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Review: ‘Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars’

indehIndeh: A Story of The Apache Wars
Writer: Ethan Hawke
Artist: Greg Ruth
Grand Central Publishing; $25.00

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, there was a sizable swathe of comic books being produced that seemed to have been pretty obviously created in the hopes that a Hollywood studio would swoop in, scoop up the rights, and turn them into blockbuster movies. I won’t name any here, in part to avoid getting too off-topic and in part because there were so many to name that I’ve lost track, but over the last 15 years or so I’ve read far, far too many comics that looked like a screenwriter’s pitch for a film, hastily illustrated and reformatted into a comic book as a sort of try-out.

Indeh: A Story of The Apache Wars is not that sort of comic, but the original graphic novel did begin life as a script for a film, as writer Ethan Hawke–yes, that Ethan Hawke–explains in his afterword. Inspired by David Roberts’ book Once They Moved Like The Wind, the actor-turned-writer began researching the Apache Wars of the late 19th century in the hopes of someday making a film on the subject. It’s a subject that he feels is so important that “the story needs to be told again and again until the names of Geronimo and Cochise are as familiar to young American ears as Washington and Lincoln.”

The film was no easy sell, given that all of the leads would need to be played by Native Americans (so, no highly bankable star to attract ticket-buyers then) and that as a period piece it would be expensive to produce. And so Hawke thought about adapting the script into comics instead. His eventual collaborator Greg Ruth wasn’t interested in doing that.

Ruth “made it clear that if I was looking for someone to simply storyboard my film script, I had picked the wrong guy,” Hawke wrote. “He had too much respect for the form and possibilities of the graphic novel.”

And so Ruth and Hawke set about not exactly adapting a script into a comic, but retelling the story for the comics medium (I listed Ruth as simply “artist” above, as that’s how the format for our reviews works, but it sounds like his work involved a degree of what might be thought of as writing too, so perhaps “cartoonist” is a better word than “artist.”)

Based on the results of their collaboration, it would appear that, in the end, Hawke had actually picked exactly the right guy.

The story begins with a retelling of a creation story, with black watercolor saturating an otherwise pristine white panel beneath the spoken words “In the beginning, the world was covered in darkness.” So yeah, they certainly made this a story for this particular medium. From that story, told by the Apache leader Cochise to his son Naiches and the young Goyahkla, who would become more widely-known as Geronimo, we jump into the Apache Wars circa 1872.

War is never as simple or as black and white as too much history would have us believe, but this particular conflict was more complicated and filled with more grays than some, as it was a war not simply between two armies or countries or peoples but between the ways in which the participants viewed the world around them. There are plenty of villains in the piece, and heinous acts of racism and wanton cruelty, but Hawke and Ruth get to the root of the irreconcilability of the Apache and the American army, as the latter tried to force the former into their world view. Belatedly, men on both sides of the conflict struggle for common ground, and a desire to end the war is about the best they can find.

Despite what cynics might think about a project like this, the telling seems remarkably without bias. There are good guys on both sides and there are bad guys on both sides…or, rather, there are neither good nor bad guys on either side, simply individuals, and the choices of those individuals, along with circumstances, set off a shockingly dramatic and intense chain of events that is as thrilling and as tragic as any other conflict in American history. That the story is so little known, despite how familiar the names of some of the players might sound, makes Indeh all the more powerful. It’s a true story and an old story, and it’s one that sadly isn’t better known, meaning for the vast majority of readers it will retain the ability to surprise just as much as if it were a work of original fiction.

Ruth’s artwork is all rendered in varying degrees of grays, the only real black that of the panel borders and the letters of the dialogue, while the only true white that of the page. Everything else exists on the middle of that spectrum between opposites.

It’s delicate work. The people, places and objects are rendered with an incredible amount of detailed realism, but rather than straight representationalism, it is presented with an aura of portentous mood. Ruth is able to evoke mist and fog, twilight and liminal states of being in his visuals. A great cinematographer could certainly film on these locations, but, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine the spirit of these pages–the way they read more so than the way they look–ever being transferred faithfully to film.

As for the title, “Indeh” is the Apache word for “the dead.” It’s a bleak title then, for a bleak story, but for all the killing and dying that occurs between the book’s covers, the story it tells and its relevance are vital. Indeh is alive.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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