Lost Cause


In one of the back alleys at the World Congress of Reviewers and Critics some years ago, the age-old debate surfaced once again.  It always starts with the same question:  What’s the difference between a “review” and a “critique”? Naturally, I stepped forward with a theory, a trifling thing, doubtless, but mine own.  A review, I pontificated, is where you describe the object.

            Take, for instance, Jack Jackson’s last offering from Kitchen Sink Press, Lost Cause (a prophetic title, perhaps, considering the subsequent collapse of KSP).  It’s a $16.95 paperback, 164 8x11-inch pages; full color cover, black and white interior. Subtitled “The True Story of Famed Texas Gunslinger John Wesley Hardin,” the tale told here actually embraces a good deal more than Hardin’s life.  The saga begins before the Civil War (in 1857) and continues through that conflict until 1895, when Hardin was killed.

            While Hardin is the ostensible focus of the book, Jaxon (for it is, indeed, the former underground cartoonist famed for God Nose et al) puts the celebrated gunman in the context of his times—namely, in the midst of a feud between the Taylor family and the Sutton family, which, in turn, is fueled by the racial prejudices of the region and the tyrannical government of the post-war Reconstruction decades.  Most of the book is devoted to tracing the various connections between these violent social currents.

            Jaxon, who with Gilbert Shelton and Frank Stack, was part of the University of Texas gang of campus cartoonists who helped found underground comix after trekking to California in the late 1960s,  has established a reputation as a Texas historian with such previous works as Comanche Moon, Los Tejanos, and The Secret of San Saba.  And in Lost Cause, as usual, Jaxon has researched his subject thoroughly, and the effort shows.  The book smacks of authenticity in visuals, lingo, and blood-letting incident. 

              Rendered in Jaxon’s thorny crosshatch manner, the pictures have a gritty feel, wonderfully suited to the rough frontier life he is depicting.  In his narrative, he employs Harvey Kurtzman’s best EC techniques—captions carry the story forward, piece by piece, and each panel illustrates its caption.  Occasionally, for action sequences, Jaxon resorts to the customary un-captioned methods of comics in which speech balloons and pictures blend to convey meaning.

            That’s a review.  Bare bones description.

            The purpose of a review is to acquaint readers with something they probably haven’t seen.  So tell ’em what it’s like, kimo sabe.  A review answers the question: Does this item contain things I might want to see on my own, enough of them to justify the price I will have to pay?

            A review can go a mite further.  It does no violence to the purely descriptive nature of a review to say, in this case, that Jaxon makes less pretense here than he usually does at what we might call “factual accuracy.”  He admits on the onset that he has a bias: his own ancestors were well-treated by the Taylors.  Over time, he heard family tales of the Taylor-Sutton feud, understandably favoring the Taylor side. Such tales are these days “scorned for their factual frailty” (as Jaxon puts it).  “Being a suspicious sort,” he goes on, “I learned to subject these stories to documentary scrutiny, under the fond illusion that the human spirit can be measured or understood by such impersonal means.  Finally, I realized that ‘facts’ are just as frail and flimsy

as ‘folklore,’ for their validity depends on who is using them and to what purpose.”

            In effect, Jaxon admits that the story he tells is partially a matter of legend and fond familial bias.  But it is also “the story of [his ancestors’] struggle for survival in hard times, as best I can tell it (warts and all).” 

            According to at least one source other than Jaxon—namely, Draw: The Greatest Gunfights of the American West by James Reasoner—Hardin, born in 1853, proved to have an ungovernable temper while still in his early teens, and by the time he was 17, he’d killed several men in angry confrontations, often under circumstances that implied the youth was acting in self-defense, but not always. He was clearly a hothead who took offense easily and expressed his displeasure with others by shooting them. This got him in trouble with the law—and, during post-Civil War Reconstruction, with the army. He managed to kill several of those who set out to apprehend him. click to enlarge

            By the time he was a little over 18, he’d killed 27 people by some counts. He was captured occasionally, and even jailed once, but he escaped and resumed his rampaging. When the comparatively uncorrupt Texas Rangers came into power, Hardin decided the state had become too hot for him, and he took his young wife and daughter and moved to Florida, where he lived for some time. Later, after he moved his family to Alabama, he was finally caught and sent to prison, and while incarcerated, he read a lot of law books. When he got out in 1894, he took the bar exam, passed, and began practicing law back in Texas, settling, at last, in El Paso. There, while negotiating for an outlaw’s safe return from Mexico, Hardin became entangled romantically with the man’s wife, and when she was arrested, Hardin bad-mouthed the local deputy, whose father, also a lawman, came after Hardin and shot him from behind while the gunslinger was drinking and throwing dice on the bar in the Acme Saloon. A supposedly official count puts the number of people Hardin shot to death at 44. After his death, his children arranged for the publication of an autobiography Hardin had written that rationalized and excused most of his killing as justifiable under one circumstance or another. Whether justified or not, Hardin stands as one of the Old West’s most murderous gunfighters.

            Given Jaxon’s sources and his admitted bias, it should come as no surprise to find that in this account, John Wesley Hardin is more victimized than vicious.  He is merely a “soldier” in a kind of guerrilla war. Embroiled on the Taylor side of the feud, Hardin is portrayed as a casualty in an unstable social order made violent by post-Civil War racism and residual Confederate pride, festering with a sense of injury at the presence of blacks in positions of power in the Reconstruction.  Hardin goes “on the dodge” to escape punishment for an act that, under other circumstances, might have been deemed self-defensive. 

            And so, wronged by an oppressive society, he becomes an outlaw only because the injustice of his environment forces him into it.  All around him are relatives and foes committing similar acts of brutality, most of which result more-or-less directly from the post-Civil War animosity between Reconstruction authority and the ante-bellum old guard—in Hardin’s case, exacerbated by the family quarrels.

            It’s that old story.  Like many biographers of Western bad men, Jaxon makes his subject the hero of the tale by making him also the victim of circumstance.  A good boy gone bad through no fault of his own. But, as I said, Jaxon admits that the facts are flexible and slippery (and probably contradictory).  And he also admits that the story he’s telling is more story than history.  And it’s an engaging and rousing story, fascinating in its detail, labyrinthine in its unfolding.

            And with that last sentence, this so-called review becomes a critique.

            A critique is evaluative.  The minute an erstwhile review offers an opinion about the work being described, the review becomes criticism.  If a reviewer says whether something is good or bad, worthwhile or not, he stops being a reviewer and becomes a critic. A critique adds the weight of its judgement to a review.  A critique has at least two purposes: first, it either recommends something— or condemns it; second, a critique adds to the analytical discourse about the artform under scrutiny.  Critiques set artistic standards.  And to the extent that artists agree with the standards, criticism may influence the actual performance of an art.

            Criticism is necessarily all opinion.  And since everyone is entitled to an opinion, we can’t fault a critic for his opinion.  We can, however, agree or disagree.  And we can demand of critics that they provide logical reasons for their opinions. Reviews, on the other hand, should reflect no opinion.  As purely descriptive enterprises, they should describe as objectively as possible.

            Some practitioners of this peculiar craft do both reviews and critiques.  They do critical reviews.  And some—well, this one anyhow—add a whole furbelow to the fustian, vaporizing on about various stimulating but tangential matters.  The scheme is to supplement the critical review with some sort of reading matter that is intrinsically interesting in-and-of itself.  The theory here is that even if a critical review is read by someone who isn’t at all interested in buying the object being reviewed, the essay can be informative enough or amusing enough to engage a reader’s interest and sustain it for the duration. 

            Like the rest of this diatribe, I hope.

            Despite the dubiousness of Jaxon’s interpretation of the protagonist’s motivations, when it comes to the history of the period, the book seems to accurately reflect the grindingly desperate milieu of Hardin’s times.  Jaxon successfully conveys a sense of the civic disorder and lawlessness in post-Civil War Texas. But Jaxon’s passion for factual accuracy threatens to undermine his sense of story.  The milieu he is describing is complex, the relations between a horde of personages complicated.  Jaxon’s admirable attempt to link cause and effect to specific individuals is often blurred by a profusion of names and offhand references to incidents now pages in the past. In short, although his picture of post-war Texas is probably very accurate, it’s crammed with too much information in too little space.  The confusion inherent in the complicated situation is therefore compounded and reigns through the first half of the book.

            I’m not sure there’s any better way of doing it, though—not if you intend to capture honestly the context out of which the famous gunslinger arose.  In any event, once we get about halfway through the book, Hardin emerges from the welter of characters in the cast, and his story holds all the pieces together somewhat better.

            Expending so much of his narrative on tracing tenuous connections, however, Jaxon seems to have exhausted himself by the time he’s three-quarters of the way through the work.  The end of Hardin’s career, especially, seems rudely short-changed.  Jaxon rushes to conclusion, and in his haste, leaves out much potentially fascinating material. For instance, he passes over the Florida adventures of our gunman in a single panel.

            According to report, after killing a local sheriff in Texas, Hardin felt the heat of the law and left the state, taking his wife and children with him to Florida.  There he was so thoroughly covered by his alias of J.H. Swain that local authorities asked for and received his help in rounding up some suspected criminals.  Hardin shot and killed one of them.  This incident would have made good reading under Jaxon’s pen.

            So would the supposed scene of Hardin’s subsequent capture.  He had left Florida, where his cover had been blown, and was living in Alabama but had gone south to gamble in Pensacola Junction, Florida.  He was finally arrested, cornered in the smoking car of a train.  Deputies rushed him from opposite ends of the car, and Hardin made a move to resist their intentions, but as he pulled his pistol from his waistband, it got caught in his suspenders, and before he could free it, the cops were upon him.  One of them exulted, “John Wesley Hardin—you are the worst man in the country.”  And then he undercut his critique by presenting the killer with a cigar.

            Why Jaxon leaves out such colorful tidbits is puzzling.  Perhaps since they didn’t take place in Texas and since he is retailing Texas legends here, he decided that leaving the Florida incidents out would be a good way of shortcutting to the now-looming last pages of his allotment for the book. Jaxon also leaves out an incident that displays better than anything in the book Hardin’s essential heartlessness.  

            In Abilene, Kansas, where he met and was befriended by Wild Bill Hickok, Hardin one night killed a man for snoring.  It was, possibly, an accident.  Staying at the American House Hotel, Hardin started shooting through his bedroom wall into the next room, hoping to awaken the snoring sleeper there and to discourage him from snoring.  Hardin’s first shot awakened the stranger; his second killed him. 

            Judging by some reports, even Hardin was chagrined at the incident and later passed it off as a justifiable shooting of a man trying to steal his pants.  But he apparently made another reference to this misadventure when he complained about the lies people told about him.  “They say I killed six or seven men for snoring.  Well, it ain’t true: I only killed one man for snoring.”

            In any case, Hardin, fearing Hickok’s wrath over the killing of the sleeping man, fled Abilene, exiting the hotel through the window of his room and across the roof of the hotel portico.  Jaxon depicts precisely this scene but gives scant reason for Hardin’s flight—“Hardin ...  feels the heat of Wild Bill’s wrath and decides to head for home himself, double-quick.” According to some reports, there’s no truth in the snoring man incident at all: Hardin’s dispute with the famed lawman arose because Hardin wanted to keep his pistols at his side despite a town ordinance against carrying guns in public.

            Perhaps these omitted adventures are, in Jaxon’s judgement (having studied the matter more than I), more fiction than fact.  But he’d already decided to opt for the legend as well as history, so why leave out some of the more picturesque aspects?  Dunno.

            Perhaps because these incidents do not jibe with Jaxon’s portrait of Hardin as a kind of Texas Robin Hood, battling the forces of authoritarian oppression on behalf of the poor abused underclasses of the state. Judging from the sources from which I extracted the fragments in the foregoing paragraphs, Hardin was a conscienceless murderer, an asocial menace.  A killer without qualm.  To justify his behavior by cloaking it in the pseudo military necessity of an inter-family war or in the unsettled state of law enforcement in post-war Texas is to excuse the behavior of an absolutely unrepentant monster.  But you wouldn’t know the monster by reading Lost Cause.

            I don’t think that Jaxon distorted Hardin’s story for any disreputable motive.  Harboring sympathies to the Taylor clan, Jaxon would naturally see Hardin in a more favorable light.  And it could be that the traditional case against the gunman is more rumor than fact.  Or that the facts are too hotly contested, too contradictory to rely upon and to set aside familial sympathies in favor of. Whatever the case, John Wesley Hardin is more explained in this book than he is completely described.  And perhaps that is the problem.  Jaxon may be seeking to explain how it was that a nice young man— a preacher’s son no less! named after the founder of the Methodist church—went so far astray. And perhaps too many of the legendary acts of Texas’ wildest wildman could not be explained.  So Jaxon left them out.

            But sometimes evil cannot be explained.  Sometimes, it seems simply to exist in certain people without cause or justification.  And perhaps John Wesley Hardin is such an instance.  If so, explaining his actions only masks his essential evil. 

            Whatever the causes, Jaxon’s book gives us a somewhat different Hardin than most historians of the West would expect.  But the milieu—the sense of place and time—that Jaxon creates is persuasive and absorbing.  It is probably also accurate.  And herein lies the value of the book: it gives us a palpable sense of Texas in those turbulent times.  And it also gives us an absorbing story that is profoundly ponderable.

FOOTNIT: This essay appeared at the Fantagraphics website some years ago, while Jaxon was still alive and working. In recent years, a lifelong muscular disorder atrophied his hands and feet, and eventually, he couldn’t draw anymore. Drawing was living to Jaxon, so on June 8, 2006, he took his leave, kneeling on the graves of his parents near Stockdale, Texas, where he shot himself and died. He was 65. It does such a man no disrespect to reprint here a critique of one of his last works that is as honest and as straight-forward as Jaxon was himself and as well intended.

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