Smash Pages Q&A: James Otis Smith

The creator of ‘Black Heroes of the Wild West’ discusses the book, which is out now from Toon Books.

James Otis Smith made a splash in 2019 with two books. Gang of Fools, which came out from Lion Forge, was a webcomic about a dystopian future, gentrification, the mob and more. The other book was Showtime at the Apollo: The Epic Tale of Harlem’s Legendary Theater, a nonfiction book from Abrams. The two were radically different books but showed an artist who was able to work in different styles and approaches, as skillful at tackling fiction as nonfiction, conveying lots of information in dynamic ways. 

His new book, which is out now from Toon Books, is Black Heroes of the Wild West. The book looks at three real life figures from the Old West, each of whom was unique and stood out – then and now. But more than simply being fascinating, interesting people, they complicate our understanding of the Old West and how the West was settled. Black people were ignored when the history was written, erased when fiction and myths were crafted, and sometimes redlined and banned from towns and even entire states. Black Heroes of the Wild West is an important glimpse of what’s been lost and ignored.

Smith was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, which is an artistically masterful work, and what he wants to do next.

To start, how did you come to comics?

My earliest visual memory is a Superfriends comic with the Tasmanian Devil. Comics have always been a part of my life. Comics are how I learned how to read. Even though I write music a little bit, and I used to be a video editor, comics are the artistic language that is most natural to me. They’ve just always been there. It wasn’t even a choice.

How did start drawing professionally?

When I got out of college I was going to be a video editor. I worked in the movie business and the thing about the movie business is that everything works on favors, whether at the million dollar level or the five hundred dollar level. You work on someone’s movie in the hopes that they’re going to work on yours. Eventually I realized that I don’t care enough about other people’s movies to work on them. I just wanted to communicate using pictures. I realized, I know how to draw, so I should do that. I transitioned into doing storyboards professionally and then I was doing personal comics on the side. When you do that, eventually someone notices and they ask you to do work.

You said before we started that you had wanted to make a Western. Where did this book start?

I had a fiction idea, which I’m still going to do one day, about the Old West. After Apollo came out, Françoise Mouly at Toon Books contacted me and asked me if I had any projects that I was interested in working on. I told her about my Western idea and she very politely guided me towards nonfiction, which I think was a better choice. One of the reasons was that we’re so unfamiliar with people of color in the Old West in general. When you look at Black history in American media, there’s the Civil War and then there’s the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe jazz comes in there? I wanted to set the groundwork and establish that there were lots of different kinds of people who didn’t show up in the movies and TV shows. Once we have a greater understanding of who those people were, you can build fiction on top of that.

You tell the stories of three people in the book and I think it’s fair to say Bass Reeves is the best known. Were these people you learned about as you were studying the period and doing research?

As you say, Bass Reeves was the most well known. It’s not 100% proven but it’s believed that he was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. It turns out that a lot of feminists were familiar with Mary Fields. I had collected a lot of books about this period. There’s not a lot about Black people in the Old West. You find a lot of overlap in books. Then it was a matter of figuring out which stories were more interesting. We decided that they should all live around the same time period. Once I settled on that, I realized that there was a certain similarity between them. Just like America in the Reconstruction period, these people were figuring out who they wanted to be in this new America. I liked the idea that America was going through an identity crisis – or maybe growth is the right word? – and these people were going through the same growth. They asked, now I’m a free person, what kind of a person is that? They made such radically different decisions. Mary Fields would be an unusual woman even today. The kind of person she was in the 1800s deserves its own book. Bass Reeves became a cop. And at the time where he didn’t have to be, he was an honest cop! I liked the parallels between America changing and black people changing and the culture changing at the same time.

I kept thinking how the myth of America is that people come from somewhere else and reinvent themselves. All three are very much part of that story. They were born into slavery and then moved out West to reinvent themselves.

Right. One of the things that’s interesting is that because the American government wanted to settle the West, and they didn’t have enough people, anyone could go out West. Before the end of Reconstruction, there were dozens and dozens of black people elected to public office throughout the South. There were towns out West where black people could maybe not become mayor, but become sheriff and hold positions of authority. They didn’t have enough people, so if you were willing to do the job and you were able to do the job – you could do it. That’s why Mary was able to get a very difficult job as a mail carrier because she could do it and they couldn’t afford to say no. It’s a very interesting period because the way I think of it was that this is the first time when Black people could act the way immigrants act. You could move to a place that had work and do whatever work was available. 

I grew up in New England and there are places like Maine today that are whiter than they were 150 years ago. And a lot of the West and the Plains are the same. 

A lot of that was conscious. One of the things that’s so damaging about the way that we teach history is that we lose an understanding of the choices that the country made. People say, oh, maybe black people don’t live there because they don’t want to? No. They did want to, but laws got passed that said they couldn’t. I don’t want this to be a litany of abuses. I don’t want it to be celebratory, either, because in future books we’ll get into characters who are less obviously awesome, but I wanted to help develop a more three dimensional view of how American history worked. People made choices and we live with those choices today. Because they were made one hundred or a couple hundred years ago, we think of them as natural, but it’s not natural! Western stories were all white by choice. We can make a different choice.

I know what you mean by not celebratory, but there should be an acknowledgement of what happened and who was there.

I just think that’s interesting. This is a moment where we’re all supposed to be talking about increasing diversity, but for me as a storyteller, here are characters and people we’ve never seen before. That’s interesting! That should be enough!

So you’re planning to do more books like this?

They’re not going to necessarily be about cowboys, but they will be about the West and Black people in different walks of life. We’ve already figured out who our subjects are going to be in the next book. It’s only going to be two people this time. They’re very different people and they’re not people we see in the old West at all.

These relatively short format books for young readers have a lot of flexibility as far as how you approach things and who you tell stories about.

Absolutely. I do hope to do longer works in this vein, maybe aimed at an older audience, but I don’t think everything needs to be a graphic novel.

And as you said before, there’s a lot of room for telling a lot of stories because so much of this has never been discussed.

I would love to see books by American Indians on life in the old West. Its crazy to me that we don’t have a whole shelf of those books.

As far as making the book, you drew it in ink?

Yes, I penciled and inked and it was colored by Frank Reynoso.

Is that typically how you work?

No. I’ve been drawing digitally for the last fifteen years – and I got tired of it. [laughs] I got tired of staring at a screen. I told Françoise I was going to draw it on paper and she said, good, I don’t like it when people draw on the computer. It was great because the physical experience of drawing on paper is why I draw. It was nice to get back to that. I scanned every stage in. I did some edits digitally and then Frank colored it digitally.

There’s something about using ink and not being able to erase.

Man, so many times Control-Z popped into my head. [laughs] When you draw on paper and then go back to the computer, there is that moment where you pick up an eraser and try to erase the screen. [laughs] But I love drawing on paper and even though I can get a higher level of detail [digitally], I think the stuff I draw on paper just looks nicer.

It sounds like you have next few years planned out?

I don’t at all. I am currently working on a book for the World Citizen Comics series at First Second on the 15th Amendment. Then after that is done, my next book from Toon will be about more Black figures in the Old West. That’s the next year and a half or so.

As far as the First Second book, it’s nonfiction but that’s a different kind of project than you’ve done before and requires a different approach and series of choices.

As you mentioned earlier, Apollo was very heavy on information. A lot of what I was doing was trying to be visually interesting. Trying to buttress the information, but also making room for all that information. It pushed me to break out of my typical way of working. I’m heavily influenced by the Hernandez brothers and I would happily draw every page in a six panel grid for the rest of my life, but then Apollo came along and I had to get rid of everything. Including the panel borders! It really opened my mind to different ways to attack the page. I’m very excited about this book, which is currently called Born in the USA. I feel a lot more confident about the way that I can move your eye around the page and the ways I can compose a page. It’s going to look different than anything I’ve done before and will look really cool.

Last year also saw the release of Gang of Fools, which is a fictional graphic novel that you wrote and drew.

I don’t mention it much because Black Heroes is aimed at grade school kids and Gang of Fools is very not aimed at grade school kids, so I thought it would be best if I just didn’t confuse people. Gang of Fools was a webcomic I did. The first page went live in the beginning of 2008 and it came out last year from Lion Forge just before they got bought by Oni. So it got lost, but also, no one knew who I was or had heard of the book. I was just happy to have gotten it done and gotten it out. It’s a black comedic sci-fi look at America and consumption from someone who at the time was a very angry person. I’m not nearly as angry now. It’s about a young woman who’s desperate to hold onto her apartment and an over the hill professional artist who is trying to kill her to get the apartment because of the value of living in that zip code. It’s the kind of world where your zip code is valuable enough that someone might try to take your life to take your apartment. And there’s a monkey with a gun. You can’t hate a book that has a monkey with a gun!

Gentrification got worse, but there’s a monkey with a gun. So it’s not all bad!

Exactly! [laughs]

Thanks so much, James.

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