Cartoonist Rick Geary is posing for a portrait behind his massive catalog of historical graphic novels at his usual spot at San Diego Comic-Con. Before I can depress the shutter button, his head suddenly turns and he stands as a large man with glasses and a slight accent slips behind the booth and starts gushing like any starry-eyed fan.
But this is not any fan. A security detail hovers nearby, as do a couple of kids holding up their iPhone cameras. Suddenly I realize that the guy who interrupted my photo was none other than Guillermo del Toro, the acclaimed director of Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim.
Then I realize that Rick Geary—the modest, white-wizard-haired gentleman from Carrizozo, NM—is the type of artist who has Guillermo f---ing del Toro as a superfan.
Geary isn't like Stan Lee, he's not the type of creator that fanboys and fangirls line up overnight to see in Comic-Con's infamous Hall H. True comic aficionados will perk up at his name, but every single one of the 100,000-plus badge holders will recognize his biggest contribution to Comic-Con. Having attended the convention for more than three decades, Geary is the artist who created the convention's famous toucan mascot.
This year at Comic-Con, Geary is promoting his upcoming graphic novel The True Death of Billy the Kid about the outlaw's last days. He was kind enough to spare a few minutes from the Comic-Con chaos to answer a few of SFR's questions.
SFR: Could you give me a brief introduction of who you are?
RG: I'm a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. I've been coming here to Comic-Con for 38 years—1976 was my first one.
You tell a lot of history through graphic novels. One thing I know New Mexicans are fascinated with is Billy the Kid. Do you think people in New Mexico will react well to your book? Will it be in the middle of controversy more than it would be elsewhere?
Well, they're very protective. I live in Lincoln County, which is the center of Billy the Kid country, as they call it. I'm working on a graphic novel about the last days in the life of Billy the Kid. People in that part of New Mexico are very proprietary about it. I consulted different people who are experts on the subject to give me advice and pass on the accuracy on the book. Everyone's been very supportive so far.
How historically accurate would you say it is?
There’s been a half-dozen basic books about him and a lot of more fringe-type books. There’s conflict over some details, but I tried to include as much as possible. I decided to limit it to the last couple months of his life. It’s starting with his jailbreak out of the Lincoln County jail. He was due to be hanged, and he killed two deputies and went on the run. They finally caught up with him at Fort Sumner, and this is all within the couple month’s time.
There's the whole controversy about whether he should receive a posthumous pardon. Have people tried to impress that on you?
No, no. As recently as the 1950s, there were these old guys who came forward, claiming they're Billy the Kid and demanding a pardon. But none of their claims held up to scrutiny. Lately there's been a movement to exhume his bones for DNA testing and stuff like that. None of that ever came to pass because no one really knows where he's buried. He was buried in the cemetery at Fort Sumter, but no one knows exactly where. There was a flood at the cemetery and all the bones were kind of jumbled together and it would be impossible these days to do that.
So you drew the toucan that is the annual mascot of Comic-Con?
That's right. Sometime in the early 1980s, I was approached to do a little logo for Comic-Con because they didn't have anything to put on their letterheads or to give it a corporate identity. So, I just zipped out this little drawing, and I had no idea that it was going to become the permanent logo for the con. It just seemed tropical to me, although toucans aren't native to San Diego, but they have them in the zoo up here, and I was in this phase where I was drawing animals with human clothing on back then. The bird just popped into my head, you know?
Can you give me an idea of the scale of Comic-Con's growth since you first came 38 years ago?
There's no comparison. It was at the El Cortez Hotel up the hill there and it was just in one room. It was more of a small function in which you could always rely on running into people you wanted to see. Ever since maybe 20 years ago, when Hollywood started to take over the comic industry, or vice versa, it's just grown like wildfire. It's unrecognizable today, but it's still a lot of fun.