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  • "With Apologies to The Old Masters":Jack Jackson's Citational Practice and the History of Comic Book History

After a notable career as an underground cartoonist in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jack Jackson returned to his home state of Texas and began to produce heavily textual and visually stiff comics about the history of the state. The first of these, collected into a volume titled Comanche Moon in 1979, concerns the life of Anglo-Texan settler Cynthia Ann Parker, who was taken as a child-captive by the Comanche in 1836, and her son Quanah. In constructing Comanche Moon Jackson develops a principle of visual and narrative choosing, what we might call citation, that differentiates it both from the underground movement and the autographies that have become the principal means of delving into historical subjects in comics form since Art Spiegelman's Maus. This essay explores how Jackson's citational practice suggests an important alternative to the autobiographical methods cartoonists tend to use to tell historical stories, challenges the ethics of underground comix, and expands the toolbox that the critical historian has for describing history to a public audience.


autography, historiography, Jack Jackson, Native Americans, swiping, underground comix

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WITH THE self-publication of his comic God Nose in 1964, Austin, Texas cartoonist Jack Jackson, under the pen name 'Jaxon,' became an early participant in the nascent comix movement we now call the underground. He moved to San Francisco in 1966 and, with fellow Texans Dave Moriarty, Fred Todd, and Gilbert Shelton, founded the key comix publisher Rip-Off Press. Even so, he was neither the most familiar nor the most prolific of the underground's members; rather than appearing in R. Crumb's Zap, the movement's premier publication, Jackson's material was primarily found in books like Last Gasp Eco-Funnies' environmentalist sci-fi anthology Slow Death and the publisher's horror-focused Skull. These titles suggest important connections between the underground and the pre-Comics Code EC comic books of the early 1950s, and they would provide Jackson with opportunities to hone the storytelling skills that would help him craft the comics he began in the second phase of his career.1

As he contemplated leaving San Francisco in the mid-1970s, Jackson became occupied with history projects; both the extraordinarily violent short story "Nits Make Lice," about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre (Slow Death #7, 1976), and a group of illustrations of Native American leaders—commissioned for a collective biography that was never published but themselves collected nearly a decade later in a book called Long Shadows—were completed before he ultimately returned to Austin.2 After his move, his history projects took much of his attention, and in the next few years he drew some very unusual comics—heavily textual, visually stiff, and weighted down with detail—specifically about the history and culture of Texas.

His first Texas history comics were initially published in three installments—White Comanche (1977), Red Raider (1977), and Blood on the Moon (1978)—by Last Gasp. Collected in slightly edited form as Comanche Moon in 1979, they concern the life of Anglo-Texan Cynthia Ann Parker and her son Quanah. In 1836, Cynthia Ann, just a child, was taken captive by the Comanche; many years later, after marrying and having children, she was kidnapped again, by Texans. Her story inspired the John Ford/John Wayne western The Searchers (1956). Quanah, who remained among the Comanche, became a key Native American political voice after the Civil War.3 In approaching this tale, Jackson was attempting to re-tell the well-known story of two influential figures in Texas history in a way that was more sympathetic to the Comanche than both the historiography and the legends of the West, like The Searchers, had been. In this way, Comanche Moon is work of public history; it examines the historical stories that were the foundational stuff of a silver screen myth and does its best to correct the record.

Jackson's historical comics—and his later prose histories—demonstrate his skill as a researcher; they ultimately found acceptance and acclaim among the ranks of professional Texas historians. Detailed research, however, takes time and money and, while professional scholars are funded with teaching positions at colleges and universities across the country, Jackson had to finance the necessary reading time and archival trips with his comics' dubious economic potential. Although they looked like Westerns, they showed disdain for Western heroes and challenged received notions of the ends of American history. [End Page 28] They also appeared at a moment when the popularity of the Western as a genre seemed to be waning.4 Their challenge to authority would have made them appealing to an underground audience that might have been a more natural fit in any case, except that by the time that White Comanche was published in 1977 that market was entering a period of rapid transition to new themes and methods of distribution.5

Looking back on that period later, Jackson would tell an interviewer that "we were all searching for new directions."6 More than merely a new path, Comanche Moon represents a radical break with the complete freedom and flouting of tradition that were the foundations of the underground movement. We can find evidence for this break in Comanche Moon's comprehensive bibliography and its extensive gallery of visual citations, in the form of historical images in the back matter. Both of these function as the references of academic books do, providing authority and encouragement for further study, but the visual citations are particularly noteworthy. They, and other unreferenced swipes from the art of the American West, are appropriated and drawn into Comanche Moon's panels, making it a museum of Western art as well as a history of the Texas Comanche. In the back matter, Jackson writes that he "must acknowledge the rich heritage of Western art from which I have freely drawn, and extend my apologies to the 'old masters' for my shameless fleecing of their work. Particularly victimized were Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Harold von Schmidt, Nick Eggenhofer, and John Clymer," each a significant figure in the art history of the American West.7

Swiping images from other contexts, as Jackson admits to here, is a common practice among cartoonists. Underground godfather R. Crumb's comics, for example, often relied on recognizable styles and iconographies. Jackson's admiration and reverence for the "old masters," however, marks an important break from his underground peers. Claiming a "shameless fleecing" of other, older artists for reasons of admiration and respect was hardly the clean break from tradition or the shattering of taboo that were the preferred modes of the undergrounds. Jackson's art in Comanche Moon is a clear extension of the mature, post-God Nose style he had developed in the pages of Slow Death and Skull, but under the tutelage of the old masters he mostly abandons the cartoony free-line of his underground work in favor of a style that approaches the apparent authenticity of photographic portraiture. These moves establish Jackson's place as an inheritor not only of the historiography of the American West but also of its art history.8

Jackson's swiping of his old masters is a key aspect of his unusual method of representing history in comics form, one that attempts to integrate the conventions of academic history writing into a mode unsuited for them. When approaching historical stories in the decades since, cartoonists have largely rejected this approach in favor of first-person modes that establish authority through witness. Jackson's visual choices in Comanche Moon are suggestive of his later interests and production in that they demonstrate a developing principle of selection—or what we might, in a broad sense, think of as a practice of citation—that reaches a culmination in academic history projects he began to publish in the 1980s, output that would continue until his death in 2006. [End Page 29]

Following Jackson's citations in Comanche Moon reveals a wider process of dutiful choosing across his work, one that meant determining not only what images, historical background, and narrative details to put into his comics, but also which ones to leave out. Citation, in this expansive sense, is about situating works within particular genealogies; Jackson's citations in Comanche Moon place it into historiographical and artistic legacies entirely separate from those of the underground. In examining Jackson's process of choosing, we can see how his history comics suggest an important alternative to the autobiographical methods cartoonists tend to use to tell historical stories, challenge the ethics of underground comix, and expand the toolbox that the critical historian has for bringing history to a public audience.


As he would later tell Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, Jackson undertook the historical projects beginning with Comanche Moon out of a drive for the "survival of [his] brain" and a duty "to raise hell" about all in the world that was not good and right.9 In the heady environment of the 1960s and 1970s, there were plenty of contemporary events that Jack-son could have turned to fulfill that duty, but his interests drew him to the past rather than the present. They led him to a narrative mode that has not often been picked up since: by looking at Comanche Moon, we can see a comics history methodology more in line with the traditions of academic history than with the first person accounts that have dominated the telling of historical stories in comics form since Art Spiegelman's Maus (see Figure 1).

Comanche Moon's complex approach is suggested by its subtitle, "the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, her son Quanah, and the wild Comanches of Texas." The subtitle's opening suggests a work of biography, but those ambitions are in tension with the spectacular final phrase "and the wild Comanches of Texas," which reads more like Western comic cover copy than academic clarification. The word "wild," meanwhile, draws a clear connection between Jackson's new work and his underground stories like "Nits Make Lice." This was a little bit of misdirection; although "wild" references Jackson's detailed and gory scenes of sex and sexual violence, probably serving to pique the interest of the underground audience, what lies between the covers has a similar look to Jackson's older material, but it has a different tone marshaled to different ends.

It has been suggested that God Nose is the first underground comic; perhaps White Comanche, Red Raider, and Blood on The Moon, prior to their collection in Comanche Moon, are the last. Pioneering comics scholar Joseph Witek and others have noted that one of the key moves of Comanche Moon is to sacrifice the pure freedom of expression of the sex 'n violence story for the possibility (perhaps never realized) of a broader audience, citing in particular a nude bathing scene from Red Raider that Jackson self-censored when the Parker stories were collected.10 Even so, ditching the more gratuitous aspects of comix did not mean abandoning his prior associations completely. A reader of the undergrounds, even a serial reader of Jackson's, who opened up White Comanche in 1977 or the collected Comanche Moon in 1979, was likely just as struck by the books' style as they were by its [End Page 30]

Figure 1. Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 25.
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Figure 1.

Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 25.

[End Page 31] lack of titillating tits and ass. The citational practice that drives the book, Jackson's commitment to swiping, his cutting up and reassembly of the art history of the American West, results in static, beautifully composed set pieces, heavy with detail, that prize drafting and referentiality over action.

Even as Jackson utilizes the images of the past to authorize his history of the Parker family and the genocide of the "Wild Comanches of Texas," however, he repeatedly returns to the cartoony line of the underground. In several key moments in the story, the artist breaks the suggestive spell of his stiff and heavy images, shifting briefly into a bulbous and heavy style that would have been more familiar to the aging comix reader. He slips into this mode, for example, when describing the way in which the Comanche came to know the Anglo-Texans that settled on their land in the nineteenth century. Where the Comanche had previously cowed Spanish and Mexican settlers with raids and displays of horsemanship, the founders of the Texas Republic and their forebears would have none of it, nor would they take even offered gifts. In a wide panel that takes up the bottom third of the page on which Jackson is depicting this historical context, a Comanche offers a horse to a Texan officer, who responds "Hold your own damn horse, Injun . . . unless you want to lose it!" The giver can only respond with a confused "?!!," but, perhaps more tellingly, Jackson's stiff portraiture loosens up in his rendition of the character's face, which transforms from a mask into an expressive caricature. Zip lines, indicating the degree of his surprise, radiate from his head and provide him with a kind of halo, while his mouth—pulled into the simple downward curve of a frown—and his eyes—bulging spheres lacking eyelids—veer suddenly into the exaggeration that is the base material of caricature and cartoon.11 Witek notes a similar tendency in the cartoonist's dialogue, which is a mix of high narrative oration, hip sixties chatter, and, very rarely, the movie-Western-Indian's distinctive and insulting broken English. These shifts, especially stark in contrast to the staid and academic language of the book's textual narration, are often utilized to make rhetorical or ideological arguments and Witek suggests that they bring readers closer to the text, while the historically referential images clarify that Comanche Moon is telling a story that exists at a historical remove from the present.12

These elements make an argument for the fundamentally speculative nature of all history writing and image-making, particularly when it comes to a topic that has been as culturally fertile as the American West. Even with historical depiction as his aide-in-verisimilitude, Jackson knew he could only bring his readers so close to his story. Rather than attempt to exactly recreate historical events of which there is no record and which may or may not have happened, the historian-cartoonist decided to be honest about his artifice.

This practice of self-conscious historical fiction resonates with Jackson's shifts between the historical register that dominates Comanche Moon and the underground style that punctuates it. Breaks in the book's characteristic historical realism occur at several key moments, always when a character's world suddenly shifts under their feet. Perhaps most notably, Jackson mixes these approaches repeatedly in the graphic novel's first sequence, rendering Cynthia Ann Parker a kind of violated cherub as she is captured, taken from [End Page 32] the arms of her mother, "forced to watch the humiliation" of two women who are captured alongside her and her brother, and, finally, sent to her new home. In each image, the trauma written on Cynthia Ann's face, her eyes bugging wide with terror, is in jarring contrast to the stiff portraiture that characterizes her captors, who barely emote, and with the neutral tone of the story's narration. Whereas Jackson's previous story of a historical massacre, "Nits Make Lice," showed scenes of rape and murder in all the gory and vulgar detail that Witek suggests is the key cultural contribution of the undergrounds, Jackson here shifts those images into the space of the gutter, preferring to leave us only with images of Cynthia Ann Parker's wide open eyes, a synecdoche for the kind of image making that Jackson had, temporarily, left behind13 (see Figures 2 & 3).

Witek argues that the sexual violence in "Nits Makes Lice" is counter to the "projections of libidic [sic] power or anxiety" in the wide-ranging use of the naked female form in the undergrounds, and that, instead, the story "conflate[s] race hatred and gender hatred through the use of comic-book conventions. Both the cover and the story feature beautiful big-breasted women being killed; Jackson's pages make an explicit link between sexual aggression and murder." The power of this link, he says, becomes clear "when . . . formal voyeurism is overlaid on the pictorial conventions of pornography to tell a historical story," so that "readers become complicit in the action within the panels . . . plac[ing] the viewer literally within the circle of leering soldiers awaiting their turn at the victim."14

Witek's reading of "Nits Make Lice" is compelling, but his observation that Jackson draws the reader into the sexual violence on the page also suggests an alternate reading. In the context of the misogyny that went hand in hand with the underground's commitment to libidinal freedom and gratuitousness and compositions that draw attention to the victims' buxom figures, "Nits Make Lice" may seem to reject sexual violence, but the story also embraces it as a titillating fantasy that violently objectifies the individuals whose deaths Jackson was also attempting to re-litigate a century after the fact. These valences are mutually exclusive. By the early 1980s, Jackson seems to have realized this contradiction: "nothing is wrong with a fuck story in itself," he told an interviewer. "But you have to ask yourself if it would get in the way when you're working elsewhere, to focus on that kind of scene. It gets shakey—at times I can't help questioning my own intentions—but you have to ask the question of what the story demands . . . I'm painfully aware that the direction I've been going in my work is no longer 'underground.'"15 Paradoxically, the self-censorship central to Jackson's strategies of depiction in Comanche Moon reveal just how limited the complete freedom of the undergrounds really was; if removing the erotic elements from his work moved Jackson away from his peers who had published in Zap, just how free had they been?

In a 1981 interview in The Comics Journal about the "self-censorship" of the Red Raider bathing scene, Jackson elaborated that after "Nits Make Lice" he started "thinking that you really have to decide how you're going to treat your reader with that kind of strip. How far are you going to go: are you going to do the work completely for yourself, risk estranging yourself from the reader, or are you going to try to reach them."16 He made [End Page 33]

Figure 2. Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 9.
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Figure 2.

Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 9.

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Figure 3. Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 11.
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Figure 3.

Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 11.

[End Page 35] an even stronger case in Cascade Comix Monthly, saying that the "historical-type sagas like I've been delving into require a measure of self-censorship. This grates on my nerves sometimes and I miss letting it all hang out. The truth is," he added,

I want this work to be accessible to a wide-audience, to give young readers something real to put their teeth into—but not so real that high school librarians swallow hard before putting the book on their shelves. And what of the older generation? Do we "avant-garde" artists exclude them from the human race? Why not give them something that they can sink their gums into? My experience has been that they love to see us youngsters telling a yarn right for a change, even though they complain that the print is too small. A lot of elderly, matronly types looked at my depiction of Cynthia Ann slashing her naked breasts, and it didn't faze them because they knew that it really happened that way in real life.17

The status of the categories of the "real" and the "true" is one of the key questions that Comanche Moon and Jackson's other historical comics, from "Nits Make Lice" forward, raise. In this context, it is telling that Jackson repeatedly uses "real" rather than "true" when talking about seeking a broader audience for his historical work, and that he frames them not just in terms of getting the book past the high school librarian who feels they must protect "young readers" but also the "older generation," for whom offense is tied not to an image's vulgarity or its depiction of sex or violence, but its gratuitousness, in Witek's phrase, or perhaps more usefully in this case, its fantasy (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 40.
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Figure 4.

Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 40.

While the act of self-censorship within Comanche Moon that opens up these questions is the covering up of the female form during the Red Raider bathing scene when the collected edition was produced, the key act of self-censorship in the project actually [End Page 36] occurred in the opening pages of one of its component parts, White Comanche, when Jackson shifts the imagery of sexual violence from the page into the gutter. In that space, readers are certainly free to fantasize, but they are not drawn in in the way they are in "Nits Make Lice." If readers do engage in that kind of reading, moreover, they have to do so while looking at Jackson's rendering of a wide eyed, terrified, Cynthia Ann Parker. The transformation of the depiction of Cynthia Ann transposes her from history to the present as she is exposed to the terrors of her world. In these moments she comes to stand in for the erstwhile underground audience, each ripped from the complacency of their respective existences by their exposure to sexual violence; the key difference is that the underground reader is indulging in that violence, while Cynthia Ann is a victim, forced to watch.

Jackson's shifts between styles in the earliest moments of his story certainly served as a kind of shibboleth to his established readership, but they also foreground a new phase of Jackson's long-ambivalent relationship with the underground movement at large. Here, his practice of citation emerges as particularly significant to the composition of both his images and his narratives. His choices about which particular historical happenings to depict and how to depict them, what has elsewhere been called his self-censorship, were not only about toning down his work to increase his audience, although that must have played some role and he certainly framed it that way. In those moments Jackson was also sifting the fantasy out from the reality of his histories, even when they were not strictly "true."18


The shifts between styles early on in Comanche Moon serve to dramatize the larger practice of citation within the book and align it with more embodied forms of multimodal scholarship of the past. Jackson's indigenous and white characters are drawn to resemble the photography and painted portraits of his named influences, their figures stiff and unusually upright, with visages that typically face fully front or appear in uncannily perfect profile (see Figure 5). This style is a key phrase in the repertoire of Comanche Moon, showing up in scenes even when it results in unusual posing and unnatural blocking within panels; Jackson clearly prioritized his references over realism and naturalism. These visual strategies, in concert with his occasional uses of half tone dots to shade his figures and landscapes, give individual images the characteristics of turn of the twentieth-century photographic reproduction, lending an air of historical authenticity to Comanche Moon. But a side effect of these stylized compositions is that, even when Jackson utilizes backgrounds and perspective, the figures appear to be separated from the field, as if his panels were composed by cutting out images of the American West from picture magazines and historical textbooks and pasting the people and animals on top of appropriately beautiful landscapes and interior still lifes.

Rather than utilizing a visual narrative strategy in which an assemblage of images drives the story, Jackson's collages of redrawn reproductions of nineteenth-century images function more like a museum display or a diorama. Outside the moments of rupture detailed above, his recreations of historical events seem painstakingly constructed and [End Page 37] observed, as if they were occurring this instant. They are designed not be read, but pored over and marveled at, so that viewers can consider individual details and items from more than one angle. Hillary Chute notes the apparent closeness between the documentary genre and the comics medium; "with its proliferation of frames," she writes, the latter "suggests plenitude . . . the fullness of what can be crammed in the frame to display." Sequence, she continues, has the power to "present the density and accumulation of evidence," a possibility of form that Jackson actualizes with his swiping from the archive in order to make visual arguments about the past through reconstruction and verisimilitude. In this way, Comanche Moon is a work of public history, closely aligned with local history museums and national historic sites.19

Figure 5. Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 24.
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Figure 5.

Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979), 24.

Jackson's textual narrative strategy, while consistent with the quality of his images, is also unusual for a comic book. Ideally, words and images work together to tell a story, [End Page 38] but Comanche Moon and Jackson's other historical projects (even the ones that are more explicitly in the underground mode) are weighted down with narration. Unlike in a graphic memoir, where narration comes from the cartoonist, or the text boxes that have come in the recent past to replace thought bubbles in superhero comic books, Jackson's explication of the story does not have a source from within. Indeed, as is the case with many kinds of historical narrative, it appears to have no source at all. In Comics as History, Joseph Witek writes about the way that, in the specifically didactic Classics Illustrated history comics of the mid-1950s, typeset historical narration and dialogue lent credence and authority to a story, a method of convincing parents and other authority figures who would buy such books for children that the history stories were somehow different than the pre-Code comics the kids might pick up at a newsstand.20 Jackson, who hand lettered Comanche Moon and much of his other work with bold and angular letter forms, picked up on the narrative feature but not the typographical one when he turned towards writing his histories. There are longs stretches of Comanche Moon during which every panel on each page features a narrative caption, either in the gutter at the top or inscribed on to a text box stylized to look like decaying paper stock. This positioning is important to understanding how to read Jackson's historical stories; his pages are designed so that the images are subordinated to the narration. Beautifully composed as they are, Jackson's pictures are not strictly necessary to the procession of his narrative. As he told interviewer Bruce Sweeney in 1980:

I wanted the book to demonstrate the wide range of possibilities of the 'comic' medium. To me, the medium is tops . . . it can be quick and dirty, or it can be a finely wrought educational tool that gives us insight into the human predicament. The result is the measure of the artist's commitment to himself and his readers. Personally, I like the term "illustrated book" for something like Comanche Moon, but labels are useless anyway. I'm content for it to be just a plain "comic book."21

This formal intervention is a powerful strategy, but it divides images and words rather than drawing them together, making Jackson's history comics difficult reads. The constant switching between processing image and processing text forces a reader to move slowly across the page, a rewarding but tiring trek. On the other hand Jackson's cutouts support an argument about the artificiality of all history projects, academic and popular. Although the form of his work prevents him from making specific historical truth claims, that is, from saying that the past was exactly as Comanche Moon depicts, that does not lessen its power. Instead, citational practice in the form of swiping enables him to approximate the truth, to make an argument about the past that clearly builds on the legacies and traditions of those artists and historians who came before him by seeming to combine their work in a collage; this, too, is a repudiation of the underground ethos.22 [End Page 39]


"White Comanche," the first story in what would become Comanche Moon, predates the first installment of Art Spiegelman's Maus by a couple of years, and the two texts make an interesting pair.23 Both relate histories of attempted genocide and extirpation, although in significantly different contexts: both emerged out of the primordial soup of the undergrounds and both are featured in Witek's Comic Books As History.24 There are, of course, striking differences, too. Jackson's historical comics make a play for authority and verisimilitude by developing a style that resembles photographic collage and that appropriates styles and images from the history of depictions of the historical West in general and Native Americans in particular. Maus attempts something a little more slippery, famously using an on-the-nose funny animal metaphor, depicting Jews as anthropomorphic mice and Germans as anthropomorphic cats, in order to tell his father Vladek's story of survival during the Holocaust. Moreover, while Jackson's comics brought him only relative obscurity, Spiegelman's opus was a crossover hit, with the collected edition winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and playing a key role in the reevaluation of the cultural place of comics in the United States, the rise of the graphic novel, and the emergence of academic comics studies.

The key difference between Jackson's work and Spiegelman's, however, demonstrates how the comics medium limits possible modes of historical inquiry. While both tell historical stories, the two cartoonists approach their tales in very different ways. Maus is a kind of double memoir, with Spiegelman relating his attempt to get his father to tell his story of the Holocaust, which is in turn embedded into the text. The comic's personal story of history is therefore filtered through two different narrators, neither of whom are apparently unreliable but both of whom are nevertheless still explicitly human (no matter the look of their face), and therefore implicitly fallible. The narration, moreover, comes from within the story. Images of Art or Vladek speaking anchor the flow of historical narrative, before returning to a discursive strategy by which Art's images and Vladek's speech are drawn together, propelling the story forward in concert. Jackson's historical comics, on the other hand, have an omniscient narrative voice that comes from nowhere, primarily relying on the comics' words to move the story along, while his images serve to clarify the story's citational practice.

While historical narratives in comics, primarily in the form of graphic novels, have proliferated in the decades since both projects began in the late 1970s, they have tended to take Spiegelman's path, of memoir and witness, rather than Jackson's, of citation and verisimilitude. Graphic autobiography, or autography, has in fact become non-fiction comics' dominant mode. Historical memoirs are common—John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell's March, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and Shigeru Mizuki's Showa are all prominent examples—but autography prevails across the many genres that gather under the umbrella of non-fiction. Journalist Joe Sacco's comics are largely framed from his point of view, and memoirs of identity and illness are other important strains.25 [End Page 40]

Just as autography has come to dominate graphic non-fiction, non-fiction graphic histories tend to be in the mode that critic Hillary Chute has called "graphic witness." The ubiquity of this marriage of medium and genre circumscribes the ability of comics to tell historical stories by dint of the fact that eyewitnesses die, and with them dies their ability to put their own story into words (or, in our case, words and pictures). Spiegelman began interviewing his father for the work that would become Maus in the early 1970s—if he had begun his work now, he would have had to rely on memories, impressions, and mementos rather than his father's testimony.26 Jackson, meanwhile, was writing at more than a century's remove from the events he was describing. Quanah Parker had died in 1911; projects like Comanche Moon are impossible without adding tools beyond the memory of an eyewitness to the methodology of the historical cartoonist.

Even if Jackson's subject had been more contemporary, however, his citational practice would likely still have led him down the road that became Comanche Moon due to the limits of the graphic-memoir-as-history. In response to its dominant place as a genre of comics and graphic novels, the academic study of autography is one of the most well-developed areas of the academic study of comics. Chute has dealt specifically with the question of graphic witness in her book Disaster Drawn, and she suggests that comics are uniquely suited to depicting war and disaster because "movingly, unflinchingly, comics works document, display, furnish. They engage the difficulty of spectacle instead of turning away from it. They risk representation." Citing the trauma scholar Shoshana Feldman, Chute adds that comics "with their basic hand-drawn grammar" textualize the context of feeling, rendering it "graphically, conspicuously manifest."27

Autobiographical comics, then, are compelling precisely because they are subjective, because they caricature experience. The same holds true for graphic memoir's depiction of history; it becomes an exaggerated version of a historical event that advances the experience of the individual in their context over and above that context as an object of historical knowledge in its own right. Academic historical scholarship attempts to make verifiable, if always necessarily speculative, truth claims about the past. Historians craft arguments about what happened, knowing all the while that we cannot know for sure. Autography-as-historical-text, on the other hand, need not attempt verisimilitude. The form of the thing is truth enough. An experience of an event, like Vladek's, seamlessly comes to stand in for the event itself. Such comics, numerous as they are, appear to provide a visceral and immediate experience of a past event as it was seen. As with all history writing, that experience is a kind of illusion.28

Crucially, that illusion does not invalidate the importance of the graphic memoir to understanding history, but merely circumscribes its uses. Ann Cvetkovich has drawn attention to the way that Alison Bechdel "lovingly" reproduces photographs and documents in her graphic novel Fun Home, creating what Cvetkovich calls an archive of feeling, "memorial talismans that carry the affective weight of the past." The semiotics of the genre seem to demand these "memorial talismans," objects that cross the space of the page in such a way that they bring the past to the present, even if they are not always rendered [End Page 41] in Bechdel's deep detail.29 Similarly, Jared Gardner has described what he calls comics' twenty-first-century "archival turn," the tendency, particularly within the plot of the graphic novel, to focus on the collection and presentation of ephemera that "marks comics as closer to the archive than to traditional narrative forms," suggesting that it "retains that which cannot be reconciled to linear narrative . . . the trace that threatens to unsettle the present's narrative of its own past (and thereby of itself)." Identifying this "trace" as a kind of "excess data," Gardner suggests that it is the embrace of that data, "the inability or refusal to choose . . . that has led to the expanding cultural influence of the form."30 With Gardner, then we can argue that all comics, and not just memoir, are archives of feeling. Comics, as Chute tells us, is a medium that is "conspicuously artificial"; Michael Chaney adds specifically that "comics are not just the direct object of cognition," but that "the panels are the thinking" to which we might add that they are also the feeling.31

There are memorial talismans in Comanche Moon, but they are of a different sort than those found in graphic memoir. They reveal Jackson's dedication to his historical projects, his personal projects, but rather than functioning as an object of narrative they serve as a kind of meta-archive. Jackson is like Bechdel insofar as he also lovingly recreates historical images in his work in order to bring the past into the present. He is very clearly engaged with the archival practices of "rereading, resorting and reframing" that Gardner identifies as the process of making and reading comics.32 That engagement, however, is premised, through the process of citation, on choosing; in other words, Jackson's history comics refuse the medium's characteristic refusal to choose. Influenced by the critical, academic historian that Jackson was in the process of becoming, they demand choice. Insofar as autography, as all comics, serve as archives, they are primary sources, the stuff that makes up history rather than history itself. Their foundation is in a singular experience and a singular voice, whereas Jackson must cite, must assemble his account from many archives. The work of telling such a story is a careful and considered kind of weaving, establishing a clear historical distance between the tale told and its audience. It is the work of the secondary source, the work of history making. By identifying Jackson's memorial talismans—his citations—we can see his histories as objects of study in their own right, making claims on his present as well as on the past.

Jackson's historiographical path, not much taken up by later creators, the path of the citation, of the collage, rejects the visceral immediacy that Chute admires in graphic memoir. Instead, he moves the blood, the guts, and the semen into the gutter, in favor of a broader focalization, a history of the displacement and genocide of the Comanche rather than one person's experience of that displacement. Just like the museum recreations they evoke, his pictures artificially illustrate his story rather than bringing the reader into it. Thus, Comanche Moon resists implicating its audience in its action. Instead of a story experienced, as in graphic memoir (and as in "Nits Make Lice"), they become a story told, their authority arising from expertise rather than presence. Although Comanche Moon had implications in Jackson's present, and explicating the history of Texas as a way of fighting both mainstream and underground strains of contemporary racism and sexism was [End Page 42] one aspect of the "duty" to which he refers in his conversation with Gary Groth, its form is premised on the notion that the past is a different place, which can be recreated but to which one can never return, nor bring anybody else.


Following his work on Comanche Moon, Jackson continued work on a variety of history projects. In the early 1980s, Jackson put out a serial about Texas-Mexican Juan Seguín, who fought with the Anglo-Texans at the Alamo (and survived), was a Senator in the Texas Republic, and then served with the Mexican army, before returning to live the rest of his life in Texas. These comic books were eventually collected under the title Los Tejanos, in 1982 .33 In 1986, Jackson published Los Mesteños with Texas A&M Press, the first of many academic history projects.34

By 1990, a decade after returning to Texas following an earlier decade spent living in California, Jackson would admit to a different kind of homecoming. A friend and fellow Texas historian, University of Texas-Arlington professor Dr. Malcolm McLean, had written to Jackson asking for a copy of his new collection of comics The Secret of San Saba, and Jackson felt the need to give fair warning. "This is NOT one of my usual "serious" history projects," he wrote. "It's a fantasy, set in Spanish Texas with a lot of sex + violence—the latter because I want to sell some books for a change . . . if I want to support my history 'habit' I've got to loosen up, it seems + work more in the vein of what comic book readers expect."35

As Jackson's friendship with eminent Texas historians like Dr. McLean demonstrates and, as the boxes of research material held at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin attest, his turn towards historiography was neither a pet project nor an amateur's venture into critical history.36 Indeed, following the publication of Los Mesteños in 1986, Jackson was fairly in demand as an expert in the history of Texas ranching culture. The book was reviewed in the April 1986 edition of the New Mexico Historical Review, with University of Kansas professor David Dary praising the quality of both Jackson's writing and his research, noting with particular interest that the back matter included "lists of ranchers, English translations of numerous Spanish documents, and sixteen pages of Spanish brands used in what is now Texas and part of Louisiana," that it was filled to the brim with citational material, in other words. Jackson was, for the same journal a few months later, himself asked to review a book on the history of the Texas Longhorn.37

As Jackson admitted to Dr. McLean, however, doing his duty had taken its toll. His attempt to bring the citational practice he admired in history to his comics work sputtered under the time it took to do the necessary research and the weight of all of his text. In the 1990 letter to McLean, Jackson refers to his history work as a "habit," a weighty framing of his continued dedication to the task, undertaken for its internal pleasures rather than external gain, against all good advice and instincts of self-preservation. The letter provides an interesting counterpoint to an interview he gave to Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth in [End Page 43] 1982, where he frames his history work as a question of his ability to live in the world, to live with himself. His comics, he said, were

not political at all. No, [they're about] survival of your brain, and mind, and so forth. Politics to me means something completely different. I'm talking about your personal survival with your immediate environment. In terms of doing things like anti-development, anti-nuclear, anti-whatever. To me, that's entirely different than political. That's like the individual's duty . . . it's your obligation as an individual, as a member of society, to raise hell about it. And that could be political, but it could also be highly personal.38

Jackson's acknowledgment of the "personal" in his work is important; the fulfillment of what he felt was his duty was the wage of that work. By 1990, however, Jackson's idealism had soured, and his duty to his historical work had curdled into what he felt was an addiction. Without being supported by teaching within a college or university, he needed to make some scratch somehow. And so he returned to "the vein of what comics readers expect" as early as the middle of the 1980s, even as he was working on Los Mesteños. The first and only issue of Jaxon's Illustrated Tales, published in 1984, featured "God's Bosom," a story in the "Nits Make Lice" mold of a shipwreck off the coast of Texas that left just one survivor, ticking off the variety of horrible deaths suffered by the others as it progresses. As several issues of Skull and Slow Death had been not quite two decades earlier, the issue was introduced by a skeleton, this one in a feathered headdress adorned with buffalo horns, a beaded necklace and chestplate, and a blanket featuring both a Nazi Swastika and an Iron Cross—a kind of Southwestern Cryptkeeper. The individual stories that would be collected as The Secret of San Saba began in Jaxon's Illustrated Tales before being serialized as "Bulto . . . The Cosmic Slug" in Kitchen Sink Press's anthology Death Rattle a few years later . Even this work, however, was buttressed by a devotion to verisimilitude achieved through obsessive research and attention to detail. Jackson, it seemed, could not kick his history habit, even when trying to make a buck by returning to comics in the underground mode, comics set in Spanish Texas featuring gore and sex and crustaceans from space. He went on to produce several other important works on the history of Texas written in academic prose, often collaborating with other scholars, floated in part by his return to the sex and violence of the undergrounds.39

In the moment of Comanche Moon, though, Jackson was trying to drive his work into a new range, taking on the authority of narrative history that justifies genocidal violence by demonstrating its constructed nature with the same pen strokes with which he was reckoning with the consequences of his earlier work and that of his peers. Rather than sensationalizing historical spectacle—rather than emphasizing the blood, the guts, and the semen—he frames his telling of the stories of Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker around the causes and consequences of violence and libidinous urge. In so doing, he rejects both the notion that the displays of the underground were expressions of complete freedom (even if he later felt pressed to return to the old underground modes) and the first-person spectacle [End Page 44] of autography that is part of the undergrounds' legacy. In his dedication to the practice of historiographical choosing, that is, through his practice of citation, Jackson suggests a method of public history that foregrounds the impossibility of reconstructing the past and so relies on popular images and forms but clarifies them with historical methods that require a plentitude of sources and perspectives. In order to do so, however, he had to define the limits of the underground cartoonists' notions of freedom, and ask at whose expense that freedom came. [End Page 45]

Joshua Abraham Kopin

Joshua Abraham Kopin is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, writing a dissertation that frames comics as a nineteenth century technology of time and space. He received a 2018–2019 Swann Fellowship at the Library of Congress and his work has appeared in American Literature and is forthcoming in Keywords For Comics Studies. From 2017–2019 he was the President of the Comics Studies Society Graduate Student Caucus and he is currently promotions coordinator on the executive committee for the International Comics Art Forum.


. This essay was first presented in significantly different form at the Counterpublix of Underground Comix panel at MLA 2016 in Austin, organized by Margaret Galvan and Leah Misemer. A big thank you to Margaret and Leah for their patience and guidance as I revised the presentation into this essay.

1. Bill Sherman, "An Interview with Jack Jackson," The Comics Journal, Winter 1981, 100–04.

2. Patrick Rosenkranz, Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963–1975 (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2008).

3. Jack Jackson, White Comanche (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp, 1977); Jack Jackson, Red Raider (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp, 1977); Jack Jackson, Blood on the Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp, 1978); Jack Jackson, Comanche Moon (San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp/Rip Off Press, 1979).

4. Sherman, "An Interview with Jack Jackson," 105–06.

5. Rosenkranz, Rebel Visions, 234.

6. Rosenkranz, Rebel Visions, 239.

7. Jackson, Comanche Moon, 118. "The trained eye," Jackson told Bruce Sweeney, "will be able to pick a lot of Russell, Remington, etc., out of Comanche Moon. After all, there ain't that many buffalo or wild Indians running around anymore to draw from life. I figure that if you're going to swipe, might as well do it from the best, and I usually leave enough of my source intact that there's no question about it. This sort of thing has being going on since the time of the caveman paintings. It ain't new." Sweeney, "Bruce Sweeney Talks with Jaxon," 6. For a more detailed account of Jackson's relationship to his "old masters," Martha Sandweiss, "Redrawing The West: Jack Jackson's Comanche Moon," in The Graphic Novel, ed. Jan Baetens, Symbolae Facultatis Litterarum Lovaniensis, vol. 13 (Louvain, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001), 123–24.

8. For a discussion of Crumb's swipes, see Hillary L. Chute, Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere (New York, NY: Harper, 2017), 109–20. For a broader account of the practice of "swiping" in the production of comics art, see Benoît Crucifix, "Cut-Up and Redrawn: Reading Charles's Burns's Swipe Files," Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society 1 (Fall 2017): 309–33.

9. Gary Groth, "Jack Jackson on His Work in the Underground and His New Book, Los Tejanos," The Comics Journal, September 1982.

10. Joseph Witek, Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), 75–76.

11. Jackson, Comanche Moon, 22.

12. Witek, Comic Books as History, 80–81.

13. Jackson, Comanche Moon, 9–11.

14. Witek, Comic Books as History, 71–72.

15. Sherman, "An Interview with Jack Jackson," 109. Jackson's ambivalence about the freedom of the undergrounds, rejecting it and wistfully embracing it in turns, is a hallmark of his career after returning to Texas. Looking back in 1999, two decades after Comanche Moon, he told an interviewer that "if [the undergrounds] have a legacy at all, it's freedom . . . we were so outrageous that we expanded the boundaries of what you can do, of how much you can get away with, as it were . . . now young foolish people that want to go into the medium can do anything they want. To me the legacy is unlimited boundaries." Rosenkranz, Rebel Visions, 265.

16. Sherman, "An Interview with Jack Jackson," 109.

17. Bruce Sweeney, "Bruce Sweeney Talks with Jaxon," Cascade Comix Monthly, May 1980, 7.

18. As Jackson put it to Groth in 1982: "Here I am knocking my head against the wall because most people enjoy the fantasy aspects of history as opposed to the nitty-gritty of history, so I guess you have to strike a balance in there at some point . . . I'm about ready to start exploiting the fantasy end of it as opposed to the authenticity. Simply because the authenticity doesn't seem to get much of a response." Jackson came to this conclusion in part because one of the most talked about scenes in Comanche Moon is the one that's most clearly in the underground mode, a vision of Quanah Parker's featuring a winged buffalo: "That's the one sequence where I just plain used my imagination on, because nobody knows what Quanah really saw on his vigil. The first question that everybody asks me is, 'Did you dream that up?' And that's the page collectors always want to buy." Groth, "Jack Jackson on His Work," 82; Sherman, "An Interview with Jack Jackson," 111.

19. Hillary L. Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 2016), 16.

20. Witek, Comic Books as History, 22–23

21. Sweeney, "Bruce Sweeney Talks with Jaxon," 6.

22. There is a certain irony, moreover, that Jackson had to rely on the underground idiom to make this argument.

23. The first installment of what we now know as Maus appeared in Raw #2 in 1980, although this was not Spiegelman's first attempt at Holocaust narrative featuring funny animals, also called "Maus," which appeared in the underground publication Animal Funnies in 1972. See Raw #2 (Raw Books and Graphics, 1980); Animal Funnies (Apex Novelties, 1972) and Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997).

24. See Witek, Comic Books as History.

25. Shigeru Mizuki, Showa: A History of Japan, trans. Zack Davisson (Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly, 2013); Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2007); John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016); For more on depictions of trauma in comics, see Harriet E. H. Earle, Comics, Trauma, and the New Art of War (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017). For more on graphic medicine, see M. K. Czerwiec et al., Graphic Medicine Manifesto (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015). Although framing Sacco's journalism as autography is unusual, discussions of his use of first-person perspective have characterized the scholarship about his work. Critic Marc Singer has argued that this discourse has actually obscured the ways that Sacco engages in so-called objective journalistic practice. See Singer, "Views from Nowhere: Journalistic Detachment in Palestine" in Daniel Worden, ed., The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 67–84.

26. Of course, prominent examples of graphic memoir, including Maus and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, are focused specifically on the instability and unreliability of memory. Bechdel, unlike Spiegelman, doesn't have her father's presence to rely on, since the circumstances surrounding and consequences of his death are among the key issues of the memoir. In narrating her coming to terms with the histories of his life and her own sexuality, Bechdel both references and reproduces what Ann Cvetkovich calls "an archive of feelings." See Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Boston New York: Mariner Books, 2007) and Ann Cvetkovich, "Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 36 (Spring/Summer 2008): 111–28.

27. Chute, Disaster Drawn, 17, 33.

28. Although this may appear to contradict the view, advanced by Nancy Pedri, that graphic memoir finds its credibility at the very moment when the narrator expresses doubt about the completeness of their narrative, this doubt serves most of all to grant the cartoonist authority in the relation of the event. See Nancy Pedri, "Graphic Memoir: Neither Fact Nor Fiction," in From Comic Strips to Graphic Narrative: Contribution to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, ed. Daniel Stein and Jan-Noël Thon (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2013). For another perspective on the use of multiple narrative focalizations and the separate functions of images and text in non-fiction comics, see Rachel Kunert-Graf, "Comics and Narratological Perspective: (Witnessing) Bias in Direct Experience," ImageText 10.1 (2018),

29. Cvetkovich, "Drawing The Archive in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home," 120.

30. Jared Gardner, "Archives, Collectors, and the New Media Work of Comics," MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 52 (Winter 2006): 788, 801–802.

31. Chute, Disaster Drawn, 17; Michael A. Chaney, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 5.

32. Gardner, "Archives, Collectors and the New Media Work of Comics," 802.

33. Jack Jackson, Los Tejanos (Fantagraphics Books, 1982). As one of the first books published by Fantagraphics, Los Tejanos is either an important bridge between the underground comix of the 1960 and 1970s and the alternative comics of the 1980s or a key piece of the argument that the distinction between the "underground" and "alternative" periods is overstated, obscuring more than it reveals.

34. Jack Jackson, Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986).

35. Jaxon to Malcom McLean, January 8, 1990. Jack Jackson Papers, 1942–1943, 1958–2004, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. Jackson's 1982 conversation with Gary Groth, cited above, demonstrates that he was thinking along these lines as early as 1982, immediately following the publication of the collected Los Tejanos.

36. These documents include: Jackson's research notes and sketchbooks; copies of primary source material; correspondence from archivists, genealogists, professional historians working both in the public and in the ivory tower, publishers, and the various state historical societies of the Southwest; and, most of all, the work itself.

37. David Dary, "Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821," New Mexico Historical Review 62.2 (April 1987): 212–13; Jack Jackson, "The Texas Longhorn: Relic of the Past, Asset for the Future" New Mexico Historical Review 62.4 (October 1, 1987): 417–18. Jackson was also asked to review The Texas Longhorn by an editor from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly; he declined. See Norman D. Brown to Jack Jackson, April 26 1987. Jack Jackson Papers, 1942–1943, 1958–2004, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

38. Groth, "Jack Jackson on His Work in the Underground and His New Book, Los Tejanos," 76. This notion of duty would come to include duty to unvarnished portrayals of history not for the sake of shock, as in the work of the undergrounds, but for the sake of history itself. In a short essay on his sources at the end of his 1998 graphic novel Lost Cause—a story about a feud between former Confederates in Texas that caused a fair bit of controversy in Austin around its release—Jackson wrote "Those readers who have finished Lost Cause have realized by now that my telling of the Reconstruction Era is not 'politically correct.' I believe there is no point in trying to explain this era if you're not going to do it truthfully, with all its racism, violence, and other dark aspects that are repugnant to modern social theorists and every ethnic group involved. . . . We can judge past events by present standards, I suppose, but we should not rewrite history to conform to our 'enlightened' notions of morality. To attempt it produces bad history as well as a dull story." See Jack Jackson, Los Tejanos and Lost Cause (Seattle, Wash: Fantagraphics Books, 2012), 286.

39. Jack Jackson, Jaxon's Illustrated Tales #1, 1984; Jack Jackson, Secret of San Saba: A Tale of Phantoms and Greed in the Spanish Southwest (Princeton, WI: Kitchen Sink Press, 1989). "Bulto" was serialized in Death Rattle beginning with issue #3 in 1985.

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