Thursday, December 27, 2012

Death and Death: Two Graphic Novels

These two books are both death, in very different ways. So I thought they could share a post.

Lovers' Lane by Rick Geary
Old murder cases have a complicated fascination: the usual surprise and apprehension at lives being cut short, mixed in with our own incomplete understanding of the time and place and a sense that all of those people are dead now, anyway, making the "cutting life short" argument at least very ironic. Rick Geary has been working that angle for over twenty years now, with a series of small graphic novels, each about one murder case -- first as "A Treasury of Victorian Murder," and more recently moving slightly forward in time with "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder."

(I've reviewed a number of those books over the past few years: The Case of Madeleine Smith, The Saga of the Blood Benders (here), The Saga of the Bloody Benders (ComicMix), The Lindbergh Child, Famous Players, The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti (at the end of a round-up).)

Geary's approach is as painstaking as his precisely parallel shading lines: the facts of a case, meticulously researched (with a bibliography of sources) and laid out systematically, as far as anyone knows them, and the mysteries presented equally carefully, with just a hint of which explanations Geary finds more plausible. He has an eye for faces and for the details of dress -- both useful in stories about people a hundred or more years in the past who are usually depicted as either stunned or stoic.

Lovers' Lane is the story of a double murder in 1922: the Rev. Edward Hall and his equally married lover, Eleanor Mills, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their bodies were found one morning, posed under a tree in farmland on the outskirts of town, with their love letters scattered all around them. The obvious first suspects were the wronged families: Hall's wife, Johnson & Johnson heiress Frances (and her brother, Willie Stevens, who lives with them and has an unspecified mental disorder), and Mills's husband, the meek janitor James. Both acted suspiciously the day or the murders, but both had alibis, and both had no obvious reason to suddenly break, after months of the affair.

The bulk of Lovers' Lane covers the investigation and eventual trial, with a large cast of characters -- not just the families but the witnesses or potential witnesses, including a colorful local "Pig Woman," the police and prosecutors and coroners, all involved in a complicated case right on a country border and connected to a prominent family (and, of course, one victim was prominent himself as the minister of a major Episcopal church). There are many details, and many contradictions -- plus the usual routine ruining of evidence that always happened in those days -- but Geary skillfully presents all of this material cleanly and compellingly; he has a good story to tell, and he's going to do it right.

This is not one of the most famous cases Geary has retold -- it's from my home state, and even I hadn't heard of it before this book -- but one of the great strengths of this series is that everydayness of it. All of these murders were sensations in their days, as there's a sensational murder, somewhere, every day of this year. But sensations die in time, and what's left is the facts -- and that's what Geary will show you, with a face almost completely straight and a twinkle in his eye as he runs through the suspects and witnesses, the weapons and wounds, the alibis and lies and confusions left to history. It's a magnificent achievement, all the more because Geary makes it all seem both easy and routine.

The Song of Roland by Michel Rabagliati

Everyone dies. Every single person: the good and the bad, the ones you can't live without and the ones you can't believe are still around. Even the people that are absolutely central to your life, even the ones who leave holes that can't be filled. One of those people is Roland Beaulieu, the stepfather of "Paul," Michel Rabagliati's self-insert character in the series of graphic novels based on his life.

All of the other books have been titled around Paul -- see my reviews of Paul Has a Summer Job, Paul Moves Out, and Paul Goes Fishing -- but this one is The Song of Roland; it's the story of an older man and his big family. (Three daughters, three sons-in-law, five grandkids.) He's a particular man in a particular place -- a retired supermarket executive and Quebecois who loves his province and country but complains when his children are too loudly in favor of independence. When Song of Roland begins, he has the traditional house in the country, where the whole family gathers for summers and holidays, but it's turning into suburb and Roland is feeling too far from his family (his "rabbits," as he calls them), so he moves to a condo in the middle of this story.

Song of Roland isn't a plot-driven story; it's about the times spent with family over the course of a few specific years -- and the memories and stories told at those times of older holidays and summers, of childhoods and early lives and other people who aren't there this year, or at all. Like the other Paul books, it's from Paul's point-of-view, but it's less focused on his life and graphic-arts career: this is Roland's story.

Song focuses down as it goes, beginning with one summer, moving on to the next year, and then tightening the pace of events, first to months and then, near the end, to days. And everyone knows how it must end; Roland is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, and he goes from being strong and central to first a complaining, crabby patient, then a man at peace with his fate, and, finally, just a body in a bed, working his way out of the world heartbreakingly slowly.

Rabagliati takes a leap with Song of Roland, in telling a story that isn't about him (or his fictional stand-in), but that widens out that fictional world. His UPA-ish clean lines and minimalist but expressive faces move the story along, with humor (even slapstick) where appropriate but a growing deep sadness and acceptance as the book rolls towards its end. His prior books were lovely, sweet stories, but Song of Roland is something more resonant and wide, the story of one man's death and all of the lives he touched and made and enriched.

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