It’s been an odd couple of weeks for freebie books here at Casa Comics Bulletin, as a series of graphic novels have showed up that all kind of coalesce around a theme: educational comics. And they’ve been a fascinating collection of material — as each one explores either history or its designated topic from its own unique angle. Each book is didactic and provides a survey on the topic that it explores, whether that topic is economics, philosophy, a specific historical event… or the topic of today’s book, the story of a horrible murder in a burgeoning New Jersey town.
Nobody does graphic history like Rick Geary. This great cartoonist has been working on his Treasury of 20th Century Murder series for well over a decade now, producing another wonderfully illustrated and meticulously researched volume of material on a more-or-less annual schedule.
Last year’s book, an exploration of the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case, was might have been Geary’s finest work, exploring the cultural cross-currents and political forces that led to a witch-hunt against two innocent men. Geary’s book was one of those tremendously satisfying creations that works both as an exploration of the specific events in question and as an exploration of society’s mores and values in a distant time-period. And of course it was illustrated in that meticulously detailed, wonderfully specific and gorgeously rendered style that is Geary’s own, and which somehow brings the past to vivid life.
This year’s entry in the Treasury of 20th Century Murder is a bit less celebrated than the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, but it’s no less interesting in its retelling.
See, in 1922 there was a romance blazing between two married people. The man was the minister of one of the most prominent churches in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The woman was a beautiful, young parishioner, who sang in the church choir. That’s all scandalous enough, but one day the bodies of the couple were found in a park at the local Lover’s Lane. Both of them were shot, and the woman’s throat was cut, so deeply that she was almost beheaded. The fact that a stack of love letters were scattered on the ground between the two only added to the intensely lurid nature of the crimes, and helped result in the story being picked up in newspapers all around the region. The resulting mystery was therefore closely followed in the press by hundreds of thousands of people. After all, who could resist such an exciting and splashy case?
Geary slowly and exactingly spells out all the events as they happened during the investigation and ultimate trial. The people of New Brunswick are all intriguingly eccentric and often strange — the deservedly nicknamed “Pig Woman” made a great impression on people at the time of the investigation and trial, as does an odd, slightly addled young man and the very quiet wife of the woman having the affair and a slew of other people who wander in and out of the story.
There’s an amazing sense of reality to these characters, and that power is paradoxically conveyed by Geary’s eccentric art style, where all characters seem to look the reader in the eye, and all the stuff and bother of the scene settings are vivid and evocative of the era that is portrayed. Charlotte Mills, the daughter of one of the victims, is made vivid and memorable through just a few pen strokes that bring her methodically to life. We can tell just by the way that Geary draws Charlotte’s mouth that she will eventually reach a rotten fate — the events depicted in this book will destroy her faith in good and evil and send her down a difficult and self-destructive path.
And that’s one of the intriguing aspects of presenting a story that includes real characters and presents a realistic view of the world: stories can take surprising twists and turns, characters can move in unexpected directions, story elements can shift in perception and context and even in the eyes of different characters as they’re explored throughout the book.
Geary stays relentlessly neutral about every element of this book, including the abhorrent element of the Ku Klux Klan, which forces the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what might have happened. After reading this book, I have my own pet theory about the events that are depicted in this book, and I’m sure that is Geary’s point.
Like Stan Mack of Taxes, Tea Parties and Revolting Rebels and Michael Goodwin and Dan Burr’s Economix, Geary uses a caption-heavy approach to the story that he’s telling. There is a certain amount of narrative that has to be told in order for this information to be effectively shared with the reader, and, like Goodwin and Mack, Geary uses large blobs of text to convey the information he is presenting.
But with Geary, the combination of the words and pictures feels more organic than it does with his counterparts. Maybe because his lettering is designed to match his art, or maybe because he seems to use the same pen with his lettering as he does with his artwork, Geary’s art and story feel integrated and necessary to match each other, in a thoroughly unique way. It has a wonderfully holistic feel that perfectly boosts the mood of the story that he conveys.
It seems that the great Geary has been doing this for so long, and so well, that each year’s new book is just as wonderful and interesting and evocative as the previous year’s book. We should all be as consistent as Rick Geary.