As a comic reader, I am used to the books I read featuring wild action-packed frames with voluptuous lycra-clad women and fierce brute men fighting to save humanity from intergalactic threat. So, I started reading Rick Geary’s latest true life crime graphic novel with a little trepidation, as it features neither of these.
What it does feature is an incredibly detailed, almost CSI-like account of the events in America’ most colourful city from May 1918 to October 1919,when the titular Axe-man stalked the streets searching out victims.
The book starts with a potted history of New Orleans, city of mystery, detailing its birth and influence on culture focussing on Mardi Gras, Creole and, of course, jazz and the blues. With an amazing flair and visual style, Geary lures you into this fascinating city at its inception, but always with a sense of impending doom, almost a Grand Guignol-esque creeping dread, as the first killing abruptly appears in the second chapter.
The killer chose his victims from the immigrant community that thrived at New Orleans’ birth. His methods were bizarre, using the victims’ own hatchets against them and gaining access to the house through a small panel removed from the front door. In an almost X-Files-ian trick, the panel was usually far too small for an average man to fit through.
No money or valuables were taken and the murder weapon and entry tool were always left on the scene, showing that the killer had little regard for the law leaving such important evidence at hand. In fact, each killing looked to be totally unplanned, as many of the victims were hacked several times or even survived his frenzy (if only for a short term in one instance), suggesting a lack of regard for his own wellbeing.
The book is not just adept at telling the story, but at setting the scene and atmosphere at the time of the killings too. Whole chapters show how the community went from a comfortable easygoing neighbourhood to a place of fear and paranoia. Friends viewed each other with suspicion. Strange notes scrawled in chalk suggested who the next victim will be.
It also details the process the police used to try to identify this serial killer, who always seemed at least one step ahead of them. The fact that the murderer was never found or identified, much like the Ripper crimes before it, makes the story all the more chilling.
The book goes through the suspects and the victims, whilst always staying unbiased and with no tabloid fascination over the killings themselves.
In fact, the book frequently asks the reader questions without providing answers, suggesting the reader is intelligent enough to have their own opinion, a refreshingly adult approach.
As I mentioned before, the style of the comic is phenomenal, its artwork clear and crisp with amazing use of each frame almost looking like they were drawn from photo evidence. The black and white artwork makes the images more powerful.
There are no gloriously gory full page spreads of innocent shopkeepers with heads cleaved in. Instead there are chilling shots of the poor family member who discovered them, or shadowed faces drenched in blood of the few survivors staggering out to get assistance. Whilst still very striking, they are all the more frightening for what they don’t show you, as always the mind conjures up far more vivid images than screen (or in this case, paper) can.
Geary has worked for some of the comic world’s biggest names (MAD Magazine, Dark Horse Comics, DC and even The House of Mouse), so its unsurprising that his work is as polished and professional as it is.
What is surprising is how the book draws you into this history of crime, urging you to read on, to find out what the next stage was, what twist or turn may show up to throw the police (and the reader) off the scent. The tale grips you from start to finish. If only all police reports were done this way!
The author has visited the places he has shown to ensure the most vivid and authentic vision of this city drips from every page. Some have criticised him, as using each lurid tale (for this book is one of many true crimes he has documented, including the shooting of Abraham Lincoln) as an excuse to be paid by the publisher to take a holiday. Whilst this may be true, he clearly has researched the area whilst being there and has created an evocative eerie atmosphere rather than a trashy travelogue with extra blood.
Whilst it is a little known crime in the UK, the story of the terrible axe-man of New Orleans is certainly a page turner. The book itself is lavishly presented in hardback, which gives it an even more adult look.
Whilst reading it, I imagined there being many British crimes that could be covered in the same format. The Ripper crimes have been well documented in all media, but stories like Dr Crippen could easily be dealt with in this way. I’m not sure how many people would read it, but if it was done in the same assured and professional manner as Geary’s work, I am sure it would sell to the true life crime and comic book-reading public alike.