August 18, 2010

Review of Native Heart

In Mock Trial for Ned Christie, I noted the history of this Cherokee statesman, outlaw, and folk hero. Now here's a graphic novel by Robby McMurtry:

Native Heart: The Life and Times of Ned Christie, Cherokee Patriot and Renegade

McMurtry is an artist and teacher of Irish, Cajun, and Comanche descent. In Native Heart he presents Ned Christie's life in a fast-moving 100 pages.

In the first 40 pages, we see Christie growing up, learning to shoot, and taking on responsibilities. Eventually he goes to represent his people in the Cherokee capital.

Christie's upbringing isn't exceptional, but McMurtry gives us a good sense of what Oklahoma's Indian territory was like. It's reminiscent of the Old West, with one-street towns and isolated cabins, but with forests and streams instead of deserts and scrub brush.

Every so often McMurtry includes a lyrical page of art like the one below:

These pages suggest how the Cherokee differ from their non-Indian neighbors. They see beyond the physical to a world of dreams and visions. For them nature is filled with spirit and wonder.

I don't know much about Christie, but the story seems faithful to his life. There are no obvious mistakes or stereotypes--no chiefs, tipis, shamans, wise elders, or sexy maidens. The only shortcoming I could see was glossing over Christie's four marriages. McMurtry doesn't try to convey Christie's interior life, which is probably smart 125 years after the fact.

Hunting Ned Christie

The story kicks into high gear when Christie is wrongly accused of murder. Then it becomes an action adventure, with narrow escapes from lawmen, desperate rendezvous with kinfolk, and shootouts in log cabins. Although you know it won't end well, McMurtry makes Christie's story a triumph. (Kind of like the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)

The art ranges from solid to stunning. Consider this drawing from another book done in the same style:

I love drawings like this. The horse and rider look as if they've been sculpted out of the background. It's hard to convince yourself that this three-dimensional drawing is only two-dimensional.

A few minor criticisms

Only a couple things mar this fine work. Christie's five years as an outlaw, which take up the last 60 pages, are more captivating than his previous 35 years. Rather than tell the story chronologically, McMurtry might've shown Christie's early life in flashbacks. It would've given Christie something to ponder while he was fleeing his pursuers. And it would've put readers into the heart of Native Heart immediately.

Also, the book only 6" x 9", and the interior art is even smaller: 4" x 5.75", the size of a postcard or photograph. Some panels aren't much bigger than postage stamps. No doubt cost was a factor, but I wish the book were larger. The art deserves to be seen in all its glory.

All in all, Native Heart is the best Native graphic novel I've seen in years. With its fine line art and attention to detail, it belongs on the shelf with the Sitting Bull and Comanche Moon graphic novels. And with 100 pages for less than $10 on, it's a good deal in this era of overpriced comics.

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

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