Stacey Pavlick is a pop culture critic looking to expand her knowledge of comics. So she allowed herself to be submitted to an experiment at the hands of Comics Bulletin's Co-Managing Editors Danny Djeljosevic and Nick Hanover, wherein they've created a list of graphic novels for her to read and report back on, offering her unique perspective as a newcomer to the medium eager to receive a Panel Education.
“Find the heads.” This was the gruesome edict at the start of the investigation into the killings of the Cleveland Torso Murderer, a butcher of those on the fringes (prostitutes, vagabonds, the shantytown poor) who lived and died as John and Jane Does, unidentifiable existences and in the end, less identifiable remains. The Torso Murderer made sure of that by dismembering his victims, scattering heads and hands and feet in his wake as if these parts were nothing more than inconvenient litter. But this was 1935: Eliot Ness had recently been named Safety Director of the city, and prior to the Torso slayings, job number one was to exterminate police corruption. Ness may have left his band of Untouchables behind in Chicago, but he was more than ever a man known to come down, and come down hard. A crooked cop’s badge or a madman’s grin – either way, that landed you on the wrong side of Eliot Ness. And then… heaven help you.
Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko recount this story– somehow almost a footnote in the extensive historio-mythology of Eliot Ness– in their mostly-true-crime graphic novel Torso. Time and place is established early on, not only because the narrative is based on factual events, but because the Prohibition-era noir aesthetic engulfs the telling of it. The art is stark black and white, all contrast, which reveals such an interesting way of connoting emphasis. An early triptych depicts Ness’s reaction to a reporter’s needling at the press conference announcing his installation as Safety Director. His face is defined and composed, necktie and shirt crisply arranged in the first panel and then the scene darkens as his aggravation rises. By the third panel, his features are hollow chasms, his face now angular and carved. The shirt collar is shadowed in a way that makes it look like everything is being pulled taut, the dialed up contrast communicating abstraction and loss of control. Real things morphing into less real shapes. The effect intensifies the hardboiled feel. Edna Ness, in a trying moment, becomes all hat brim and cocked eyebrow. Characters dart in and out of silhouette. The interstices between chapters disassemble slowly into pixilation, as though looking closer and closer through the frosted glass of a detective’s office door.
Illustrations make use of period photographs, typically as backdrops over which the artwork is superimposed. The incorporation of this medium is unobtrusive and sporadic enough that its impact is maximized, preventing this work from turning into an overwrought collage. When one of the bodies is identified (10 out of the 12 known victims never were), the detectives canvass the neighborhood and an actual photo of the woman is reproduced in the artwork. Her face, the detail of it, the fine shadings of filmic gray in this otherwise oversaturated black and white world, jolts you out of the fiction of it and reminds you that at one point in time, someone took a picture of this person standing before them, before another someone chopped her to bits. It’s hard to tell if it’s a mug shot or a portrait (that ambiguity also keeps you lingering) but it is nevertheless disarming and-– maybe this is an obvious thing to say, but– much like seeing a ghost. Extant crime scene photos are used sparingly, some are grisly but their inclusion is not exploitative. A morgue photo of a recovered head is pasted into the pages, and honestly my first thought upon seeing it was how beautiful his eyelashes were. Not because I’m a sicko, but because Bendis and Andreyko honor the humanity of storytelling over the caricature of tabloid.
Linguistically too, Torso is faithful to the lexicon of the era, almost to distraction. But then again you can’t pull off noir in half measures. Phrases like “It means this palooka ain’t no weak sister” and “You lookin’ for some chin music?” situate the slang within a time period when calling someone a “nancy” could be a serious or playful insult, depending on inflection. In fact, “nancy” is used so often in Torso that sissification emerges as a theme in some ways, and not entirely successfully. There is an expected hypermasculinity at work in this pulpy story, but in a late chapter, one of detectives confesses to the other that he is a homosexual. Earlier scenes depict him picking up young men (hustlers, we presume), two of which end up dead at the hands of the Torso Murderer, but this red herring device-– since it cannot be dropped-– confuses rather than accelerates the drama. The fallout is tidied up rather too quickly, as the partner at first is bewildered and disbelieving, but after some instruction from his enlightened wife, readily accepts and integrates this shocking information about the man he’s worked alongside for years. This story arc is so short and so out of place that it effectively mitigates any character development that had been built in the preceding chapters-– which didn’t amount to much anyway, since their purpose here is to unfold the plot, not unpack sophisticated personas.
The conclusion of Torso is where this true crime story crosses over into pure fiction, as the Torso Murders technically remain unsolved. The real life suspect shares much in common with the murderer identified in the final chapters, but there was no confrontation the likes of which are dramatized in Torso’s last act. To reel it back in, the authors include a brief appendix, pointing to primary sources and clarifying some instances of departure. But for all the flash of the stylized ending, the real thrill was in getting there, in confronting grit and conflict with the sharp resolution that a two-tone metropolis affords. Equal parts history and horror, Torso occasionally unzips the body bag, but achieves more as a witness to the unseen. A severed foot is the stuff of nightmares, but the wide eyed gaze of the man discovering the foot? That moment of seeing, that panicked dilation of the pupils, that is true terror. Torso shows you those eyes, and soon enough you are seeing through them.
Stacey Pavlick's day job has zero to do with her undergrad degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. A newcomer to comics, more of her writing can be found on Spectrum Culture, where she expounds on music and books and wields her influence as Managing Editor. She lives in a Philadelphia rowhouse with her longtime boyfriend, a handful of comedically spirited cats and a pit bull rescue, whom she frequently plays as if his body is a furry keyboard.