15 August 2021

Recuerden* Jack Jackson (1941-2006)

*Spanish for 'Remembering'


(from The Comics Journal #278, October 2006)
The moment I learned that Jack Jackson died, I felt like I'd been hit by one of those 18-pounders that he drew with such fidelity in The Alamo. Jack had still been creatively vital (with the 2002 publication of what turned out to be his last great graphic novel - The Alamo). I had not kept in touch with Jack, knew nothing of his current health problems, and had no other reason to believe he wasn't doing as well as usual - that is, struggling, but still producing the work he loved. I was genuinely shaken by the news.

Jack Jackson and I go back a long way. After checking the files, I realised  that Jack was the first cartoonist Fantagraphics Books ever contracted with - July 13, 1981. Not the first cartoonist we published, but the first cartoonist we signed a contract with; it would take Jack nine months to complete Los Tejanos, which we would publish in June 1982. But, it is possible that Fantagraphics wouldn't have published comics if it hadn't been for this initial effort on our part.

As nearly as I can recall, Jack's second major historical work stalled after the first two chapters had been published by Last Gasp as comic books under the titles Recuerden el Alamo and Tejano Exile. I no longer remember why. Perhaps Last Gasp didn't want to publish the two remaining issues that would have finished the story because of low sales; Jack's work was notoriously difficult to sell in the then inchoate comic-book market and the vestiges of the underground head shop system. But, the modest income from the serialised publication was essential to allow Jack just enough money to live on while he finished it. The Journal had an interview with Jack scheduled later that year (conducted by Jim Sherman, our official underground comix columnist at the time) and I must have gotten in touch with Jack when I was editing it. At some point, he must've told me he couldn't finish the book and I offered to publish it. My earliest letter from him negotiating the contract is dated February 3, 1981:

I would like to start the conclusion of my tejano 'epic' shortly and was wondering if you're still of a mind to publish it as indicated. 

My situation requires 3 essential ingredients:

1. 10% of cover price
2. ownership of original art
3. maintenance of copyright

Anything else is open to negotiation. Let me know something on this venture, Gary, or I will have to soon turn to honest labor like dishwashing for a living instead of drawing pictures.

We negotiated the details and entered into an agreement on July 14, 1981. I agreed to pay Jack $275 a month through March 31, upon which date he was supposed to deliver the book. In 1981 $275 a month was an enormous sum to us, but I remember being thrilled at the time that we could help an artist of Jack's stature complete such an important piece; it was precisely the kind of comics we were championing in the magazine when there was little  work of this kind being produced. It was a struggle, but we paid Jack the $275 a month and he delivered the work exactly when he promised he would. It was probably this arrangement that allowed us to think of ourselves as comics publishers and that resulted in Love & Rockets in July 1982.

As everyone probably knows by now, Jack published God Nose in 1964 in Austin, Texas, one of the earliest underground comics, arguably the first. He then lit off on two tracks - he wrote and drew works of in-your-face satire as well as work influenced by the EC comics he admired, which was usually somewhat satirical but also more fantasy/SF-oriented and relied on the traditional EC twist ending. His satirical strips culminated in the 1973 White Man's Burden, the last strip he drew in San Francisco before moving back to Texas. In it, he pretty much pushed underground political satire as far as he could; it "was the last comic strip I did in the situation," he said, "and I realised at the time I was becoming really cynical and disillusioned with all the crap going on around me." In a way, this recognition freed him to do what he devoted the rest of his life to and which he was clearly meant to do - comic strips about American history.

The first significant strip he did in this vein was Nits Make Lice, which was the first of many strips he would do chronicling the Indian massacres of the 19th century. This one took place at Sand Creek in Colorado Territory against the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. The EC influence is most obvious in the dense captions and dialogue balloons - the art looks closer to Severin's more delicate line-work than Davis' more exaggerated, caricatured approach, whose influence on Jaxon becomes more prominent later - but it is far more explicit than anything EC could or would do, thus taking advantage of his creative freedom nurtured in San Francisco. It is Jack's most novelistic historical work, with a stress on narrative momentum and the invention of character: primarily that of the repugnant Col. John M. Chivington. In his subsequent works, he would refine a more documentary approach to historical recapitulation, where invention would yield somewhat to the expatiation of complex historical vortices.

Jackson's mission was to tell the truth about American history and in pursuit of that goal he made himself into a first-rate historian, and created a half-dozen bona fide comics masterpieces: Comanche Moon, Los Tejanos, Lost Cause, Indian Lover, The Alamo, and including several shorter pieces such as God's Bosom. His major preoccupations were two-fold: First, the genocidal and territorial impulses behind America's expansion across the West, and the ruthless political expediency required to fulfil those goals on the one hand; and, on the other, the hell played on the consciences of specific individuals who tried to resist this inevitability - and failed. Thus, he masterfully combined the private and the public, the personal and the political, and history is seen through the prism on an individual character's consciousness. Comanche Moon is the story of Quannah, the last chief of the Comanches; Los Tejanos is about Juan Seguin, a tejano patriot who found himself compromising with both sides in an attempt to make Texas independent; Indian Lover, about Sam Houston, who consistently and tenaciously and suicidally fought for Indian rights; and, of course, The Alamo is told through the voices of William Travis, David Crockett, Jim Bowie and General Santa Ana.

Maybe style is destiny. In the best comics, there is always a beautiful harmony between style and content. As good an historian as Jack was, the characters in his histories would never have truly come alive if not for his drawings and storytelling skill. His earlier work (Nits Make Lice, Comanche Moon) had a more supple line and a greater attention to detail; this evolved into the more chiseled, rough-hewn line on display in The Alamo. (This incremental change over the 30 years he devoted to historical comics may have been due to Jack's degenerative muscular disease that made drawing harder and harder for him.) His approach to drawing changed over the years, but it remained consistent at its core, and one cannot imagine it being applied to anything other than the American historical narratives he composed.

Jack's "graphic novels" were steeped in historical accuracy, but they also embodied a deeper truth. They are stories about heroism and the failure of that heroism to prevail, fierce combativeness eventually giving way to an elegiac tone. Which is to say that it is the flip side of American history as it is taught in our schools and through the mass media. "I hate to say it," he once told me, "but we really have got a thing with our Old West, an aversion to authenticity. We really, as a people, are incapable of viewing our past, our experience in the great frontier, and it's really alarming to me. I've noticed this particularly with my new book [Los Tejanos] which talks about Mexicans of Texas. I mean, everybody knows pretty much the thing with the Plain Indians, but even something like the authentic history of the Mexican people in Texas, no one knows about that. And it's like we have raised a generation of idiots in this country, almost purposely I think. Sometimes I think it's a conspiracy  that we do not educate our children to have any knowledge of what went on before. Maybe the reason why is that we have a suspicion that if we devote too much time to the past, there won't be so much time for the future. In other words, these kid's minds will be directed backwards instead of to the Great Leap Forward, which is necessary for us to conquer the universe. So what do we do, we either ignore or lie about our past. And it is very upsetting for me as someone who appreciates the authentic history, to see this going on. It's very disturbing." If David Runciman's recent observations that "the genuine antitheses of progressivism are between truth and superstition, knowledge and ignorance, common sense and ancestor-worship" is accurate, Jack was a true progressive.

America's history of predation is strewn with corpses and so is Jack's work; his refusal to gloss over the consequences of real politic made his work unpalatable to many, including educational institutions, which routinely refused to use his work in the classroom. (The ultimate insult came when The Alamo's bookstore refused to even sell The Alamo because it was politically incorrect.) Jack did not shy away from explicit depictions of violence against - and violations of - the human body. What makes his scenes of carnage so chilling is the absence of perceivable indignation, surely one of the easiest defects a work of art can succumb to. Jack was never morally shrill or didactic, either aesthetically or personally, and neither was the cruelty and carnage he drew: its portrayal rode a razor's edge between horrifyingly visceral and purely objective. One could sense the artist took no pleasure in the drawing, but that it was nonetheless an essential part of his art. (The only other cartoonist who can combine these subjective and objective realms in a single image is Joe Sacco.) Jack mastered this kind of distance, at once stepping back from the horror and rendering it with unflinching realism. He seemed to understand the consequences of violence from the inside out and follows in a long tradition of American authors who respected the consequences of violence, from Hemingway to Faulkner, from Walter Van Tilburg to James Dickey to Cormac McCarthy.

I'd see Jack every summer at the Dallas-Con. We'd always get together for lunch or dinner or drinks at the end of the night. In person, Jack very much reflected his meat-and-potatoes aesthetic: He had a straight forward, no-nonsense approach to conversation, eschewing bonhomie and bullshit, always focusing in on the salient points, never trying merely to score points, always Socratic and probing by nature. He was never a grandstander and never much concerned with status, either. He busted his ass, was never compensated adequately, and remained stedfast in his creative convictions in the face of indifference, hostility and commercial failure. He knew what he was doing had value. I don't have to point out how rare this kind of commitment is.

We later went on to publish two collections of Jack's work, God's Bosom, his shorter historical pieces, and Optimism of Youth, his earlier genre-based and satirical work. Working with Jack was both a privilege and a pleasure. 

Jack lived his life with great integrity, passion, generosity and courage - as a father, an artist and a man. He lived his life like he ended it: without equivocation.


On June 8, 2006, Jack Jackson shot himself at the cemetery where his parents were buried in Stockdale, Texas, leaving his wife, Tina, and son, Sam. "I accept that it was his choice," said Sam. "I wasn't blind. I saw him suffering every day because he couldn't do what he wanted to do. He still had that brilliant mind, but it was caged by his body. In one way, I don't respect what he did and in another way I do. I'll just concentrate on my understanding of what he did, because being resentful of it won't ever get you anywhere. It was his choice. He always had control of his life, and then, due to these physical problems, he was losing control of his life and couldn't do what he wanted to do any more and he wasn't going to accept that."


Los Tejanos by Jack Jackson features in The Comics Journal's '100 Best Comics of the Century' list.

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