by Whitney Grace
Real life murder mysteries are intriguing. Some murder mysteries have left their cold case files and been transformed into legend such as Jack the Ripper and the Lindberg Baby Kidnapping. I also enjoy reading the occasional book that delves into clues and speculations about the motive. Rick Geary is one of my favorite authors when it comes to reading murder mysteries, because not only does he transform them into comics, he also inserts hard facts into the panels. I knew Rick would be busy researching his next book in his Twentieth Century Murder series, so I tracked him down in a library archive. He was sorting through notes from the 1950s stored in an acid free box, when I approached him and asked him the following questions.
Whitney Grace (WG): For most interviews it is a prerequisite to ask people how they got into comics. So…how did you get started in comics?
Rick Geary (RG): I’m always somewhat embarrassed to tell people that, as a kid, I was never a big comic fan or collector. I wanted to be an artist of some sort, but a career in comics was very far from my mind. In 1977, just after I moved to San Diego, a friend asked me to contribute a story to the anthology comic Fear and Laughter. The 3-page story I did, “An Unsolved Murder,” was my first published effort in the comic medium. It was also my first true crime tale.
WG: When you first started writing in the 1970s, you contributed to some famous magazines National Lampoon and Heavy Metal, for example. For our younger readers, what type of comics did you draw during this point in your career?
RG: I started out in the funny pages section of National Lampoon, and what I did for them were single-page and half-page comic stories, which were not so much stories as quirky vignettes of ordinary life. Later on, for Heavy Metal, I did long stories of 8, 10 or 12 pages that had more of a sci-fi or fantasy bent.
WG: How do you develop your sense of humor to write these comics?
RG: I’ve always felt that a sense of humor is something that develops by itself, and all you can do is ride along with it.
WG: I’ve come to appreciate your work through NBM’s Victorian and Twentieth Century Murders series. How did you get attached to these projects?
RG: Back in the mid-eighties, I had done several short pieces for various anthology magazines that featured Victorian-era murders and other true crimes. Terry Nantier of NBM Publishing asked me to do an entire book made up of three murder cases. This was titled A Treasury of Victorian Murder and came out in 1987. It wasn’t till 1995 that I did the next volume, Jack the Ripper, and from then on I’ve done a new one about every year.
WG: What are each of these series about?
RG: These books are true and accurate accounts of famous murder cases of the 19th and 20th centuries.
WG: How do you decide what murders to write about and where do you locate the materials for your research?
RG :I always keep a list of cases I’d like to treat in the graphic story form. Because I’m a lover of mystery, I’m naturally drawn to the unsolved cases, or if not unsolved at least with lingering questions or controversy. There are also others that aren’t mysteries, but are just good stories. For my research, I try to read as much about a case as I can. I order books from Amazon mostly, plus I have my own extensive library. Some of the more famous murders have almost too much information out there; for others there has been relatively little written and I have to cobble together my story from short pieces in many different sources.
WG: When you write the books, how do you avoid inserting your own thoughts about a murder?
RG: For most cases I usually have my own theories or ideas, but I try not to promote them. My goal is to give all theories equal weight.
WG: Why did the Victorian series end? Did you run out of murders?
RG: I certainly didn’t run out of 19th century murders. I just felt that I had “done” the Victorian era and was eager to move on to fresh territory.
WG: Does the twentieth century have more “available murders”? Does the research get easier the closer to modern times you get?
RG: The twentieth century seems to have a huge selection of chronicled murder cases, and they most are fascinating for their social relevance and the bizarre characters involved. The research is easier in that more has been written about the more recent cases, and countless volumes about the more celebrated ones.
WG: Will you touch on any big murders such as JFK, Rasputin, Sam Shepherd. Bonnie and Clyde, and the Boston Strangler?
RG: Of those you mention, the Sam Shepherd case fascinates me most because of the questions about his guilt. High-profile crimes like JFK or OJ Simpson are so huge that they would burst the bounds of the modest books I do, although I would love to look more deeply into the Bobby Kennedy murder. I try to avoid professional criminals like Bonnie & Clyde and their ilk.
WG: Have you ever thought about doing a series of graphic novels on famous thefts?
RG: No, theft doesn’t interest me. Murder is the ultimate crime.
WG: From your work on these series, what have you learned abut the criminal mind?
RG: On one level, the criminal mind isn’t that different from the minds of most people, and on another level the perversions of such a mind are so deep that they can never be completely understood. In other words, another mystery.
WG: Why do you enjoy using pen and ink?
RG: In my illustration work, I always tend toward the simplest and least cumbersome of means. With pen and ink, I find I can get the most detailed effects with a minimum of technical complication.
WG: How do you feel your style captures the series’ gruesome, yet educational theme?
RG: I try for a relatively indirect, detached approach in depicting the most gruesome aspects of a crime. Those are best left to the imagination of the reader. As for educational aspect, I try for clarity and accuracy above all. One has to see what’s going on before coming to any understanding.
WG: Does any particular murder stand out to you the most?
RG: Of the murders I’ve covered in my books, my favorite is The Mystery of Mary Rogers. It was one of the first true murder cases I ever read about and I did shorter versions of it over the years before getting the chance to do a complete book. It takes place in New York City in 1841, great time and place, and is one of the city’s earliest and most celebrated unsolved murders.
WG: What other books do you have planned in the Twentieth Century Murder series?
RG: At the moment I’m taking a break from the true crime series and working on a fictional murder mystery. After that, I’m planning to tackle the Black Dahlia murder. Then who knows? Perhaps Leopold and Loeb. I would love someday to do the JonBenet Ramsey case.
WG: Lastly, I ask this to all of my interviewees, do you have anything to declare?
RG: Nothing to declare, but thanks for asking.