My friend and fellow Tennessee historian, Gordon Belt, Tweeted out a link to a new comic book yesterday. The title? Andrew Jackson in Space. A Twitter exchange with the writer, Brian Visaggio, resulted in the following interview.
1. What is your background in the comics world?
I’m best known at this point for doing an ongoing science fiction comic called Stronghold, which is best described as Power Rangers for grown-ups. It’s a grim book about a group of armored space ninjas leading an uprising against aliens who have conquered the earth. There’s also a lot of complicated feelings going on in it. It’s not just an action book.
I’ve been doing comics for a long time, but only really started to really engage in the field in the last year with Stronghold, which has a bit of a fanbase now. I’ve done a couple of comic shorts — both historically-themed, too. I did a short called “The Burning Sun” for a crime anthology about body-snatchers in 1790’s London, and another, “The Sisters,” which is a horror comic about a couple of scam artist mediums on their way to the World’s Columbian Exposition.
At this point, I’m still at the beginning of my career.
2. What interested you in basing a comic on Andrew Jackson?
Jackson fascinates me, which isn’t to say I much like the man. Most of the time when I’m asked this question I have to give a sort of primer about Jackson for people who don’t necessarily know that much American history, but I suppose that’s not necessary here.
The simple answer is that I needed a subject for a comic and I had written “Andrew Jackson versus Robots” on a list of possible plot seeds for an aborted history-themed anthology comic. I started developing the idea and the end result was a book about a crazy adventurer punching his way through space on his way home. There’s drama built in — you know how intense his relationship with Rachel was, how much that inhabited is mind, so separating them provides this volatile man with a profound forward momentum.
The complicated answer is that Jackson is so emblematic of his age; it’s named after him, and in a real sense that was the age that birthed the country we live in. I’ve been on this vague ongoing personal quest to try and wrap my head around the United States as an entity, and Jackson has always loomed large as the man who sort of birthed it in his own image. And his psychology is so complicated — his swaggering masculinity bordering on parody, his truly ancient sense of honor, his quickness to violence, his willingness to commit to things larger than himself alongside his intense self-interestedness, his pragmatism, his hypocrisy — Jackson is so incredibly complicated. As a writer, I’ve really enjoyed traipsing around this guy’s head.
I talk about him a lot using the phrase “frontier lunatic bastard,” which mostly just means I’m describing his volatility; but Jackson was also coldly calculating. He’s got this villain inside him all the while he’s trying to be the hero.
3. Even though this is a comic, historians reading this interview will want to know about your source material. What primary or secondary sources did you use to craft your interpretation of Jackson?
My reading has been pretty limited to Jon Meacham’s American Lion, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, and Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, the latter two for background on the man’s time and particularly on 19th century honor codes that so informed his self-image. I feel likeWhat Hath God Wrought is a biography of Jackson in a sense by looking at the world he constructed. You get a strong sense of him from it.
4. One of the things that you allude to on your Kickstarter page is the contested place of Jackson today. Many people see him as a villain; in fact, some descendants of southeastern Indian tribes consider him an American Hitler who committed genocide. How do you handle that in the comic?
The setting of the book is in 1803, well before Indian Removal, so I’m not going to be bringing it up explicitly. One of the things I’m after here is contingency — what made Jackson the sort of man who could do that? How might the experiences I’m putting him through affect him? Make no mistake — Jackson is not purely a hero in this by any stretch, and he will, in an oddly literal manner, have to confront the sort of monster he’s capable of turning into. My goal isn’t to write polemic — I’m interested in looking at this guy who made the decision and knew what he was doing and did it anyway.
That’s where contingency comes in; obviously Jackson was never in space, never had to fight through hell to return home, was never thrust back into the marginal life of his youth the way he is here after having spent his life clawing his way to the top. He’s having some particularly unique, life-altering experiences that will have to force him to confront the attitudes of his time and place if he wants to survive and thrive. So a big thing for me is making sure I’m leaving him open to growth.
There’s never going to be an issue that’s an allegory for Indian Removal — I just want to make sure I’m always portraying him as someone who has that in them; that’s a decision Jackson is capable of making. He’s going to spend a lot of time looking in the mirror at his worst parts. So let’s see what he finds.
Bonus question: I don’t know if you want to spoil the story by answering this question, but is there another Early Republic politician who winds up in space as Jackson’s nemesis? Someone whose name rhymes with Tenry Play, perhaps?
At this point, I have no plans for Jackson to fight Henry Clay; I don’t want this book to be nothing at all but historical arcana, but if I can find a solid story reason for it to happen, I’m not averse. That said, I do have a fun story planned where he fights Time Roosevelt, an amalgamation of every single Teddy Roosevelt from across the multiverse. Don’t want to give too much away there.
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My thanks to Brian for doing the interview. As you can see, he has a good sense of Jackson’s life and the mythology surrounding it.
The Andrew Jackson in Space Kickstarter campaign ends in six days, and I hope you’ll donate to it if you’re so inclined. Andrew Jackson doesn’t often appear in popular culture, so for me, any opportunity to see how non-historians depict him is interesting.