Picture Perfect: The Graphic Novel as Vehicle for Nonfiction

Wilhelm Murg
7/15/12

Buyers might not be investing in comic books the way they once did. Nonetheless, the graphic novel is continuing to grow—not only as a showcase for superheroes, but also as a nonfiction medium. And some American Indian graphic artists are using the history of Indian culture as the basis for their work.

Robby McMurtry, who lives in Morris, Oklahoma, is one of those artists; he is of Comanche, Irish and Cajun descent. He came of age during the underground “comix” movement in the 1970s; as a student, he commandeered machines late at night in the printing department of the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) to churn out his own small-run comix. That experience is reflected in the title of his graphic-novel series, which he has dubbed “The Underground History of Indian Territory.”

Now an art teacher in Oklahoma, he has just released the third title, The Road to Medicine Lodge: Jesse Chisholm in the Indian Nations (CreateSpace, 2011), a biography of the famed Cherokee trader, guide and interpreter. The series’ earlier titles are Gunplay: The True Story of Pistol Pete on the Hootowl Trail (New Forums Press) and Native Heart: The Life and Times of Ned Christie, Cherokee Patriot and Renegade (CreateSpace).

“I did the Chisholm book because the director of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma, kept pitching the idea to me,” McMurtry said. “The more I found out about it, the more interesting it became. Chisholm spoke many languages and knew everybody.

Most people think that the Chisholm Trail was something that he drove cattle on, but he had nothing to do with cattle; that was a trail he used for trading expeditions with western tribes. Then the cowboys started using it.”

He elected to self-publish once he realized he could make more money that way than with his existing publisher. Like his other two graphic novels, The Road to Medicine Lodge took a year for McMurtry to research, write and draw.

“I want the locations to look right,” he said. “If something takes place in a specific, well-known area I try to find out what that place looks like, or looked like. I try to either go there or find photographs. Of course for every era, I also have to research the clothes and the weaponry.”

McMurtry is aware of how much oral history never gets written down. So he finds descendants of his subjects to uncover family accounts. It is, he notes, a less fully documented way to tell a story but it usually constitutes the only available information. “There are a lot of people in this neighborhood related to Jesse Chisholm; a couple of my students are his great-great grandsons,” he said. “But Jesse is so far removed, he was so far back, that there’s very little family memory. Jesse had a lot of descendants because he had 10 of his own kids and adopted probably that many more. A lot of people who believe they are descendants of Jesse are not really by-blood descendants.”

McMurtry grew up during the “silver age” of comics, which he says was the only art he really knew about as a child. As he grew up he moved away from that medium, studying art and English in college. However, while giving lectures on American Indian art in France in the 1990s, he noticed people reading graphic novels.

“When I got home I wanted to do something like that with American comics, graphic novels, but I did not want to do superheroes,” he said. “I wanted to do something that was more or less regional. I like to find stories that are generally stored in Oklahoma history; personal stories that are under the radar.”

McMurtry’s artistic heroes are some of the grandmasters of comics, like Will Eisner, who created The Spirit, and the fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. But he also looks to more “serious” painters for inspiration. N.C. Wyeth and the western artist Charles Marion Russell, for instance, are two of his influences.

McMurtry is already planning his next graphic novel. His writing process, he said, is simple: “I pretend that it’s a movie, with Johnny Depp playing Jesse Chisholm, and that sort of thing.”

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