ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico outlaw Billy the Kid has been the subject of 75 or so movies, including the 1966 epic “Billy the Kid Versus Dracula”; more books than you can wrap your imagination around; and a 1938 ballet written by Aaron Copland and choreographed by Eugene Loring.
And let’s not forget comic books. The Kid has blazed his way through a thundering herd of comic books by a variety of publishers, Charlton Comics alone turning out 145 issues of its “Billy the Kid” between November 1957 and March 1983.
Now, a collection of 146 comic books featuring the Kid is part of the permanent collection of the State Archives of New Mexico.
Felicia Lujan, director of the State Archives, said the collection, which also includes books, periodicals, newspaper articles and other memorabilia related to the Kid, is the only collection of its kind in the archives.
“We do not have another comic book collection or even a comic, that I have seen,” she said. “It is definitely unique. Very rare.”
A different take
The collection was donated to the State Archives by Robert J. Stahl, an professor of education emeritus at Arizona State University and a Western history enthusiast who has done extensive research on Billy the Kid and other New Mexico historical figures. In 2015, it was Stahl who petitioned the state of New Mexico, unsuccessfully, to create a death certificate for the Kid, who was killed by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett in July 1881 in Fort Sumner.
Lujan said Stahl, a regular correspondent with the archives staff, approached the archives with the offer to donate his comic book collection, which is made up of comics dated from 1951 to 2012.
“We’ve had a lot of Old West history over the years, but this is definitely going to be a different take on Billy the Kid,” she said. Lujan said the comic books are of interest not only for their depiction of Billy the Kid and his legend but also for the way in which topics prevalent at the time a comic book was created sometimes shape its story.
Rick Hendricks, former state historian and now state records administrator, said that the comics are worthy of academic study and that the Stahl collection will bolster the archives holdings in popular culture.
“Popular culture is important to the state, especially because of the movies made here,” Hendricks said. “And a lot of people like Billy the Kid. He is important to some people.”
In recognition of the Stahl collection acquisition and national Archives Month, State Archives is hosting a program from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, in the film room of the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder, 20 Buffalo Thunder Trail. It is free and open to the public.
The program, held in conjunction with Santa Fe Comic Con, includes a keynote address by New Mexico history writer Don Bullis, a talk by Adams State University Professor Lynnea Chapman King on pop culture’s role in history and a screening of an episode of the 2014 television documentary series “Gunslingers.”
“We traditionally do some event for Archives Month, often lectures,” Hendricks said. “Because of the (Stahl) collection, we decided to do it this year with Comic Con.”
Stahl and his collection will be recognized during the program.
Comic books present fictionalized versions of the Kid, portraying him as hero, anti-hero, even as a foul-mouthed crusader against supernatural forces. In his keynote presentation, however, Bullis, author of numerous books about New Mexico history, addresses the question “Who Was the Real Billy the Kid?”
No one knows
“The question that I have asked is how a kid who may have been born Henry McCarty in New York City ended up being New Mexico’s favorite outlaw,” Bullis said. “But no one can prove he was born in New York City. The Kid claimed he was born in Indianapolis.”
Because no one knows for sure where or just when he was born, we don’t know that he was 21, as some accounts maintain, when he was killed.
“He might have been younger,” Bullis said.
Bullis said all that is known for sure about the Kid is related to his role in the Lincoln County War, a battle between rival commercial factions from 1878 to 1881 in New Mexico Territory. He said newspaper articles, courtroom testimony and eyewitness accounts paint that portion of the Kid’s life, which includes his conviction for the 1878 murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady and the fact the Kid killed two deputies while breaking out of the Lincoln County jail in 1881.
“He was a thief, a cattle rustler and he killed anybody who got in his way,” Bullis said. “I think he was pretty much a career criminal, except he died so young it was not much of a career. I am strongly opposed to the notion there was anything good about the guy.”
But Stahl, who is working on a book about Billy’s last months, expressed a very different view of the Kid in an email to the Journal.
“Billy was a person I would have enjoyed as a next door neighbor, with all kinds of positive qualities, friendly, open to new experiences and people, great sense of humor …., good singer and dancer and bright. He was literate, a good rational thinker and quick-minded. … Billy turned to the gun as the only way he could survive and earn his keep in the world. …”