View profile


Comics, FYI
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #17 • View online
Names have power, as the saying goes. Especially if you name your character after a well known historical figure of some importance.

It is, if nothing else, an uncommon thing for a Conan comic to be considered particularly controversial these days. The character has been a constant in the medium for more than half a century at this point, and consistently popular, to boot: he anchored a number of series at Marvel in the 1970s and ‘80s, including The Official Handbook of the Conan Universe, somewhat amazingly. He’s a character whose appeal is, at this point, well understood and appreciated by a significant audience. For the most part, you know what you’re going to get in a Conan comic.
All of which makes the reception to last month’s King Conan #3 so unexpected.
The six-issue series marks Jason Aaron’s return to the character after a well-received stint as the writer on the first twelve issues of Marvel’s primary Conan the Barbarian title back in 2019-2020. Paired with artist Mahmud Asrar, the two tell the story of a later period in the character’s life when, bored of the responsibilities of the throne, he leaves his home and sails west in search of adventure. In the third issue in particular, he arrives on an island filled with zombies before being seemingly rescued by a mysterious figure who, of course, ends up being more than she first appears. 
The character introduces herself as Princess Matoaka, a name now recognized as a possible birthname of the historical figure more famously known as Pocahontas… and this is where the problem begins.
Now, to be clear: the character appearing in King Conan #3 is by no means the actual Pocahontas*. She is instead – spoilers, everyone – the daughter of an Incan shaman who betrayed her people for the love of an explorer, and was cast out as a result… only to wash up on the shores of “an island of golden ruin,” where she becomes – again, spoilers! – a magical femme fatale that personifies the island’s curse. An attempt to seduce Conan – “I need a man… virile enough to ferry us across the churning sea,” she says, attempting to lure him onto a trap made of fingernails from corpses – fails, leading to her turning on him and delivering a monologue where she says things like, “I’ve seen the way you kill! Without mercy, without hesitation! You men of the east are all the same!” and “The only promises your kind understands are those made with blood!” while spooky tentacles fly around her head. 
(The fact that Conan stories are set during the fictional “Hyborian age,” a time period generally considered to be somewhere around 10,000 BC or so – and therefore roughly 11,500 years before Pocahontas was even born – would also put paid to the idea that the fictional Princess Matoaka is intended to be the real thing, were it not for the fact that Marvel also publishes comics where Conan exists in the present day and hangs out with his own team of Avengers. Comics, everyone.)
And yet… she’s clearly named after Pocahontas. After all, it’s not as if the name Matoaka is a common one, especially when you add in the Princess title; “Princess Matoaka” was specifically one of the ways in which Pocahontas was presented to the English by the Virginia Company in an attempt to anglicize her societal position. (She was, according to material of the era, “daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.”) The allusion is not coincidental, nor subtle; readers are most certainly being invited to make the connection in a manner just shy of the comic including a line of dialogue saying, “Hey, do you remember Pocahontas? That’s me, I’m Pocahontas.” The obvious question is, why?
One obvious answer is that this fictional Matoaka is intended as some kind of commentary on her real life namesake – but if that’s the case, what exactly is the commentary? That Pocahontas was… despoiled by the men around her, and filled with righteous fury and vengeance? That she was actually a Lovecraftian villain deep down, and we just never saw the signs…? It’s possible that Aaron uses the fictional story – in which Matoaka unwittingly helps her lover steal the treasures of her people, before killing him after his people ransack her city – as some kind of metaphor for the real life experience of Pocahontas, but if so, it’s at best an imperfect one – and one that feels uncomfortable given the sexualized portrayal of the character that includes narration like “she showed him the way to the most sacred treasures she knew. Her own.” Such things may be in keeping with the pulp roots of Conan, but troublesome in reference to a real life teenage girl kidnapped and likely raped by English colonists. 
Similarly uncomfortable, and for similar reasons, was Asrar’s visual portrayal of the fictional Matoaka, who looks as if she’s taken fashion tips from Dejah Thoris, scantily-clad ruler of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom. If this is intended to be a reference to the real life Pocahontas, it invites questions about the intent of the creators involved.
The story, and specifically the existence of the fictional Princess Matoaka, came under fire following a preview of the issue on Newsarama early last month, headlined, “Pocahontas makes her Marvel debut in King Conan #3 (sort of).” That story didn’t go so far as to definitively state that the King Conan character was Pocahontas, but instead pointed out the use of the familiar name, and commented on Aaron being “no stranger to Native American culture” thanks to his breakthrough project Scalped at DC’s Vertigo imprint back in 2007.
Responses on social media to both the Newsarama story and the comic itself have been… shall we say, less than enthusiastic. “Marvel ‘fixes’ asian eyes - becasue god forbid a young asian girl look accurate - and then just last week, put out THIS bastardization & hyper-sexualization of Pocahontas who was a young Native ~10 year-old girl that was stolen & raped by white settlers,” wrote one Twitter user, adding “this is VIOLENCE.” (The “fixing” of Asian eyes was, of course, a reference to Marvel’s censorship of Greg Smallwood’s Elektra: Black, White & Blood artwork.) 
Another wrote, “Fucking not one of bit of this doesn’t speak to the revolting amount of anti-indigeneity common in comics. I know Conan fans like to close their eyes to the racism in the series, but how was this cleared by so many people?“ 
"I don’t think words can really describe how upset I am about the announcement of Matoaka ‘Pocahontas’ being in the Conan series. Even if it’s not really her, the fact that her name was used for a hypersexualized Indigenous character is so extremely gross,” read yet another, summarizing a sentiment expressed by many.
There are a few things at play here – not least of all the role played by the Newsarama story in making this go viral, albeit slowly**, given that it’s unclear how many of those reacting on Twitter have actually read the issue in question and understand that it’s not literally meant to be Pocahontas in the comic. But something I keep returning to is, basically, how much of an unforced error this is on Marvel’s part. The character in question gains nothing from the use of the Princess Matoaka name, and as many on social media have pointed out, linking such a sexualized pulp-y creation to a real person who was famously abused as a child feels obviously, clearly in poor taste and a very bad idea. What happened editorially for this to end up in the final comic, without anyone suggesting literally any other name***? 
I reached out to Marvel for comment – also inquiring about the possibility of comment from Jason Aaron on the subject – but have yet to receive a response at time of writing.
* The choice to go with the name “Pocahontas” throughout this story, knowing that she had multiple names, belies my lack of knowledge on this topic – something I’m admittedly anxious about; as someone raised in the UK, I’m relying on somewhat cursory research to try and get the facts straight here, and I’m aware that there’s some discussion as to what the facts might actually be. I’m sincerely sorry if I slipped up in the process. 
** One of the stranger things about this story is that it feels as if the social media outrage is coming to a head right now, even though the comic actually came out two weeks ago. I wonder if this is a sign of how unimportant the actual comic itself is to the upset, versus the idea that Marvel would create a sexualized version of Pocahontas for its own purposes. (Something that, it seems, no-one really seems to have any trouble believing, which might be an entirely separate problem for Marvel to deal with at a later date.) 
** Another strange thing about this story is that, had Aaron chosen almost any other name imaginable – short of, say, that of another historical figure or a copyrighted and legally actionable character – then I can’t imagine that anyone would have had much of anything to say about the issue. It’s not as if there’s been a significant amount of discussion about the earlier two issues of King Conan… or, for that matter, any of Marvel’s Conan comics at all.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Graeme McMillan

A newsletter about comics, the comic industry, and comic book culture.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue