The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks


Rick Geary has been producing his series of "classic murder" books for almost two decades now, delivering smartly-created and well-researched graphical presentations of some of the most notorious crimes of their era. Geary has produced books that explore the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the troubles in "Bloody Kansas" and nearly a dozen more events.

In his latest book, Geary takes on perhaps the most controversial and fascinating event that he has ever covered -- the notorious arrest and execution of Italian immigrants and noted anarchists Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco.

Briefly, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for the murder of a pair of employees of a shoe factory who were walking between buildings to deliver their cash payroll money. Despite some dramatically conflicting eyewitness testimony about the murders, the two men were arrested, then soon became victims of a trial that contained questionable proceedings -- to say the least -- and made court appeals that fell on deaf ears.

Because of this seeming miscarriage of justice, the two immigrants became the center of a political firestorm that engulfed countries all over the world. Massive controversies erupted over the arrests and executions in countries as far away as Panama, New Zealand and Japan -- and remember, this was in the 1920s, when many people didn't even have radios, let alone any of the electronics that we take for granted today!

The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti

As he always does in his books, Geary takes an unbiased and objective view of the stories he depicts. As he mentioned in my interview with him last month, Geary choses to, as he says, "concentrate upon those sources that try to treat the subject objectively and have no axe to grind, political or otherwise. For those cases in which there are many competing theories, I treat each one with equal attention, and even if I have a personal theory of my own, I don't give it undue emphasis."

That approach is the perfect approach for a book like this one. By removing himself from the strong temptation to take sides in the story of these men, to neither acquit them nor take the side of the State of Massachusetts in the trial, Geary leaves the facts up to the reader to decide -- or to do further reading.

As readers we're confronted with events and stories about events, ambiguity layered upon certainty, and as such we're asked to determine for ourselves what has happened. Geary employs this technique in such a thoughtful manner that it really becomes artful and fascinating. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps themselves, to determine to themselves what has happened in the case. We become willing participants in the story; a fascinating experience.

The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti

As always, Geary's artwork is quirky and fascinating and evocative and quite wonderful. There's a great deadpan feel to Geary's art that matches the subject matter, and a certain sort of hand-drawn antiquated linework that somehow wonderfully evokes the lost era that he portrays.

As always with Geary's work, the details of the art are right on target, whether it be the way that a defense attorney styles his hair in a very old-fashioned style, or it be the way that streetcars look in that era, or the way that cars and guns and churches and courthouses look. Geary is especially talented at drawing people, a crucial skill for stories like this. When reading a Geary book I'm always confronted with faces that seem redolent of their era, staring at me with an earnest conviction about themselves.

If you know nothing about the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti, this book is a great introduction their story. If you know something about their trials, you should find this book a fascinating exploration of the case. And if you've never read anything by Geary, I think you'll really enjoy the fascinating combination of objective reporting and personal artfulness that Rick Geary presents in this book.

Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.


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