A review a day: Native Heart

Hey, I'm back! And yowza, I have a lot to review, as I've been saving these up so I can have reviews up every day for a while. Then the con came, and suddenly I had a ton of books! Isn't that always the way? So let's begin with a self-published graphic novel! Who doesn't love the down-and-dirty self-published stuff in the comics market?

Native Heart: The Life and Times of Ned Christie, Cherokee Patriot and Renegade is the full title of this comic, which creator Robby McMurtry was kind enough to send me in the mail. It's $12, which ain't bad.

There's a lot to like about this comic, even though it's not perfect.

Native Heart tells the story of Ned Christie, a nineteenth-century Cherokee who belonged to the Keetoowah band, the more traditional of the Cherokees. He lived in Oklahoma and spoke, in the 1880s, for the Cherokee who accused the American government of breaking the treaties they had signed with the Indians. In 1887 he was accused of murdering a U. S. Marshal and he spent the rest of his short life (he was not quite 40 when he was killed) running from Johnny Law. In 1892 he was surrounded in his cabin by a posse and shot down. If you do a little bit of research on the subject, the case against Christie is fairly weak, and it's actually to McMurtry's credit that he doesn't imply that the government killed Christie because he was a good speaker for Indian rights. You can make your own connections there!

McMurtry does a marvelous job with the art, which is the stronger part of the book by far. Occasionally his faces are a bit grotesque and unreal, which is a jarring contrast with the rest of the book, but it doesn't happen too often. The main "bad guy," Bub Trainor, gets the worst treatment, and every once in a while Christie himself looks a bit odd. It's as if McMurtry did those few faces with a blunt pencil while the rest of it is brushwork (you'll forgive me if I'm not sure, as I'm still not comfortable writing about art) - much of the rest of the story is lighter and airier, while the times I'm writing about are far blockier and solid. It doesn't really work too much. But other than that, the book reminds me of classic Western paintings, with delicate linework and expansive vistas even when the scene is a bit more claustrophobic.

At one point a man chases Christie because there's a price on our hero's head, and McMurtry simply dispenses with the entire background and shows just the two men riding their horses for a few pages, and the drawings themselves are exquisite and exciting but the fact that there's no background draws us in and jams us into a small space even though there's a fast horse chase going on. The final battle is very well done, as well, as Christie holes up in his cabin and the surrounding landscape is blasted away (he chopped down the trees to build his cabin) and the posse hunkers down to drive him out. Ned's cabin stands alone on the top of a hill, and he has a wide-open view of the posse, but McMurtry manages to make it feel closed in, and when Ned tries to escape, it's a beautiful few panels as we think Ned just might make it, even though we're sure he won't. McMurtry also gives us a few nice scenes where things get a bit more mystical, but not excessively so (as that would be tonally wrong with regard to the rest of the story), showing that he can move from "realism" to a bit more unusual.

McMurtry's story doesn't hold up as well, unfortunately. It's not terrible and it's interesting to read because we get to know something about a person we may not know much about. Ned Christie seems like a fascinating character, and it's neat to discover him through this book.

I can't recommend a book just because it tells us about something or someone we've never heard of, but it's certainly a better hook than reading about, say, Custer's Last Stand (even if it's from a different point of view). McMurtry hits some of the major points of Ned's life, but so much of the book is taken up with the manhunt for Christie, which, unfortunately, robs it of some tension, as we don't care enough about the man to get completely invested in it. McMurtry doesn't get into his life enough prior to the murder, although he does try. He's not successful, though. We get a little bit of his childhood, and little bit of his career as a liaison for the Cherokee, and a little bit of his home life. But none of it is too deep, and even the murder and subsequent manhunt feels a bit light, as McMurtry doesn't do much with what the Marshal was doing in Cherokee territory in the first place. It seems like there's a more complex story behind McMurtry's narrative, as Christie points out how assimilated the Cherokee have become, so he's unsure why the Americans are infringing so much on their land. This is a refreshing book because it doesn't show Native Americans who are battling to hold onto their lifestyles in the face of American encroachment - there's nothing wrong with that story, but we've seen it before - it's a story of a tribe who holds onto some aspects of their traditional culture but also tries to do what the Americans claim they wanted the Indians to do ... and it still doesn't matter.

As I wrote above, it's to McMurtry's credit that he doesn't make too much overt in the comic, but it also means that the racist attitudes many whites had toward Indians isn't in the book, and so the Marshals' pursuit of Christie and Judge Isaac Parker's hard-nosed anger at Christie doesn't feel real. Parker says that Christie shouldn't have run if he were innocent, but the fact that Christie ran instead of trusting in American justice is part of the complex issues of the West. McMurtry, perhaps not wanting to open that can of worms, goes the opposite way and ignores it completely, which makes the driving forces of the book far less compelling. When McMurtry does give us some historical background, he usually falls back on a text page, which is less effective than working it into the narrative itself. Writers have made it work, but it doesn't here.

Despite the gaps in the storytelling, McMurtry does some nice work. He moves the tale along well, and the brief insights he gives us into Christie's life and world are better than nothing, to be sure. It just seems like Christie was far more interesting in real life than he is in this comic, and that's too bad. But I certainly didn't hate Native Heart. The art goes a long way toward making this a success, as it's quite nice to look at. Although the way McMurtry gets to the manhunt isn't that great, the relentless pursuit of Christie by the Marshals is handled well, giving us a glimpse of Christie as a very intelligent warrior who could easily leave the impression that he was supernatural. Everything that Christie does during the book is perfectly plausible, but because he's so much better at it than the Americans, they almost fear him as something inhuman. McMurtry does this well, and it drives the latter part of the book.

You can get this book at McMurtry's web site, where you can also find some other stuff he's done. I imagine he'll get better at writing, which will make his books much better. He's an interesting talent and I hope to see more from him.

Tomorrow: A Jack the Ripper story ... with a twist!

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