“How we got the sun in the moon and she would describe Raven as being unkempt and kind of mysterious and always up to no good,” he said. “And so, you know, I draw him kind of lying around being lazy, with pizza boxes kind of strewn about … It wasn’t like how you might traditionally view it. But grandma really encouraged it. And I kind of kept pushing on.”

Macheras would find a love for anime and manga, too.

When his grandmother passed away, he said, his mother began doing more storytelling. And he began illustrating her stories, too. His work eventually made its way through the education department at the village of Chickaloon.

“Those kind of like took off. They were very successful, especially with the help of my mom, who would take those images and bring them to classrooms around Alaska and share our stories with classrooms full of kids with the lights down and projector up with the images, illustrations behind her,” Macheras said. “There’s an entire generation of kids up there who would have otherwise maybe never heard or realized the history and the stories of the land that they live in. And that was kind of her legacy that she left behind.”

Macheras’ mom, Patricia Wade, passed away in 2014.

Eventually Macheras moved to Seattle to pursue his dream of illustrating. That’s where he met Casey Silver, and the two formed their comic book studio, 80% Studios.

“I feel like in my own way, I’m trying to evolve that storytelling thing to the next level,” he said. “And Chickaloonies is like kind of evolving that storytelling legacy.”

Silver grew up in Rhode Island before moving to Seattle in 2006.

“I think that this project that we’re doing now, Chickaloonies, is really the best thing that we’ve done,” Silver said. “It’s something that I think is the most probably accessible of what we’ve done. And I’m just really excited to share it with everybody.”

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Chickaloonies follows the journey of two Alaska Native characters living in perpetual darkness. They leave their village for the first time on a quest to become the greatest storytellers ever. Guided by teachings from their grandma, the two characters explore foreign worlds and learn from new cultures.

“But it’s a real fun coming of age story, kind of in the vein of, like ‘Dragonball’ or ‘Avatar, The Last Airbender,’ where we really wanted to bring together the ideas of like storytelling, of legends, language, magic, you know, really bring these themes together into a story that, at the first and foremost, is entertaining,” Silver said. “But is also educational, makes people aware of not only their own culture, but of cultures that exist throughout the world and how similar we all are and yet different at the same time.”

For Macheras, one of the challenges and main inspirations was how to tell non-linear traditional stories in comic book style — a format that is linear.

“One of the main inspirations for this book is we wanted to tell an Alaska Native-style story and kind of more of a more modern way,” he said. “And we’re still learning how to tell that kind of a story. … And it’s a learning curve.”

“We didn’t want to use a preexisting story,” he added. “We wanted to create our own story.”

One of the most striking aspects of the book is how the two artists depicted Indigenous words or sounds from nature.

“We’ve definitely inspired by Japanese comics manga. And I just love the look of the sound effects and the symbols that they use. And even if you can’t read that language, you kind of can understand the effect of the emotional impact behind that language,” Macheras said. “There’s no written language for Ahtna Athabascan, so how would we convey that in a comic book? We’re reading it and looking at pictures, and I just kind of came up with the idea of inventing a symbolic language that would denote that a character person is speaking the language.”

One of the main characters — Sasquatch E. Moji — only speaks through representations of emojis.

“There’s a lot of different viewpoints of of language and communication is a big theme in this country, how people and how characters can relate to each other, even if they might not speak the same language,” Macheras said. “Then in turn, communicating to the reader. It becomes sort of like a communicator, a communication on and off the page.”

Macheras enlisted the help of his cousin, Melissa Shaginoff, who’s Ahtna and Paiute, to help advise on cultural matters.

“We are working with my cousin Melissa, who is a wealth of culture, knowledge from my tribe and really trying to work in some of the nuances of how these characters can behave and can act more authentically like the people like the tribe would act,” he said. “I’m learning about my history as I go through this process.”

Macheras said representation was an important and central focus of the project.

“Alaskan Native kids are underrepresented in pop culture and comic books,” he said. “I’m looking forward to be able to give something back to the place I grew up, to my culture. So I’m doing this for my mom, doing this from grandma to kind of carry on the legacy. My hope is that it shows that this culture is alive and it’s thriving and it can make really interesting modern stories and modern art. This is just kind of taking, you know, taking the culture and heritage and finding a new way to put a new spin on it. I feel like and I really do hope that inspires kids.”

The name Chickaloonies comes from what Macheras’ mom called all the “crazy kids from Chickaloon.”

Macheras and Silver have book-signing events scheduled in the Anchorage area in the coming days, including a Chickaloonies premiere party at the Anchorage Library on Saturday.

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