On June 4, 2017, nearly 200 people descended on a quiet block in Albuquerque, N.M. While the Jir Project, a band from Cochiti Pueblo, played in the shade, visitors from across the state poured into Red Planet Books and Comics, which claims to be the only Native comic book store in the world. Outside, artists exhibited their work and signed books, and inside, comic fans browsed the graphic novels, children’s books, and nonfiction works—mostly by Indigenous creators. The store’s founder, Lee Francis IV, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, hadn’t expected such a turnout and said that he sold nearly all the books shop had. The warm, festival-like atmosphere and scores of fans had welcomed the bookstore to the community.

Since that day in 2017, Red Planet has sold graphic novels, comics, games, toys, and collectibles to “Indigenerds” in New Mexico. Situated a block south of Route 66, Red Planet’s mission is clear from its exterior. A mural designed to look like a comic book cover engulfs the shop’s facade: One side lists a price of “505 cents,” a reference to the city’s area code, and the other “Vol. 1680,” the year of the Pueblo Revolt. Red Planet’s mission to celebrate Native creators is even clearer on the inside: Illustrations of Star Wars and Marvel characters hang alongside paintings of Sitting Bull and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland; Dungeons & Dragons sets sit near Cards For Decolonization; and copies of classic comics like March and Persepolis are shelved alongside Native-authored books like Code Talkers and If I Go Missing.

As it approaches its fifth anniversary this June, Red Planet has grown into something more: a space for artists, writers, and fans to imagine Indigenous futures beyond the Southwest and the traditional comic book format.

“There’s this dismissal of comics, but comic books dominate our world at this point,” Francis told me, pointing to the success of DC and Marvel. At Red Planet, it’s his goal to “fill gaps where there isn’t representational media of Native folks.”

A year before that June day, Francis had decided to hold the world’s first Indigenous ComicCon (today called IndigiPop X) at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood. In 2014, Francis had founded a publishing house called Native Realities Press, which printed comic books by and for Native communities. Native Realities had published eight books, and Francis found himself building relationships with creators who he wanted to bring together. So he invited Indigenous stars from across gaming, comic books, animation, and academia to spend a long weekend in Albuquerque. The event brought together video-game designer Elizabeth LaPensée, an Anishinaabe, Métis, and Irish professor; Ishmael Angaluuk Hope, an Inupiaq and Tlingit poet and scholar; Jon Proudstar, a Yaqui, Mayan, Jewish, and Latino actor and author of the Tribal Force comic book series; and Grace Dillon, an Anishinaabe scholar who’s best known for coining the term “Indigenous futurism.”

By the end of the weekend, Francis said he had accumulated enough books, banners, and memorabilia that “there were boxes piling up in my hallways in my house.” He realized that he needed a more permanent storage solution if the ComicCon were going to recur and if Native Realities were to continue growing, so he started renting a small storage office from the SouthWest Organizing Project, an activist hub around the corner from his home. But as he went to and from SWOP’s offices, Francis noticed an empty storefront—once a hair salon, but now used only occasionally for community meetings. He asked SWOP if he could rent that space instead.

“The original idea was to create almost like a tasting room,” Francis told me. Native Realities could ship books from the backroom, and “anybody that wanted to come in and see books and hang out and chat” could browse the few books Francis had collected in the front of the store. “We just kept adding books and adding comics, and then ordering and figuring out how to make this thing work,” he said. “Somewhere along the way we ended up making a bookstore.”

As that was happening, Francis reached out to his friend and former colleague Aaron J. Cuffee III, who is Montauk and Shinnecock, for thoughts about what to name the emerging store. The two had worked together at the Native American Community Academy, a charter school located on the grounds of the old Albuquerque Indian School. Cuffee, another lifelong comics fan, suggested “Red Planet.” The name evoked both science fiction (think the planet Mars) and the Indigenous identity of the space (think Red Power or the Red Road). Their tagline became “Don’t fear a Red Planet.”

Lee Francis IV poses in front of Red Planet.

Lee Francis IV poses in front of Red Planet Books and Comics. (Courtesy of Red Planet Books and Comics)

At the beginning, Francis dreamed of filling a whole bookshelf with comics just by Native creators, but at the time there weren’t many to choose from. It was partly why he’d started Native Realities in the first place. But in the years since that first Indigenous ComicCon, Francis said the world of Native comics has rapidly expanded. “I would say it’s probably quadrupled,” he told me, “in terms of the amount of work that’s out there now that we carry.” Today, Francis said, about 80 percent of Red Planet’s inventory focuses on Native stories, with the rest dedicated to stories from other communities of color or by LGBTQ writers and artists.

Some of those titles come from Native Realities—like the Deer Woman anthology, a collection of comics exploring violence against Native women and self-defense; Ghost River, a historical look at the resilience of the Conestoga People after 14 of their people were massacred in 1763; and anthologies like Native Entrepreneurs and A Howl. But plenty come from other presses, and not all are comics or graphic novels. There are the children’s books 1, 2, 3 Salish Sea and 47,000 Beads from Ingram; the anthology Dawnland Voices from Image, the third largest publisher of comics in the world; and collections from niche publishers—like 656 comics (Indigenous Mexican comics printed in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua) and The Guam Bus (a Guam-based publisher focused on preserving the CHamoru language).

Navajo comic book illustrator Dale Ray Deforest was self-publishing his Hero Twins series when he met Francis one day at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. Francis offered to publish the series at Native Realities, and since then, Deforest has gone on to illustrate numerous projects at the press. He told me that where he grew up in rural New Mexico there were only a few bookstores, and “none of them really carried anything that was about us, by us.” He said that Red Planet has been powerful not only because it’s offered him and other Native illustrators “a chance to truly tell our own stories,” but also because, since they recognize his work, it has opened up opportunities with different publishers.

Although many locals wander into Red Planet, Cuffee, who is now a co-owner, said that most of their sales go to institutions like schools and libraries in hopes of getting “books into the hands of Native kids much more widely.” Cuffee told me young people are more likely to pick up a comic book about an event in Indigenous history than slog through an academic text on the same subject. “Pop culture makes everything easier,” Cuffee said. “It’s a spoonful of sugar.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Red Planet shut its doors, and Francis, Cuffee, and their colleagues wondered how they could support their communities through the crisis. New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos were hit hard early in the pandemic, and many Native artists, including Deforest, struggled to find work. So, Red Planet commissioned a series of propaganda-style posters encouraging viewers to wash their hands and protect their elders, featuring art from Deforest, Arigon Starr, Vanessa Bowen, and Roy Boney Jr. The series ended up on display in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. When we spoke, Francis was traveling on the East Coast, and described the feeling of awe at stepping out of an elevator at the museum to be greeted by an enlarged copy of one of the posters: “It was super cool.”

As they weathered the pandemic, Francis and Cuffee began asking themselves where they wanted to take Red Planet in this socially distanced and highly online future. Their answer was to invest more in hybrid media: combining physical work like comics and graphic novels with audio, web, and video. In 2021, they acquired the Native media website A Tribe Called Geek, and earlier this year Francis started hosting a show called Indigi-Genius on New Mexico PBS. That decision was partially influenced by one of the last projects they had worked on before the outbreak of the pandemic: publishing Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga, a graphic novel about the Conestoga massacre, for which there is a supplemental website with links to historical documents, teaching materials, and a documentary.

“Creatively, we want to keep making stuff,” including new types of media, Francis said. And the hope is that hybrid media will allow Red Planet “to tell deeper stories.”

During the pandemic, Francis said that he and his colleagues saw many of their readers becoming more acclimated to using technology, as school and work moved to platforms like Zoom. At the same time, they realized that digital media might be more accessible for certain readers who might not be able to afford to purchase physical books or make it into their Albuquerque store.

“There’s something about the physicality of the book that I think it’s really still necessary, especially within comic books and graphic novel work,” Francis said. “But this idea that you could enhance it with really cool media” to reach more communities is very appealing.

Lately, Francis has been scouting out stories for the press to publish beyond the Southwest. In the works: a project on Samson Occom, the first Native American to publish in English; a look into the history of the Tobacco Trail; and a deep dive into Black-Native relations and the Freedmen of the Five Tribes. “We hope to tell fun stories and serious stories and hard stories, always with an eye towards resilience, always with an eye towards resistance and impact,” Francis said.

If all goes well, Francis hopes Red Planet will be able to bring back Indigenous ComicCon in 2023. But in the meantime, the store he never planned to found is alive and well. Last year, Red Planet was even nominated for a Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, often regarded as the Oscars of the comic book world.

After all these years, Francis said, he still loves walking into Red Planet. “It opens up a world of imagination,” he told me. “There’s a part of your both adulthood and childhood existing simultaneously. You’re going to be entranced by superheroes, by the imagination, by fantasy, by fiction, by visual fiction, and visual storytelling—that’s why comic shops are always so powerful.”