by Andy Wolverton
Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (Treasury of XXth Century Murder), by Rick Geary (NBM)
Despite the fact that he’s been writing and illustrating for over thirty years, I fear that Rick Geary may be comics’ best-kept secret. His true crime graphic novels — beginning with his “A Treasury of Victorian Murder” series and continuing with “A Treasury of XXth Century Murder” volumes — are unparalleled. His most recent work, Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White, shows that Geary can still make history fascinating while at the same time creeping us out.
Geary loves to focus on true crime stories that are either still unsolved or contain some controversial element that makes us reexamine what might have really happened. Such works include Jack the Ripper (1995), The Lindbergh Child (2008), and The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans (2010). This time, however, Geary gives us a story that leaves no doubt as to the murderer’s identity, yet the suspense and payoff deliver just as much impact.
The story begins in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York, a place where innovation and advancement are rapidly on the rise with the emergence of underground trains, the automobile, the motion picture camera, and other technologies. All of Geary’s work gives the reader very clear illustrations of where and when we are, depicting period clothing, hairstyles, architecture, and culture. It looks so authentic, it’s almost like watching a Ken Burns documentary.
As he makes the reader comfortable in this world, Geary introduces the three main players: Stanford White, a partner in a highly respected architectural firm; Evelyn Nesbit, a young lady who became famous as a model for painters and photographers; and Harry K. Thaw, a young New York millionaire. Both men express a more than passing interest in Nesbit, which we know is going to lead to some messy trouble. All of the characters and settings are well-researched. (Geary even provides a bibliography for further reading.)
Geary is the perfect artist for historical stories. His black-and-white art looks like it came from another century, having almost the quality and look of old woodcuts. Geary further achieves period authenticity by using close vertical and horizontal lines for shading and suggesting color. This technique is most noticeable in clothing and architecture, but you see it in other places, too. The simplicity of the vertical and horizontal lines also suggests a sense of normalcy and tranquility, so when you see lines start to slant or turn diagonally — as when Harry rages against Evelyn in a hotel room, or is otherwise moved to action — you know there’s action, even violence, coming soon.
Geary’s stories are often terrifying not for what they show, but for what they don’t. You always get the feeling that he’s just about ready to present you with something sordid or horrible when he brilliantly misdirects. Yes, the sordid and horrible things are there, but Geary builds tension by depicting everyday settings and giving us text boxes that suggest something else entirely. For example, one panel shows the outside of an apartment building in the tower of Madison Square Garden “where he [Stanford] threw lavish parties…” or a drawing of a seemingly innocuous building front, “a private studio…where he [Stanford] entertained his ‘conquests’…” We don’t always see what’s inside, but we can imagine.
Most of Geary’s graphic novels are narrated like documentaries, with the bulk of each story contained in text boxes. This technique allows the story to move very quickly, since each successive panel is usually taking us to one location or scene after another. Only occasionally does Geary use word balloons for exchanges between characters, most of which occur in courtroom scenes, which add a different element of tension that cannot be created in any other way. Geary’s balancing of these elements is impressive.
You really can’t go wrong with any of Rick Geary’s works. If you’ve never read one, Madison Square Tragedy is a great place to start. In an interview with The Comics Alternative podcast (Episode 37, May 15, 2013), Geary calls the Madison Square Tragedy a “great soap opera,” which it is. It’s also an outstanding, story you can’t put down.
It would be murder not to build your Rick Geary library: