Monday, June 12, 2006

Jack Jackson (1941-2006)

Jack Jackson, who went by the nom de comix of Jaxon, was generally credited with being the first underground comix artist. This is due to the publication of his one-shot God Nose in 1964 after he and other staffers were kicked off the college magazine Texas Ranger for what he called "a petty censorship violation". Eventually he ended up in San Francisco - the heart of the underground comix movement - and he and some other Texas transplants founded Rip Off Press. Despite this, most of his work in those days was published by another seminal comix outfit, Last Gasp. One of the two Jaxon books I own, Optimism of Youth, chronicles this early work. Most of the stories are pastiches of classic EC Comics stuff with the addition of plenty of explicit sex (these are the undergrounds we're talking about, after all). There are some interesting stories here, a couple of Lovecraft and Twilight Zone type things that are entertaining, and the art is excellent but a bit raw. The overall sense is of an artist still trying to find his voice. The most interesting (but not the best) story is "White Man's Burden", an exploration of racial stereotypes in a post-apocalyptic world which prefigures Robert Crumb's infamous satirical "When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America". Whitey meets his downfall when all the races band together to fight the man, but when the white man is defeated, each race starts thinking they are the "master race", and the cycle continues. This story got him some death threats from some white people who didn't quite get the point and thought Jaxon was racist, a misunderstanding that unfortunately would happen again in his career.

The second book of his I have is Los Tejanos, which is one of the early examples of the kind of work he's best known for, exquisite historical narratives of the early history of Texas and the southwest. While Art Spiegleman and Marjane Satrapi may be making it (relatively) big, there still isn't much of a market for detailed, painstakingly researched comics which take years to complete. Still, Jaxon turned out plenty of them in the twenty five years: Comanche Moon, Recuerden el Alamo, The Secret of San Saba, Indian Lover: Sam Houston & the Cherokees, Lost Cause: The True Story of Famed Gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides, and probably some more that I've missed. Los Tejanos is the story of Texas' independence from Mexico. The traditional story centers the Alamo and mostly mentions whites, but this book follows Juan Seguin, a "Tejano" - Texans of Mexican descent - who was one of many who fought for Texas and the Constitution of 1824. The Alamo is mentioned briefly: Seguin was there and snuck out past Santa Anna's lines to bring reinforcements and supplies, but could not return before the fort fell. But this book covers the whole conflict, and what happened afterwards. White Americans are notoriously unable to determine who their allies are and who their enemies are when it comes to other races and ethnic groups, and Texans who fought against Mexico began to resent the Mexicans still living in their midst. Those who rushed to Texas to fight the good fight found the conflict over and decided to fight against whoever was handy. Bands of guerilla forces sprang up on each side. In the midst of these conflicts, Seguin is forced to flee to Mexico. After Texas statehood and the Mexican-American war, Seguin is able to return.

Racial misunderstanding seems to be an inadvertent theme in Jaxon's work and career. Back in 1998, the a hatchet job in the Austin Chronicle essentially called Jaxon's book Lost Cause racist. To make matters worse, the Chronicle refused to print any sort of rebuttal from Jaxon. Thanks to the internet, fans inundated the newspaper with letters filled with indignation and The Comics Journal interviewed him about the mess. To their credit, the Chronicle seems to have given Jaxon a lot of favorable coverage in later years.

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