The True Death Of Billy The Kid

The True Death Of Billy The Kid

Rick Geary has been doing pretty much the same thing for over thirty years. This is not a criticism. Though his long career as cartoonist and illustrator is dotted with a variety of interesting tributaries – strips for the National Lampoon and RAW, illustrations for the New York Times Book Review, and drawing Gumby comics, to name just a few – the main arterial flow has been his steady stream of historical true crime comics. Fascinated from the start by the myth and mystery of American murder (his first comics work was inspired by reading the file on an unsolved murder he got from a police officer friend), Geary’s work took shape as a long-term project in 1987, with the first volume of A Treasury of Victorian Murder, which combined with its sequel series, A Treasury of XXth Century Murder, is up to 22 volumes. Add to that a number of historical and biographical side projects, and you find a slowly accreting magnum opus, a life’s work of capturing society’s weird dark substructure.

The True Death Of Billy The Kid is one of those side projects, though to call it that might wrongly imply that it is a minor work.  It is not, though neither is it necessarily a major one. Part of the nature of Geary’s project is the relatively egalitarian relationship among his various books. Each volume, whether in the Treasury of Murder series or produced outside it, performs more or less the same task: to map another event in Geary’s history of (mostly) American infamy. The impact and importance of a given book is roughly the same as any other, differences registering in millimeters rather than miles. 

This kind of dependability from an artist can lead to both over- and under-evaluation. Familiarity can breed either contempt or a presumption of worth. On the one hand, it’s easy to take for granted someone like Geary, who turns out book after book with a high level of craft and a single-minded purpose. On the other hand, just because something is good once doesn’t mean it’s going to be good a dozen or fifty or a hundred times. It becomes difficult to take each book on its own terms, and questionable whether you’re even supposed to. It becomes easy to miss the trees for the forest, to lose sight of the particular qualities of execution and style on display at a given moment. 

Geary began his career creating short works for anthologies, which is where I first encountered his stuff. My memories of his short strips in the DC/Paradox Press series of “Big Books” (The Big Book Of Urban Legends, The Big Book Of Weirdos, etc.) help to clarify my view of his style. The Big Books were large trade paperback anthologies of short stories, generally historical non-fiction, grouped around a theme, usually written by one or a few writers, each story illustrated by a different artist. The format called for densely composed pages, usually structured around a nine panel grid, and while the roster of artists included gems like Roger Langridge and Richard Sala, it was always Geary’s strips that stood out to me. Whereas even the good artists (and the Big Books did not use exclusively good artists) would produce pages that felt somewhat cramped with ink, Geary’s contributions were eye-catching in how open they felt. The confident brevity of his linework created an aggregate amount of negative space that made his pages practically bright white compared to the dark, full pages around them. And yet his pages also felt full in their own way – his economy of line served to create figures and spaces with three-dimensional volume, his people and places ballooning with cartoon life. 

Geary brings that open, confident, volumetric linework to bear in his own books, and his writing style extends those aspects to the narrative structure. He frames his stories with a sort of floating objectivity, his characters and situations all held at a distance for observation. Representative moments take the reader through complex historical narratives in such a way that the story is told clearly and cleanly, while always suggesting the larger messy history from which Geary’s panels are merely choice slices. Like his linework, Geary’s narrative brevity creates a sense of volume out of the spaces left unfilled.

A prime example of this comes early in The True Death of Billy the Kid. The majority of the book’s narrative being devoted to the last days of Billy’s life, Geary spends the first part of the book running through a very abridged version of the rest of the outlaw’s biography.  It takes precisely one page, in fact, for Geary to recount Billy’s role as foot soldier in the bloody clash known as “The Lincoln County War,” an epic Western power struggle between entrenched economic and political interests. This single page serves as the transition from Billy the mixed-up kid who used to steal laundry and rustle cattle to Billy the hardened killer and notorious outlaw, and Geary grounds the change in the – only briefly glimpsed – context of American power and the formation of the West. This blurs the simple outline of the folk outlaw, opening up the character of Billy the Kid to intersections of history, politics, myth, and morality, and all in a few economical choices. 

Geary’s histories seem simple and straightforward, but they always come with a sense of history as a narrative, his stories acknowledging themselves as stories. His people come across less as subjects for detached observation and more as performers creating themselves as they are drawn. Even those seen in only one or two drawings are posed with an internal life – Sheriff Pat Garret and his shifty eyes, the bemused aloofness of Billy’s old flame, Celsa Gutirrez. In one scene, Billy takes over a jailhouse balcony as if it were a stage, and in a short series of panels gives a complex, shifting performance of desperation, evil, remorse, bombast, and nobility. Geary weaves all the conflicting accounts in legend and rumor of the Kid’s nature into his very on-panel behavior, but in such a way that they feel as if they are emanating from the same person. This is the hallmark of Geary’s style – the apparent unity and simplicity of historical fact, deployed in pursuit of opening up the complex multiplicities of historical truth.

The longevity of Geary’s pursuit is both admirable, and serves to make his ongoing accomplishment somewhat invisible.  For instance, I had no idea until recently that The True Death of Billy the Kid – which I am reviewing as a new release – actually came out a few years ago, financed independently through Kickstarter. NBM, its current publisher, only picked it up for reprint and wider distribution after the fact. Geary has used Kickstarter to put out a handful of other books, including a whole volume on the Lincoln County War. It is an interesting situation, both encouraging and dispiriting. Of course, it is on the one hand a salutary thing that artists of Geary’s caliber can receive the kind of direct public support that allows him to create the kind of work he wants to make. On the other hand, given that The True Death of Billy the Kid, and most of his other Kickstarter projects, are more or less exactly the kind of work Geary is already producing for NBM directly, the fact that he felt the need to self-finance first, and bring it to his regular publisher second, is a disturbing reminder of how tenuously strung together the world of comics publishing is. But however it has to happen, I suppose – so long as Geary gets to keep mapping his vision of American history until he’s shown us everything he sees.

(Note: I drew on this interview for most of my factual information about Geary’s publishing situation.