THE GREEN RIVER KILLER: True Crime From a Very Personal POV

Jeff Jensen on THE GREEN RIVER KILLER

 

Comic books may best be known for their fantasy-based adventures starring super-powered men-in-tights forays into the supernatural, alien worlds and beyond, but the medium also allows for the diversity to tell stories in all genres with innumerable approaches. True crime stories, for instance, have long been a part of comics’ history, exemplified in the modern era in stories like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell to Brian Michael Bendis’ Torso. Entering that pantheon of stories is one of America’s most infamous modern serial killers, as told by the son of the chief investigator.

Coming out in hardcover on September 28th, Dark Horse’s The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story puts Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen on the case that changed his father, detective Tom Jensen, for the rest of his life. From an investigation that lasted twenty years and a 6 month-long interview with the killer after his capture, this book is as much about the killer as it is the man who brought him in. The younger Jensen is joined on this book by indie illustrator Jonathan Case, who also grew up in the Seattle area where these crimes and conviction took place.

Newsarama: This story is very close to you, Jeff - the lead detective was your father, Tom Jensen. But with that, what led you to revisit it as his son - and as a reporter and storyteller?

Jeff Jensen: I was motivated to do this book for many reasons, including the fact that I recognized my father's story was just pretty compelling on the face of it, and more, that it was a story worth sharing. His story subverts what you expect from the typical (usually fictional) serial killer story; it's a more realistic depiction of the detective's journey than the heroic 'brilliant, obsessed profiler who saves the day' archetype.

I also liked the themes embodied by my father's story. All of us are troubled by the "why?" of our screwed-up world. My father's story culminated with him sitting down with one of the most evil people you could possibly meet and asking him that question. And when he did ask Gary Ridgway that question, the answer he got caused him to weep. Or maybe just asking the question caused him to weep. What I wanted to do was tell a story all about that moment and what it meant to him and how we can relate to it. To do that, we tell a story that spans decades, tracing my father's evolution as a person and a detective.

Finally, my father never talked about this case at all when I was a kid. Everyone in my family knew my father was working on this pretty extraordinary and dark case, but we didn't know much about his experience of it because he didn't like to discuss it, perhaps because he wanted to shield us from it. When it was finally all over, I felt it was really important for our family to understand his journey, and for him to share that journey with us. This book was the means to accomplish that goal.

Nrama: And why’d you decide to do it as a graphic novel?

Jensen: I didn't want to make a typical true crime non-fiction book about a serial killer case and this case in particular. That's been done, and done very well, by others. Other people connected to this case -- including Sheriff Dave Reichert, Ridgway's attorney Mark Prothero, and even Ridgway's wife -- have written books about their experience, and they are compelling. The Search For The Green River Killer -- a book written awhile back by two Seattle area journalists, Thomas Guillen and Carlton Smith -- remains the definitive historical chronicle of the case. Anne Rule was very invested in this case and wrote an insightful, emotional narrative, as well. I felt like I had to earn the right to add one more book to the pile of books that have been written about this case. I felt confident my father's story was worth and worthy of telling. And I loved the idea of doing it as a graphic novel because the medium meant something to both of us.

My parents read comics as a kid and read comics to me as a kid. (To be clear, my father officially gave up regular comic book reading at a proper age -- 16, 17, 18.) My parents seeded a love for comics that became somewhat troubling at times -- especially the time I got busted for shoplifting a bunch of comics when I was 10 or 11. (My father, the police officer, was not pleased by this one bit.) I have turned my back on crime, but not the passion; I still love comics. So doing this as a graphic novel felt fitting and personally meaningful.

Nrama: Working with you on this is artist Jonathan Case. Jonathan, what led you to get onboard for this unique non-fiction story?

Jonathan Case: Sierra Hahn approached me with the project early last year, just as I'd finished up work on my own book. So the timing was right. I was cautious at first, because of the subject matter, but they were very emphatic that it was Tom, the detective's story, as much or more than Gary Ridgway's, and the tone was set from there. There's tough material in the book right out of the gate, but the heart of the book is Jeff's dad. That's where I connected to the piece.

Nrama: Jeff, what was it like living as Tom Jensen's son as he investigated, and later interrogated, Ridgway?

Jensen: I'm 41, so I was in junior high and high school when the first victims were found and my father was recruited to the case. I left Seattle for college in 1988, a couple years before my father became the sole, lead detective on the case. As I said earlier, Dad didn't really talk about it. I could tell he didn't want to talk about it, so as a kid, I was a little nervous to ask him about it. As for the interrogations with Ridgway, I had no idea they were even happening. My father and his colleagues were ordered to keep the interrogation process a secret, even from their families. He told my mother -- he wasn't supposed to, but he did -- but he never told me or my brother, who actually lives in Seattle, until a couple days before the media finally figured it out a few months into the process and reported it.

Nrama: Jonathan, what’s it like working with someone that was so close to the story, and that you even drew into the book?

Case: Terrifying! No, it was a good experience working with Jeff, and very interesting to have that direct inlet to his dad's experience. I'd get a forwarded email from Tom with details or notes on our work. Family photos, tons of location and character reference. A lot of that legwork that you need to do when you're recounting something visually. Having that easily accessible was fantastic.

 

Also, Jeff was very open to my interpreting things and not obsessing about details. The scariest thing, as you mention, was drawing him into the book, but it was fine... If I butchered his likeness, he didn't complain about it! I keep waiting for that day to come where I'm at a convention and one of the Jensen tribe comes up and gives me a hard time. I'll just tell them Jeff approved it- my hands are clean.

Nrama: Although it’s the killer’s name in the title, Jonathan Case has said it’s more about how your father dealt with it all and how his life kind of built him up to do this unusual task. Can you tell us about your father in regards to that?

Jensen: The title of the book is meant to suggest the idea that this one case -- and this one monster -- shaped the context of my father's life. At least his professional life. But yes, the story focuses almost exclusively on my father's very personal story. It begins by showing you how he became a detective and why he became a detective. It uses a flashback storytelling device to toggle between the first five days of the Ridgway interviews and key moments in my father's life during the 20 years of history preceding the interviews. I wanted to show that who my father is, as a person, played a significant role in bringing Ridgway to justice and achieving closure for the victims' families and the city of Seattle.

Nrama: A lot of books come out about these sort of atrocious acts, but some can border on the sensationalist side. Covering entertainment as you do, how did that weigh on you as you committed to do the book?

Jensen: Absolutely yes. Figuring out how to depict the violence and lurid aspects of the case was one of our biggest creative struggles. There was lots of debate. We didn't want to exploit the victims. But we also didn't want to shrink away from Ridgway's evil. We realized the reader had to be impacted by this evil, just as my father and his colleagues were impacted by this evil. Just as Gary himself was impacted by own evil.

I think we -- and by "we" I mean Sierra Hahn, my editor, and Jonathan -- landed at the right place. In fact, let me really give credit to Jonathan here. He brought a lot of amazing things to this book, but one of them is this: A conscience. From the start, he had a lot of angst over the prospect of drawing some really hard stuff. Jonathan has a huge heart. His humanity was our compass in regards to this issue. I feel really good about our decisions. I hope the reader will agree.

Nrama: What perspective is this story told from?

Jensen: The book is organized into five chapters, not including a prologue and epilogue. It is all about my father, and there is no first person narration from me until the very end. The graphic novel is a dramatization of true life events, not presented as history or memoir. This is made clear from the get-go. But it was informed with research.

Nrama: Did you have access to your father's materials from the case, or just his verbal account? And who else did you talk to for this book?

Jensen: Prior to deciding to making the book, I had interviewed my father and several of his detective colleagues for the purpose of writing a magazine article about him. For various reasons, including the fact that I couldn't ever nail the storytelling voice and stay within a reasonable word count, the magazine article ended up not coming to pass. I drew from those interviews in fleshing out the reality of this story, the collective experience of dealing with Ridgway, and the character of my father. I also had access to transcripts of the detectives' interviews with Ridgway. I also researched books and articles written about the case. And I continued to interview my father and make use of his personal records as I wrote the book.

Nrama: Jonathan, since Jeff did extensive research to write this book; can you tell us about your own investigation to draw it accurately?

Case: The photo reference of family, co-workers and locations as provided by Jeff and Tom really helped. They sent along scanned pages from other books on the case as well, and a lot of behind-the-scenes shots of Gary, etc. When it came to other locational reference around Seattle, Google street view was my friend. I scouted out a few places virtually. I was also used to working in period reference, which proved helpful. My book, Dear Creature, takes place in the early 60s, as does a portion of Green River Killer, so some of that aesthetic was already worn into me. My favorite reference tool (other than the inter-webs) for things like that are the retro Sears catalogs. They have it all.

Nrama: Did you attempt to speak to Gary Ridgway of any of the victims' families for the book?

Jensen: I did not speak to the victims' families. At one point, early in my planning, I considered the idea, but that was when I thought that perhaps the book would be much bigger in scope -- not just a story about my father, but a portrait of the city of Seattle. But ultimately, I decided to focus on my father's story. As for Ridgway: When I was trying to write the magazine article, I did seek comment from Ridgway. I was allowed to present a few questions to him via his attorney, and I received some answers back from Ridgway via his attorney. However, I did not draw from that "interview" for this book and it is not presented in the book.

Nrama: Although people might call you a comics newcomer, you're not - you've popped up over the years writing X-Factor, Captain America, DC's Titans and even an indie book way back called Leaf. How would you describe your life and day job and how it intersects with comic books?

Jensen: Holy sh*t, you found Leaf? Wow. That takes me back.

I have had the good fortune to express my comic book passion by having had the opportunity to write a few of them. One of my dearest friends in the world is Phil Jimenez and we worked together on the ill-fated adventure that was Team Titans. It was a learning experience, to say the least.

I am really proud of X-Factor; it was a flawed work, and it suffered from being only four issues instead of five or six. Still, I could have solved that problem had I tried harder, so all the flaws are mine. Marvel was awesome, as was the artist, Arthur Ranson. I wish I could have told more stories with those characters!

I do love writing comics. My for the most part, my comics passion is expressed most fervently each Wednesday when I make a trip to the local comics store, hoping to discover something new and exciting. I've also had the opportunity to write about comics and comics-related media during my time at Entertainment Weekly, which has been fascinating and occasionally even fun [laughs].

Nrama: Earlier you said your father taught you to read with comics. How were comics treated in your house growing up, especially between you two?

Jensen: I think I addressed this earlier. To expand a little bit: My earliest memories of my father involve him reading comics to me -- especially Steve Englehart's Justice League and Batman comics. We parted ways in comic tastes during the eighties. I remember bringing home the first issue of The Dark Knight Returns and showing it to him. "This isn't the Batman I remember!" he said somewhat dismissively. From that point forward, I was definitely on my own in my comics passion, which is probably for the best: I don't think my complete set of Black Kiss comics would have gone over all that well with him, either [laughs].

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