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Black Heroes of the Wild West | Review

Black Heroes of the Wild West cover

Black Heroes of the Wild West
by James Otis Smith
Toon Books, $16.95 (hardcover), $9.99 (paperback)
Grades 3 and up

The three exciting stories told in Black Heroes of the Wild West — those of Mary Fields, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons — represent only a small part of the variety of Black experience on the American frontier. All three people were born into slavery but used their skills to set their own paths. These tales are told to refute the popular assumption that cowboys and other Wild West denizens were white.

Mary Fields was a stagecoach driver who held off a pack of wolves single-handedly. She astounded everyone with her strength, determination, and hard work.

The chapter on Bass Reeves shows him going undercover as a traveling worker in order to apprehend wanted criminals. He was really a Deputy U.S. Marshal who, based on this story, took advantage of how people’s stereotypes led to them underestimating him. He also may have inspired the story of the Lone Ranger.

Bob Lemmons captured herds of mustangs by using techniques that were kinder to the wild horses than the usual methods. He understood horses and acted like one of them.

The art sets the mood of the time period as well as showing how active and dynamic these people were. It takes second place to the text, which conveys the details of the scenes. Instead of telling the story, the images capture active or emotional moments.

The inclusion of photographs as endpapers and chapter openings reinforces that these are real people behind these almost unbelievable tales. They provide valuable evidence that grounds the extraordinary events, as well as showing how many more stories were out there.

The introduction by painter Kadir Nelson discusses the importance of representation, particularly when it comes to lesser-known historical facts. This theme continues in the background text material, which explains how diverse cowboys were. Also covered are buffalo soldiers, cattle drives, the myth of the Wild West, and several other related topics.

All this material — which also includes a timeline and a list of additional reading — shows how much bigger Black Heroes of the Wild West could have been. It almost feels like a tease, as we get only a few stories when there are clearly so many more. Where’s the book of Bass Reeves? [Editor’s note: There actually is a Bass Reeves book by Joel Christian Gill.]

Johanna About Johanna

Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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