Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Floppies for Trades 1: Torso

So I recently did that thing that aging funnybook dorks sometimes do, where I traded in a big chunk of my comics collection and replaced the good stuff with trades. It’s a great deal for the discriminating fan-man (even at pennies-on-the-dollar trade-in value). You rid yourself of a few hundred pounds of unsightly storage boxes filled with staple-bound pamphlets you may never look at again, and replace them with an attractive bookshelf filled with square-bound volumes you can discuss with your snooty literary friends.

Or, you know, at least you can find an old funnybook you wanna re-read without having to move a mountain to get to it…

Anyway. All joking aside (which would be a first for me, I realize), I’m really, honestly, extremely happy that I did this. A lot of things drove me to do it. The allergy I’ve developed to decaying newsprint, for instance (five minutes with a comic from the 80s or before, and it’s like somebody’s driven a steel spike through my temple). But the biggest reason, I think, is that I’ve always been more of a reader than a collector. I take little joy in simply owning something, and the older I get, the more I feel the burden of material possessions. Especially material possessions that fill a closet and threaten to blow out and take over an entire room. So this deal has been like a weight coming off my shoulders, even with all the new trade and hardcover collections coming in the door. And sure, I’m gonna need a new bookshelf soon. But that’s easier to deal with than the 17 boxes of funnybooks I carted off last weekend. SO much easier.

Now, before I give you the wrong idea, I do still have some reg’lar ol’ funnybooks. Ten or twelve boxes of them, in fact. Some stuff, I feel, just needs to be owned in comics form. Hellboy, for instance, or sometihng like Mark Millar’s Wolverine run, are so filled with pulpy funnybook goodness that a trade collection just feels like a betrayal. I also held onto some books with sentimental value like my childhood Micronauts comics. I couldn’t quite bear to part with my surprisingly-large Hellblazer collection, either, or that handful of gorgeous High-Society-era Cerebus issues I‘ve got, which are pleasing to me as objects d’art in spite of the fact that I‘ve got them all in phone book collections. And of course there’s also a bunch of weird-ass Kirby stuff that‘s never been collected (“Dingbats of Danger Street,” anyone?).

But my collection of hysterically-bad 70s Justice Leagues? Gone. Invisibles? Got it in trade. Tomb of Dracula? Fun, but headache-inducing, and so… outta here. Two full boxes of Batman? The entire Bendis Avengers run? Top Ten? Master of Kung Fu? Gone, gone, gone, and gone. And I’m all the happier for it.

I’m only replacing the books that I think have re-read value, too. And let me tell you, making those decisions really showed me how many comics I was only holding onto because I had them. Like the James Robinson Starman run, for instance. Sure, that’s some good super hero funnybooks, and I‘m glad I read it. But ultimately? Looking at the series as a whole? It went on a little too long, and the ending has kind of soured me on the earlier issues. I’ll never read that book again. So why was I keeping it?

On the other hand, some books begged for me to pick up the trade. And getting those books is providing me with a great excuse to re-read a bunch of really fantastic funnybooks. Which brings me back to the blog, here, and all the fodder I suddenly have for it. As I make my way through my new square-bound funnybooks, I’ll discuss them in-depth, reviewing and analyzing as well as discussing the book’s place in comics history, and justifying (to myself as well as to you) why they deserve a permanent place on my bookshelf. And since there’s no time like the present to begin…

Torso
by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko

Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1998. Brian Bendis isn’t the mega-successful Marvel writing dynamo who updated Spider-Man for the 21st Century and turned the Avengers into the industry’s top-selling franchise. He’s a dude that does crime comics at Image. His books Goldfish and Jinx are making a lot of noise in the industry, at least among people who read more than spandex books. Powers hasn’t even started yet.

And, oh yeah. He draws, too.

That’s right. In 1998, Brian Bendis is known as much as an artist as he is a writer. He’s got a sort of “cartoon photo-realist” style, with very realistic figures rendered as cartoons through heavy use of chiaroscuro (that's stark blacks and whites in less high-falutin' talk). He also has a penchant for the purposeful repetition of images, which drove me insane when I first read his work, but which I actually appreciate now. It’s interesting stuff to look at, especially in light of the influence his page design has had on his artistic collaborators. I can especially see Bendis’ influence over Mike Oeming, his Powers artist. Oeming doesn’t use the image repetition so much anymore, but some of his more experimental panel layout can be seen in fetal form in this book. Speaking of which…

Torso is a true-crime novel, the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of the Cleveland Torso Killer. The first American serial killer (or rather, the first to create the media frenzy we associate with them today), the Torso Killer was active between 1934-38. He got his name from his penchant for leaving only the torso of his victims behind. Nice guy. Nice guy that was never officially apprehended. Not to ruin the ending or anything, but you know… History.

Ness came to Cleveland as “Safety Director,” and was tasked with cleaning up the city’s corrupt police department, modernizing its fire department, and generally making things, well… safer. Which he did, along with taking down some well-connected mobsters. This was after his “Untouchables” heyday, but he got off to a good start in Cleveland. Then the Torso killings started. Panic set in, the killer was smart, police technology hadn’t yet caught up to this type of crime, and Ness was sunk.

This is the real-world situation Bendis and Andreyko weave their fiction around, and they do a fine job of it. They take some artistic license, inventing a couple of characters and events, and altering others for dramatic effect, but otherwise this is a tight, and (near as I can tell) well-researched fictionalized account. It can be read as an exciting police procedural, but (as is usual with Bendis’ more personal work), there’s more going on than what’s on the surface. Their Eliot Ness is particularly interesting to me. He is unquestionably a good man, and a man dedicated to doing good work. But he’s also a clever publicity hound. He doesn’t involve himself in the Torso case directly until one of the killings upstages his bust of a local mobster in the morning papers. And then, he tells the detectives in charge of the investigation that he’ll be the public face of the case, talking to the press so they can continue their work without interference. His reputation is such that the star-struck detectives never even question his motives. But holy crap. He set himself up to take all the public credit.

Which, I suppose, may only be fair, considering that he was the one taking all the public blame for the unsolved case. And he certainly paid the price for his public involvement: the killer started sending him threatening post cards. This really happened, by the way, and didn’t let up until Ness’ death in 1957, almost 20 years later. Which is insane, and (according to some historians) may very well have contributed to Ness‘ later problems with alcoholism.

At any rate. There’s some other interesting stuff going on here, too. The Torso Killer preyed upon the population of Cleveland’s massive shantytown, a hobo jungle filled with working men, prostitutes, and entire families left homeless by the Depression. The indigent nature of the victims made the case a low priority til it made the papers, and made the bodies even harder to identify than the killer had already done by removing their heads and hands. That gives Bendis and Andreyko some built-in social commentary to make, and it’s to their credit that they let it mostly speak for itself. It adds a whiff of hypocrisy to Ness’ campaign to clean up the city, especially when, [SPOILER] desperate to be seen doing SOMEthing about the case, Ness gives the order to clean out the shantytown and burn it to the ground.[/SPOILER]

Bendis and Andreyko play around more obviously with 1930s Cleveland social issues through the case’s lead detective, Walter Merylo. The real Merylo was a notorious queer-baiter, a cop who would follow gay men around until they engaged in homosexual acts (which were illegal in Cleveland at the time), then arrest them. This doesn’t come up in the comic, but it was obviously on Bendis and Andreyko’s minds when writing, because [SPOILER] they partner Merylo up with the fictional Detective Sam Simon, who’s a closet homosexual. Because his preferred lifestyle is illegal, Simon frequents some of same bars as many of the victims, and even knew a couple of them. This builds up to a confrontation between the two men where Simon confesses and Merylo… freaks out a little, but handles the news a lot better than the real guy probably would have.[/SPOILER] Regardless, it’s a nice little subplot that points out (without neon arrows) how close the various social strata really are sometimes.

(Two interesting asides about Merylo: 1. He never gave up investigating the Torso Killer. And 2. I thought Bendis was playing silly buggers by drawing himself as Merylo. Then I saw a real picture of the guy, and… No, he just looked an awful lot like Bendis.)

Eventually, Our Heroes settle on a lead suspect, and the resulting interrogation is the narrative and artistic high point of the book. As I mentioned earlier, Bendis started playing around with page and panel layout in Torso, delivering some stunning two-page spreads with a bold amount of black space hanging over the artwork like a shroud. This book is so black, so heavily-shadowed, that the darkness almost becomes a character unto itself. Bendis also does something that I only realized when I looked back over the book just now: every time Eliot Ness faces some kind of personal attack, Bendis turns the page sideways. It happens first when the mayor calls Ness on the carpet about the Torso investigation and explains how the political world of Cleveland really works. It happens again when Ness’ wife leaves him (which, yes, really did happen in the midst of the Torso case). And it happens a third and final time in the book’s action climax, a completely fictional sequence in which Ness, Merylo, and Simon hunt the killer in a darkened barn. Interesting.

But about that interrogation. It’s done in Bendis’ trademark two-page spreads, the second of which is a particularly inventive layout where word balloons draw the eye around the page over a central image that I only belatedly realized was the heavily-shadowed face of the killer. But the money spread is the third, where the panels spiral in on themselves and terminate in a dark well as Ness realizes that he’s got the killer, but doesn’t have enough evidence to convict him. It’s a chilling sequence, broken up by more conventional page layouts and the ultimate intrusion of “the way the world really works” on the investigation.

[SPOILER] And just in case the history sounds fascinating to you but not the book, I’ll spoil the ending now. In reality, Ness’ prime suspect was a disgraced doctor named Francis Sweeney. Sweeney’s family had a history of violent schizophrenia and alcoholism, and it was well-known that Sweeney had already succumbed to the latter of those two conditions. Ness had Sweeney brought in for questioning under the then-new polygraph test, and Sweeney failed. Repeatedly. But the polygraph wasn’t admissible in court in 1938, and there wasn’t enough physical evidence to convict Sweeney of anything. In addition, Francis Sweeney was the first cousin of Congressman Martin L. Sweeney, a flamboyant local politician who was a very public rival of Ness. No one knows exactly what happened after the interrogation, but it’s believed that Congressman Sweeney’s influence kept his cousin out of jail, and his name out of the papers. What we do know is that Francis Sweeney committed himself to a psychiatric hospital a couple of days later, and the torso murders stopped. Which is, you know… suggestive, to say the least.

Ness declared the case closed (though it never officially was), and in his later writings he referred to the suspect that got away with a code name apparently used so as not to invite a lawsuit from the Sweeney family: Gaylord Sundheim. Which cracks me up, both because it sounds like a pulp villain, and because it seems like a particularly inelegant insult. Anyway. “Gaylord Sundheim” is the name Bendis uses for the killer, even though the political connections are a major plot point, and the congressman’s real name is used throughout the story. That struck me funny too, but I like that they stuck to Ness’ name for the killer. [/SPOILER]

Impressed as I am with the book, I should also add that it’s not perfect. Bendis is still learning his craft here, and there are places where the seams show a bit. Sometimes his dialogue runs away from him and right out of the 30s idiom he’s shooting for. His spelling is atrocious, too, and the book really needs a copy editor to whip it into shape. Also, the action climax is a little silly, and not just because the scene is completely fabricated. I won’t go into what’s specifically wrong with it, but it feels like a fake Hollywood climax, and Bendis is usually better than that.

But it’s an important work nonetheless, very much the place where Bendis’ visual sense matured and started reaching out to influence others. It’s also a work with (dare I say it) literary merit. If you just wanna read it as a stylish piece of true-crime writing, you can. But it’s got layers you can peel back like an onion if you’re so inclined. In fact, as I write this, I think I’m starting to make connections between the book’s various themes that will take another re-read to fully confirm (the social themes, for instance, tie rather well into the stuff about Ness’ ambitions, which cause his downfall as much as anything else, and… Hmm…). All of which makes this the sort of book I enjoy the most, and one that deserves a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Grade: A

(And by "permanent place," by the way, I'm evidently speaking figuratively: my copy of the book fell apart in my hands while I was reading it. I understand that this is a common problem with the black and white Bendis trades, and I'm kind of dreading cracking open my copies of Goldfish and Jinx now...

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