Born on a Mountaintop in Tennessee:

Davy Crockett and the Early American Superhero

I can run faster,—jump higher,—squat lower,—dive deeper,—stay longer under,—and come out drier than any other man in the whole country.

—from the first Crockett Almanac

“Hey kids, guess what we’re gonna do for Spring Break?  We’re going to Lawrenceburg!”

“What’s in Lawrenceburg?”

“What’s in Lawrenceburg?  It was the home of Davy Crockett!  There’s a David Crockett State Park, a Crockett museum, Crockett’s Mill Restaurant … there’s even a life-sized statue.  I just got some books from the library, and I ordered the old Disney TV movie from Netflix.  It’s gonna be great!”

You know that Wile E. Coyote moment when you realize that you may have misjudged something?  Well, as I stood in the den, I might as well have been standing in mid-air, ten feet past the edge of a cliff, waiting for my gravity cue.  My daughter finally broke the awkward silence:  “Yeah, we … um, don’t really like cowboy stuff.”

“Well,” I said, seeing a chance to turn this whole thing around, “he wasn’t really a cowboy.  He was a scout.  You know … a frontiersman.” Staring at two stone faces, I started to feel desperate.  “Hey, he was also a Congressman!” I added, because nothing fires up a child’s imagination like learning about Congress.

Then, realizing I had been holding onto my trump card the whole time, I reminded them of the one thing everyone remembers about Davy Crockett:  “He fought at the Alamo!”

“Yeah … didn’t he die at the Alamo?”

I sighed.  I don’t know why, but I almost felt defensive on Crockett’s behalf—like he was being accused of not fighting hard enough or something.  But it was pretty clear I was licked.  I learned long ago that while a few of my interests would get adopted by the next generation (thank you George Lucas), most pop culture enthusiasms aren’t hereditary.

But it didn’t matter.  My wife and I had already made plans to meet our best friend in Lawrenceburg, so I figgered them youngin’s would jest have to grab hold of their coonskin caps, hop in the back of the wagon, and settle in for the ride.

To be honest, part of my enthusiasm was that despite my interest, I really didn’t know that much about Davy Crockett.  I had seen the Disney film and a couple of Alamo movies, and I had published a paper once about the Crockett-inspired play, The Lion of the West, but that was about it.[1] So as I started looking into his life, I was struck, not by the usual historical details—killing bears, voting against the Indian Removal Act, dying at the Alamo—but rather by his connection to American literature and pop culture.

Little did I realize that a century before the Shadow, the Phantom, and Superman, Davy Crockett had become one of the first American superheroes.

His real life was impressive, if decidedly down-to-earth.  After working as a scout for the military, Crockett moved to a place near the Shoal Creek in present-day Lawrenceburg.  He went into business, building a grist mill and a distillery, and was quickly elected justice of the peace.  A flood effectively ended his business career in 1821, but his appetite for politics had just begun.  He combined a populist sensibility with a storyteller’s skill in order to launch a career that took him to Washington D.C. where he fashioned himself as a rustic, backwoods everyman and charmed much of Washington society.

More impressively, he began clashing with his fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson—most memorably by standing as the only Tennessee representative to oppose Jackson’s notorious Indian Removal Act.  Being on the right side of history temporarily cost Crockett his seat in Congress.

In the meantime, his legend was spreading throughout the country.  After winning back his seat, he worked out a deal to publish an autobiography in 1833, based on his own extensive notes supplied to a ghost writer.  To his credit, at the museum in Lawrenceburg there is a letter from Crockett to the publisher expressing his concern over their decision to advertise the book with the phrase, “written by himself.”

He collaborated on another autobiography the next year, and then like a modern politician, he went on a book tour as a prelude to a potential presidential run, but his constant sparring with Andrew Jackson eventually sank his political career, and Crockett wound up losing his seat and heading to Texas where his dramatic death at the Alamo nearly overwhelmed the rest of his accomplishments—like James Dean in buckskins.

But shortly before leaving for Texas, when Crockett was at the most famous point in his life, another important publication appeared.  It was called Crockett’s Almanac, the first in a series that would run for several years and ultimately account for at least 31 issues.  Oddly enough, these almanacs would transform Crockett’s image forever.

Almanacs aren’t very popular these days, but in the early days of America they were one of the most popular and influential types of publications available.  With news and information and entertaining features, almanacs were almost like the Internet for the pre-and post-Revolutionary United States.  But the Crockett Almanac was more “specialized.”  (I should add here that most of the details about the history of these almanacs are indebted to Michael A Lofaro’s Introduction to The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett.)[2] The primary interest in these almanacs rests with the “tall tales” about Crockett where he demonstrated his skill and heroism like some mythological mountain man.  The almanacs also included lots of illustrations—woodcuts of Crockett engaged in all sorts of frontier derring-do.

As most Sequart readers are probably realizing by now, these almanacs were early forerunners of monthly superhero comics.  The art isn’t sequential, of course, but many of the stories are fantastical, and they gradually begin to feature an ongoing collection of supporting characters—Davy’s version of Lois, Jimmy, and Perry, if you will.  Plus, Davy’s signature coonskin cap is so iconic in the illustrations that it might as well be Superman’s “S” or Batman’s cowl.

The Lofaro book contains fascsimile reproductions of three of these early almanacs.  Comics readers will appreciate that the first of these is labeled “Series 2, Number 1.”  Seems even back then, you couldn’t go wrong with a reboot and a new #1.

Lofaro describes this second series—all published after Crockett’s death—as “transitional.”  The first series spent a bit more time with nature and wildlife information, but the second series fully embraces the newly developing tradition of Southwestern humor.  The Crockett Almanacs that followed this series apparently left behind all pretense of reality, presenting the kinds of stories where Davy might wrestle with Halley’s Comet, pull off its tail, and fling it into space.  There’s even a modern day children’s book that adapts this particular tale, though if your kids are resistant to Davy Crockett … well, I wouldn’t try to force it.  Trust me.

But in these transitional almanacs in the Lofaro book, the adventures are much more plausible.  In the first issue, the cover certainly looks like a comic book cover.  The title is printed at the top, including the all-important issue number and the date.  The image of Crockett wrestling an elk could easily be an action scene from some ‘60s-era Marvel book, and the blurb on the bottom, promising “adventures, exploits, & Scrapes in the West, & Life and Manners in the Backwoods,” isn’t too far removed from the kind of blurb Stan Lee used to put on comics.

The first page of issue #1 contains an essay from the purported “editor,” complete with three panel-sized illustrations.  Through the rest of the almanac, there is a balance between charts, woodcuts, and prose.  The charts are the traditional almanac material—12 calendars with sunrise and sunset info sprinkled throughout.  Everything else in the 36 pages is “entertainment.”  There are 20 woodcut illustrations, most depicting Davy in action, the vast majority of them full-sized splash pages.  Clearly, the visual element was a huge component of the almanacs.

There are also 17 short tales squeezed into those 36 pages, a fact which suggests to my tired eyes that folks in the early 19th Century ate a lot more carrots than we do today.  Most of these tales are 1st person adventures told by “Davy Crockett”—though he clearly had nothing to do with them, nor do they have much to do with the historical David Crockett.

Unfortunately, many of the stories reveal a “hero” who doesn’t translate well today.  If he’s not killing a bear, a cat, or an elk, he’s killing an Indian, ridiculing an African-American, or humiliating a squatter.  What’s particularly odd is that many of the actions of this “Davy” are antithetical to the principles of the historical “David.”  On the plus side, there is a sense of Crockett’s distaste for the wealthy and powerful, but otherwise, this character has little to do with the politician who wrecked his career challenging the Indian Removal Act.

Of course, it’s not clear how much readers at the time believed the stories were representative of Crockett’s thinking.  The details are obviously fabricated, but I can’t help but wonder to what extent readers accepted this fictional Davy’s sensibilities as the real thing.

It’s an odd concept—a real person functioning simultaneously as a fictional character, like Michael Jordan in Space Jam.  That’s what makes these almanacs significantly different from most contemporary comics.  Perhaps had someone, back in the early ‘70s, created a comic book series about the space-faring adventures of Neil Armstrong flying his Apollo 11 rocket through the galaxy, fighting Martians and such, then we’d have something similar.

Come to think of it, I might go for that Neil Armstrong comic …

[1] The Lion of the West is a play by James Kirke Paulding written in 1831.  It’s a satire that focuses on a character named Nimrod Wildfire—clearly inspired by then Congressman Crockett. The play was “lost” for more than a century

[2] Lofaro, Michael A., ed.  The Tall Tales of Davy Crockett:  The Second Nashville Series of Crockett Almanacs 1839-1841.  Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. CP says:

    Thanks for this. I am a millennial, but I too have always had a soft spot for Davy Crockett (still love the Disney movie and watch it from time to time). It’s one of these things that changes with age while remaining awesome, if sometimes in different ways. As a kid, I was always more interested in the Creek War and Alamo stories (because c’mon that’s where the action is). As a grown-up, I find his (failed) attempts at politics to be far more interesting – standing up for poor settlers against rich landowners is something you’d expect from a frontier populist, but standing up for Indian rights (and sticking to his guns to the point of losing reelection over it) very much isn’t. And the fact that it was coming *from* a frontier settler (one who lost grandparents to Indian raids, IIRC) makes it that much more remarkable.

    Never thought of him as America’s first superhero, though – I thought of him (well, the figure he was turned into after his death) more in line with other pulp heroes like Indiana Jones, James Bond, James T. Kirk. The superhero thing’s obvious now that you mention it.

    Also, I would totally go for that Neil Armstrong franchise. (“The Adventures of Neil Armstrong: Space Pioneer.” “The Continuing Adventures of Neil Armstrong.” “The New Adventures of Neil Armstrong.” “The Return of Neil Armstrong.” “Neil Armstrong and the Final Frontier.” “Neil Armstong and the Reavers of Mars.” Etc).

  2. CP says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m a millennial, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Davy Crockett (loved the 1950s Disney movie as a kid and still rewatch it occasionally). It’s one of these topics that becomes different but remains awesome with age. As a kid, the Creek Indian War and the Alamo were always the parts that interested me the most (that’s where the action is, c’mon), but as a grown up I’m actually more interested by his politics. Standing up for the rights of poor farmers against rich landowners is something you’d expect from a populist from the frontier, but standing up for American Indian rights after the war (to the point of making it a hill he was willing to die on, politically) very much isn’t. All the more remarkable that it came from a former Indian fighter who, IIRC, lost his grandparents to a Creek raid.

    I always thought of him (well, his public image) as a pulp hero, sort of a precursor to the Indiana Jones, James Bond, James T. Kirk types of characters, but I’d never thought of him as a superhero before reading this. Obvious really.

    And I, too, would totally go for that Neil Armstrong series. Even the name sounds like something they’d make up for a pulp hero. “The Adventures of Neil Armstrong, Space Pioneer.” “The Continuing Adventures of Neil Armstrong.” “The Return of Neil Armstrong.” “Neil Armstrong’s Revenge.” “Neil Armstrong in the Eighth Dimension.” “Neil Armstrong and the Cannibals of Mars.” All right, I’ll shut up now…

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