Page Two: Loss Upon Loss
Legendary cartoonist, historian, and Texan Jack Jackson passes on
Jack Jackson died last week.
Jack Jackson was a legendary figure a truly gifted, multitalented artist, but also a cultural agent provocateur: ready for change, pushing boundaries, assaulting the old, celebrating the new, and pioneering the unknown, all while resurrecting and redeeming history. A seminal underground cartoonist (early on, he used the pen name Jaxon), as well as a respected, award-wining historian, noted historical artist, counterculture instigator, and chronicler, Jackson proved to be a major influence and inspiration for a few generations of renegade American artists.
In 1964, Jackson self-published God Nose, generally regarded as the first significant underground comic (R. Crumb was a good four years away from beginning to publish and distribute his comics). Coming out of UT's Texas Ranger crowd (the Ranger was a humor mag, not to be confused with the badge-wearers), Jaxon was part of an infamous tribe of Austin artists, musicians, writers, politicians, and general scalawags. He helped kick off the creative psychedelic scene in Austin, especially the graphic aspect, and then went to Haight-Ashbury in 1966 to do the same thing.
Once in San Francisco, he became art director for the Family Dog, putting him in charge of concert posters, mostly for shows at the Avalon Ballroom. In 1969, Jackson co-founded Rip Off Press with fellow artistic Texan West Coast refugees Gilbert Shelton (Wonder Wart-Hog, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), Fred Todd, and Dave Moriarty. There he mentored and encouraged Richard Corben, among others.
Jackson's comic-book work, always beautifully rendered and fully detailed, appeared in books by other companies more often than in Rip Off Press: He did a lot of work in Skull, for Last Gasp, and, working with writer Joe R. Lansdale, did Dead in the West for Dark Horse.
He pioneered the graphic book doing histories rather than novels. Comanche Moon was about Cynthia Ann Parker, a white child kidnapped by the Comanches, and her son, Quanah Parker; Los Tejanos was about Juan Sequin and the Tejanos who fought for Texas independence. Other graphic histories included Secret of San Saba, Indian Lover: Sam Houston & the Cherokees, Lost Cause, and, most recently, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides.
For at least the past couple of decades, Jackson was an award-winning, sought-after illustrator for Texas histories, his work always painstakingly researched. Eventually, he began to not just illustrate but write his own historical works as well. Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721-1821, his first book (published by Texas A&M University Press, 1986), is still regarded as one of the most important studies of Spanish ranching in Texas. Almonte's Texas won the Bates Award (Texas State Historical Association), and Indian Agent: Peter Ellis Bean in Mexican Texas won the 2006 Summerfield G. Roberts Award, presented by the Sons of the Republic of Texas.
Over the years, he did brilliant work in many fields. The Chronicle always championed his work, running strips, covers, and art by him, as well as features about him.
But there was the previously mentioned Lost Cause, Jackson's take on famous Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Jackson and I had been friends; I truly admired both the work and the artist. But Jack Jackson died the other day, and there was a rift between us that was never really mended.
Because this is not a sweet story, nor a smooth cruise down the yellow brick road. When I got the proofs of Lost Cause, I was very excited. When I read them, I found the work deeply disturbing. The way blacks were portrayed was racist. This prejudice seemed inherent in the story; I didn't think narrator or character point of view were clearly established enough, nor was the manner in which the story was told enough, to give this take context as a character's, or the period's, point of view.
Consequently, I gave the work to two different reviewers, without any comment by me, planning to run both reviews. Michael Ventura had co-written a screenplay on John Wesley Hardin. If my take was even vaguely legitimate, I expected Ventura would pick up on it. I also gave a copy to a writer/historian/fan of Jackson's work, whom I thought would be very sympathetic. Ventura had even more trouble with Lost Cause than I did, calling Jackson racist and questioning his historical accuracy. The other writer, after reading it, declined to do a review.
Now, I'm laying out the circumstances here; the take on Lost Cause above was my point of view. I'm not trying to trump the many who disagree with me.
Jackson was absolutely indignant over Ventura's review and wrote a long response. He hated being called a racist, and as to his knowledge of historical detail, he pointed out that in the instance Ventura had raised, he was right, actually demonstrating a much deeper and more extensive knowledge than Ventura.
I declined to print Jackson's response.
I was attacked by the comic-book press for this decision, derided for not giving this talent his due. Gary Groth, the mastermind behind Fantagraphics, dismissed me in a finely targeted piece in The Comics Journal (www.tcj.com/237/i_jackson.html). This one really hurt, especially because he did it with a righteous anger, his impressive knowledge, a passion for free speech, and a commitment to principles. The truly gifted Chris Ware, I believe, attacked me as well. Not my happiest time. I ran into Jackson and talked to him after that; mostly, he mocked me. The controversy had actually helped both the book's sales and Jackson's reputation.
Jack Jackson died the other day, an artist, historian, innovator, influence, and a man always true to himself. The world got smaller and noticeably poorer, and my soul hurt.
Oddly, the night before I heard the news, I had a dream in which I ran into famed artist Micael Priest, another of the Armadillo poster, wild-boy artists, and we hugged each other as we always do, but we were both very sad. We hugged each other, but we were sobbing.