September 30, 2020

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Colonial comic

Graphic novel depicting U.S./Apache conflict resists the temptation to sensationalize

Jack Plunkett / The Associated Press files</p><p>A failed Hollywood script resulted in actor Ethan Hawke penning this graphic novel.</p>

Jack Plunkett / The Associated Press files

A failed Hollywood script resulted in actor Ethan Hawke penning this graphic novel.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/7/2016 (1522 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Historical fiction as a genre can present a tightrope walk for authors, requiring them to balance factual storytelling with emotional resonance. With their ambitious graphic novel Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, actor-writer Ethan Hawke and graphic artist Greg Ruth engage readers with a fictionalized account of the mid-1800s U.S./Apache conflict told mainly from the viewpoint of famed leaders Goyahkla (better known as Geronimo), Cochise, and his son Naiche (stylized here as Naiches).

These names may sound familiar, but the story presented here is not. The project began as a failed Hollywood script written by Hawke, and despite the big-screen allure of many a "Cowboys vs. Indians" tale set in the Old West, Indeh ("the dead") resists the temptation to sensationalize. As one Apache chief muses: "My grandson was 10 years old before he understood that people died in any other way than violence."

Ruth pulls no punches in depicting the brutality on both sides, but also takes care to show the repercussions of the fallen, with bullets ripping through bodies and ripping families apart. Hawke’s narrative begins with Goyahkla’s family being slaughtered by Mexicans, while haunting flashbacks rendered in Ruth’s wispy, ghost-like linework depict the entire tribe alive and thriving, Goyahkla’s young daughter smiling among them. After the attack, Goyahkla bands with Cochise, Naiches and other surrounding Apache tribes to plan a retaliatory raid on the village of Arizpe.

Goyahkla, now Geronimo, emerges victorious, but there is no real peace to be found. The "White Eyes" present an even bigger threat to the Apache, using flimsy excuses and even flimsier negotiations to drive the tribes off of the land.

Essentially, war ensues because the U.S. military has forced the Apaches’ hand by way of mandatory relocation and, as the Apaches assert, "A Bedonkohe does not wait to be given back what was stolen from him!" In the subsequent battles, Hawke and Ruth display the vast skill and ease with which the Apaches navigate their surroundings while portraying Geronimo and Cochise as ruthless warriors and diplomatic leaders in equal measure, ultimately seeking to protect their families and preserve their homeland when their trust is betrayed time and again.

Though Indeh’s large cast of Bluecoats, prospectors and other duplicitous U.S. officials are integral to the story, some of the scenes between them are sluggishly paced, with panel after panel of conversational exposition, white men in profile conveying, mismanaging and exploiting information for their own benefit. Here, Ruth’s expressive brushstrokes reflect these characters’ delusions of grandeur and goals to "civilize" the American West. However, the Apaches’ rivals are still not fully realized on the page, and are often reduced to villainous stereotypes.

This flat characterization also exposes a larger issue with the project: Hawke and Ruth are non-indigenous creators who are very much invested in telling an indigenous story. As such, they have put the brunt of their effort and care into doing right by the Apache, and have neglected to flesh out their white antagonists.

The result is that Indeh is merely good when it could potentially have been great. There’s no doubt we need more stories like these, especially since the repercussions of colonization and forced indigenous relocation — as well as First People’s struggles to maintain self-governance, rights and traditions — are still topical issues. However, a narrative such as this one is more engaging when both sides are equally compelling, even when (or especially when) Hawke and Ruth have made it clear who the reader should be rooting for.

Despite its uneven characterization, Indeh remains a striking work that illuminates an important piece of American history and uncovers the ways in which survival is often perceived as vengeance.

Nyala Ali writes about race and gender in comics and music.


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