Woody Allen famously said that we do our best when we write what we know. Ethan and I both grew up in Texas in the 1970’s awash in old cowboys vs indian shows and culture and I think we both found ourselves more interested in the indian side of things than the cowboy. What we knew and what was true about Indians and the Apaches we were particularly drawn to based on the common culture wasn’t much at all. Fast forward to today and our current project INDEH, for Hachette/Grand Central. We get to finally delve deeply into that interest and passion for this largely mis-told side of our shared American history. One of the most immediate requirements we held from the absolute outset of bringing INDEH to life was making the essential trip out west to visit the areas where our story takes place. It was something we had in mind from the very start. We had a list of possible locales from the valley where Cochise was born to other features of Navajo country, but they were kept at bay as options. We didn’t know where we would end up or where we would even sleep at night. We just knew we were going west and figured the rest would take care of itself, which it surely did beyond even our wildest expectations.
The setting of any story can be a powerful character unto itself. It can inform so much about a story as well as the characters who inhabit it. Largely the settings for my own books tend to be imaginary, so getting a chance to actually visit, touch and document was something completely new. This wasn’t just grabbing little pieces of places and assemble them into a fictional environment as I did with The Lost Boy, this was going be all about the whole place. Something that would echo down weeks and months later as I continued to work on the book afterwards. The sense of tourist wonderment at being able to stand in spots that others we were describing in our story was pretty powerful and however vicarious or tangental, real.
Panel from INDEH as Goyahkla gathers the tribes
Ruins outside of Sky City,
We spent a few days traveling around the area, driving westward from Albuquerque and inching just past the Arizona border with the farthest goal to see Monument Valley- made famous by just about every John Ford film ever made. We never quite made it that far in lieu of taking in what we visited fully as opposed to a rapid fire checklist of sightseeing. We made a rule to stay local in our travels, avoid when possible main roads and tourist traps, eat at local non-chain spots and stay at a locally run establishments. All of which turned out to be incredible unto themselves. Especially the night we spent at the fabulously retro-dreamscape that was The El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico. Once the go to spot of all of hollywood to stay while filming those thousands of old westerns from the 1930s-1970s, the place was like a slice of time itself. All run and people by navajo and mexican staff and management, the place just gushes with history and kitsch in the best of all possible ways. If you ever happen to be in the area this should be considered as much a destination as it is a stop over along the journey. We met with several indian families there and gained so much from talking and sharing stories.
Our country is a comparatively young one, and it struck me there that in many ways this was our most ancient of history. And really it was just a few generations ago. The agelessness of the area stood in sharp contrast to the truly profound changes that occurred here over the course of a single lifetime. Despite our rapidly shifting world, I would argue no time before saw as much revolution as did Geronimo, Naiches and their generation during their lives.
Panel from INDEH in the years before the Apache Wars
Forest of pines near El Morro, New Mexico
Due to the aforementioned John Ford we have a kind of particular idea of what the area of our story looks like: a dry desert of scrub brush and impossible rocky peaks and mesas. While this is not wrong, it turns out to be only a small portion of the area’s true nature. We came to find that the area the Apaches so desperately tried to keep as their own, Ojo Caliente and its surrounding area was more lush and forested akin to Vermont more than we expected. The landscape changed in a blink of an eye from dense trees, to low scrub and grasses, to vast seas of rock and mountains and back to intimate pockets of watersheds and aliens landscapes. The variety of ecosystems in such a small swath of country was shocking. You can see below how I’ve taken bits and pieces from various locales and reference shots to work into the pages of the actual book. A side by side below of just that:
Near Sky City Navajo Reservation, New Mexico
Panel from INDEH as Goyahkla makes his case to the tribes before their assault on Arizpe
Pueblo atop El Morro, New Mexico
In some areas we found the old ruins of encampments and even villages strewn along the side of the road dating back hundreds of years, and other areas vibrant reservation communities and abject clawing poverty. I was remarkable to see such a range of quality of life there. it seemed each place was pregnant with an incredible history, both good and ill. I think in many ways we could have easily lost a week just in this locale and still barely scratch the surface of what was going on. I’ll admit too, I came to a healthy respect for Teddy Roosevelt in some of these places as his National Parks initiatives have kept and preserved so many of these places that would have long ago fallen to ruin, or become trite tourist traps like Niagara Falls. The hikes up high into some of these spots, whether it was in Sky City or El Morro, were sometimes as daunting as they were beautiful. The air was so crisp and thin, the ground often hard and unkind. It would have been a remarkably toughening life to survive in these areas alone in the late 1800’s, and you could see many of the reasons and causalities for some of the events in our book as a result. The sort of landscape that made Geronimo famous in holding off thousands of american army troops with just a handful of children and old folk in the Dragoons became completely clear. Some of the rocky canyons were as difficult to traverse as they were easy to get lost in.
Standing atop El Morro, New Mexico surveying a site for a scene in part three of INDEH
Panel from INDEH at Ojo Caliente with a young
Naiches, Goyahkla and Cochise
The feel and texture of some of the places have become so impossibly essential to telling our story. I can’t imagine now not having made this trip or being able to accomplish setting some of the scenes here without doing so. To me research tends to be dry and difficult and often tedious but this kind of gathering of facts was entirely different. One of the realities was this sense of the senselessness of fighting over lands so vast and empty that could have been easily shared by ten times the number of people contesting them. The juxtaposition of the Indian bewilderment with owning land compared to the White Eyes obsession with gobbling up and exploiting as much as possible, dealt with in a major scene in our book where our Apaches meet their first White-Eyes could not have been made stronger without touching these exact places.
Panel from INDEH as the first white land surveyors begin to arrive
One of the most remarkable aspects I touched on earlier was the almost momentary changeability of the landscape. we would literally be driving through a dusty old trading post town set off the highway, find ourselves amidst a lush forest of pine trees and then onto wide open sage brush fields populated by roaming horses casually making their way.
Panel from INDEH of the Ward farm before the escalation towards the Apache Wars
Warning sign atop Canyon
The overall lesson from this experience was deeply profound. We met so many poles of the indian attitude towards us and the legacy of this tumultuous invasion and how it continues to affect the lives of the people here. It also confirmed for me personally the permanent effect of tasting a place in person, or being there and gathering the full measure of an environment that is such an important part of INDEH. By the time we reached the end of our trip I think we were both exhausted to our bones by what we had encountered. It was almost too much. I don’t know whether having a direct purpose to this trip made it so, or the incredible array of information just overloaded our system, but by the time we got to Massacre Cave in Arizona I think we were on the verge of collapse from the weight of it all.
Flashback panel from INDEH depicting Goyahkla and his oldest son
Massacre Cave in Arizona near Monument Valley
The experience was profound in ways I am still trying to process, the shared 24/7 experience of it was something totally precious to us as creatives and to our relationship with this book. We became students of this place and these people after where before I think we may have imagined ourselves to be something else. Ethan regularly marvels at the Shakespearian qualities of INDEH as do I. There’s an epic human story of tragedy and triumph and power that is completely relevant to our lives today in ways we never before expected, and are consistently surprised by. There is both a great honor and duty to what we do with this story about these people, and their relationships that we could never fully express no matter how long the book was or how many volumes we end up accomplishing. But knowing there is now way to ever fully honor these people and this time doesn’t undermine our drive to do so, it inspires us to do more. It directs our purpose in ways we never expected, and affirms the need to makes sure we have a more full understanding of this time in our shared history, and this place.
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.