Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Library Treasures

In which I update a bit on where I've been and then talk about Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder, The Borden Tragedy, The Fatal Bullet and The Beast of Chicago. And I've tried to upload images, and Blogger says it's done but nothing appears so you're out of luck to see the covers here. I suggest looking through NBM's website and here and here for Geary's stuff.

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Well I think the hiatus is over although I’ve managed to get a sinus cold in the middle of a heatwave. It’s mid to high thirties all the time which is the low hundreds for you non-metric people. Anyway, it’s disgustingly humid out and I love central air.

In between going to Bluesfest and discovering a wide array of new music and seeing some old favourites (Wilco was amazing live by the way, if you get a chance you should definitely go) I managed to discover the Ottawa Public Library and their Graphic Novel collection. Since this city got amalgamated all the regional libraries are connected and you can request books from any of the cities libraries, they get sent to your branch and you can drop them off at any location you like. And you can do most of this stuff online as well as keeping your own list of books you’re planning to borrow. But enough of that.

I picked up a few of the books in Rick Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder series. I believe I heard about them a while back as they seemed familiar or James Sime mentioned them on the Isotope website or something.

Needless to say I was captivated by these books. It was a nice break from the capes, cowls, and cleavage of the superhero books I gravitate towards in my spending habits. In a lot of ways it was a nice escape from the routine I’ve created for myself.

The presentation of the Treasury is one of the first things I noticed and was drawn to. The format is smaller than the regular sized comic book page and similar to the proportions of the Bone: One Volume Edition. And this format along with how the story is presented is all reminiscent of grade school history books, or books that presented “true” history to younger readers. In a lot of ways it tricks you into learning something, even if it’s not pure history and sort of trivial or sensational history. As I read them I made sure to remember these titles in case someone ever mentioned to me that they had a son who wasn’t interested in reading. These are great books for boys as they’re not fictional and they’ve got dark content. For some reason a lot of boys tend to be drawn towards the blood and guts type of stories at a certain age if they’re reading anything at all. Stephen King sells gangbusters for a reason.

The black and white artwork manages to invoke a sense of history into the presentation. There is a focus on line work and crosshatching (although I don’t think it’s actually crosshatching but a lot of lines in one direction that is used to the same effect as crosshatching is – please let me know if this process has a name) with simple faces focusing on the spirit and look of the people involved. These are representations of the people involved but without the exaggeration of caricature. You won’t mistake Geary’s style for photo-realism but his characters look like their real life counterparts.

This drawing technique is echoed through the documentary-like style of the presentation. There are a lot of moments presented that are essentially photos with disembodied narration. And throughout each book there are a lot of over the shoulder shots as if the audience is following the players around and recording the action. This helps focus the audience’s attention on the era and the surroundings of the players as much as on the player’s and his or her actions. This expanded focus is one of the strengths of these collections.

As much as these books follow a specific plot with specific characters such as Lizzie Border, President Garfield and his assassin or H. H. Holmes, the books also present asides on what is happening around the characters. There are cross-sections of prototype air-conditioners used to keep James Garfield comfortable during a summer heat-wave after he was shot. There are blueprint style drawings of the Borden house or H. H. Holmes’ Castle. This taps into the feeling of learning something about the time and not just reading a murder mystery.

Each story isn’t presented in precisely the same manner. For instance, The Fatal Bullet takes a parallel approach to structuring the plot. It follows the lives of James Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau. There are a lot of striking parallels to be made and it’s fascinating to see how one man went on to great success, sometimes despite himself, and the other fell into a solitary mess of madness and insanity. The Border Tragedy is presented as if it’s told to you by a nosey neighbour, and while it sometimes forgets that style it does work most of the time. It’s a great way to capture the sense of a small town murder that has become legend. The Beast of Chicago presents the story of H. H. Holmes as if it were a newsreel. It follows his career and his twisted opportunism connected to the throngs of people coming to Chicago’s World Fair. I read this before going to bed and was really really creeped out by the story. It’s one thing to read and watch the X-Men fight giant spiked pinballs in Arcade’s Muderworld, it’s another to see the blueprints to The Castle guesthouse built by H. H. Holmes to murder and mutilate countless victims. I never knew such a place existed outside of fiction and the mere fact that it does is shocking enough to disturb me.

Honestly, forget about zombies and horror books for a little while and track down The Beast of Chicago if you want real scares that won’t be easily forgotten.

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