Rick Geary has been regarded as an “underrated” cartoonist for so long now that it’s almost a cliché at this point to label him as such. But in the many years he’s been making comics, he’s produced an impressive body of work that seems to escape a lot of folks notice. His stellar Victorian Murder series, now bumped up a few decades to encompass the 20th century, alone show such a high and consistent degree of quality that most cartoonists would give their eye teeth to have on their resume.
Having made his name with true crime, he’s recently attempted to tackle the biography genre, producing two books for Hill and Wang’s graphic line, one on J. Edgar Hoover, and most recently, one on Leon Trotsky.
I talked to him recently from his home in Kansas City, Missouri, about his new Trotsky bio as well as the latest book for NBM in his Murder series, Famous Players, about the mysterious and currently unsolved slaying of silent movie director William Desmond Taylor. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: I wanted to start by asking you what originally prompted you to do the Murder series. I get the sense that true crime is a subject of great interest for you.
A: Yeah. I got interested in true crime cases years and years ago. I think it dates back to when I was living in Wichita, Kansas, back in the late ‘70s. I had a friend who was an ex-journalist and ex-policeman. He gave me this collection of mug shots he had accumulated over the years. I get into things through the visual end most of the time, and those pictures kind of got me going. I did research on local unsolved murders and that was about the time that the BTK killer was around in Wichita. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case.
Q: I don’t think so.
A: He was a serial killer who operated in Wichita back in the early ‘70s. He was only just recently captured and put in prison a couple of years ago. That kind of started me out. When I started doing I just naturally turned to those kinds of subjects.
Q: Why initially Victorian murder?
A: The publisher, Terry Nantier at NBM, suggested the idea to me. I had done a couple of stories for different publications, shorter pieces that dealt with cases of the Victorian era. He suggested doing a whole book of Victorian cases. That kind of mustered from there into the series.
Q: What prompted you to move into the 20th century? Did you feel like you had covered the 19th century pretty well?
A: There are still more cases in the 19th century, but I felt like I kind of, as you say, had done that era and I wanted to move on to more recent times, especially the early 20th century. There are a lot of juicy stories. More than I could ever do.
Q: Focusing on the new book, Famous Players, what drew you to this case?
A: That’s another case I’ve been interested in for years and years. I’ve always been a movie lover and been interested in the early history of Hollywood. And since that’s the very first unsolved murder in the Hollywood community, it’s one I was fascinated with.
In fact, back in the early 80s, I had actually stared to do a graphic novel about the case, although they weren’t called graphic novels back then. It was just going to be a long story that I was going to see if I could publish myself and do as a mini-book, but that never came to fruition. There’s been a lot more information uncovered about the story since then so I’m glad I waited. I just found it was a natural for me.
Q: What sort of new information?
A: At the time, back when I was first researching the case, it was [believed] that Taylor was this extreme womanizer and there were all these rumors going on about the affairs he had and the stuff that was found in his apartment, which was mentioned in newspaper accounts at the time. More recent researchers have found that to be totally false. Things like the women’s negligees and lingerie that were supposedly hidden away in a drawer. Each one of them had a name and a date attached, chronicling his conquests. More recent research has uncovered that he was bisexual and wasn’t nearly the womanizer that people thought he was.
Q: Is there something that defines 19th century murder versus 20th century murder?
A: Not that I can think of. People’s motives for murder remain constant through history, either for personal gain or out of some kind of psychopathic undercurrent to their personality. I’m not sure that the actual motives are that different from era to era. It’s the details and the trappings that change.
Q: It does seem that when you say Victorian people have a certain image in the mind of foggy nights and back alleyways versus modern times.
A: Serial killers aren’t really a modern phenomenon. Jack the Ripper was in the 1880s and H.H. Holmes in the 1890s. I’m not sure what would typify a modern case because the elements remain the same.
Q: I guess the thing is that people want to typify.
A: That’s a good way to put it.
As an illustrator I really enjoy drawing the details of the Victorian era, the interiors and the costumes and hairstyles. Horses and the harnesses and carriages and wagons and stuff like that. Now I get to draw early-day automobiles, which is a whole different route to go. I find it different in that regard. Otherwise I don’t look at it that way. I don’t see it as a different era as far as the content is concerned.
Q: Was there anything about this particular story that seemed different from the others you’ve done? There seems to be a greater mystery, even compared to the Lindbergh case, in that so much seems to be unknown about Taylor’s death.
A: I know. I’m really drawn to the stories that are unsolved and have a lot of unknown elements. Those are my favorites. I like getting all the details straight and laying out the mystery in as clear a way as possible. I try not to push any theory of my own. I just want to lay it out so the reader can make up his or her own mind if possible. Or else just leave it as a mystery. I think questions are more interesting than answers most of the time.
Q: Is there a trick to doing that in comics? I would imagine there is a temptation to push a theory one way or the other.
A: Well, in the Lindbergh story for instance I have my own idea about the case, but I tried not to push it or lean on it. I took pains to illustrate all the different theories that are out there, no matter how unusual or silly they may sound. There are a lot of them. I don’t know if there’s a trick to it but it is something you have to really be careful about. I don’t know if I’ve really mastered any trick.
Q: What’s your next entry in the Murder series?
A: I’m finishing up and inking the next book, which is about the Ax Man of New Orleans, who is a pretty obscure serial killer. I don’t think he’s widely known because he was never captured or identified or anything.
Q: I don’t think I ever heard of him.
A: He operated in New Orleans in the 1918-19 period and used an ax to break into people’s houses and chopped them up. It put the city into a panic for a while. And then he just vanished. There aren’t any major theories about who it was or what happened to him. It’s a real foggy mystery, but there are a lot of juicy details. I had to use newspaper archives to ferret out the details, because no one’s done a book about this particular killer.
At the moment I’m doing research for the book after that which will be the Sacco and Venzetti case.
Q: Now that case I’ve heard of.
A: That’s another one where I have to keep an even tone and not play sides.
Q: It strikes me in a lot of these cases like the New Orleans one and the Beast of Chicago that you really try to avoid getting too gory, even though a lot of these cases are rather gruesome. You hang back a little.
A: I do. It’s not me being squeamish. I just think it’s effective to leave things to the viewer’s imagination. I am kind of reticent about portraying extreme gore and gruesomeness. But I have to say with this Ax Man story it’s pretty gruesome. There’s a higher blood quotient than most of the stuff I’ve done before.
Q: But even in something like Bloody Benders, I noticed at the time how careful you were to avoid the gore. And it made for a much more intense read I think.
A: I hope so. That’s my own predilection.
Q: Who do you look for as an influence in that manner? Is there anyone in comics who’s good at that sort of thing or do you look more towards movies or other mediums?
A: As I said I’ve been a film buff for years and I tend to look toward certain directors from a long time ago rather than other comic artists for my inspiration. Hitchcock of course. And a lot of the filmmakers from the film noir period of the 40s or the Val Lewton films of the 1940s. They get across horror without being gory or direct. It’s less in-your-face than the movies of today, that’s for sure.
Q: I also wanted to ask you about the Trotsky biography. I was curious why Trotsky instead of, say, Lenin, Marx or Stalin?
A: Actually, I was assigned Trotsky. I wouldn’t have chosen him. My first choice would have been Rasputin. I suggested him to the publisher, but he said, “Let’s do Trotsky instead.” I’m fine with that. I didn’t know much about his life at all when I started it. And it was a learning experience for me all the way around.
Q: I thought it was especially interesting since your previous biography was about J. Edgar Hoover.
A: Talk about opposites! That’s one thing I liked about it. I get to take on this large swath of history and take someone’s life from a totally different angle.
Q: Did Hill and Wang come to you initially with this idea of doing biographies?
A: Yeah, they contacted me. The editor, who was working on the series got in touch with me and said. “We’re doing these graphic biographies,” and asked me to do one.
Q: Are you going to do any more for them in the foreseeable future?
A: Well, I’m told the market has gone soft so I don’t know. They’re holding off. We shall see.
Q: What are the challenges in trying to summarize someone’s life like Hoover’s or Trotsky’s? You’re working with a larger span of time and have a lot more detail to cram in than something like Bloody Benders.
A: That’s true. It’s certainly a more daunting project than the Murder books, especially with someone like Trotsky who is a very contradictory character. He was heroic to some people and a real negative character to others. It was kind of a balancing act. I tried to be as even handed as possible. Same with Hoover.
Q: I did notice with Hoover you didn’t come down one-way or the other.
A: Yeah, when there was some kind of scandalous accusation I put it in terms like “Some people say.” There wasn’t anything scandalous in Trotsky’s life except his affair with Frida Kahlo in his final years.
Q: Is it difficult to edit down, once you have all the information on a person, to pick and choose which events or what to put in or leave out?
A: There’s always too much information. It’s a matter of winnowing down. With Trotsky I tried to find the most dramatic aspects of his life because most of his biography is pretty un-visual. It’s these internal disputes within the Bolshevik party or the different questions of setting up a new country. The more dramatic episodes of his life like escaping from exile, where he was on this reindeer sleigh, and later on when he was the military leader during the civil war, those are the incidents I wanted to give more play to because they were more visual and more melodrama.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the research you do for both the murder books and these biographies. I would imagine in both cases it’s difficult to find the right book or biography but visual research as well.
A: That’s true. When I decide on a subject I read as much as I can on it; as many books as I can read and keep on the deadline. I use a lot of online sources as well. I can usually find pictures of just about anything I want – anything that’s out there anyway. For the Ax Man of New Orleans book the only visual references I found were in this old newspaper file that had photos of the murder scenes and the victims and overhead views of the house. That was really all I had for this book. Other cases like Lindbergh there’s more visual reference than I could possibly use. It’s the same thing with books on that case. Some cases have a library of stuff written about them.
Q: What do you do when it’s like the New Orleans case, when you don’t have a lot to go on?
A: I never have anything less than I need to do an eighty page book. This and the Bloody Benders, there wasn’t much info about them. If I need to I can fan it out by having a double-page spread or having an illustration fill up a whole page. There are ways to finesse it visually. But sometimes you can tell when there’s less information out there.
Q: Whether you’re doing Trotsky or Famous Players, what’s your work method? Once you have all the information you need, how do you go from research to book?
A: Once I’ve done all the reading and taken all the notes, I write a pretty detailed script. The script for these murder books I don’t include visuals I just write bits of information that eventually form into the captions under each panel. My publisher at NBM has gotten used to this. The visuals are either self-explanatory from the captions or else I don’t know what they’re going to be until I actually sit down to draw the page. Hill and Wang demanded a little more detailed script and description of what the visuals were going to be in each panel. So I make it up if I can’t think of something off the top of my head. That’s usually how it turns out in the final comic. Or it’s something completely different.
When I have the script done I start penciling each page one at a time. When I’ve got the whole book completed in pencil then I go to the inks. If all goes well.
Q: You have a really neat visual style. It’s slightly photorealistic but also slightly cartoonish and you have this spare line you use for your shading that I admire. How conscious were you in developing this style?
A: I don’t know. I feel that a style develops in a semi-conscious way. I just know I go for a certain feel or texture in the line work. I really don’t know much more to say about it than that. It just comes out of working. It just emerges.
Q: More intuitive than anything?
A: That’s how I think of it. This is stuff I’m not used to ruminating on. But it emerges the more work you do. I know my stuff falls in this crack between straight illustration and the more exaggerated kind of cartooning. There’s a humorous edge to these things.