Tuesday, July 25, 2017

My History of History

I started college when I was 32, after five years of having historical fiction and nonfiction published in various magazines and books, such as Louis L'Amour Western Magazine and Wild West (where I'd had several pieces published by then, one of them a Spur finalist). I also had six unpublished novel manuscripts -four westerns, a science-fiction novel I'd co-written with a friend, and a 140,000 word historical epic (Bound for the Promise-Land).

I was also broke and had recently lost my steady floor-cleaning job, and was trying to piece together what small accounts I could on my own. I was pretty depressed, to be honest. It seemed that every job in the want ads that I knew I could do and be good at required a college degree -something I had not acquired, having been a Jehovah's Witness when I graduated high school (college was a no-no for them). My long time friend -and co-author of that sci-fi novel (All That We See or Seem) -encouraged me to get that degree, that it was not too late, and so my journey in higher ed began.

I started at Tennessee Tech as an English major. My goal, initially, was to get my Master's and teach composition. Not the best paying job in the world, but it would pay the bills -I had spent most of my life, since age 15, cleaning floors after all. And it seemed like a natural fit. I had been seriously pursuing the life of a writer for ten years, and it was the thing I loved doing the most.

About a month in, they had what was called "Career Day," when freshmen could mill about and visit stations staffed by reps from various departments. I stopped by the history table, manned by Dept. Chair Bill Brinker. I had already realized, from my one history course (Western Civ I, with Will Schrader) that I loved studying about the past as much as I loved writing- by the time my conversation with Dr. Brinker was over, he had convinced me I could double-major, and I was on my way. Later on I set my sights on a bigger challenge, a Ph.D, and decided that History was the field I would pursue it in.

I am really, really surprised that it took me a whole month to figure that out. The more I have looked back on it over the years, the more I have realized I was born to be a historian.

I really think my uncle (by marriage) Edgar had a lot to do with it. My family has deep, deep roots in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, going back over 200 years... and most of that time (okay, all of that time), most of my family were poor. My mom's sister Essie, though, married the guy who owned the garment factory where most of the family worked, and I spent a lot of time with them in my formative years... getting a broader perspective on a lot of things from Edgar, who was very cosmopolitan. He was a Czech Jew who had escaped Europe (barely) during the Holocaust. He spoke five languages, collected artifacts from the Middle East.... and had a lot of history books.

In particular, he had the Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of WWII, in 25 volumes. I devoured those books for years- even though the photos were way too intense for a kid seven or eight years old. I read the whole thing, over and over. I was hooked on history.

(Note: My aunt and uncle are no longer on this mortal coil, but those books are on my shelves at work.)

I remember seeing those ads on TV for the Time-Life Old West collection -the ones pitched by the raspy Jack Palance. ("You'll learn about a gunfighter so mean he once shot a man for snoring too loud!") My uncle didn't have them, but the library did, and I devoured them, too. I also remember checking out a beautiful coffee-table book about Medieval Europe.

I've written often about my childhood love of the western, across all media. But as I think about it now, I realize that a lot of my toys had a historical nature. I used to send off for those playsets that were advertised on the back of comic books (in rotation with Sea Monkeys)... remember those? I played with "army men" like all the other little boys in that era, but the army in question might be 20th century U.S. and it might be something else entirely.... Revolutionary War, Civil War, Classical Rome, Knights vs. Vikings. Or it might be smaller in army scale and larger in physical scale... the same company that made the Johnny West action figures also made 12" well-equipped knights and Vikings.

When I was 9 our fourth-grade teacher read The Hobbit to us, a chapter a day after lunch. I found out that the same author had a new book coming out, and I bought it in paperback... The Silmarillion. It remains my favorite Tolkien book, because it tells the whole history of Middle Earth. For a year or two after that I was devising games, using  playing cards or whatever else I could find, that told the stories of multiple generations of elves and dwarves and humans.

I think the real indicator that I was going to be a historian, though, came when I was 13. I had eagerly been following the storyline of the Dark Phoenix Saga in the pages of Uncanny X-Men (can you imagine what exquisite torture it was to follow this gripping story one chapter at a time over several months, counting the lead-up and denouement?)

I thought wow, this would make a great movie. And then, because I was an extremely odd child, I found myself wondering how they would list the cast... there were so many characters, who would get top billing?

So... I embarked on a research project. I went through a year's worth of X-Men comics, panel by panel... and counted how many times each character appeared, down to the most obscure bit players. (Scott, Jean, and Logan appeared the most, obviously, but I can't remember in what order the other heroes and villains came).

I felt a strange sort of comfort in having gained this data... so I kept going. I did the same thing to every Marvel comic in my collection... and I had practically every issue of everything that had come out in the previous five years (for the average cost of one Marvel comic per week for a month today, four or five bucks each or 16-20 bucks total -you could, each month, buy every single Marvel title and about half the DC ones in 1977 when they were 30 cents apiece.)

It became a ritual, with every new comic I acquired. Which was a lot; starting at age 13 I mowed yards, trimmed hedges, attacked tangled overgrown areas with a slingblade, even cleaned gutters... whatever it took to keep myself in money for my comics and paperback novels. Eventually I had a big notebook full of data... my own archive. I lost interest about halfway through high school, and I don't know whatever became of all that research (and didn't care, once I started swooning after girls full-time)... but I remember a good deal about the results.

For DC I had an incomplete data set, so the results were skewed; I only got about two-thirds of the DC titles, and very rarely picked up one of the Superman books, because I found him extremely boring.

But Marvel... I had about a decade's worth of Marvel comics by the time I lost interest in the panels-per-character project. Spider-man was far and away the top character -his panel count was in the tens of thousands. He was so popular that he had three monthly titles, plus he was constantly guest-starring in other people's books (to raise their sales). The next few were the ones you would expect- Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor. Then Wolverine, because after the X-men took off in the early 80s he was suddenly guest-starring everywhere.

Top villain? Dr. Doom, head and shoulders above the rest. Next were Doctor Octopus, the Red Skull, and Loki. Doom was the Fantastic Four's arch-enemy, but he, too, showed up everywhere- Luke Cage, even the Dazzler, had their go-rounds with him.

Supporting characters? Because there were so many Spider-man titles, and because Spidey's supporting cast were a bigger part of his stories than were the civilian pals of other heroes, Peter Parker's entourage dominated. Especially the cranky Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson. In fact, this was the biggest surprise: JJJ wound up being somewhere around #8 overall, ahead of all but the most iconic superheroes (and Aunt May wasn't too far behind).

I'd also had another project going: an encyclopedia of every character, race, and planet to appear in the 9 year run of Marvel's Star Wars comics... on typing paper, with pen-and-ink drawings. I'm not sure what happened to those either, but it's okay- nowadays we have Wookieepedia. That's not a joke. We have Wookieepedia.

Anyway, my tastes changed, as did my the focus of my OCD tendencies. But I kept devouring history books. When I was in the hospital room waiting for my child to be born, when I was 23, I was reading the final volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization.

It is odd, though, when I think back on that side-hobby of my teen years, the panels-per-character thing. Because, basically, that's what I am still doing as a historian... sifting through printed sources, counting things, trying to locate trends and extrapolate from the numbers.

It's very strange.

But so am I.

U.S. Marshals and Nineteenth Century Violence

Head over to the Western Fictioneers blog -HERE -to check out my guest blog. It deals with both the American West (Especially Indian Territory) and the Moonshine Wars of Southern Appalachia. It is also a teaser of sorts, for several big projects I have started work on.