It's not an enviable task to make true-crime sell, to make it look good, to make it interesting. But Rick Geary has managed to do both for a long time. His stark, black lines set against a white background grab your attention and put you in the scene. His informative narrative educates and entertains, keeping the reader's fingers and eyes on the page. It is visceral, it is satisfying -- and the most remarkable aspect is that it's non-fiction.
Geary's "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder" graphic novel series, preceded by "A Treasury of Victorian Murder" series, has been on a run since 2008, starting with the release of "The Lindbergh Child." And, incredibly, every year since has seen Geary produce a new tome in the series. Thus, in December , NBM is publishing the "Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White," which follows the demise of the eponymous architect.
A few months before its release, Geary spoke with CBR about what went into re-creating the Stanford White Murder, his distinctive style and the specific moment which sparked his interest in the genre.
CBR News: Rick, you're continuing your "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series with the "Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White." What was it about White that compelled you to create this graphic novel?
Rick Geary: The murder of Stanford White is one that's fascinated me for several decades. I first became fully conscious of it in the early 80s, when I read E.L.Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" and saw the subsequent movie version, both of which prominently feature the murder and its participants. I was attracted to it because, at heart, it's a fairly commonplace story of lust and jealousy but played on a public stage by notorious characters.
What type of research was involved in digging into the lives of White and his muse, Evelyn Nesbit?
I went through the same process that I use for all the true crime books I do, which involves reading as much as I can on the subject (luckily for this project, there's ample reference out there), taking copious notes and shaping it all into a narrative. I was particularly interested in assembling biographies of the three players in the drama and charting the steps which brought them together. I was eager to gather information about Evelyn Nesbit who's fairly forgotten today. In her prime, though, her face was everywhere and she served as a figurehead for women's new sexual freedom. As a friend of mine noted, she was the first supermodel.
Architectural genius, sure, but White was also decadent, having an insatiable hunger for Broadway showgirls. A seducer, complete with private quarters in which to entertain his female guests. To me these two halves -- masterful architect and voluptuary -- make him fascinating. Of these traits, which were important for you to capture on paper?
I'm drawn to all kinds of true-life murder cases, but White's was especially fascinating because, as you say, he was a man of immense talents and forceful personality but with a fatal flaw. This is what relates him to a Shakespearean character, and why the public was so drawn to his tragedy. Those larger-than-life figures, with larger-than-life defects, have much farther to fall than the rest of us.
You have a penchant for murder cases, murder mysteries. You've covered The Beast of Chicago, Lincoln's murder, even the Lindbergh trial. What's the draw?
I date my interest in true crime cases, especially unsolved ones, back to the early '70s when a friend of mine, a former cop, lent me the complete case file of an unsolved murder in Wichita, Kansas.
As I read through it, something was awakened in me which, I suppose, was always there. This attraction to the proverbial Dark Side is by no means unique, but I think everyone has a different way of expressing it. Mine was reflected in several short murder stories that I contributed to comic anthologies throughout the 1980s. And then, in 1987, I was lucky enough to connect with NBM Publishing, for whom I produced the first Treasury of Victorian Murder book, and the series grew out of that. So far, I've done 15 volumes in the Victorian and 20th Century Murder series.
Let's talk about your art. It's stark, it's precise, it's focused. What's your artistic background and who are your influences? I couldn't help but notice a bit of Robert Crumb lingering your linework --
I started out working as staff cartoonist for various weekly papers and fell into comics sort of by chance. Likewise, my ink style has developed with little conscious intent. All I can say is that I try for a certain texture and feeling to the linework that I rarely achieve.
My influences are too numerous to mention, but Crumb is certainly a major one. Other current artists I admire include Gary Gianni and Tony Millionaire. I also revere those pen-and-ink artists from the turn of the last century, like Charles Dana, Gibson, Franklin Booth, Windsor McCay, Gluyas Williams. I hope their brilliance might seep into my work in some form or other.
With "Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White" wrapped, what will you be focusing on now? Is there another 20th century murder lingering in the ether, waiting for you to grab?
Next up for me will be a bit of a change of pace: a fictional murder mystery set in Kansas in the 1940s. This has been a long-term dream project of mine. After that, I have no end of possibilities lined up for further true murder tales. The Black Dahlia is certainly toward the top of the list, although that might be too gruesome even for me.
Too gruesome? Do you ever have the thought that it's the intolerable, the obscene, that may very well sell better? Perhaps attract a wider audience?
I agree that the more gruesome subjects are apt to sell better, and I certainly have no objection to that. It's just my natural reticence, I guess, that makes me go for a more indirect approach. "The Beast of Chicago" and "The Axe-Man of New Orleans" are pretty bloody, so maybe I could give the Black Dahlia a go.
There's a plethora of subject matter out there -- do you see yourself jumping ship, tackling another subject altogether? Prose illustration? Perhaps going back to newsprint?
I'd love more chances to tackle historical subjects that have nothing to do with crime. It's just a matter of who will hire me. I've done two biographies, J. Edgar Hoover & Leon Trotsky, which made me eager to do more along those lines. I'm currently attached to a Jack Ruby biography project -- art only -- that's been trying to find a publisher. In addition, I'm always seeking illustration jobs. Which come around every now and then.