Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On History: Texas History Movies Review

I recently picked up the 1970 edition of Texas History Movies. It was originally a comic strip that ran in the mid-1920s in (to no surprise) a Dallas newspaper. Over the course of a few years, it daily relayed the history of Texas four panels at a time. Writer John Rosenfield Jr. and artist Jack Patton were tasked with making said history both educational as well as entertaining, and their evidence success is suggested by how strongly it was embraced by educators for decades.

It was first collected together in one book in 1928. The four-panel horizontal format was reconfigured into a three-by-three grid (with the center panel left open for additional text) to accomodate two strips to a page. This was reprinted again in 1936, and a condensed/abridged version was made available beginning in 1932 and kept in print until 1959. The original was then reprinted again in the 1960s and '70s. Starting in 1974, about a quarter of the strips were removed because they were deemed racially insensitive, but a special original replica edition was released in 1986 that included everything. A completely new version was produced by Jack Jackson (of Rip Off Press) in 2007.

Although there are a couple pages of early prologue, the story effectively starts with Robert de La Salle in the mid-1600s and carries through to 1885. (Keep in mind that these stories were first produced in 1926; anything after 1885 would have still been too recent to really be considered history.) It's clear in the earliest strips that Rosenfield and Patton are new to comics as they figure out how they work -- the first several weeks' worth of strips contain almost no dialogue, for example, and are little more than illustrated prose. But Patton's illustration and cartooning skills are on display from the start with some occasional background sight gags, and dynamic figure positioning. The linework in the earliest strips seems a little tentative, but Patton soon shows confidence in his abilities and, while the entirety of his work here has a sketchy quality to it, it's clear that Patton grew more comfortable with his tools as he continues to work on the strip.

The storytelling of history is always challenging, particularly in a series of short-form comics like this. Not only do you have to condense the narrative down considerably, but the heavily sequential format of newspaper comics doesn't always lend itself to winding narratives that involve multiple figures winding in and out of the main story, but also conducting their own independent stories simultaneously. Rosenfield generally does a decent job of keeping all that moving, although there are few awkward instances where he essentially stops and says, "OK, let's jump back a few years now so we can catch up with this other guy."

As I suggested above, there's a fair amount of racist elements in the book, particularly when it comes to Blacks and Native Americans. With the exception of a couple of single panel references to slavery, Blacks are essentially absent from the whole narrative. That they appear at all seems to be entirely the doing of Patton inserting them in as occasional background figures. And while they're not shown catering to any negative stereotypes in action, the actual illustrations of them are sadly pretty typical of the time. That is, caricatured blackface.

Native Americans, by contrast, play a larger role in the story. While they're physically depicted slightly less egregiously, they're still shown in stereotypical loincloths and feather headresses. And with a few early exceptions, they're always referred to as "Indians" instead of whatever tribe the particular group in question was from.

But what struck me about their depiction in the narrative was that they were given actual motivations and not treated strictly as fierce savages. They're shown only attacking when expressly provoked, as in an early sequence when, "One day the pirates stole the best looking squaws from the Indians. As revenge, a band of Indians killed four pirates while they were on a hunting expedition." There's a later sequence where a tribe is brutally attacked and driven off a parcel of land they had been camping on, which is cited as the definitive point when they stopped being friendly with the white settlers. This by no means paints a flattering portrait of Native Americans, but it's surprisingly more honest than I would have imagined for the time period, placing them more as victims of unprovoked aggression than aggressors themselves.

In fact, much of what is told in these stories seems amazingly forthright. Aside from Jim Bowie (who is unequivically shown as such a badass that he'd have Chuck Norris wimpering) there is no one shown in this book who didn't further the cause of either Texas and/or themselves by backstabbing everyone that wasn't helping them. Agreements of all kinds are regularly broken, former allies are routinely thrown under the metaphorical bus, and the entire state is shown to have come into being because of literally centuries of unethical assholes ripping each other off. All of which, though, is explained with simple matter-of-fact storytelling, so no one is offered up as a villain; it's just taken as truth that the only way to progress forward is to be a greedy, self-aggrandizing son of a bitch. All of which makes for a fascinating read.

The biggest complaint I have with the book is the formatting itself. Granted, this was first made in 1926, so comics are still a pretty new form, but in the half-century before the edition I have came about, no one thought to reorganize it into something more readable. The problem is that each four-panel sequence was originally preceeded by a sentence or two introduction. However, in formatting the book version, those sentences were moved to the center of the page and they included a page of instructions that basically told readers what order to read things in. The easiest way to explain that is to show you, so here's a typical page next to the same page where I've numbered the order in which the text of the page is supposed to be read. Let me know when you figure out how that at all makes sense.
Yeah.

This particular edition was originally sold as a "Collector's Limited Edition" for $249.95. I don't know how "limited" it really was, but I paid $20 for my copy. I think it's a fantastic example of early comics, particularly with its comparitively unvarnished version of history, and I do recommend picking up a copy if you're able. But I would caution that you try to look for one of the versions that has NOT been overly revised/editted and try to get something as close to the original as possible.

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