Artist and historian Jack Jackson remembered by those who knew him well
He was better known around the Austin counterculture as Jaxon, the man who drew the first underground comic. Comix, they were called in the Sixties and Seventies, the irreverent twisting of the classic art form to reflect the changing values of the generations. And few had the vision Jack Jackson did.
Jack Jackson was born May 15, 1941, in Pandora, Texas, east of San Antonio. His sense of Texas history was keen even as a young boy, for he'd follow behind his father's plow and dig arrowheads out of the dirt. His artistic abilities evidenced themselves early but were not encouraged. Instead, he sought a degree in accounting to support his pen-and-ink habit.
Jack attended Texas A&M, then moved to Austin during the best years possible, the early Sixties. His friends and fellow dissenters included Freak Brothers artist Gilbert Shelton, Avalon Ballroom founder Chet Helms, singer Janis Joplin, and a host of other talented writers and artists at places like The Rag newspaper and UT's Texas Ranger publication. It was down on the Drag by the university around 1964 that he hawked God Nose, credited by all accounts as the first underground comic. This rebel form of art was the perfect graphic depiction for the changes in music happening at the same time.
When the West Coast issued its siren call in the mid-Sixties, many of Austin's hip elite answered, Jaxon among them. His accounting degree gave him a good source of income while he and Port Arthur's Dave Moriarty helped found Rip Off Press, the first publisher of underground comics in San Francisco, and became art director for the Avalon. Like many Texpatriates, however, he returned to Austin in the mid-Seventies and put his pen to paper. Over the next 30 years, Jackson shaped the graphic-art sensibility of Austin, and there's not an artist in the state who doesn't owe something to the man. By the mid-Seventies, Jackson was drawing comics, doing occasional work for the Austin Sun, for Oat Willie's, and for the promotion campaign for ABC Records for Doug Sahm's Texas Rock for Country Rollers.
That's what he was working on when I met him one sultry July night in 1976 at Soap Creek Saloon, right after I started working for the Austin Sun. I watched him with admiration as he hobbled from one side of the pool table to the other, ignoring the handicap that limited him and sinking ball after ball with a master's precision. During a break from the cue stick, he invited me to sit on his lap. He smelled of cigar smoke and Old Spice aftershave. His thick mustache tickled when he kissed me, and he asked me to fetch him a Lone Star. By the end of the night I was his.
I spent a good part of the next few weeks shacked up at his place. He had started working on the series of comics about Cynthia Parker and the son she bore by warrior Peta Nocona, Quanah Parker. Jack worked surrounded by stacks of research materials and books, with his pens and ink in various cups and containers. I watched him draw a bud of marijuana for an Oat Willie's logo, ink in Doug Sahm's knobby knees, design a map for the Sunday Break II concert, and, as I sat on the floor, sketch the position of my legs for Cynthia. Sometimes I corrected his spelling. In those sticky summer evenings at his un-air-conditioned South Austin house on Ethel Street, he'd refer to himself as General Jackson, and we'd fry chicken and okra in a cast-iron skillet. After dinner, we'd smoke pot, and then head to Antone's for Bobby Blue Bland or to Soap Creek, where we'd get an earful of Doug Sahm, guzzle Lone Star, and then head home.
Our personal relationship was fractious. He was crusty, blunt, and, at 35, set in his ways. I was 22 and free-spirited but utterly smitten with him. When we'd fight, I'd storm off and seek solace with the Armadillo World Headquarters' former PR man Ramsey Wiggins, ex-Conqueroo guitarist Charlie Prichard, or Chet Helms, who was spending that summer in Austin. Jack would take up with any number of women who flocked to his side. Eventually, we drifted apart, though every year or so through the early Eighties whether he was married or I was married we'd end up together. I carried the torch for him for a long, long time.
Our professional relationship was more enduring. As a book editor for the Chronicle in the mid- to late Nineties, I tried to make sure anything with Jack's name on it got reviewed, because he was one of the great rebel artists of the modern world. The effort derailed when Michael Ventura reviewed Lost Cause and accused Jack of being racist for his depiction of blacks and use of the word "negro."
"But when, as narrator, Jackson uses 'Negro,' a word he must know that African-Americans have rejected as demeaning and would take as demeaning, that's Jackson talking, not his characters," Ventura asserted in his review. That statement ignored and diminished the presence of venerable institutes that use the word with pride, such as the United Negro College Fund, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, National Council of Negro Women, and The Journal of Negro History. Ventura's review was smug, glib, and stunk of that more-tolerant-than-thou Yankee attitude at which we Southerners privately snicker.
Worse, Ventura lambasted him over historical details, including the depiction of what "look[s] very like Winchester-style repeating rifles" and proceeded to dissect Jack's drawing. In fact, Jackson had not depicted the Winchester, he'd drawn the Henry rifle. Wounded by the review, he demanded that Louis Black allow him to respond, and Louis said no. Louis made a mistake not to let Jack respond, especially when he was absolutely correct on a topic where Ventura was completely wrong.
Jack pursued his love of illustrating Texas history with a series of graphic novels that progressed from the comic format to paper and hardbound books. He famously tackled unsung Texas heroes like Juan Seguin and the Mexicans who fought at the Alamo. He took a historian's interest in cartography, and his drawings and maps have adorned books such as Abel G. Rubio's Stolen Heritage; Robert Wooster's Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers; Robert H. Thonhoff's El Fuerte del Cibolo; and Gerald E. Poyo's Tejano Journey. Over the years, he accrued an astonishing array of awards and credentials, including induction into the Texas Institute of Letters. He was perhaps the leading authority on Spanish ranching in Texas, and his book Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721-1821 is slated for reissue. Indian Agent: Peter Ellis Bean in Mexican Texas was his most recent book.
At his memorial service in June, the academics dominated the remembrances and predictably railed about the Chronicle's Ventura review but overlooked Jack's otherwise solid relationship with us through his comics, illustrations, and covers throughout the years. Not a word was said about the overwhelming critical praise Jack received before and after the Lost Cause debacle. The dry, long-winded tributes contrasted with the man many of us knew much more colorfully. Eddie Wilson got the closest when he addressed 19-year-old Sam Jackson directly and told him, "Someday you and I will have a talk about your dad, because this is not the time and certainly not the place."
The last time I saw Jack was a humid, late summer night in 2005 at the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture. His hair was nearly white and had lost its red-brown burnish, but his mustache was bushy as ever, and he resembled God Nose himself. He was a little grumpy, probably feeling bad, and I was with my boyfriend, so I didn't sit on his lap. I did kiss his leathery cheek and fetch him a beer. He smelled like cigarette smoke and maybe of Old Spice.
On Wednesday, June 7, just three weeks after his birthday, Jack Jackson took his life at the graves of his parents outside Stockdale. His diabetes and arthritis were getting worse, affecting his ability to draw, and he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Unwilling to face a debilitating course of chemo treatment, he put down his pen forever and made his own kind of peace with the unforgiving future.
Kerry FitzgeraldIn the summer of 1972, Tom Bauman, Rick Turner, and I had drawn an underground comic book called Neighborhead Comix that we wanted to unleash on the world. So of course we took it to San Francisco to Rip Off Press, which was run by Texans and had just printed Jim Franklin's Armadillo comic book. The guys at Rip Off thought that it was "too Austin" to publish nationally but were too nice to tell us so. Instead, they sent us over to Jaxon's house so he could tell us.
We went over to Jaxon's cool San Francisco apartment and met him and his beautiful girlfriend. He took us out on his roof, and we sat around and talked about Austin. He wanted to know about everything going on there. Here we were in the groovy hippie capital of the world, and Jaxon was going on and on about how cool Austin was. He told us we should take our comic back to Texas and release it there because it was such a happening place.
So in one afternoon in San Francisco, he didn't reject our comic as much as encourage us to do it ourselves and do it in Austin. He made us proud to be from Texas, and he made us realize we lived in a pretty cool town after all. When he was really turning us down, he was at the same time building us up. We came back to Austin and printed that comic and changed its name to Austintatious.
Jaxon soon moved back to Austin, and we saw each other often, hanging out at Soap Creek. Everyone knows what a talented artist he was, but I want everyone to know he was also a major influence, mentor, and cheerleader to all the other artists in the community. He gave much more than he ever took in all aspects of life. He was an inspiration, a friend, a partner in mischief, and man, could he draw. He will be missed.
Oh yeah, I've still got a bunch of those comics in my garage if anyone wants one. Kerry Fitzgerald
Mack WhiteThe first time I met Jack, he told me he had just received a royalty check for Comanche Moon. It amounted to barely a dollar.
So what motivated him? It certainly wasn't the money.
"You've got to love what you do," he said.
And Jack loved what he did. He loved creating comics, and he loved Texas history. Both were labors of labor, which he combined into one big labor of love.
He was not the first to combine comics and Texas history. That was first done in Texas History Movies, a 1920s comic strip that ran in Texas newspapers and was later collected into book form and used in classrooms for a number of years. It conveyed information in an entertaining way and was artfully done. But it was not great art and as history was somewhat superficial.
It served, however, as inspiration for Jack. He took the concept and created something great. His graphic novels Los Tejanos, Comanche Moon, Lost Cause, Indian Lover, and The Alamo are beautifully rendered works, based on excellent scholarship, that tell the story of Texas with all the richness, depth, and complexity such a story deserves.
His works are also honest, something that is not always compatible with political correctness. In Lost Cause, Jack told the story of Reconstruction from the viewpoint of those who suffered its effects: white, ex-Confederate Texans. A lesser writer might have depicted these people as villains; after all, they were racists. But Jack depicted them honestly, in all their complexity; they were racists, yes, but they were also oppressed. In other words, they were not two-dimensional characters; they were human beings.
This made a few readers uncomfortable, but that's OK. Comfort zones are meant to be violated from time to time, and nothing does the job so well as the truth.
Truth. Isn't that what we're looking for in a work of art or in the study of history? Well, there's plenty of truth in Jack's history and art, and therein lies the greatest value of his extraordinary body of work. Mack White
Guy JukeJack Jackson was a god among the men who make comics. I won't bore you with the facts and speculations as to the importance of his work, only to say these things speak for themselves. I shall attempt to focus on the artist and the natural quality he gave his work. Whether effortlessly or not, his style was consistent and solid, and it always rang true. He got the job done. He was a bold hero in the battle for visual efficiency and linear economy.
I happen to know the amount of effort involved in this field of endeavor. Even when you are warmed up and on a roll, it can be mighty taxing. Making it look that easy is a thankless job, but he seemed to take it to task tirelessly. Line after line, dot after dot. Always with accessible humor and a warm intelligence. He was an artist living the alleged artist's life. Needless to say, I do have a hidden admiration for the long-suffering panel cartoonist, or anyone tackling pen and ink, for that matter. He took such a joy in his labors and creations.
Know then that Jaxon had a wonderful life all in all. Such a fine example he set for all of us. Jack was one of the finest human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. He was simply what I call "true." Guy Juke
Mariann G. WizardIn 1987, Jaxon and I collaborated on The Adventures of Oat Willie (copyright Austintatious Comix), then operated in partial partnership by Doug Brown and Mike Kleinman. (Planet K didn't yet exist.) A daily question in every Oat's store was, "Who the heck is Oat Willie?" Mike and Doug wanted a comic response.
We talked with Jack about the art for about a year. Supportive and agreeable, he'd say, "Come see me when you have a story!" But when I had a script, he wasn't totally thrilled! He'd been working hard to establish himself as a historical artist and historian, struggling with opposition and outright disrespect because of his underground past. Now we wanted him to draw Austin's silliest iconic hero: a skinny guy in shorts in a wheeled bucket of oats???
But he started reading it, laughing, seeing how to draw it, and exclaimed, "It's a history of Austin's counterculture!" Although we did only one issue before Doug and Mike split the sheets, it was a start: An innocent kid comes to the Big University seeking Truth and Purpose, finds instead Parties and Lies, Takes Acid, Runs Amok, and Changes the World or at least himself. Oat Willie is our Pilgrim, our Everyman, his life a metaphor for our lives and times. Though many stories remain untold, I'm so proud that Jack saw the people's history in my words and gave them life with his craft and pen.
We went to a comics convention in California. Dozens of people came to see Jaxon, bringing cherished copies of Comanche Moon and Skull, Family Dog posters, even ancient God Noses not only for autographs but to thank him for his work. Jack was amazed; he had no idea he was a legend.
Growing up, I didn't know many college folks. My parents, though, expected me not only to go to college but somehow to select one. My friend Nancy had a sister in school here who sent the Texas Ranger home to Fort Worth. A total teenage misfit, I devoured it proof that college weirdness existed outside of the out-of-reach The Harvard Lampoon. "I'm going to Austin," I decided and did so, against all common sense. Whatever I've done with my life since then, it's the fault of Jack and the other Rangeroos, my real-life heroes, without whose dubious influence I might have been a conservative talk-show hostess or a NASCAR fan.
Jack was my friend. But it was only at the Austin memorial service that I began to see his contribution to Texas history. Not writing or teaching, although he did that, but his own potential role in it. Jaxon showed us what we must grasp if Texas is to survive as anything but a theme-park subsidiary of the earth-eating octopus of multinational greed. He told us a great economic and demographic truth of our time, recalled by Reies Tijerina: "Somos tejanos." Could we, his Anglo friends, truly comprehend and embrace that fact, then history would be made, and Jack Edward Jackson be remembered as its agent.
And if he left any drawings of old forts along the Red, can we please harden up that pesky northern border?
Vaya bien, hermano. Mariann G. Wizard