Jeffrey Veregge is helping bring back a lost Marvel character.
Jeffrey Veregge started reading comic books when he was four. Star Wars. Iron Man. Rom. GI Joe.
Much as Veregge loved the fantasy and adventures of his heroes, none of them had an origin story that the young boy could recognize or relate to as a member of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe based in Kingston. None of them came close.
“I never thought about a character looking like me,” he told me recently.
He had heard of Red Wolf, a Native American character that debuted in 1970, but he only roamed the Marvel Comics universe for about three years before he basically disappeared.
But Marvel is reviving Red Wolf, and has chosen Veregge — now an accomplished artist whose style has been described as “Salish Geek” — to bring him back to life.
“It means the world to me, it’s a dream come true,” said Veregge, 41, who grew up on a reservation known as Little Boston, near Kingston, and is also of Suquamish and Duwamish tribal ancestry.
“To be able to add my two cents worth to the work that has been done on Red Wolf is a wonderful challenge that I hope I can live up to,” he said. “I pray that I don’t taint the legacy left by so many talented individuals that did it before me.”
Red Wolf is Marvel’s first Native American superhero, and debuted at a time when Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee started incorporating minority and female characters in the lineup. Created by comic legends Roy Thomas and John Buscema, Red Wolf was the star of a nine-issue series published between May 1972 and September 1973, and set in the Old West.
Red Wolf is the alter ego of a man named William Talltree, whose father was forced to sell his land to a corrupt businessman. That night, Talltree’s family is killed by the businessman’s henchmen. The boy seeks vengeance, then finds and puts on the ceremonial garb of Red Wolf. The wolf spirit Owaydota, a Native American god, gives him superhuman strength and senses. He is also skilled at hand-to-hand combat and is an experienced wrestler, gymnast, archer, marksman, tracker and animal trainer. His weapons include a six-foot staff that he uses as a javelin, a hunting knife, a tomahawk and a bow and arrow.
To have a Native American hero in the comic world — and especially the Marvel firmament — is the chance for Natives and non-Natives to see a hero in the same vein as Hawkeye, the Punisher and Black Widow, who all had to handle themselves in a universe of super soldiers, augmented humans, aliens and gods.
“It is a wonderful chance,” said Veregge, “to show a capable, intelligent hero who does not get lost or overrun with typical stereotypes that might prevent the reader from truly seeing what a great hero Red Wolf really is.”
He called Red Wolf “a man out of time, out of his own comfortable surroundings.”
In that sense, he said, Red Wolf’s experiences will not be unlike those of Native Americans who choose to leave their reservations to pursue their own careers and dreams.
“How we see Red Wolf adjust to this new life, taking with him what he values, what he was taught and remembering where he originally came from is the same for most Natives,” Veregge said. “I do my best to always feel like I have one foot in the door with my own reservation and tribal community, as it keeps me honest and reminds me of who I am.
“I love the fact that we are showing Red Wolf in a contemporary setting that will allow him to show the traits that many Native professionals have within themselves,” he continued. “Not just surviving but truly thriving with the gifts they have.”
That Red Wolf doesn’t belong to any particular tribe doesn’t matter.
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“He is a Native American from an alternate time, alternate dimension,” Veregge said. “It does not take away the fact that he is still a Native American. I myself no longer live on my tribe’s reservation, but it makes me no less S’Klallam. It is what is in your heart, what you carry with you on your journey that defines who you are.”
In fact, he said, the fact that Red Wolf has no ties provides Veregge an opportunity to show his true nature.
“It will allow him to show his respect of all life as he stands to protect those in need and for those who seek justice,” he said. “That is what will make Red Wolf great. He is a hero who happens to be Native American.”
Veregge, who lives in Bremerton with his wife, Christina, and three children, has been drawing since he was very young. Heroes, robots, monsters and aliens. In his baby book, he said, his mom noted his talent for drawing, mentioning robots from Star Wars by name.
Veregge graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle in 2000, then studied formline design with T’simshain master carver David Boxley.
His art incorporates Coastal Salish Formline design with traditional graphic design elements and techniques and his love of comics.
So his work has felt at home in regional galleries, tribe museums, the “In the Spirit” Contemporary Northwest Native Arts Exhibit at the Washington State Historical Museum and at Nike’s Native American Network Festival. He has also launched two shows, called Mint Condition, in which he has shown comic-book inspired art.
“It is a merger of both my pride in my heritage and my passion for all things geek,” Veregge said of his work. “What I try to do with each piece is show my favorite characters with a Native flavoring, to see both the geek and the Native side with neither overpowering the other.
“It’s a real balancing act,” he said, “and incredibly fun for me to do.”