How can you solve a one hundred-year-old crime when the criminal isn't known? Or figure out the meaning of a murder from that same period when there's no obvious motive? These are the challenges writer-artist Rick Geary has been confronting since 1987, when the first volume of NBM Publishing's "Treasury of Victorian Murder" was released.
Since that time, Geary has examined the mysteries surrounding such criminals as Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, and Lizzie Borden. He has even put the murder of President Garfield under a microscope to help illuminate little-known details for his readers. This month, Geary has another commander-in-chief in his sights for the seventh volume of this series - "A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Murder of Abraham Lincoln."
Whatever you thought you knew about John Wilkes Booth and that night at the theater, prepare to be enlightened. CBR News contacted Geary to learn more about his interest in Honest Abe's assassination and his fascination with Victorian Era mayhem.
"Actually the idea for the first 'Treasury of Victorian Murder' was from my publisher, Terry Nantier at NBM," Geary told CBR News. "That book came out in 1987, and since it told three stories, I considered it a one-shot. Terry, though, had always envisioned a series of books, and it wasn't till 1994 that I began work on 'Jack the Ripper.'"
In case you were wondering what draws him to such dark subject matter, Geary explained, "I've always had an interest in true crime cases, going back, I suppose, to the 1970's when I worked for a weekly paper in Wichita. After the first of the infamous BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killings, I did a drawing of the murder house that received some angry mail in response. As far as choosing subjects, I gravitate toward the unsolved mysteries, but in general I try to depict cases that illuminate the society of the 19th century in some odd or unusual way."
However, the murder of Abraham Lincoln didn't quite fit into this previous category, so Geary debated whether or not to tackle this topic. "My publisher pushed for the Lincoln book because the story is so well-known. I resisted the project for the same reason. Though I've always been fascinated by the monumental drama of it, I knew I'd be covering territory well trod-upon by others. I finally felt that by using the same storytelling style as the earlier books, I could at least provide an individualistic take on the events. I chose to limit the time frame to the two month period, in 1865, between Lincoln's second inauguration and his burial in Springfield. An enormous swath of history is encompassed by those sixty days."
Despite any apprehension he may have initially felt, Geary seems to have found plenty of new angles in his telling of this familiar story. He reveals that Booth worked with a group of disgruntled Southern sympathizers who were out to decapitate much of the US Executive branch, not just President Lincoln. He also details the flight of the culprits and the federal agents' pursuit of them.
As Geary's tales are rooted in historical fact, he does have to do his homework before he can sit down to draw these books. Geary said, "It takes me about a year and a half to complete one of the 'Victorian Murder' books. This includes maybe four to six months of research and note-taking, then two months of writing and ten months of actual drawing.
"I enjoy all the different steps in making the book. Least enjoyable, probably, is the lettering, because the kind I do is so labor-intensive. I'd love someday to create a computer font that would take care of this."
When asked if he would ever consider tackling a 20th century murder, such as JFK's assassination, Geary responded, "I would certainly consider it, though, like with Lincoln, I would have to wonder if I could add anything new to the debate. Among more recent cases, I'd love to tackle JonBenet Ramsey or even O.J. Simpson."
In the meantime, Geary is still having fun in the 19th century. He is currently working on "The Case of Madeleine Smith," a Scottish sex and arsenic melodrama from 1857. On top of that, he is also drawing a nonfiction graphic novel, "Cravan," with writer Mike Richardson for Dark Horse. This is a true story about a self-confessed thief, forger, and con-artist, who managed to vanish from the careful surveillance of the US government in the early 1900's.
In addition to all this, Geary does regular illustration work for four different west coast publications. There's no rest for the wicked - or, apparently, those who write about them.