Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Comics Meet Real Life--Crazy Horse

Cover art by Gene Fawcette

In 1950, Avon Periodicals--one of the many comic book publishers active in that fun decade, published a one-shot titled Chief Crazy Horse--a biography of the famous Sioux war chief.

I've actually never read a detailed biography of Crazy Horse, though I am familiar with him from any number of histories of the West and the Indian wars that I have read. I know that Crazy Horse was a brave man and a skilled leader & tactician. It is my understanding that in person he was shy and unassuming and that he had a real desire to look after women, children and the elderly. He was, I believe, a pretty cool guy.

History is often more complicated than either popular culture or political correctness portrays it. There were good men and bad men among both whites and Native Americans during the Indian Wars and the Plains Indians culture was hardly one of moral purity. But it was a time when the United States was simply in the wrong regarding how we treated the Indians. It's one of the great tragedies of history that Crazy Horse was forced to become an enemy rather than a friend. 

The comic book we're looking at today deals with this and--as far as telling an effective story--it isn't bad. It does have to be said that the art (with two of the three chapters credited to Rudy Palais) is mediocre. None of the Indians have an individual look--you have to depend on dialogue to tell them apart. The battle scenes depend too much on tight shots, failing to give us a sense of the scope of the events. The script is perhaps too dialogue-heavy, though to be fair the unknown writer had a lot of information to unload over the course of 21 pages.

But despite these failures, the book does give us an effective and fairly accurate outline (as far as my inexpert knowledge is concerned) of Crazy Horse's life. And some of the individual panels are quite good.

The first of the three chapters recounts Crazy Horse's early life, when he was known as Curley and proved his courage in battle against rival tribes, building up his reputation as a warrior and a leader. The second chapter jumps ahead to the Fetterman Fight (1866), in which the Sioux attacked some men cutting wood outside Fort Phil Kearny, luring a relief force led by Captain William Fetterman out of the fort. Fetterman and all his men were ambushed and killed.

In real life, Crazy Horse was a part of the battle, though I believe the comic book makes him a more prominent leader than he actually was at the time. Also, the comic shows the Sioux attacking Fort Kearny right after the Fetterman fight and burning it to the ground. What actually happened was the U.S. eventually capitulated to Sioux demands and abandoned the fort.

The last chapter jumps ahead to Little Big Horn and the aftermath. It's here more than any other chapter that I wish the page count had been higher. We literally rush past Custer's defeat in just two panels.

Fortunately, Crazy Horse's death gets more space. We find out that lies were told about him by other Sioux jealous of his popularity. He was asked to come to Fort Robinson to answer accusations that he was plotting the assassination of a general. Once there, he was arrested (over the objections of the cavalry officer who escorting him in--though the comic only hints at this) and, when he struggled with his captors, he was killed.

In real life, he was bayoneted. In the comic book, he's shot in the back. This was before the panic over violence in comic books, but perhaps the editors at Avon still thought a bayonet in the back was too gruesome. Or perhaps the writer had one of his facts wrong. In the end, that's actually just a detail. Showing us how Crazy Horse was lured to his death is the important part.

So what we have is a reasonably accurate if very broad biography of the Sioux warrior. Yes, the art could have been better and a little more space to tell the story would have been nice. (There is a nine-page back-up story in the issue that could have been dropped to give the biography more space.) But the comic does give us a sense of how awesome a man Crazy Horse was.

This issue is in the public domain and you can read it HERE.

Next week, we have the second half of Comics Meet Real Life when we land with the Allies at Normandy.

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