A Q&A With Jack Jackson
While Jack Jackson’s cartoons are black and white, his approach to history is anything but. The cartoonist and historian has created several graphic novels presenting unbiased accounts of Texas history, and his latest work, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides, tells the story of the Alamo from both the Anglo and Mexican perspective. Here, the writer discusses his art form and all that goes into deciphering history.
texasmonthly.com: You are considered a pioneer of underground comix. What are underground comix? How and why did they develop?
Jack Jackson: Underground comix developed out of the sixties counterculture movement as an alternative to the type of comic books being offered by the big companies like Marvel and DC. We tried to appeal to the hippie audience that could find nothing about its lifestyle in other media of the time.
texasmonthly.com: What is the difference between comix, comics, and graphic novels?
JJ: “Comix”—the “x” suggesting x-rated or an adult readership—was our spelling for alternative books so readers would know at a glance that these were special books, different than regular comic books. The subjects were dope, sex, and altered consciousness of some sort as opposed to mainstream subjects. “Graphic novel” was a term used by famous cartoonist Will “the Spirit” Eisner in hopes that stories told in the sequential art format would get a little more respect than those traditionally given to comic books.
texasmonthly.com: A lot of your work is historical. Why is comic art a good way to look at history?
JJ: Comic art is a good way to tell history—to young readers especially—because it combines words with pictures. The idea is to boil complex ideas down into concise words and then reinforce the message with a graphic image. This is a one-two knockout punch and a more superior teaching tool than words alone.
texasmonthly.com: Does most of your work focus on Texas history?
JJ: Yes, because I find early Texas history a fascinating subject with many interesting characters and events. In a sense, I see myself as carrying a comic book depiction of Texas history to the next level, based on careful research. I strive to create a time machine effect, carrying my readers back to those days with as much authenticity as possible.
texasmonthly.com: When dealing with history, there is often debate about the way things happened. Have you ever received criticism for the way you presented something?
JJ: Most of the debate as to how past events happened springs from the politically correct era in which we live. Various ethnic groups are anxious to see themselves depicted in a more favorable light than past historians shed upon them. Inclusiveness is a healthy trend until it reaches the point of being as biased as the exclusive trend it sought to replace. We are at that point now in our system of higher education. Agendas have taken over. If your work does not comply with these social agendas, you run the risk of being called racist, sexist, and so forth. One reviewer called my book Lost Cause racist because I dared to tell the story of Reconstruction Texas sympathetic to the white point of view. This is one man’s impression of moonlight; other reviewers thought that I had told the story with accuracy and effectiveness.
texasmonthly.com: How much time does it take you to research a subject before you write about it?
JJ: My research—not only into the story but also into the clothes, the guns, the houses—often takes as long as drawing the book itself. In the case of the Alamo book, it took about three years from start to finish for the whole project.
texasmonthly.com: The new installment in your Alamo series addresses the battle from both sides. What were you trying to achieve with this piece? Has this approach been done before? Was is it difficult to find enough information to paint a clear picture of the Mexican perspective?
JJ: The both sides approach is one I’ve followed in all my books. In the case of Los Tejanos, which told the story of Juan Seguin and the Texas Mexicans during the revolution and afterward, it was necessary to focus on the side of the Texas Mexicans. Why? Because they had been so neglected in our historiography or cast as the enemy. Likewise, most books about the Alamo have concentrated on the defenders, the good guys, so I felt obliged to deal with the situation of the average Mexican soldier and show what he was thinking—not just what the Alamo defenders were doing. There is plenty of documentation on the Mexican side. It’s just that we Anglos have never cared to use it, preferring to concentrate on what our boys were doing and casting them as heroes.
texasmonthly.com: What are some common misconceptions people have about the Alamo?
JJ: There are as many misconceptions about the Alamo as there are people. Pity anyone who tries to alter or revise these misconceptions! There is simply no way you—as a writer-artist—can please everyone in telling this controversial story. Knowing this, I have ignorned political correctness and striven for historical accuracy as much as possible.
texasmonthly.com: You believe that Santa Anna’s goal was ethnic cleansing. Can you talk a little bit about this?
JJ: The documentation strongly suggests that Santa Anna came to Texas in 1836 to drive out the Anglo “foreigners.” They were styled as pirates and criminals, and the government issued what amounted to a take-no-prisoners decree on December 30, 1835. The foreign rebels were to be “exterminated” or driven from Texas and replaced with colonists from Mexico. Thus, defenders of Mexican policy can only argue that the word “exterminate” was being used figuratively instead of literally. Santa Anna’s execution orders for the prisoners taken at Goliad fall into the literal category. It is possible that “ethnic cleansing” is too broad a term to describe his motives, as I did in the Spring 2002 issue of the Journal of South Texas. Several friends, whose opinions I respect, objected to my use of a twentieth-century term laden with negative connotations to describe a nineteenth-century situation. Perhaps so, but anti-gringo rhetoric is a main feature of the documentation for the campaign, and Santa Anna zealously pursued a take-no-prisoners policy whenever possible. Revisionist historians cannot ignore his brutality and remain faithful to the historical record.
texasmonthly.com: How often do you think historical figures are misrepresented?
JJ: Now more than ever, depending on the agenda being advanced. For example, take the magnificent statue of Juan Seguin on the main square of the town of Seguin: Nowhere in the text on the base of this statue will you find reference to Juan being driven out of Texas by racist hate-mongers or his return in a Mexican uniform on the 1842 Woll Expedition. Honoring someone with a statue does not mean that you have to “cleanse” or “silence” the record. In this case, Seguin has been stripped of the tragic dimensions that make him such an interesting historical figure.
texasmonthly.com: What other historical subjects would you like to tackle at some point?
JJ: There are lots of them—Peter Ellis Bean, Jack Hays—but a book on the Battle of San Jacinto would be a logical follow-up to my Alamo study.