History relived vividly

CorrespondentOctober 21, 2007 

I'm old enough to have vague memories of the propaganda comics they used to hand out to school kids, on subjects as diverse as the horrors of communism and the benefits of consuming lots of dairy products.

What I didn't read, because I was not in Texas at the time, was something called "Texas History Movies." This black-and-white comic remained in print from the 1920s to the 1960s, and featured elegant drawings and witty captions that made hard facts easy to swallow. Unfortunately, it was also riddled with demeaning racial stereotypes of Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics.

The Texas State Historical Association has just published a completely new version, "New Texas History Movies" ($9.95, 48 pages), written and drawn by underground comics legend Jack Jackson (aka Jaxon). While the new text provides a more balanced view of events, Jackson worked hard to retain the spirit of the original's idiomatic, at times deliberately anachronistic, dialogue -- such as the Frenchman St. Denis singing "I see miles an' miles of Texas" in 1714.

The humor is just one reason for non-Texans to pick up this book. Jackson prided himself on getting the little things right, and he outdid himself in his detailed renderings of clothes, weapons, architecture, landscapes and animals. In his eloquent afterword, Jackson talks about wanting to "create a 'time machine' effect that would make the readers feel like they were there," and he succeeded brilliantly.

Jackson managed to cover 400 years in 43 pages, a feat that does not leave a lot of time for the moment-by-moment storytelling that comics can do so well. Yet each panel is full of drama, grit and human emotion, leaving you with a vivid sense of what Texas history actually felt like -- something that 43 pages of prose could never do.

The final page seems rushed, and the last two panels look as if they were drawn by someone else, but these are minor flaws when you consider that Jackson was racing against the muscular degeneration of his hands to finish the book, and died shortly after it was completed. It's a legacy to be proud of.

You can order "New Texas History Movies" online at www.tsha.utexas.edu/publications/.

A different sort of history explodes from the pages of "Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm," the autobiography of Percy Carey, illustrated by Ronald Wimberly (Vertigo, $19.99, 128 pages). Frankly, I didn't expect to get far into this one. I'm not a hip-hop fan and don't have much sympathy for gangsters of any stripe --be they Sopranos, crack dealers or politicians.

But Carey grabbed me from the first page with his vivid, economical prose and pitch-perfect dialogue. His challenge was to make readers care for a violent, angry, egotistical -- in his own words, "evil" -- young man: himself. He pulls it off through honesty, insight and wisdom paid for in blood and pain.

M.F. Grimm is Carey's stage name, and the book alternates between Grimm's rap career and the drug dealing and shootouts that were Carey's day job. These gunfights are nothing like the Old West of the movies; in Wimberly's powerful drawings, the bullets rip through metal and flesh, maiming and killing. Carey himself lost the use of his legs after the ambush shown in the prologue. These scenes of violence are some of the most chilling I've read in a comic book.

Vertigo is marketing "Sentences" to the hip-hop crowd, and the book fully earns its "mature readers" label, but despite all that it deserves the widest possible audience. It might even scare a few aspiring gangstas straight.

I like to place new books in the context of classics of the field. When it comes to history and memoir, no other graphic novel has had the impact of Art Spiegelman's "Maus" ($35, 296 pages).

It's been 21 years now since first half of "Maus" was published in book form, so I took the occasion to reread the entire story, finding it just as beautiful and moving as ever. Spiegelman's core concept -- portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats--was an inspired one, subverting not only the formula of countless Saturday morning cartoons, but also bringing new power to Holocaust images that have, sadly, become all too familiar.

And, as in all great literature, the trials of an individual touch us more profoundly than history on a broader canvas ever can. What does it mean that Spiegelman's father, Vladek, survived for 10 months at Auschwitz? It took useful manual skills, bribery, shrewdness, luck--and brutal suffering. Only a handful of prisoners lasted that long, which meant that Vladek watched nearly everyone he knew disappear into the ovens.

What elevates "Maus" even further is that the skills that enabled Vladek to survive Auschwitz also made it impossible for him to live harmoniously with his family in his old age. Spiegelman isn't writing hagiography here, and the older Vladek will make the reader wince along with his son.

If you're starting a graphic novel library, make sure there's room on the shelf for "Maus."

Raleigh resident Lewis Shiner created and wrote "The Hacker Files" for DC Comics and wrote "Wild Cards" for Marvel Comics.

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