The True Death of Billy the Kid original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Rick Geary
Publisher: NBM Publishing
Price: $15.99 US
Cartoonist Rick Geary has a strong reputation for his focus on historical subject matter. After reading this graphic novel, I can see it’s a well-earned reputation. Geary approaches the subject matter dispassionately, offering the facts and various theories about a story that’s rooted both in history and in legend. Despite the matter-of-fact, impartial presentation here, Geary nevertheless conveys the incredible drama, personality and action that have made William H. Bonney one of the most fascinating and noted figures in the history of the American West. My past exposures to Billy the Kid have been mainly through fiction, and I’m surprised to see how many elements from history made it into those aspects of pop culture.
Born into poverty, Henry McCarty’s mother, raising two young boys on her own, ventured west from New York seeking a better life, but it wasn’t to be found. After she died, Henry’s stepfather abandoned the boys in their teens, leaving them to fend for themselves. Henry — who would later take on a number of aliases, including William H Bonney and Billy the Kid — not only survived but thrived, mainly by turning to a life of crime. Though a wanted man,Billy was nevertheless beloved by many of the ordinary townsfolk he encountered, a testament to his charm and personality. Those traits would serve him well when he was finally caught.
Geary’s black-and-white art boasts a somewhat simple tone, but it’s quite effective at conveying the history he explores here. There’s a slightly gritty tone that suits the untamed qualities of the locales that play a part in the story. His eye for detail, clothing and perspective bring the history here to life quite effectively. His choreography of the various events (or alleged events) from this legendary story is meticulous. If I had one qualm about the art, it would be that the titular character doesn’t appear young enough during the climactic moments of his storied life. I really wanted to see “the kid” in Billy the Kid a little more clearly.
I also have to make note of the unique, clear and aesthetic qualities of Geary’s lettering. It’s the same style he’s employed on past historical projects, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a quality to it that seems very much in keeping with the nature of the stories he chooses to tell. While clear and concise, there’s almost an antiquated charm to his letterforms.
When it comes to how he writes this story, Geary’s main artistic license stems from the order in which he tells it. He wisely doesn’t take us from point A (Billy’s childhood) to point B (his death). Instead, he opens briefly on perhaps the most daring exploit of the title character’s career. That introduction purports to be one of the lowest points and Billy’s life, but later in the book, we discover it’s one of his most legendary moments.
One of the things that’s most striking above Geary’s script is how well balanced it is. He approaches the subject matter with an admirable objectivity. He’s clearly studied the history of this fabled outlaw carefully, and when accounts disagree, he doesn’t favor one over the other. His tone is quite informative, but at no point does he really sacrifice a sense of wonder or entertainment. The fact that Geary is impressed with the near incredible facts of Billy the Kid’s story comes through here, but he doesn’t praise Billy’s flaunting of the law or what he chooses to do to survive. 8/10