Making a hero
Earlier this year, Marvel unveiled the newest member of the Champions, a crime-fighting squad with a new, diverse cast of characters. Her name? Snowguard, or Amka Aliyak, a 16-year-old girl from Pangnirtung, when she isn’t fighting crime.
Nunavut is a long way from writer Jim Zub’s home base of Toronto, so he worked with Nunavut-born virtual-reality artist Nyla Innuksuk to bring Snowguard to the page. Since Pangnirtung’s superhero debuted, schoolkids across Nunavut have written to Nyla and Jim asking everything from where she got her powers to what her favourite foods are. But she has fans all over the world—every issue featuring Snowguard has gone to a second printing.
Here’s what went into bringing Marvel’s first Inuk superhero to life.
Up Here: Where did Snowguard come from?
Jim Zub: The original concept line for [Snowguard] was that it was loosely based around some of the Norse mythology, and I said, OK, what are the myths of Canada? So once that original germ of the idea started, I began doing more research and started asking around because I knew you couldn’t get this from a Wikipedia article. I wanted to make sure we were going to do it right. And that’s when a friend put me in touch with Nyla, and she’s been absolutely wonderful. She’s been a great collaborator as we’ve been developing the character and moving forward with her story.
UH: And what is her story?
Zub: The core of Amka’s story is really about trying to keep your traditions in a modern world. She is sort of the embodiment of this idea of a lot of people, I think, who come from a particular culture and don’t want to lose sight of it. But they’re also trying to bridge that with both a modern life and with a life that’s pulling them in all sorts of different directions.
So Amka, she’s a teenager, she’s trying to figure out what it is to be an adult, what it is to take on these responsibilities. And to me that felt like a very classic kind of superhero story, being pulled to a higher level of responsibility and not knowing yourself yet, while also having to be more than what you were before.
UH: How are you trying to do Marvel characters differently?
Zub: I didn’t want to do the soulful saint. When she got her tattoos, she was like, “Oh, this will connect me to my past. This will connect me to my people and I’m going to have this revelatory moment of spirituality.” And she got the tattoos and it didn’t happen. So it was this weird sort of internal conflict that she has.
At one point in this story, one of her cousins literally says to her “Oh, you’re going off to play nice to the white people and go to America because you don’t want to stay here.” And she’s like, “I’m allowed to see the world.” I felt like that was something worth saying. I didn’t want her and her family and everyone around her to be all lockstep with the same opinions and the same thoughts and the same philosophies.
UH: This idea of ‘Are you Inuk enough if you leave’?
Zub: That’s something Nyla’s gone through and it’s something a lot of her friends have gone through. There’s a connection and a longing but there’s also a sense of, I’m my own person and I have my own goals and needs and desires. And they can be larger than one place.
UH: Are we going to see more superheroes come to Pang?
Zub: I’m setting the table for that. It’s entirely possible that she’s going to end up going there and bringing other characters along with her. What I wanted to avoid was something that’s happened in the past, where they would go to a place, you would have ethnically appropriate heroes show up, and they have an adventure that is of that culture, and then they leave and that hero waits in mothballs until the next time someone decides to go to that place. I just want her to join the team and then she’ll just become a regular part of the story. That was part of my proposal. I said if we can’t do that, if we can’t make her part of the team then we shouldn’t do it. As long as I’m writing the book, she’s going to be on the team.