Tales of the Talented Tenth, No.1: Bass Reeves
By Joel Christian Gill
126 8x10-inch pages, color
2014 Fulcrum Publishing
paperback graphic novel
Gill is doing today what George L. Lee did a generation ago: he’s telling stories about black Americans who achieved greatness in their chosen vocations. Bass Reeves, for instance. Reeves, a frontier deputy marshal in Oklahoma during the closing quarter of the 19th century, was “the most successful lawman in the Old West”: he was not the first African American marshal, but he arrested more crooks than anyone else — thousands, Gill reports. “He once brought in 21 outlaws at one time.”
In the volume at hand — the first of a proposed series on what W.E.B. DuBois called “the talented tenth” — Gill traces the life of Reeves, beginning when he is a young slave, being taught to shoot a rifle by his master, who enters the youth in sharp-shooting contests (and collects the winnings himself, naturally). During the Civil War, Reeves’ master served in the Confederate Army, taking Reeves along with him. The youth hears about blacks running off to join tribes of Native Americans, who harbor the fugitives and prevent them from being captured; he does the same, growing to maturity among the Indians. He eventually marries and becomes a farmer, but after helping a local marshal solve a problem with some Indians, he becomes a marshal himself.
The rest of the book is devoted to a couple of narrative strands that demonstrate Reeves’ methods as a lawman. One of his quirks, for example, is to leave with those he has helped a silver dollar, a habit, Gill speculates, that “led many scholars to believe that his life inspired the story of the Lone Ranger.”
An admirer of Chris Ware, Gill has adopted a refined simplicity for his drawings, and he deploys the resources of the medium skillfully. But Gill is adept at exploiting the capacity of the medium for conveying meaning symbolically. Instead of using the N-word, for example, he inserts in the speech balloon text a tiny version of a stereotypical racist rendering of an African face—big white eyes, liver-lips. Gill believes that the N-word has lost its nasty sting; his visual symbol, however, he thinks revives the power of the word. I don’t agree that the N-word has lost its derogatory ugliness; but the rebus pictogram is a potent device, imparting to the term a dramatic, visual weight that the word itself no longer carries.
A recurring character in the story is depicted as a human-size crow. Jim Crow. And it behaves as you would expect Jim Crow to behave. In the first of Gill’s graphic novels from Fulcrum, Strange Fruit, the cartoonist tells short histories about lynching, and he shows many crows attending the lynchings. The group of crows, Gill points out, is termed a “murder.”
Gill believes, with ample justification, that “black people in America are the true Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story. ... What’s more American than walking 500 miles in the snow with dogs chasing you just so you can choose where you wake up and go to bed every day?”
Gill has planned at least three more graphic novels in the Talented Tenth series, featuring: Bessie Stringfield, the motorcycle queen of Miami; Robert Smalls, an escaped slave-turned-politician; and Mary Bowser, a freed slave who returned to the South as a Union spy during the Civil War.