Lines in the Sand

You won't find Jack Jackson's controversial illustrated history of the Alamo at the Alamo gift shop—but the Austin artist isn't ready to surrender or retreat.
Lines in the Sand
Self-portrait of the artist as an old man: With the author (l.)
Illustration by Gary Cartwright

THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS HAVING mercifully expired, let me get something off my chest. Back in the sixties, when the great cultural wars were flaring up, I wrote for a while under the nom de plume M. D. Shafter. It was a way to confound the IRS, which had taken an inconvenient interest in about $1,000 in back taxes that I owed. This was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, which followed the JFK assassination and Vietnam and foretold the acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Texas Monthly, Southwest Airlines, and the Armadillo World Headquarters were just peeking over the horizon.

Many writers and artists whose names are now mainstream fixtures chose prudence over ego back then. It was a way to survive while maintaining artistic integrity. I learned recently, for example, that the gifted illustrator and historian Jack Jackson adopted his trademark signature, Jaxon, as a method to avoid detection by his boss, Robert Calvert, who was the Texas comptroller of public accounts. Though his first love was history, Jackson had majored in accounting at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) before moving to Austin and taking a grunt job in the Capitol basement. This may have been the only time in his life that he played it safe. “I wanted to be like Spinoza—grind lenses by day so I could do fun stuff at night,” he told me recently. Fun stuff was drawing subversive cartoons for the Ranger, the University of Texas student magazine, and completing work on his first comic book, God Nose, which was printed late one night with the help of his friends in the Capitol printing office. That’s right, citizens: The first significant underground comic was printed at government expense.

I had gone to see Jackson because I’d read his latest graphic novel, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides, and thought it was excellent and highly entertaining. “Graphic novel” is a fancy name for a 172-page comic book, but the history rings true and the effect is memorable. Jackson—who has won numerous awards in forty years as a cartoonist, cartographer, historian, and an illustrator and has published fifteen books, including Los Mesteños, the standard scholarly reference book on Spanish ranching—takes pains to research his subjects. For the Alamo book, he spent as much time studying the clothes, weapons, houses, and oxcarts of nineteenth-century Texas as he did drawing the panels of characters. Strange, then, that the gift shop at the Alamo, which is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, will not sell his book. The DRT claims not to have room for it on its shelves, though I suspect there are other reasons. More likely, though they deny it, the Daughters object to Jackson’s faithful depiction of the hardships suffered by the Mexican army. He says that twenty years ago an earlier group of Daughters rejected his graphic novel on the life of Texas patriot Juan Seguín because a Mexican was pictured on the cover.

Jackson looks like one of his drawings. He has bushy gray hair, a floppy mustache, and the fixed scowl of a cantankerous, ascetic cartoonist who spends most of his time alone. A rare genetic disease similar to arthritis has crippled his hands, making it difficult for him to hold a pen. Nevertheless, he works at least six hours a day, every day, in the book-strewn studio behind his modest North Austin home. Work is his life, and it has been for years. Our mutual friend Bob Simmons, who lived with Jackson in San Francisco when a coven of expatriate Austin artists and musicians was running the Avalon Ballroom, the Family Dog, the Rip Off Press, and Rip Off Review, recalls, “He’d get up early and work all day, researching and drawing. His discipline has always been unbelievable.”

Growing up near Pandora, a virtual ghost town east of San Antonio, Jackson was a curious kid. He was fascinated by the flints and arrowheads he found near the old family cemetery, always wondering how this place and these people connected to him. His early books were mostly about Indians. Two of his kinsmen, he learned in his research, died at the Alamo: Thomas Jackson, of DeWitt’s colony, and Burke “Buck” Trammell, of Austin’s colony. Like most Texans his age—he is 61—Jackson began learning about Texas history by reading Texas History Movies, a cartoon book that originated at the Dallas News in 1926 and for three decades was distributed to all Texas elementary schools by Magnolia Petroleum Company. “I learned more about Texas from that book than I did from my history teacher, who, of course, was a coach,” Jackson says.

After college, at a most fortuitous time, Jackson followed his bliss to Austin. People who yearn for the city’s gilded age suppose they’re talking about life here thirty years ago, but the quintessential Austin experience happened in the late fifties and early sixties, when Jackson and an insightful band of young Texans, including most of the Ranger staff, shared a ramshackle apartment building called the Ghetto. Torn down years ago, it was located just off the UT Drag, near Dirty Martin’s, and it was center stage for those hardy pioneers of our fabled counterculture. Janis Joplin partied at the Ghetto. So did Gilbert Shelton, the creator of Wonder Wart-Hog and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. And Joe E. Brown, the model for the Freak Brother called Freewheelin’ Frank and also a co-founder of Austin’s (and Texas’) first head shop, Underground City Hall, the forerunner of Oat Willie’s. And Wali Stopher, an elfin musician who posed for the photograph of Oat Willie that Jim Franklin used in his famous illustration.

“There were no prom queens at the Ghetto, no sports heroes or debate champs,” Simmons recalls. “These were the misfits who dressed in black in high school and read Kerouac.” They drank 35-cent quarts of Grand Prize at the Friendly Tavern and took refuge at a coffeehouse called the Id, where it was safe to listen to Miles Davis or recite poetry or share

Tags: THE CULTURE

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