I absolutely love Rick Geary’s comics. If you haven’t read any of his “Treasury of XXth Century Murder” volumes, you’re missing some of the most entertaining explorations into American history that the comics medium has ever seen. Now filling fifteen volumes on the shelf, Geary’s historical explorations have covered a wide swath of true-life tales of murder and killings in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the case of Jack the Ripper, the story of “Bloody Kansas” and many more.
Madison Square Tragedy continues Geary’s auspicious series, this time delving into the notorious murder of Stanford White, one of New York’s most famous architects at the turn of the 20th century. But behind a respectable façade, White had a number of terrible secrets. He loved to romance and abuse the ladies the young women of New York at the time, taking terrible advantage of their starstruck attitudes and naiveté.
One day White indulges his perversions with the wrong woman. White meets Evelyn Nesbit, an exquisitely beautiful and very innocent young woman who was the model for the famous “Gibson Girl”, popular in the early 20th century as an exemplar of modernity, beauty and progress. White befriends Nesbit, becomes a mentor and confidante of hers – and then betrays that confidence. The events that happen next could come out of any great true crime story, involving love, betrayal and murder on perhaps the grandest stage possible in 1900s-era century New York.
Geary does a magnificent job of laying out the story that he’s telling here, spending much time in the preliminary sections creating an impression of New York as “The City of the New Century.” His characteristically hand-rendered, slightly oblique and odd art gives a feeling of a lost world of 100 years ago, and his use of smartly designed diagonals in his square panels helps to create a feeling of energy and movement in these scenes. New York is a city on the move, and Geary renders that development in a style that readers viscerally understand.
Geary creates a complicated but accessible setting with cameos by Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Dana Gibson before his quirky crosshatch style finds its way to a portrait of Stanford White, giving readers a view of White’s family, his architectural influences and his approach to his work. Though we know that we’re being shown a man whose life is thoroughly corrupt, we can’t help but to be intrigued by White’s intellect and creativity, along with his very modern approach to the world, infused with some hangover sense of American Manifest Destiny. This is an important man in the new century, and you can feel the man’s overweening self-regard in every gorgeously-rendered panel.
Of course, everything will fall apart in White’s life as we read The Madison Square Tragedy – Stanford White’s death is foretold in the subtitle, after all – but the implacable steps towards his fate, the inevitability of White’s hubris causing his own pathetic downfall, is conveyed beautifully in Geary’s trademark deadpan style. Geary’s art is far from realistic but that’s precisely the point of why this book works so well: his art conveys a mood of early 20th century portraiture – not the portraits themselves, but how we imagine those images will look, how we see the world from that time, looking back through our distorted rear view mirror.
Geary’s graphic novels succeed not just because they educate in delightful ways, or because they’re tremendously satisfying true-crime stories. They succeed also because in reading them we get an impression of times past, a multi-dimensional vision of a fascinating era that is now in our distant past. Geary’s Madison Square Tragedy brings history to life in the sort of documentary form that only he could create.