Review time! with <i>Burke &amp; Hare</i>

Ah, historical fiction. So much history, so much fun!

Burke & Hare has been kicking around for a while, as writer Martin Conaghan explains in the appendix, but this version is from the past few years, and now it's available on these shores after showing up in Scotland (it's about events that took place in Edinburgh, so I suppose that's not a surprise).

It's drawn by Will Pickering, lettered by Paul McLaren, is published by Transfuzion, and costs $12.99.

William Burke and William Hare were very early serial killers, murdering their way through Edinburgh in 1827-28, killing 16 people so they could sell the bodies to Dr. Richard Knox, an anatomist at the university who wanted bodies for medical research. The popular misconception is that Burke and Hare were grave-robbers ("resurrectionists" in the parlance of the day), but Conaghan points out that this characterization of them stems from fiction written long after their deaths (Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher is a famous example) and the fact was that they didn't rob graves, they simply killed people themselves. They basically lured people back to their rooms, plied them with alcohol, and then suffocated them. They sold the bodies to Dr. Knox, who never inquired too deeply into where the bodies came from, for £10 (about £670, or $1,000, today) - so it was totally worth it to them to keep killing. Eventually, they were caught, mainly because they got sloppy and not through any superb effort by the authorities, and when Hare agreed to testify against Burke, the latter was hanged in early 1829 while the former was let go (and subsequently disappeared from history). Dr. Knox, meanwhile, was never prosecuted (technically, he didn't break any laws), but the scandal did derail his career to a certain extent, and he never reached the heights he was moving toward.

Conaghan uses many sources to make his story as accurate as possible, but the comic itself isn't very good. Conaghan explains in the appendix where he "fictionalizes" events, but he always has a good reason and doesn't really change anything, simply conflate certain events. The problem with the book is not that it's too "fictional" or not fictional enough, it's the way Conaghan chooses to tell the story. He begins with Burke in jail (or gaol, if you want to spell it like crazy Britishers), calling for a group of witnesses so he can confess before he's hanged. So the entire book is basically Burke telling the group what happened, with a few panels here and there or their reactions to his tale or shots of him explaining something.

It's very much a dry recitation of what happened, and it's just not that interesting. Conaghan might have been constrained by space (the actual narrative part of the book is only 60 pages long), but he manages to both make this a somewhat dull blow-by-blow retelling of events and leave out some information that might have made things more interesting. Because it's Burke's story, Hare is almost an enigma, and we get no sense of the relationship between the two men, if anything more than circumstance and greed linked them. Burke speaks of the murders matter-of-factly, and the group to whom he's speaking react with horror, but whatever tone Conaghan is going for is lost - we don't feel the same horror because the victims are so random and quickly dispatched that they never make any impression on us. Perhaps that's what Conaghan was going for, but it doesn't seem like the best choice. Burke isn't interesting enough on his own, but his crimes seem so banal that even they don't register very much. Conaghan makes the point of how horrible they were - at one point Burke and Hare killed a 12-year-old boy - but the impact still remains in the abstract, unfortunately. The way Conaghan shows how Burke and Hare were finally caught is a bit interesting, because he (and Pickering, of course, but I don't know who came up with it) splits the pages into three horizontal panels, each telling a different part of the story, and we finally get a sense of how Burke and Hare finally overreached themselves. Perhaps had Conaghan focused more on the final victim and slowly revealed that this wasn't the first time Burke and Hare had killed, maybe it would have been more interesting. But that's just speculation on my part.

Pickering, meanwhile, is a decent enough draftsman, and his exterior work on Edinburgh is very nice, giving us a good sense of the city and how easy it was for the two men to move through it completely undetected. His characters all look slightly similar (with the exceptions of Burke, Hare, and Dr. Knox), but that's mainly because of the clothing of the early nineteenth century. Pickering has some issues with camera angles and perspective occasionally - he shows a scene from odd points of view and because of this, his figures can look twisted in strange ways - but for the most part, it's a nice-looking book.

The appendix goes into much more detail about the crimes and where Conaghan got his information, and I wish more of that had been in the actual narrative. He's trying to present the murders in as concisely a way as possible, but some more information in the actual narrative might have helped make it more interesting.

We keep getting hints about other things going on, but Conaghan doesn't go into them, relegating them instead to the appendix. There's one page on which Burke has a dream, and Conaghan explains that he had bad dreams after killing the 12-year-old boy, which is fine. We never saw the boy before this page, however (I'm glad Conaghan didn't show the murder, but we didn't even see the boy before he was lured into their web), so the page has little impact. In another scene, Hare's wife brings in a victim (she was arrested but also released after testifying against Burke), but it's the first time we've ever seen her, and Hare doesn't identify her (he only says one thing to her), so again, it leaves us a bit confused. It's always nice when a writer doesn't spell everything out for the reader, but Conaghan might go a bit too far with this comic.

I'd have to say that Burke & Hare is Not Recommended unless you're really, really interested in the two men, because Conaghan does try to dispel the myths about the two men, and he largely succeeds. As an interesting story, however, he relies too much on telling and not showing, skips too much crucial information, and doesn't give us compelling characters. It's too bad, because there's a creepy story and a good social critique lurking in these pages (why was there no oversight in dissection of bodies?), but that just never quite comes out.

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