Comic Review: Bass Reeves #1 (Allegiance Arts & Entertainment, June 2020)

I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Bass Reeves—the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, and possibly the real-life inspiration for The Lone Ranger—until the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen featured him. I’m even more ashamed to confess I wrongly assumed Reeves was part of that series’ alternate history.

It took a Facebook post last week from comics creator Ben Avery about Bass Reeves #1 to make me realize Reeves was a real, riveting figure from the history of the American West. 

I intend to read more about Reeves to rectify my ignorance. But from what little research I’ve done, I gather writer Kevin Grevioux has taken few (if any) liberties with Reeves’ biography.

Bass Reeves #1 is a fast-paced, fascinating introduction to a character whose exceptional skill and ferocious moral focus make the book crackle like the lightning seen raking the sky behind “old Bass” himself on its cover.

“A New Kind of Lawman” Meting Out Fiery Judgement

The Bass Reeves we meet in these pages sees himself as an agent of godly wrath and retribution against the lawless.

His faith makes him fearless, whether he’s hunting down whiskey bootleggers in Indian Territory or answering the U.S. government’s call to be “a new kind of lawman” who can “use a sword to bring order to” Indian Territory.

Reeves is a hymn-singing, table grace-praying, Scripture-quoting sharpshooter who respects guns as “tools of justice,” not toys. He doesn’t idolize or fetishize weapons. And he doesn’t indiscriminately use lethal force. “Glorifying a man’s death is never a good thing,” he tells his son Benjy at one point. (The historical Reeves, whom history credits with capturing some 3,000 outlaws, only killed 14 during his career, and those in self-defense.)

Yet Reeves doesn’t doubt there are “bad men” who deserve to “burn like chaff.” As he tells the Federal judge who recruits him, his definitive truth—the “only truth there is,” he claims—is “[t]here’s a Jesus in heaven” whose “judgment is swift and, when he returns, there will be hell to pay.”

In the meantime, Reeves will kindle sparks when he believes it’s justified.

Artist David Williams communicates Reeves’ stark and unyielding commitment to justice through 

the bounty hunter-turned-lawman’s sharp, angular face, frequently illuminated from below with fiery reds and oranges courtesy of colorist Kelsey Shannon’s vibrant palette—a visual hint, perhaps, of the flame-filled fate he anticipates for wrongdoers.

And Williams’ Reeves had more than a little about him of some other famous pulp and comic heroes who fought for justice. Reeves’ wide-brimmed, angled hat and his guns evoke The Shadow, who knew the evil that lurks in the hearts of men; and his stealth and legendary status as an avenger in the night make him a kind of late 19th-century Batman—though with no need for a cowl to strike fear into criminals’ hearts, and no reluctance to pull a gun’s trigger.

A Larger-Than-Life Legend

The book gives glimpses into several facets of Reeves’ character. He clearly loves his wife and son, though his work takes him far from home. He’s a skilled farmer, who gives God glory for his harvest. His knowledge of Spanish and Native American languages indicates an openness to others’ cultures and experiences that aids him in his mission.

But it is that mission that dominates the issue, looming as large in readers’ minds as it does in those of the outlaws he pursues.

Consider page [5]. Three bootleggers huddle around a campfire (in the flames of which one will soon meet his doom after trying to shoot first) and discuss Reeves, who has already acquired legendary status among outlaws: “nine feet tall” and slinging “cannons with triggers.” Williams draws the exaggerated Reeves these bootleggers see in their imagination: a man of superhuman proportions, lit up by explosive bursts from his guns’ muzzles and otherworldly green and purple hues, a nightmarish force of reckoning.

A Chance to Challenge America’s Mythic West?

As a Western action adventure, Bass Reeves #1 is grade A stuff. I’m no expert in the Western fiction genre, but anyone steeped in enough American pop culture picks up its essential, gunslinging, spur-jangling beats through osmosis. (Witness most recently, for instance, The Mandalorian.) Bass Reeves hits them all, and with vivid flair. 

I wonder whether the series will, in future issues, question and challenge the assumptions of the “Wild West” mythology most Westerns tacitly or explicitly endorse. With a physically and morally strong black man as its hero, Bass Reeves could touch on or even full-on tackle some difficult and damning contradictions in the nation’s past, the consequences of which we still wrestle with today.

When Reeves swears on a Bible to “uphold the laws of this great nation” as a marshal in “Indian Territory,” for instance, he’s actively supporting a conflation of God’s will and white America’s force that led to the displacement of so many Native American peoples. The “Indian prohibition laws” he’s been recruited to uphold flowed from white supremacist thinking. The judge to whom Reeves reports, Judge Isaac C. Parker, is remembered as “the Hanging Judge” for the great number of death sentences he imposed during his time on the bench. (Again, I’m no scholar in this chapter of U.S. history, but Grevioux’s script got me Googling!)

I don’t think acknowledging these tensions in any way diminishes Reeves’ importance or his remarkable achievements. Driven by his faith and inspired by the nation’s stated ideals—even though he had once been enslaved—he devotes his energies to justice “wherever it may be found” in the United States, despite the country’s unjust foundations. All Americans who profess to care about justice can only do likewise. 

Bass Reeves promises to be an exciting and thought-provoking series about an outstanding American who served the country in a truly remarkable way.

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