For the better part of a generation, Rick Geary has explored some of the darkest corners of the human experience and recorded his findings in a series of critically acclaimed books of graphic nonfiction. To create those volumes he’s researched and reported on some of the most famous and gruesome murders of the past, including those committed by Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden, as well as many of the nearly forgotten, but nonetheless sensational, deaths of scores of individuals.
Remarkably, he’s done it all in black and white, effectively conveying the horrific nature of those heinous acts without ever resorting to overt displays of violence. Geary’s is the work of a consummate cartoonist, a creator operating at the top of his game, obviously relishing his work even while maintaining the necessary emotional distance from it.
And yet the results—such as the recently released A Treasury of Victorian Murder Compendium, which collects some of his earliest work on the series—are entirely engrossing, emotionally engaging, and at times incredibly moving.
Have you been surprised by the longevity of the series, or did you suspect from the first that you’d still be doing new volumes 20 some years later?
Yes, I'm constantly surprised that the series has carried on for so many years and promises to continue for many more. I feel pretty lucky to have this little niche where I can tell the stories I want.
Well, where did the idea for these books originate? And which came first, the idea for the first book, or the idea for a series of books featuring murders?
The first book, which came out in 1987, was the idea of my publisher Terry Nantier of NBM Publishing. I had done a few shorter pieces on true murder cases that were published in various anthology magazines and was ready to try the longer form. With that first volume, there was really no thought of carrying it on into a series. In fact, it was seven years until the next book, Jack the Ripper, came out. From then on, it seemed natural to keep doing them.
What’s the typical process for creating a new volume? Is it pretty straightforward—you start with research, then move on to scripting and creating the art—or is it a bit more complicated than that? And have altered your approach over the years, or is pretty much the same system from one installment to the next?
The process is pretty straightforward, as you say, and over the years, if anything, it's become more standardized. I start by reading as much as I can about the subject and compiling copious notes. The next step is to organize all this information into the outline of a narrative and break it down into pages. Then comes the writing of the script, followed by pencils, lettering and inks.
How much research is necessary to create a typical volume, and how do you know when you have enough material, and it’s time to move on to the next step in the process?
I always try to find out as much as I can about whatever subject I've chosen. This is probably my favorite part of the process because it's often a journey of discovery in which what I thought I knew about a particular case turns out to be untrue or misleading.
With the more famous cases, I always end up with more information than I would ever need for an 80-page book. In that case, the process becomes one of editing down and searching out the essential elements. With other cases—like The Bloody Benders or The Axe-Man of New Orleans—there is relatively little material out there, so it's more a matter of expanding what I have by means of fewer panels per page, more full-page illustrations, etc.
Of course, with all the books I've done, the research process never really ends because I'm constantly acquiring new bits of information and incorporating them into both text and visuals up through the final inking.
How important is getting the visual aspects of each case right to you?
Since my ultimate goals are clarity and accuracy, the visuals are crucial. The geography of a crime scene is very important to get right, as are the faces of the people involved.
In a more general sense, I strive for period accuracy in things like clothing, furniture, interior design, etc. When I was doing the 19th century crimes, I was at pains to reproduce horse paraphernalia like harness and carriages. Now with the 20th century I'm studying antique automobiles. I should note that in those instances where there is absolutely no visual reference available for a particular person or building, I create a picture from my imagination that I hope comes close enough.
Would it be safe to assume that the internet has had some real influence on your ability to do the necessary research, visually and otherwise, or have you remained largely unaffected by the advent of the virtual information age?
I have found the internet to be incredibly useful in gathering the photo reference I need for a particular subject. It's certainly more convenient than going to the city library, especially since there is none in my town. As for written accounts, I usually go to Amazon to purchase books about a particular case. I find that the written pieces online are mostly abbreviated versions of what I can find in books.
Is it difficult at times to maintain an objective viewpoint and authorial voice when doing your work?
I try to keep to a peculiar "voice" in the telling of these stories, one that is at pains to maintain an objective viewpoint, but at the same time, can't help letting a sideways comment enter the narrative.
Why do you think that murder is so fascinating? Is it that gawker mentality we all seem to possess to some degree—that inability to turn away from the train wreck and its aftermath, so to speak—or does it go deeper into than that?
I believe a lot of it is the "gawker" mentality, but beneath the gawking lie some basic human fears, like: Could I commit murder? Could I be a victim? There's a fascination with the idea of people acting out their darkest impulses because we all have those impulses.
Do you ever worry about running out of material, or at least murder stories that you want to present as comic?
No, I'm certain that I can never, ever, run out of material.
Do you think that you’ll eventually start doing modern day murders?
I'm not sure. I've always felt that I need a certain historical distance and detachment for the establishment of the proper ironic tone. These crimes are, after all, pretty horrible events, and to treat anything falling within recent times—say the last 20 years—is apt to inflame some sensitive emotions. That said, I'd love someday to take on the OJ case or Jon Benet Ramsey.
What do you get from doing these books?
I suppose I get the satisfaction of having told a story in the way I want to tell it.
How about art? What does making art provide to you that other pursuits don’t?
I can't say what I would be provided by other pursuits. Art is all I've ever thought about doing.
What do you hope your readers get from the Murders series? How about your work, generally?
All I've ever wanted was to give people a little amusement. Beyond that, I'm happy with whatever they can get from my work.
What’s next in the series?
I'm currently working on the story of the murder of the architect Stanford White at the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden in 1906. It's not an unsolved case—the murderer was the husband of one of White's former mistresses—but it's a great soap opera. It should be out sometime next year, and after that I'm hoping to do a fictional murder mystery.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Outside of the Murder series, I continue to do shorter stories for various anthologies, as well as postcards and illustration commissions for several clients. I'll be at my usual table at the San Diego Comic-Con this summer.