The True Death of Billy the Kid

The True Death of Billy the Kid

Out next month is Rick Geary’s latest murder exploration, The True Death of Billy the Kid. It’s in keeping with his popular Murder Treasury series, in that it explores a famous, historical, violent death, but it’s larger in format, and a little shorter (64 pages), which makes the hardcover oddly reminiscent of a picture book. That’s about all the space needed to cover, though, who killed the outlaw, why, and under what circumstances.

Originally crowdfunded on Kickstarter three years ago, the book has been picked up by long-time Geary publisher NBM for wider distribution, and I’m glad they did. I wasn’t interested enough in the topic to pledge for it, but now that I’ve seen it, I realize, as always, Geary provides unique insight into what at first seems an obvious reason and situation for killing.

In New Mexico territory in 1881, the 21-year-old William Bonney waits in jail for his execution by hanging. He’s been caught up in violent battles over land and economic interests, driving him further into banditry and murder. He hatches an escape, but sticking around familiar ground afterwards leads to his eventual demise by someone determined to stop his killing.

After reading this treatment of his last days, I’d like to read a longer graphic biography of the outlaw — but that wasn’t Geary’s intent; he wanted only to cover the period during which Billy the Kid became a legend. We’re given tantalizing details here, as when abandoned by a stepfather after his mother’s death, he turned to crime, or we’re told he “still has many friends in” the town where he’s held prisoner. There’s not much insight into his personality, as some of his actions — “whooping and shouting” on the jail balcony after shooting the two deputies dead — make little sense, although they feed the popular concept of the anti-hero. He’s an object to watch move down a path to an already-known ending.

The True Death of Billy the Kid

Geary’s art is well-suited for this kind of reporting, as it’s straightforward in showing expression and setting. With its pen-and-ink, old-fashioned flavor, the reader feels transported back to an earlier time. Geary provides various theories but maddeningly doesn’t present one as what really happened. The uncertainty sharpens the poignancy of this long-ago death, making it more immediate. It’s also sympathetic, although we’re reading about someone who shoots someone face-to-face with no warning. As he lived, so he died, similarly shot in the chest.

Last year, Geary crowdfunded another, similar book, The Story of the Lincoln County War, so here’s hoping NBM sees fit to help get that one out to a wider audience as well. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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