Theo Tso, an enrolled member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, is the creator of the comic book superhero Captain Paiute.
Like some other Native independent comics artists—including Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (Haida) and Cole Pauls (Tahltan)—he uses comics as a vehicle to talk about modern Indigenous life, and the sometimes powerful, sometimes fraught connection to Native traditions.
Tso has an upcoming exhibition of sketches, drawings and prints at the Clark County Library, running from Aug. 17 to Nov. 5. He also has a comics workshop scheduled for Sept. 29 and 30 at Great Basin Community College in Elko. Below is a conversation we had about Captain Paiute, water rights, and the power of representation. The transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Could you walk me through what your inspirations were for the design of Captain Paiute’s costume?
When I first created him back in the 90s—back in high school—the original idea was based on Batman. He was more like a Batman clone than anything else. He had a cape, and a full-headed cowl. He was basically a Batman rip-off—a bad Batman rip-off.
Many superheroes have gotten their start by being a Batman rip-off.
I pulled him out of my portfolio about eight, almost 10 years ago, and looked at him, like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to revamp this guy. This costume is not going to work, especially around the reservation.” I just simplified it—took away the cape but added a loincloth. I needed something to show action. I cut the top of his cowl off to expose his hair—you know, the “hair in the wind” effect. Even if he’s standing still there’s always that motion of action, either with his hair or his loincloth flowing in the wind.
I drew on my history. There’s a few old pictures of some of the old people wearing loincloths. It’s regalia, basically—I don’t call it a costume, it’s regalia. I think people overdo this, but some people say superheroes are like the new mythology.
You have these characters who have great powers—whether you’re talking about Greek mythology, or if you’re talking about folk figures like Paul Bunyan. There’s this sense of magic with characters like Coyote—or, since I’m in Northern Nevada I’m familiar with the Paiute story of the Stone Woman who, in grief, turned to stone and filled up Pyramid Lake with her tears. I was wondering if there’s a sense of continuity, for you, between these kinds of folk characters that have magical dimensions or powers, and the appeal of superheroes.
Actually mine is drawn on our traditions, our traditional ways. “Paiute” means “Water Ute,” [a member of the Ute tribe who lives near water]. I got the “Captain” from a Northern Nevada Native, a Paiute they just called “The Captain.” If I’m remembering right, he was a medicine man or a holy man. I thought that was kind of cool—it’s not a rank, it’s just a name.
Down here we’re desert dwellers, and we know how sacred water is. It’s a harsh environment and my ancestors carved away and farmed these lands down here. They knew where all the good springs were at. I took my ancestry and my heritage and gave it to Captain Paiute—some of the stuff that old people taught me, some of the old stories that they told me.
It’s kind of what you were just talking about, the mythology—but I took it and flipped it. I took it as a teaching tool for our young people, because a thing that our young people don’t have is a sense of tradition anymore. We’re all modernized now, and we need to bring that tradition back. We need to teach our young ones the traditional ways because we’re dying out. If we don’t have our traditions we’re going to fade quick.
Could you spell out some of the traditional ethics, or the traditional wisdom, that you think gets scattered in modern life—that you really want people to reconnect to?
Well, I watched a lot of Ghost Adventures with Zak Bagans, and it’s a pet peeve when he’s always saying that the land is cursed—that the Native Americans have cursed the land. No, we didn’t do that—we were stewards of the land. We took care of the land! We never cursed anything. I don’t know, maybe we cursed each other [laughs], but we never cursed the land because we all fed off the land. It took care of us.
One of the lessons I teach in my books is—we took care of the land. All Natives are stewards of the land—we fight for our water rights. We fight for our land rights. A lot of our good hunting areas are being taken up by corporations who want to put single family homes on there. Out here we’ve got the Nellis bombing range. It’s been saved for the time being, but they want to open up more bombing ranges, and it’s a sacred area to us. It’s something we as Native people have to fight for on a daily basis.
Captain Paiute’s powers are water-based. Could you unpack that a bit? Taking the notion of a Water Protector and transferring that into a superhero metaphor?
He can manipulate water. He can control the ambient temperature of his core, and create steam for a diversion. Or he can lower his body temperature down to almost zero, and create ice. He pulls his powers from Mother Earth. He’ll hold his hand to the ground and the groundwater will seep up and transform him into Captain Paiute. And after he’s done being Captain Paiute, he returns the power, he returns the water back to the ground. That’s me using that symbol as a metaphor—again, we take care of the land, we replace what we take.
You’re trying to communicate traditional ideas, but superheroes are a relatively new thing. I’m curious how you think about using a non-traditional framework to convey traditional ideas or ethics.
Comics were the bottom end of the art world back in the day. With these movies popping up, it’s become popular now. “Oh wow, this is cool now.” So with the young ones, it gives them a cool character—somebody that looks like them, who understands what goes on in a reservation.
Growing up at school I didn’t have anybody who looked like me. I was the only Native kid, out of a handful of kids I went to school with. We were in different classes, so I was the only Native one in the class, and I got singled out. Every time the teacher mentioned something about being a Native, all the kids looked back at me, and I’m like “Whoa—I don’t know what they did. I’m a kid. I’m here to learn the white man way.”
When a Native kid walks up to me and looks at the book, and his eyes get big and you know he’s drawn to the stories—I know what it’s like to be that kid. For me it was kind of the opposite. I was looking at the comic books, looking at the artwork, and then soon after I noticed there were no comics that featured Native Americans, starring a Native American. They’re sidekicks or trackers, or something like that.
When the X-Men introduced Thunderbird, I think he lasted three issues before he got killed.
Yeah, in the Suicide Squad movie the Native guy gets blown his head blown off in the first three minutes.
Captain Paiute’s alter ego is a hydrologist. I was curious about that piece of it—if it’s a way of grounding it. Playing on the sense that there’s a scientific or real-world way of engaging with these issues, and then there’s an imaginative or fantasy way of engaging with them.
I wanted to keep him in the water field because one thing our people need is clean water. Actually everybody, just people in general, need clean water. That’s why I used the Navajos [in Captain Paiute], who don’t have access to water. They’ve got wells out there, where you have to drive miles to fill your water jugs up. I used that as a springboard where Luther Pah—which is Captain Paiute’s alter ego—could go to other reservations and look at their water situation and say, “Hey, maybe I could design your water system, add a water filtration system, and we’re going to clean this water out.” And then on the on the flip side, maybe something happens at that reservation, and Captain Paiute can battle that.
What specific water issues have you dealt with, or has the Southern Paiute tribe had to deal with?
The big one right now is Lake Mead drying up. That looks like it’s coming back now. The water levels have gone back up. We’ll see what happens—summer’s not over yet. But since the lake has been shrinking, it’s been uncovering a lot of cool things.
Like dead bodies, and old boats that have sunk to the lake floor. What I heard back in the day was when they built the dam, they flooded out a lot of old Paiute sacred areas, and there’s petroglyphs and things like that still underwater.
Are there a lot of petroglyphs down where you are?
Oh yeah, there’s rock art all over the place. There’s Valley of Fire, there’s the Overton Arm, up in the mountains …
I’m curious if you connect yourself—as a drawer—to petroglyph art?
Pretty much, yeah. It’s like, “Wow, my ancestors were telling stories before I started telling stories.” [laughs] The thing is, they were doing it on the rock wall, I’m doing it on paper. I was always curious about what kinds of tools they used to do that work. And some of that stuff is way up there, high up—how the heck did they get up there to tell these stories?
Theo Tso’s next exhibition, The Art of Theo Tso, Creator of Captain Paiute, will be on view at the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Rd. in Las Vegas, from Aug. 17 to Nov. 5. He also has comics workshops scheduled for Sept. 29 and 30, 1-3 pm at Great Basin Community College in Elko.
Follow @captain.paiute.comics on Instagram.