Rick Geary has been working in the fiend of independent comics for many years, but he’s become especially well-known in recent years for his work on A Treasury of Twentieth Century Murder. These books, fascinating explorations of famous murders in history, are real treats for readers. I’m a big fan of these books, including Geary’s newest book, an exploration of the famous murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. I really enjoyed conducting this interview via email with Geary, shortly after Comic-Con 2011.
Jason Sacks: Tell Comics Bulletin’s readers about your Treasury of Twentieth Century Murder series, and in particular about the story of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Rick Geary: I’ve been producing this series of books about famous murder cases since 1987, first as A Treasury of Victorian Murder, and since 2008, as A Treasury of 20th Century Murder. I try to go with those cases for which there remains some mystery or controversy, and at the top of my list was the Sacco-Vanzetti case, which was the center of a political firestorm in the 1920s but is largely forgotten today.
Sacks: Why did you decide to write about such an (in)famous murder case?
Geary: I’ve done books before about famous cases. Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the Lincoln assassination and the Lindbergh kidnapping have been exhaustively covered by other writers over the years. For such a subject, to which there is little new I can add the best I can do is to lay it out in a clear and accurate way.
Sacks: Like the Lindbergh kidnapping, which you also wrote about, the story of Sacco and Vanzetti is very well known; how did its fame affect the way you approached the story?
Geary: The fame (or infamy) of the story meant that there was a large variety of source material to draw upon, but I don’t feel I approached the project in a different way than I did the more obscure cases I’ve worked on.
Sacks: Unlike some of your other books, such asThe Ax-Man of New Orleans or Famous Players, the Sacco & Vanzetti book focuses more on the trial than on the murder and its aftermath. Why did you take a different approach to this graphic novel than you usually do?
Geary: In most of the books of this series, if there is a trial, I’ve kept it a minor element, since trials are talky and non-visual, and most of the relevant information has already been released. But in the Sacco-Vanzetti book, I felt that the trial would be the best arena to illustrate the evidence and address the competing theories of their guilt or innocence.
Sacks: Like all of your books, the Sacco & Vanzetti book has a bibliography prominently included in the front of the book. How did you choose what sources to lean upon, when this case has been discussed so prominently?
Geary: For all my books I try to read as much as possible before writing a script. I 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.
Sacks: This story is specifically titled The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti, which hasn’t been the case for other books in this series. Is there an implicit point in including the phrase “the lives of”?
Geary:I’m not sure I had a specific reason for calling it The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti, other than to give the title something to make it stand out from the others out there. That said, the story is, after all, very much about their lives, which were on the line for a long and agonizing period.
Sacks: How do you choose the topics for your books? Are there certain features of certain stories that make them enticing for you?
Geary: I’ve been an aficionado of true crime for many decades, and I’ve kept a master list of cases I’d love to interpret in graphic story form. I’m most often drawn to the unsolved mysteries, since they give me the chance to present the facts and theories in a way that might point to a solution. Other cases, like the presidential assassinations, Madeleine Smith, and HH Holmes, in which the perpetrator is well-known, are interesting in one way or another for their historical significance.
Sacks: How much do you consult experts in history as you construct these stories?
Geary: I don’t really have the time or inclination to actually interview experts in the various stories I work on. I’m not really a journalist in that regard. My recourse is to previously published material.
Sacks: How much research do you do into the settings and surroundings of your characters? Your approach to history really brings historical eras a feel of verisimilitude; how do you approach bringing them to life?
Geary: For every book I do, I amass a large file of visual reference for the period, both from books and from online sources: clothing, furniture, hairstyles, all the small details that can make the past come alive. Getting this part right is the most fun for me in any project.
Sacks: Your art style is very unique and quirky; do you feel it helps or hinders the creation of these historical worlds?
Geary: I guess that if I thought that my style hindered the storytelling in these books, I wouldn’t be doing them. My style is what it is, and it’s up to others to decide whether it’s effective or not.
Sacks: What is the historical story you’ll be featuring in your next book?
Geary: My next project is the story of the Hall-Mills double murder in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1922. It’s a still-unsolved mystery involving a minister and his choir-singer lover, both married to others, who were killed in the local lovers’ lane.