There is something monumental about murder. Something about it that elevates it above more deserving accomplishments in history, the names of famous killers repeated today alongside the names of history's creatives and world builders, permanent mental landmarks. Rick Geary has had a lengthy career so far of reproducing these stories, subjects of his titles ranging from the Victorian era to the early Twentieth century, capturing the time with his meticulous woodblock print-like linework, in tidy compact graphic novels often found on public library shelves. His stories are unerringly well researched and fascinating, but one can't help but be reminded of the sensational subject this care and artistry is being expended on.
Take his latest, 'Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White'. What a story to tell. We're guided back to the first decade of the newly minted 20th century, following the lives three people: a man who shaped the visual identity of New York City, a young actress who inspired the passions and obsessions of the nation's elite, and a wealthy moral extremist cum sexual sadist. It's hard not to be engaged by their strange story, one that is tied into the colossal birth of a new American era yet taking place in the horrible sweat-stained shadows of private life.
Geary's art compliments this story beautifully, a practiced pen capable of contrasting the formality of the age with the sickening wild-eyed tragedy beneath it in beautiful flawless black and white ink. His restraint and old-fashioned subtly lends the book a greater air of unnerving madness.
However, while the history buff in me was transfixed by the tale of power and its hidden folds, I couldn't help but wonder at the point of it all once the story reached its climax. There's a clinical approach here, Geary tells a good story but doesn't consider it a responsibility to provide a context, leaving some interesting threads about the murder's connection to the moral turmoil of the time or the sexual buffet the wealthy made of working women. This isn't a judgement, as Geary's work stands fully on its own, too accomplished a work to require any sort of added imperatives this critic could suggest. And if anything, perhaps this absence is a very significant choice.
In the end this story has little to do with the birth of the 20th century. Celebrity and power are only window dressing on a story of madness, rape, and instinctive murder. It's not a story with a point, no clean narrative with justice, catharsis, and other Hollywood inventions. It's a story about powerful people who thrashed each other's lives or quietly absorbed abuse before eventually aging, fading, and dying in obscurity. The story begins with an American empire and ends with three graves. It's a hollow feeling, leaving you wondering if maybe, despite still telling and retelling these stories, that maybe murder isn't so big after all. Maybe everything ends small.
Writer/Artist/Creator: Rick Geary Publisher: NBM Publishing Price: $15.99 - Print; $6.99 - Digital Website