A Balancing Act: Didactic Spectacle in Jack Jackson's 'Nits Make Lice' and Slow Death Comix
In Number 7 (1976–1977) of the politically and socially engaged comix magazine Slow Death, Jaxon’s shocking story ‘Nits Make Lice’ explores the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, a brutal attack on a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne Indians by Colorado militia. Jaxon (pen name of artist Jack Jackson) depicts the events in detailed black-and-white images, not eschewing the explicit representation of (sexual) violence. The story conforms to the thematic and stylistic elements of the underground comix, but it also departs from the movement through its serious tone and realistically drawn images. In analysing this comic strip in Comic Books as History, Joseph Witek asks us if the truth can be too awful to be seen: ‘Is there an aesthetics of atrocity?’ (1989, 67). This chapter explores these ‘atrocity panels’ within the context of underground comix and the central tenets of Slow Death, demonstrating the balancing act that Jaxon is engaged in. It analyses how Jaxon frames the violent attack on the comics page, arguing that the depiction of the perpetrators and their actions connects to the image of gore and horror that underlies many underground comix. At the same time, the historical weight of the story and the depiction of the Cheyenne Indians balance the sex, drugs and counterculture of the comix movement. In many ways, ‘Nits Make Lice’ prefigures the (issues around the) representation of violence in more contemporary works such as Joe Sacco’s account of the Bosnian War in Safe Area Goražde (2000), which also features explicit atrocity panels. In comparing these sets of atrocity panels, the chapter questions whether the inclusion of graphic violence in representing catastrophe is a necessary and productive element. The explicit treatment of violence is often coupled with images of the perpetrator as evil and monstrous; they are distinctly ‘other.’ Although including atrocity panels might be productive in order for readers to grasp the full extent of the atrocities, I argue that Manichean depictions of perpetrators will not necessarily further an understanding of why these atrocities have occurred.