“This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This famous quote from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is invoked by Douglas Brode and Joe Orsak in the introduction to their telling of a life story (not, perhaps, the life story) of Emily Morgan/Emily West. Emily may, or may not, have been in General Santa Anna’s tent at the Battle of San Jacinto, able to alert the attacking Texican forces where their adversary was. And she may, or may not, have been the direct inspiration for the ballad “Yellow Rose of Texas.” In any case, Douglas Brode and Joe Orsak take the print-the-legend approach, and who are we to question the wisdom of a John Ford movie?
What did I know of the “Yellow Rose of Texas” before reading this book? Beyond the Mitch Miller song, nothing. And while I’d heard of the Alamo, I would have assumed that the Battle of San Jacinto took place in Spain. It is perhaps the most fitting tribute to Brode and Orsak that after the graphic novel, my next port of call was Wikipedia to read about the people and incidents of the story.
For a non-American, the quasi-mythic foundation stories of the United States are both familiar in the general and unknown in the specifics. We’ve all heard of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and the Alamo; we know when we come across the characters of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin that these chaps must be important too — after all aren’t there cities named after them? But we don’t know the specifics.
Just as writers such as Washington Irving and Henry Adams (and, indeed, Thoreau and Emerson) loom much larger in American literature and are often only barely know even by highly cultured Europeans, the actual details of American history from Independence to World War II (aside from the dates of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination) are much less known. This is particularly true of the West, at once the most powerful American mythos and the most abstract.
Westerns tend to reduce to a set of archetypes — sheriffs, rustlers, prospectors, local magnates, schoolmarms, good time gals — and entered into the reductio ad absurdum that killed it off as the dominant movie genre. The spaghetti westerns became Platonic ideals of the Western, stripped of all but the interplay of archetypes. Europeans were, at the same time, paying homage to the horse operas and stripping them of specificity and context.
Which is all a high-falutin’ way of saying that us Europeans aren’t nearly as clever or as cultured as we like to think. And while we like to think we are immersed in Americana (some of us, although not me, like to complain about that fact), the reality of America can still be jarringly foreign. For instance, in Brode and Orsak’s story, the events of the Alamo are not directly narrated — for American readers they are presumably too familiar to require explication, but for me, alas, it was another trip to Wikipedia. Nevertheless the authors do not demand a high level of prior knowledge of the history, and I was never confused by the action; all my Wikipedia-ing came later. And perhaps all these digressions on the Western-as-archetype are a distraction from the business at hand, which is a mighty fun and entertaining old timey graphic novel.
Emily Morgan is a feisty young African American woman, whom we first meet travelling as a slave of the Morgan family as an emigrant to Texas. Slavery and racism are recurrent themes here, with the prejudices of Anglos nearly driving Emily from Texas. Erastus “Deaf” Smith, a handsome frontiersman with only partial hearing, is blind to Emily’s colour but not to her beauty, and the love story that follows underpins the plot and helps humanise the historical derring-do. In short order, Emily attracts the attentions of Santa Anna himself, and while she spurns him, this encounter will have far reaching consequences.
Above all, this is a birth of a nation story. The core theme is freedom and independence. We see the evolution of the Texan Revolution from unhappiness at the centralising authoritarianism of Santa Anna via confusion at just what the revolutionaries wanted to the outright demand for independence. In the story, it is only when this demand is finally clearly articulated that the rebellion can succeed.
I greatly enjoyed this graphic novel which tells the foundation myth of Texas in an appropriately traditional and direct fashion. It’s very easy to imagine it as a John Ford western. There is no great iconoclasm or revisionism, although the issue of racism is not shirked. In the love story of Emily Morgan and Deaf Smith, we are presented with a story of hope overcoming prejudice. Texas is to be a new land, a clean slate. Those great mottos of the Lone Star State — “Remember the Alamo,” “Come and Take It,” and “Don’t Mess With Texas” — emerge from the Revolutionary action. And whatever one’s own political beliefs, I defy anyone not to feel a little bit more ornery, a little freer, a little more likely to light out for the territory and a little bit more, well…, Texan after reading of the myth of Emily Morgan.