Rick Geary authored his first true-crime comic over thirty years ago, and began his long-running A Treasury of Victorian Murder series in the late 1980s. Two years ago, he tweaked the name of his umbrella of graphic novels, beginning A Treasury of XXth Century Murder with a moving recounting of The Lindberg Child.
Geary has two more history-based books out this year. Just released is the latest Treasury book, Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor, from NBM. Film director Taylor’s 1922 murder is the first shocking unsolved murder in Hollywood’s long history of sordid crimes, and Geary explores Taylor’s shocking pre-Hollywood life and examines all the players who touched on Taylor’s untimely demise.
He’s also made time during his career for biographical volumes, and in late September, Hill & Wang issues Geary’s latest in that vein, Trotsky: A Graphic Biography. Examining Trotsky’s political awakening, his complicated friendship and rivalry with Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin), and Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution, Geary’s book is a concise and powerful overview of one of the twentieth century’s most influential people.
We talked to him about both projects.
“My first graphic novel in this vein, A Treasury of Victorian Murder, came out in 1987, but I had been contributing shorter pieces to various anthology comics for about ten years before that. In a broader sense, my interest in true crime cases goes back to the early 70s, when I worked for a weekly paper in Wichita, Kansas,” Geary explained of the origin of his true crime comics.
With the recent change from Victorian Murder to XXth Century Murder, Geary’s opened up whole new tableaus to explore. “I realized after nine volumes that I'd said pretty much all I wanted to say about murder in the Victorian era,” he said. “It was time, I felt, to enter a new century, one with no end of fascinating and historically significant mysteries.
“I've long had an interest in early Hollywood in general and the Taylor case in particular, since it was the film community's first unsolved murder,” Geary offered when talking about the origin of Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor. “In fact, back in the late 70s I started on a book-length graphic story about the case that I thought I would publish myself. All that's left of that project are a few penciled pages, and I suppose it's fortunate I never completed it since so much new information has come out since.”
The unsolved Taylor case lacks a solid suspect. A lover’s mother, a former butler who knows of Taylor’s secret past, a current butler, and a mysterious traveler are all suggested as possible murderers, but none were ever brought up on any charges. “My favorite cases have always been the unsolved ones,” Geary admitted, “and in presenting them I try to follow all the different avenues of investigation and lay out all the different theories, no matter how crackpot. If I have a theory of my own, I take pains not to push it. The open-ended nature of the Taylor case is not particularly surprising, given the lax police methods of the time, the studio interference, and the fact that the crime scene was irredeemably compromised.”
And Geary does touch on every viable theory, except one. In 1964, a woman named Margaret Gibson confessed to the crime. The confession has never been corroborated, and Gibson was on her deathbed, so there wasn’t a chance to ask any more questions of her at the time. In the end, it may be no more or less crackpot than any other possibility, but Geary explained, “None of the sources I consulted for my Taylor book mention Margaret Gibson or her ‘confession,’ and I'm embarrassed to admit that I only found about her after the project was completed. Reading over it, she sounds a bit delusional, but you're right, she would have deserved a mention.
“Now that I'm on a book-a-year track with these volumes, I spend about five or six months in reading and research before starting to write a script,” Geary said of his research. “That leaves me little time to consult primary sources, let alone do any original research. I tend to concentrate on accounts by historians and journalists who write at some distance from the events. Since most of the cases I tackle were highly sensational at the time, it's probably a good idea to look askance at most contemporary newspaper stories, though they do give a colorful picture of the journalism of the time. I must also add that my research continues through the pencil stage and through the final inking. I found on a recent project that, upon finding new information, I had to redraw several pages.”
As Geary moves into the 20th century, the physical likenesses and geographic truths of the crimes he investigates have become an easier part of his research. “My primary goal in these accounts is accuracy and clarity, and to this end I seek out as much visual reference as possible for the people and locations involved. In the past, if I haven't been able to find a picture of a major character, I've simply made a leap of imagination and created one (such as in the Mystery of Mary Rogers in which no likenesses survive),” he said. “But as you say, that is becoming less necessary as I move into more recent times.
“I find that stories of famous murders and true crime in general bring out the drama of human nature in a sharply-etched way. Plus I love a good mystery,” he added, summing up why he keeps coming back to the true crime well.
Geary’s other book, as mentioned above, is a soon-to-be-published comic book biography of the Russian revolutionary, Trotsky: A Graphic Biography.
Says Geary, “The Trotsky book came about from discussions with my editor at Hill & Wang, Thomas LaBien, who is slowly assembling a series of graphic biographies and histories for readers of all ages.”
Tackling a historical figure who instills so many strong feelings in readers comes with many thorns, including filtering out personal biases to capture something close to the facts of a life. Geary did an admirable job focusing on the events and their repercussions, both positive and negative, that shaped Trotsky’s life and in turn shaped the 20th century political structure.
“In this book, like in my earlier biography of J Edgar Hoover, I've tried to steer a middle course and just set forth the information in a non-committal way,” Geary explained. “Unlike with Hoover, I started the project with no real preconceptions about Leon Trotsky, so the process was a learning one for me, as I hope it will be for the reader.”
While many writers might find well-trod ground such as the like of Leon Trotsky intimidating, Geary says he felt no such trepidation. “I feel that Trotsky has remained a stubbornly vague and abstract figure to most people. As a writer and theorist, his life was of the mind. My goal was to find and delineate his human qualities, and to this end, his autobiography was a great revelation.”
After Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor and Trotsky A Graphic Biography, Geary let readers know, “I'm currently working on an account of The Axe-Man of New Orleans, a mysterious killer who dispatched six people and injured six more during 1918 and 1919. Never caught or identified.”
More information about Rick Geary and his projects can be found at www.rickgeary.com
A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: Famous Players: The Mysterious Death of William Desmond Taylor is currently available from NBM, and Trotsky A Graphic Biography ships to stores everywhere in October from Hill & Wang.