Cartoonist Rick Geary has devoted the bulk of his creative career to non-fiction. In addition to illustrated biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and Trotsky, he has published two long running book series: A Treasury of Victorian Murder (including Jack the Ripper and Abraham Lincoln) and A Treasury of XXth Century Murder (featuring the Lindbergh baby, Black Dahlia, and others). As a side project from those series, Geary explores one of the great Wild West folk legends with The True Death of Billy the Kid.
William H. Bonney (better known, of course, as Billy the Kid) was a charming, sociable character with many friends (and was known to be especially popular with the ladies); he spoke Spanish, and was also popular in the Mexican-American community. Yet he became a cold killer when on the run from the law in the territory of New Mexico. As the book’s subtitle would have it, Geary presents an “Authentic Narrative of the Final Days in his Brief and Turbulent Life.”
Billy the Kid was especially famous for his daring escapes from jails, which is a major focus in this story. The main action takes place in 1881. After an intense shootout which left the last remaining member of his gang dead, the Kid has been captured. He stands trial and is convicted of the murder of a sheriff three years earlier. Brought to the town of Lincoln to await his hanging, he has time to observe his jailer’s routines and make plans. There are several theories about what happened next—and as usual Geary makes a point of mentioning all of the possibilities—but the end result is clear. Bonney kills both of the deputies assigned to guard him, and after a lengthy, frenetic standoff he convinces the townspeople to provide him with a horse to make his escape. After an apparent southward escape route through Texas to Mexico, he heads back north to his longtime refuge at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
He has friends there and can shelter in ranches while making periodic visits into town (also gathering funds for a permanent disappearance). Sheriff Pat Garrett has been biding his time while Bonney was on the lam, sifting through contradictory reports of the outlaw’s activities and whereabouts. The most credible news places him in the vicinity of Fort Sumner, so Garrett finally travels there in the company of two deputies. They make camp outside of town, and what follows is a bit of a comedy of errors. Asking around town makes the townspeople nervous, but does not yield any concrete information about Billy’s location. Yet over the course of the evening, the lawmen encounter their quarry twice without recognizing him! The sheriff calls on his old friend Pete Maxwell, waking him from sleep. When Bonney appears, asking about the lawmen in Spanish, Maxwell says, “That’s him.” The outlaw raises his gun, but hesitates, and Garrett fells him with a single shot.
Thus did Billy the Kid come to an inglorious end. The legends began almost immediately, and there were several men in later years who claimed to be the outlaw, somehow escaped and living his life in anonymity. Bonney’s burial place has been flooded out, so the exact location of his remains is unknown, leaving one final mystery to add to the legend.
Geary employs a distinctive cartooning style. His black and white images have the look of woodcuts, full of sharp lines and deep shadows. The story is told in a series of static images, much more in the manner of an illustrated book than a typical comic book. It lends the subject a well-deserved gravity. As always, Geary includes a list of Sources, showing his historical background research and giving readers places to go for more information. Like his Treasury of Murder series, Geary doesn’t shy away from the violence of the era, making this work most suitable for adult collections. However, an interested older teen reader might also appreciate this work.
The True Death of Billy the Kid
by Rick Geary
NBM Publishing, 2018