ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lee Francis IV, 40, has his dream job.
As CEO and founder of Native Realities, he is a comic book connoisseur. He runs his own comic book and games store, Red Planet, and he publishes, distributes and sometimes even writes and designs comics.
Francis has a background in education, so he has also managed to use the work his company is doing to help promote literacy in Native American communities. His company doesn’t just make comics: It makes comic books and graphic novels with Native American heroes and characters.
Francis’ father was from Laguna Pueblo and deeply involved in education in New Mexico, so Francis has carved himself out a space in which he can read comic books, play games, help poor communities and carry on his father’s legacy all at once. His grandfather, E. Lee Francis, served as New Mexico’s lieutenant governor during the administration of Gov. David Cargo.
This year, Francis organized the second annual Indigenous Comic Con, featuring 80 artists from around the world, to help spread the niche of Native American superheroes to a wider audience.
Are you from here?
My dad worked for the federal government and university systems. So he did work out of (Washington) D.C., out of California. My grandparents are from here, and my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents. My family is out from the pueblo of Laguna, on my dad’s side. And (when) we got back here fairly permanently, he took over as the chair of Native Studies at UNM in 1997. I finished up college and then came back and did a few travel bits here and there but this has been, well, it’s home, but this has been the base of operations for 20-something years now.
What did you do after college?
I started off as an actor. So I went into doing theater work. I did a national tour, a few regional tours, various theater things and then, in 2002, came back here and started teaching. My dad needed an instructor with a partnership that he had out of Laguna Acoma High School. And I was young and needing a career and so he was like, “Wanna come home? You can have a job.”
He passed away in 2003 and I kept teaching until 2010, about when my son was born. I worked various avenues around education, in and out of the classroom. I did after-school programing for a while, served as the executive director for the Laguna education foundation.
And then my son was born, and I went off and got my Ph.D. I came back and started doing some school design work. And then (Native Realities) really took off.
So we’ve been in business really for two-and-a-half years now. We have some previous publications before that. And then it just started getting some traction.
And then February of last year, we pitched the idea for the (Indigenous) Comic Con. I put all that together and then we did that for the first time in November (2016). We were part of Creative Startups last year. We were the winners for last year’s cohort, so that’s been a really great asset for us as well.
I do a little bit of evaluation and consulting work still, mostly just to feed my intellectual side, my academic side. But for the majority, it’s getting comics done and getting the word out to everybody.
So how do you find your artists?
When we first started, there was a group of artists that we knew … called Indigenous Narratives Collective. And so we draw upon them as artists and they do independent work, but we can still contract out with them. And then we reached out to various other folks.
And now we get a lot of folks that come to us. Folks that want to do some work, or teams that create their own collaborations for putting together their books. So it’s a wonderful mix of (people).
We are mostly west of the Mississippi. We are hoping to be able to expand out (to) the East Coast. I’m actually heading out to Boston to do a little talk out there and hopefully generate some interest and start getting some of those other wonderful artists and collaborators.
What was the first book that you published?
The first one that we did was called “INC’s Universe,” under Indigenous Narratives Collective. And it was a page from each of the artists we had worked with.
And it was funny because when we published that, we got invited to Denver Comic Con.
We always love to tell the story, it was really amusing. We show up to Denver Comic Con, and we’ve got this table and we have one comic book. And we had a booth, they gave us this booth. It was a 10-by-10 booth, and we’ve got this table with one comic (on it).
And that’s when we really began to make plans. That’s really a lot of the evolution that kick-started everything because just looking around at what everyone else had and our one little comic, and so we realized we had a lot more work to do.
And you do literacy outreach programs?
We are umbrellaed under a nonprofit called Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. We are set to launch what’s called the Red Word Foundation. It basically … generates revenue to be able to get pop culture curriculum worked out to help out with native youth literacy. And so really, being very targeted about where we want to promote the work, to be able to get the books into places where they don’t have a budget.
Because that’s really what we looking at in terms of this publishing work is trying to create a bridge between picture books and early reader stuff and then some young adult stuff, but (there’s) not a lot that features native characters in native situations. There’s not a lot of identity development for kids with these books. So we really wanted to focus on that middle area, but there is a little gap right there before they can jump into Native Lit.
And for us it was really developing a pipeline for this. So it’s that we control it from creation to distribution including our own trade show, including our shop here, so that we are able to really control the creative aspects of it. We just want to tell really good stories with native characters that everybody can enjoy and read.
You are quite the poet, I’m told. Do you still write?
Yeah, for a lot of my life, I was out teaching and then that was my after-school engagements. I still write. I write a couple of the comics. I’ve got a story in (“Tales of the Mighty Codetalkers”). I still write a little poetry every now and then but don’t really perform that much anymore. And then I’m working on a young adult fiction piece right now, (and) trying to work on a full fiction novel. Got that kind of outlined.
What do you do for fun?
You know, it’s really just kind of kid-oriented events. So whatever is in town for experience. We just did the Chinese Lantern Festival (and we saw) the Globetrotters. My wife is really more in charge of that.
I like microbrews. I love local craft beer, so I will hang out at the breweries around town. That’s pretty much it.
When you have a kid, it’s like your focus is on the kid.
And I run the comic shop so I also read comics and play games all the time. And that’s for fun as well, but it also bleeds over into the professional world. When I’m playing a game, its not just entirely getting lost in the game, I’m like, “How do we design this for us?”
POSITION: Founder of Native Realities and its storefront, Red Planet Books and Comics.
EDUCATION: Born in Arlington, Va., Francis attended the University of Missouri for undergraduate school, where he studied theater. He received a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in educational leadership and got his doctorate from Texas State, also in educational leadership.
FAMILY: Francis met his wife, Liza Wolff, at a poetry slam. They have a 7-year-old son, Elias.
Did you know?
n Lee Francis is a Poetry Slam National Champion.
n His favorite book is “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers. His favorite comic book is “Saga” written by Brian K. Vaughn and drawn by Fiona Staples.
n His favorite movies these days are the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. But as a kid, it was the remake of “Maverick.”