Friday, September 03, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 212 (9/3) -- The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans by Rick Geary

Rick Geary knows his historical murder stories -- he's been turning gruesome tales from a century or two ago into compelling comics for more than twenty years now, since the original Treasury of Victorian Murder in the late '80s. Again and again, he's gravitated to the stories that were never quite solved -- Jack the Ripper, The Borden Tragedy, The Mystery of Mary Rogers, The Lindbergh Child -- each time showing the facts, as far as they're known, and then leaving the mysteries clear as he describes the possible explanations.

The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans is the third book of Geary's current series, "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder," which is just an extension of the previous eight books in "A Treasury of Victorian Murder" -- all eleven books are smallish hardcovers (about 5" x 8"), under a hundred pages, each about one particular murder or series of murders, ranging from 1841 (Mary Rogers) to 1922 (Famous Players). The Axe-Man, who may or may not have been an enforcer for the local Mafia, killed six and wounded six others, most of the time chiseling out a panel from a back door of a grocery/apartment run by Italian immigrants and attacking the inhabitants with their own axe, then running away without stealing anything.

As usual, Geary begins with detailed scene-setting, going back to New Orleans's founding and its role in the War of 1812 before jumping forward to the Jazz Age and the years 1918 and 1919, when the Axe-Man was active. That background is one of the few solid things about this case -- Geary makes clear that some of the attacks could easily have been copy-cats, and even the main sequence of murders (those Italian grocers, presumably killed to scare their fellows into accepting "protection") might well have been done by different men. Geary runs through the sequence, placing each event in time and space -- and giving a sense of the public mood at the time -- in his inimitable detailed art, with its thousands of precisely parallel lines and his amazingly expressive faces, alternately toothily smiling, bewildered, sullenly peering out from lowered brows, and staring stolidly forward.

Geary, as always with his engrossing historical murder-mysteries, carefully researches the facts and presents them dispassionately, discussing plots and possibilities over panels of precisely depicted black-and-white mayhem. He goes as far as the facts will allow, but no farther -- a man does die at the end, and he may have been the Axe-Man (or, at least, responsible for some of the murders), but Geary also makes clear the holes in the story, and other suspects for some of the attacks.

There's no one better at depicting the quirks of a past era in comics form than Geary; he draws details of clothing and setting carefully to make it just right, uses his panels as windows to show those times in the greatest depth, and never loses sight of the fact that his characters aren't just modern people in funny clothes. And violent death brings out his best instincts -- of wanting to know what happened, but, even more importantly, to be sure what he can know. The Terrible Axe-Man is another great volume for the shelf of fine Geary books about mayhem and bloodbaths among our great-grandparents.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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