December 28, 2008

Americana in JACK OF FABLES

In the Americana story arc of JACK OF FABLES, Jack, Raven, and friends enter the mythical land of Americana to find--once again--the lost city of gold. Wikipedia gives us an idea what this place is like:Another land of interest is Americana, the Fable version of America, appearing mainly in the Jack of Fables series.

Large areas in Americana include:

* The Colonies--The state of New England.
* Antebellum--The South.
* Lone Star--The state of Texas.
* Steamboat--The Mississippi River area.
* Gangland--The Chicago area during the 1920s.
* The Frontier--covering Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
* Idyll--The Appalachian Mountains area during the 1950s.
* The West--covering the Rocky Mountains area.
* The Great White North--Canada and The Arctic.
The Indian aspects

Other than Raven himself, Americana touches upon Indians two or three times:

1) Natty "Hawkeye" Bumppo, the "Deerslayer" from The Last of the Mohicans, is a bounty hunter who pursues Jack and company. In James Fenimore Cooper's books, Bumppo was a friend to good Indians such as Chingachgook and Uncas. But here, he's more of a lawman or enforcer than a frontiersman.

This odd bit of "casting" doesn't make much sense. I guess the character is supposed to represent the relentless pursuit of wrongdoers. A mythical version of Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness, or John Wayne would've fit the role better than Bumppo.

2) In the Lone Star region, Jack and company are briefly surrounded by Indians. And not just any Indians. Every one of them sports a chief's headdress, warpaint, and a tomahawk. I don't know if writer Bill Willingham intended this, but it's a super-stereotypical version of an Indian attack.

Since Americana is supposed to be a land of American myths, I can't argue with this. This is the way Indians appear to most Americans. Since Jack's team includes Raven the trickster, I presume that Willingham knows Indians didn't and don't match this stereotypical vision.

3) The unnamed city of gold looks similar to Cibola in National Treasure 2: a Classic Maya city a la Chichén Itzá. The major difference is that it has giant statues of animal-gods. These briefly come to life and attack Jack.

Again, I don't know if Willingham intended this. But again, this probably corresponds to the stereotypical view of most Americans. They accept that Mesoamerican ruins are full of malevolent spirits and mechanical death-traps. The animated stone figures are like a combination of the two.

Myth vs. reality

Americana's depiction of Indians has an upside and a downside.

The upside is that Willingham has captured three prominent myths about Indians in a few deft strokes. The faithful Indian companion (Tonto or Raven), the savage attack, and the haunted ruins. Other than that, Indians are invisible to most Americans.

The downside is that Willingham has shown us only Indians in a mythical context. There are no broken treaties, massacres, reservations, or poverty. And no Indian doctors, lawyers, entertainers, or politicians either.

The presence of mythical Indians and absence of real Indians makes you wonder. Is Willingham telling us that Indians exist only in the imagination for most Americans? Or do Indians exist only in the imagination for Willingham as well? I don't know, but it's an interesting question.

For more on the subject, see Comic Books Featuring Indians.

3 comments:

Heterodox Fox said...

I just finished reading that story arc of the Jack of Fables and I thought it was the weakest of the series so far. I was fairly perplexed by some of his ideas as to what American fables would be (I was so excited when I heard about it, too, as Willingham is English, I thought he might have an interesting take on what our fables would be like. Sadly disappointed). A lot of the things he called American fables, I would just call "so-called classic American literature we're forced to read in high school," as opposed to stories that get embedded in our imaginations that shape and inform us about the world. So that was strike one against this arc.

As for the Indians-in-warpaint part, I think that of all the Americana fables, that one was probably dead on -- if Americana is pulled only from EuroAmerican worldview, and drawn from pulp novels and Saturday-afternoon matinees. And I think that "Americana" is exactly that, a mythic ideal in the minds of the dominant culture, and it's not a place where people outside that culture (and then its mythos) would be found outside of stereotype. I kind of wish Willingham would have included a 1950s happy suburb, because it's the same concept -- it didn't exist, but people think it did and dream of it and wish they could re-create it.

Fables, after all, is based centrally on the English/German/French/Italian stories, primarily drawn from Brothers Grimm. Outside of introducing some "fables from the Arab worlds," I can't recall that the stories have gone outside a European (and then an American transplant) experience. And since the Fables themselves don't venture out of their circles to interact with the "Mundys" of our world, they wouldn't really meet anyone who isn't One of Them/EuroCentric. As for the "fables from the Arab worlds," (Or the Mowgli character, Kipling!) those are still the Burton-written, Orientalist stuff and not, in any indication I've seen, drawn from fables from those cultures. So I he's still drawing out of the same European pool.

I can credit, I guess, Willingham for coloring within the lines of the portrait of the storyworld he's created. And quite honestly, I don't want him to leave it, as I don't think he's the kind of writer who could incorporate myths and fables of cultures outside his own (the dominant one) without being kyriarchal.

By the way -- big fan of this blog! :)

Rob said...

Good point about the so-called American fables. Sure, Paul Bunyan and the Raven trickster should count. But Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn? They're just literary characters, not myths or fables.

I think the zombies were supposed to be the equivalent of your 1950s couple (i.e., the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or Father Knows Best and the Happy Homemaker or the Stepford Wives). I saw the point of the stereotypical Indians--though I'm not sure Willingham intended that point. But he missed a big opportunity to examine America's myths.

Instead of the characters he used, how about some real people with symbolic importance in our country? E.g., George Washington, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, or John F. Kennedy. How about some archetypal Americans? E.g., the Patriot, the Pioneer, the Self-Made Man, the Inventor, the Preacher, the Rebel, or the Man of the Future?

I think the Americana storyline was supposed to provide the same sort of insights as the fine UNCLE SAM mini-series or Neil Gaiman's American Gods. If so, it fell far short of that standard. I guess Willingham wanted to go sightseeing through Americana but didn't want to explore it in depth.

Rob said...

As for FABLES, I think it's mentioned Russian mythology a couple times. But you've pretty much listed all its non-Western references. And again, Mowgli and company are literary characters, not fables.

I agree that Willingham is probably better off not trying to incorporate hundreds of diverse cosmologies in his already crowded stories. But he could try to rationalize his European/Brothers Grimm bias, at least. What about saying the Fables are somehow linked to the people of their host country? Since Anglo-Americans basically have no awareness of African or Asian myths, neither do the Fables residing in America.

Anyway, thanks for supporting Newspaper Rock, and keep reading!