Pop Goes the Western
Bob Boze Bell Gets Graphic About the Old West
Just browsing through Bell's work and skimming through the text and the great -- even stunning -- photographs, drawings, and other graphics can provide hours of pleasure. The first thing you might notice when you settle down and start reading is how witty and hip his writing is. His historical treatment is far from skin deep, though; these books are grounded in first-rate research and bursting with factual detail and illuminating insight. And these are more than heavily-illustrated coffee-table books. Taken as a whole, the text and illustrations work together in a very cinematic way: From the get-go, Bell's work is a transmutation of all the various storytelling techniques that have hard-wired the myths of the West in the American mind.
There's always a healthy dose of irony, if not out-right melodrama, in Bell's deft use of Western iconography. Take a look at Wyatt Earp, which begins with a noir-ish color portrait of the legendary "lion of Tombstone" framed in black. The first thing you notice are the heavily lidded, almost luminescent blue eyes. Wyatt seems to be emerging from pitch darkness into a single beam of light which puts a pasty glow on maybe one-quarter of his bony face, leaving the rest drenched in heavy shadows. Above the portrait, a caption reads: "Hero?" Below is a quote from a noted historian: "You won't like him. He's not who you think he was."
Keep browsing: A sepia-tone oval portrait of Wyatt hovers above Tombstone's main street in a black-and-white photo: "Silver made Tombstone rich. Wyatt Earp made it famous." Next, on the back of a warrant for the arrest of a murder, we learn from Wyatt's handwritten note that his fee for serving the warrant was 75 cents. The next few pages continue to set up the drama with tantalizing bits of information, great quotes, amazing art and photography: A painting of Doc Holliday ("Dead from the Eyes Down"), a painting of the Earp clan ("...two died from gunshot wounds, four were wounded in gun battles and the father was kicked by a mule. Only one came through it all without a scratch -- Wyatt Earp."), the alleged nude photo of Josephine Sarah Marcus ("the actress who stole Wyatt's heart and ruined his second marriage"), and a photo of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp in 1876 titled "Headbangers" (in reference to Bat and Wyatt's reputation for "buffaloing" troublemakers by hitting them in the head with a six-shooter). The last image in this introduction is a montage: Wyatt with the luminescent, blue slitted eyes and a smoking six-shooter, a campaign poster ("W.S. Earp for Constable, Lamar, Missouri") and a painting of Wyatt with the shadows of jail bars across his face. The caption: "On which side of the bars did he really belong?"
This visual feast sets the tone for the unfolding epic, with lush illustrations and captioned with provocative questions and ideas. You can practically hear the far-off thunderclaps of the gathering storm, the plodding hooves of the cowboy mob. The visual style and content evoke John Ford Westerns as much as they do Ken Burns documentaries. It's a set-up that whets the reader's appetite for action, while striking familiar notes and broad strokes. We already know the story, but there's a promise for new revelations and new flourishes in the hands of a masterful storyteller.
So much for the introduction! Part one dives into the family background, birth and childhood, and the historical setting in which Wyatt grew up. The text unfolds, documentary-style, running along the margins of the pages, usually, serving as a frame or running commentary alongside maps, photos, drawings, and every imaginable kind of graphic illustration you can think of (all total, more than 295). Although the information seems almost encyclopedic in scope and detail, factoids, killings, and historical trivia have been distilled for maximum effect:
"March 21, 1852: A tiny baby in Griffin, Georgia is christened. His given name is John Henry Holliday... July 13, 1865: Horace Greeley publishes his famous statement, `Go West, young man, go West,' in the New York Tribune. In a related item, Brigham Young takes his 50th bride in Salt Lake City... September 14, 1887: Ike Clanton is shot and killed by a correspondence school detective at Peg Leg Wilson's cabin on Eagle Creek, in eastern Arizona. He was running away at the time."
It all adds up, setting the stage for the great drama, climax, and the transition from reality to myth: bits of trivia, revealing character traits, the strange synchronicity of seemingly unrelated events (within months of the Earps' move to Arizona, the velocipede, a steam-powered tricycle, is showcased at the Paris Industrial Exhibition), and stunning images with killer subtitles.
The format for Wyatt Earp is repeated in Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid: The story is told in a chronology of key dates and events in the lives of the protagonist and other key figures in his life and career, with essays on the most important figures, and things like the clothes they wore, the prostitutes they knew, the games they played, the guns they used, and questions like, "Did Wyatt Earp Use a Telephone?" and "What's Wrong With Wyatt Earp?" (The latter refers to the Kevin Costner movie and, guess what, the answer is "Plenty.")
These guys are archetypes: Wyatt Earp, the Town Tamer, also a gambler, fortune-seeker, and peripatetic fortune-seeker... Doc Holliday, the doomed, wild and unpredictable gun fighting gambler, who stood by his friend, Wyatt, and helped him win the battle at the OK Corral, the most famous gunfight in American history... Billy the Kid, young rebel gunslinger with a gear loose who stumbled into a war between two rivals for political and economic supremacy in Lincoln County, New Mexico, finally brought to a tragic end while going out to get a late night snack at his girlfriend's house.
Bang, bang, you're a history buff. This stuff is fun and while Bell never loses sight of that fact, he never suggests that we take a legend at face value. He's serious when he needs to be -- the research and presentation of both factual detail and historical context is impeccable. And he's fun just about all the time. He understands that these are stories whose resonance is twin-fold: They're part of American history and they're great pop culture.
The text is sprinkled generously with great quotes, like the one from Bat Masterson:
"Holliday had few friends anywhere in the West. He was selfish and had a perverse nature -- traits not calculated to make a man popular on the frontier."
Strangely effective, also, is the use of melodramatic citations from past biographers like Walter Noble Burns (Tombstone, The Saga of Billy the Kid) and Stuart Lake (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal). We learn that my favorite line from the film Tombstone, uttered by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday ("I'm your huckleberry") comes from the Burns book, but many other lines, including, "You're a daisy if you do," and "The Oriental is a regular slaughterhouse," come straight from the historical record. Then there's this bit of advice from Billy the Kid: "Advise persons never to engage in killing."
Bell really goes to town on the Billy the Kid story, relaying an accurate and easy-to-understand version of the Lincoln County War, and conveying a sober and realistic evaluation of the roles the various parties played. There were practically no good guys. The best that can be said of folks like Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, John Tunstall, and John Selman is that while nearly all of them were bastards, some were worse than others.
The title page of part one of Billy the Kid has a color drawing of Billy (born Henry McCarty), about age 10 or so, standing barefoot in the middle of a field. He's wearing a hat with a feather in it, his trousers are hiked up above the ankles, held up by suspenders. The chapter is titled "A Childhood Lost," and the caption at the bottom reads: "Two-thirds of the Kid's life is unknown. Legend and myth have filled in the blanks."
It's as if time and myth, discovering an attractively blank slate, projected just the kind of character we needed. And what better subject for Bell's talents as an illustrator and compiler of fact and fancy than one whose biography has so many pieces, one for whom only one certified image has survived -- a scratchy, distorted one at that?
Think about the way Billy the Kid stares out at us from that tintype. He's heavily armed but dressed funny, he looks somewhat vacant, probably tired, and could very well be dull-witted. On the other hand, we've all had our bad hair days and this very crude, very distorted picture could represent just that for Billy the Kid.
With their illuminating historical detail and explosion of imagery -- Bell's books do more than fill in the gaps between the surviving visual historical record of these characters and the legends and myths that they have inspired. Bell uses every trick in the book to humanize these heroes and show that they put their pants on in the morning no differently than you and I do. At the same time, he makes their stories rock & roll louder and bolder than ever before. Neat trick. The good news is that Bell is now working on three new books: Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, and Wild Women of the West. n Jesse Sublett's career as a novelist, screenwriter, and freelance scribbler began in 1984, when Louis Black asked him to write a short piece for the Chronicle about his experiences on the road as a professional musician. Always poor at following directions, Sublett turned in a short story entitled "Martin Fender and the Hardboiled Highway," which became the genesis for Jesse's series of hardboiled blues mystery novels.