Texas in Bold, Dark Strokes
Artist/Historian Jack Jackson
Jackson, better known to some by the pen name of Jaxon, should be a household name in Austin. In the early Sixties he was a member of that iconoclastic cadre of artists which included Gilbert Shelton, who worked at the University of Texas humor magazine, Texas Ranger. In 1964 Jackson published what was probably the very first underground comic, God Nose, then headed for San Francisco, where he, along with Shelton and numerous other Austin expatriates, became the founding fathers of the underground comic revolution. Returning to Austin in the 1970s, Jaxon also produced art for the Armadillo World Headquarters and later was one of the first illustrators for The Austin Chronicle.
Even before returning to Texas, Jackson had begun turning his talents and his inquiring mind to writing the history of his native state -- with a difference. Jackson applied the same spirit of rebellion and freedom that had energized his previous work to telling the untold, true sagas of Texas historical figures Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches (Comanche Moon), a Mexican-American hero of the Texas revolution named Juan N. Seguin (Los Tejanos), and other stories with common threads: historically important figures whom conventional histories had marginalized or conveniently forgotten.
Like American pulp fiction, blues, and jazz, comic books are taken a lot more seriously in Europe than in the United States. And that's a shame, because people in this country, especially, need to read and appreciate Jackson's history comics. In his work, Jackson borrows and expands upon some techniques originally pioneered in Texas History Movies (the idiosyncratic and clever Texas history books in comic strip form that originated in the 1920s), such as using slang dialogue or humorous thought-balloons to humanize historical figures. His artwork is stunning, ranging from voluptuous renditions of Cynthia Parker (the white captive of the Comanches who became the mother of chief Quanah Parker) to extra-wide panoramic landscapes that call to mind John Ford westerns.
We aren't talking about mere illustrated versions of the same old story. For example, Jackson's Comanche Moon was, in all likelihood, the very first time the story of Quanah Parker -- a character in the same league as Teddy Roosevelt or George Washington -- had been told from the Indian point of view. And try looking in your high school history books for the strange and bizarre saga of the naked march and massacre of the Spaniards at the hands of the cannibalistic Karankawa tribe on the Gulf Coast (God's Bosom). And if Newsweek's photos of the My Lai massacre brought home the gobbets and gristle of war for you, check out Jackson's story of the Sand Creek Massacre (Nits Make Lice). and then we'll have a little chat about the glories of Manifest Destiny.
Above and beyond all that, there's the fact that Jackson's history comics are actually only a small sampling of his extremely prodigious output. He's written books on historical cartography (Flags Along the Coast). the history of Spanish ranching in Texas (Los Mestenos). and obscure Texas pathfinders and explorers (Philip Nolan and Texas), to mention just a few. His works are found in public schools and libraries and they're published by prestigious university presses, The Book Club of Texas, and the Texas State Historical Association -- the organization that made him a Lifetime Fellow in 1991. So Jackson has not only helped make comics more respectable, he's earned quite a bit of respect as an independent, self-taught history scholar.
Jack Jackson grew up in South Texas, picking up arrowheads, wondering what happened to the Comanches and Tonkawas and Apaches, wondering what their lives were really like -- questions that weren't really answered in his history books in school. For the past 25-odd years, Jackson has been hard at work answering those questions. His passion for his work jumps off the page -- whether it's a history comic or a treatise on archaic maps -- and it sparkles in his eyes as we sit at his drafting table eating Oreos and talking about history, his work, and other things on a recent rainy night.
Austin Chronicle: Let's start with the history of history comics. The way I understand it, it began with Texas History Movies back in the Twenties, then the history comics of Classics Illustrated and E.C. comics, and then the underground comics of the Sixties set the stage for your history comics. Oh, and I forgot to mention MAD Magazine.
Jack Jackson: Right, that's it, that's the link-up right there. Harvey Kurtzman, who was doing war books with EC Comics, was doing a lot of fairly authentic history, and a lot of great artists were illustrating these things and I think several of the books later on, after Two-Fisted Tales and the other books that were subsequently banned by the Comics Code, kind of dealt with history themes, too. And the freedom of the underground was that you could do anything you wanted to do, to tell a story any way you want to tell it. But once you get bored with doing the clean-up crew, all the rank kind of stuff with guts hanging out and all this, you think, Jeez, am I gonna keep repeating these things over and over or am I going to try and do something half-way interesting?
Before I left San Francisco in the Seventies I was commissioned to do this Indian chiefs coloring book. The deal fell through but it was eventually published as Long Shadows. One of the chiefs was Quanah Parker of the Comanches and another was Satanta of the Kiowas, for example. And in the course of doing the research I thought, God, these guys are really interesting stories. So even before coming back to Texas, while I was still in California, Texas history started appealing to me.
So I got more into history and started researching the Quanah Parker thing and I did it in a series of regular comics, which were published in a single book in 1979 as Comanche Moon. Before I knew it I was deep into Texas history.
AC: A similar thing happened to me when I lived in Los Angeles for seven years. I'd always been interested in Texas history, but at some point, it became more than just a casual interest, it became a real obsession. Something about having to go away before you can come back...
JJ: Maybe it's nostalgia, you think? Because I missed Texas, even though I came back a couple of times a year for business. I really got to missing it and wasn't really aware when I was here of the full spectrum of interesting things that have gone on. And I was always really drawn to Indians.
The whole hippie trip out there [in San Francisco] -- the American Indian was a big motif. All the light shows at the ballrooms and stuff, were using imagery from American Indians, doing the light shows and all, the swirling colors all around some somber portrait of an American Indian. It figured real highly into that whole hippie thing. A lot of people even compared the Ghost Dance religion to the hippie phenomenon.
AC: Oh really? I hadn't heard that.
JJ: (laughs) You haven't? Yeah, the hippie phenomenon was the Ghost Dance of our culture trying to recapture some of the things of value before plastic took over society. Anyway, it was a major motif. And then Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee came out, and that was a real blockbuster, boom. It really got to me, and I did a strip called Nits Make Lice which was about the Sand Creek Massacre, and that really blew a lot of minds.
The thing is, it's such a depressing story. The object became to find something a little more gratifying and uplifting. And Quanah Parker's story, I think, fit the bill very nicely. Because try as hard as I could, I could not find where he had sold out, or really done something at the expense of his people.
AC: He did cut deals, though.
JJ: Yeah, sure he did, that was the only way they could survive. And I can't say how much money he made in some of those deals was turned over to the tribe, as opposed to what went in Quanah's pocket. But I think his role was really influential in a difficult transition period from wild life to reservation life.
AC: So it all goes back to Nits Make Lice, which was a real watershed for you.
JJ: Yeah, basically I was in a position to do what Harvey Kurzmann did with the E.C. war books, telling true stories. Except now, with the freedom that came from the underground, you could do it with no holds barred. You got a massacre scene, hey, you're free to show it. You know, all the real violent stuff, the racism that went on, how the West was won, all of a sudden you're free to deal with these themes. Whereas all these other people, back in the Fifties, oh no, they wouldn't suggest it, even.
For example, with Geronimo, they didn't show you how Geronimo and his people were shipped off to jail in Florida. The worst possible place they could have been sent from the desert, dying of fevers and stuff. They just didn't go into any of the gruesome details.
AC: What about Juan Seguin? How did you become attracted to his story?
JJ: Well, I grew up in Stockdale, which is below the town of Seguin, and we went to Seguin because it had the only swimming pool in that part of the country. People said, Oh yeah, it was named for Juan Seguin. Gee, that's great, I thought, let's find out what happened to this guy. Then, oh God, you find out, here's the guy who fought for Texas independence and then got shat upon, so to speak. When the fighting was done, he and all his friends and all the others who fought, became the enemy, just because they were Mexicans by birth. Everything was forgotten. Basically, people were trying to get their land.
AC: But wasn't there a series of specific incidents that precipitated Juan's downfall?
JJ: What was happening was the same as in Santa Fe. You had a Tejano political rule, or hierarchy, from the beginning. Then you had the prosperous Anglos coming down, and taking over, after the Revolution. And the first thing they wanted was all these juicy tracts of land. Juan found himself in the position of being the defender. He had to go down and say, No, you can't take this guy's property, over my dead body. So he had to go. A spokesman like that, especially with a record for fighting, a military man, a ranking officer in the Army of the Republic, then he became a Senator...
So they really had to get rid of him, in order for the chicanery to go on down there. So when he felt that his position was simply untenable, then he joined the Mexican Army. So he was in a double bind. He'd been branded as a traitor just a few years earlier, for siding with the Anglos in the Revolution, now all of a sudden he goes down there and says, Hey, I can't handle it, they're robbing us blind. So he's in a double bind, now he's a traitor to the Anglos, too. So he had what you call your basic tragic life.
AC: But an interesting one.
JJ: Oh, yeah. In fact, during Reconstruction, he was an acting county judge for awhile, at the same time he held a commission in the Mexican Army! The reason is because that county was so deeply Southern that nobody qualified to be a politico on the county level except somebody like a Mexican who hadn't fought in the Confederacy. The Reconstruction forces came down and said, You'll do for the time being. It's fascinating stuff.
AC: I like the way you write about the notorious Mexican Robin Hood, Juan Cortina, in Los Tejanos. He gave the Texas Rangers a lot of work to do. He was kind of like our Noriega of the time.
JJ: Oh, yeah, exactly, he was the number one bad guy for awhile. And any kind of violence against Tejanos in South Texas was justified in the wake of his raids on the border. You could claim, Hey, this guy was one of Cortina's bandidos, and so you could simply run these people off their land and claim it for yourself.
AC: Seems like you're really attracted to ambiguous areas in Texas' past, whether it's cartography, feuds, racial conflicts... Is that a conscious effort or what?
JJ: I don't go looking for these things, but whenever you examine certain events and you know something strange has gone on, and you don't quite know what, then there comes that urge to know. So those ambiguous periods are the most fascinating. They really are. Because the answer is there, you've just gotta look hard and find it.
Jackson is currently working on a Texas history comic called The Lost Cause, to be published by Kitchen Sink next year. It focuses on the Reconstruction period in Texas -- a period that was racked by violence, repression, vigilantism, and the revival of old feuds that had been temporarily quieted during the Civil War. John Wesley Hardin, a product of those times and one of the killingest folk characters ever spawned by Texas, is also the central figure in The Lost Cause.
The problem with writing about Hardin is that he comes with a lot of baggage. During his lifetime, and even in some pockets of Texas to this day, he was/is seen as a victim of Carpetbagger oppression. Just last summer, I attended a performance of a play about Hardin's life in Trinity City, and there I heard several different people proudly and loudly proclaim, "Hardin never killed a man that didn't need killin'." As far as I could tell, none of the descendants of the more than forty victims of Hardin's violence were in attendance to give an opposing point of view.
It's not just a coincidence that most of Hardin's contemporary supporters had less than enlightened attitudes about equality of the races; on the other hand, that's only part of the story. Jackson hopes to tell the whole story in Lost Cause, including Hardin's role as a participant in the bloody Sutton-Taylor feud, and the way the sweeping changes of Reconstruction affected the lives of Texans of all colors.
It isn't hard to steer the conversation around to Hardin. Part of the reason is my own interest and research. Another is that Jackson is clearly worried about how the new book will be received.
AC: Can you imagine an African-American writing a book about Hardin?
JJ: Yeah, I mean, I can understand why a black person would want to understand John Wesley Hardin because so much of his violence was directed against blacks. Then there's our friend in Chicago, Dr. Richard Marohn, who's a psychiatrist, who wants to address it from the... what is it? Narcissistic...
AC: Narcissistic behavior disorder.
JJ: Yeah, something like that, the violent youth, the kid who never grows up, who keeps directing his violence toward some acceptable target, as it were. Although, I think, in the long run, Hardin killed more whites than he did blacks and Mexicans.
AC: Yeah, he did. I did an inventory once.
JJ: But still, that was the mentality at the time, and people don't want to acknowledge it now. That it was considered no great crime to shoot Indians, Mexicans, and black people. They just weren't considered fully human, or something, in that white philosophical range.
Imagine yourself in an era where some guy comes home laughing because he's blown away some black guy who had the nerve to order a drink at the same bar he was standing at. And yet this went on time after time.
But people don't want to go back in the time machine and relate to that kind of mentality. And that's understandable. But I think that when you do a book like this Hardin book you almost have to, you have to try to see the world as they saw it.
AC: It's not a pretty sight.
JJ: Though all these historian types seem to agree that Hardin was a man of high principles, and the courage to back them up. Now how do you jibe that with this murderous record he had, blowing people away for small offenses? I mean, it just doesn't seem to stand up.
AC: I don't know that I buy it. I mean, if he only killed people who needed killing, it sure seems like he had awfully strange luck, always landing in the right place at the right time to kill someone who needed killing.
JJ: (laughs) Yeah, a lot of 'em. I mean if you applied his same rules today, you'd be blowing away people who cut in front of you in traffic. If you apply his code, as it were, to modern-day situations, people would be shooting each other all the time. And maybe to a certain extent that was more permissible back in Texas in the 1870s. But even so, you have a hard time justifying that behavior, or even making it appear sympathetic. I mean, in my other books, Juan Seguin comes off as more or less heroic, as does Quanah Parker.
Well, it's a lot harder to make John Wesley Hardin look heroic, even though you're trying to tell the story walking in his boots, looking through his eyes. It becomes a lot more difficult, and also more controversial. Because when he's blowing people away for whatever reason, then the reader will say, Does Jackson support this? Is he getting a chuckle out of this? Does he expect us to laugh because this happened? Then all of a sudden you put yourself on the line as an artist where you're asking the audience to look at this era through the eyes of someone like this who's clearly a bad man.
The book is called The Lost Cause, but when you usually hear those words, you're talking about the war, but in this case, I'm talking about the way people thought -- their lifestyle, their ideas about who was going to run the show. And in that sense, Hardin is on the wrong side. So he's fighting for a lost cause.
AC: There are definitely some similarities in the sentiments of the modern right-wing extremist anti-federal-government crowd and the people we're talking about in your book. Do you think, for example, the extremist property rights folks might relate to Lost Cause?
JJ: Well, I was kidding Dennis Kitchen, the publisher, the other day. I was saying that every militia and gun nut in the country's gonna want three or four copies of this book, because Hardin saw himself as fighting against all odds, as it were, to maintain the prerogatives that white people had always had before slaves were freed and the political control was topsy-turvy.
AC: I read somewhere where you said you don't consider your work to be political.
JJ: I don't consider myself political in terms of climbing into the arena of modern-day politics, and doing like (Austin American-Statesman cartoonist) Ben Sargeant, a here-and-now type thing. I think people should take the long view, and this is why these early periods of Texas history are so interesting -- you can look back and you can find parallels in almost any earlier time period for stuff that's going on now. So, knowing history helps you take the long view, and break these modern things down into how it all fits and why it happens.
AC: I also read somewhere that you don't care to be called a revisionist historian.
JJ: It's almost like a slur, it's like you're tampering with something that ought to be left alone. My view is, if they'd have told it right the first time, if they'd told it truthfully, you wouldn't have to revise it.
It probably goes without saying that Jackson's history comics, with their hard-riding heroes, shapely women, and hard-boiled action, are easily his most accessible work. But I find his non-comic books on such subjects as eighteenth century Spanish ranching, obscure pathfinders, and Texas rivers just as interesting. His books on historical cartography are also strangely appealing. As I suspected, Jackson's interest in historical maps was sparked by his admiration of them simply from an artistic standpoint. But his own interest quickly becomes contagious, as he communicates his own fascination with the reader by illuminating the human drama and epic adventure that these archaic images symbolize.
AC: You really have a gift for making this material interesting and engaging.
JJ: Well, historical cartography has always been considered elitist and very pedantic. It's totally outside of any mainstream interest. You don't figure you're going to sell more than a couple hundred books, no matter how beautifully they're done. There's just not that big of an interest for maps. So what do you try to do to combat that? You set out to enliven the story and to do just the opposite of what most map studies do.
My favorite saying about this is "Maps are like windows to the past." They're visual documents. You can see on that map where these people's heads were at, what they were thinking about. Oops, here's a reference to gold mines, silver mines, abundant pastures, droves of wild cattle, all the types of things that people were after. Then, at the end of the seventeenth century, you start seeing on their maps, "All this coast is inhabited by fierce cannibals." (laughs) Some guys had a shipwreck there and there was maybe only one survivor out of 35 or 40 people that fell into the hands of the Karankawas or whatever.
So they're really fascinating documents, and taken one at a time, they're like a joke. People laugh at them and say, Look at how stupid our ancestors were. But when you look at all these maps sequentially, step by step, and each increase in knowledge, they built upon that. And this is what a map is. It's nothing but an accumulation of knowledge, everything that went before. And I don't care if it's the USGS map that we go down to Miller Blueprint and buy today, it's the state of the art thing, they all started out that way. And so it becomes a great, entertaining bit of detective work to find all the pieces of the puzzle, and linking them together.
We've talked for over three and a half hours, and we've only talked about a fraction of his work. Talking about Hardin all night would have been easy. But talking about maps is probably more revealing about what drives Jackson -- the illustrator, the writer, the history explorer -- to do the things he does.
Jack Jackson today is clearly the same boy who grew up picking up arrowheads, daydreaming and wondering just what happened in Texas' oftentimes obscured and distorted history, then blazing his own trail, opening new windows on the past, by probing the shadows and secrets of maps, trails, lives -- whatever particular puzzle he happens to be interested in at the time.
Someday, say a hundred years from now, other historians will be trying to put together the puzzles of history -- including our present, and the history that we've assembled from the puzzles left by our forebears. And I wonder what those future custodians of the past will say when they come across things like Los Tejanos, Comanche Moon and Nits Make Lice -- especially when they compare them to the shallow and shadowy versions of the historical record that preceded them. I have a feeling that Jackson's passion and commitment to tell the story of Texas in bold, dark strokes will burn just as brightly over the gulf of years as it does today. n Austin native Jesse Sublett's most recent mystery novel is Boiled In Concrete. He also writes for film and television.