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History's straight shooter. (Photo: NBM Publishing)
Stripped of Sentiment: An Interview With Rick Geary

[by Scott Thill]

Rick Geary is a storyteller's artist, one who lets the dirty laundry of the past do his sensational job for him. As a result, his entries for NBM Publishing's series of historical murder mysteries are devoid entirely of sentiment and solipsism. Delivered in bedeviled details, comics like The Murder of Abraham Lincoln as well as his recently released Saga of the Bloody Benders and J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography let their towering subjects fill up the page in dispassionate splendor and tragedy. And now with a book on the Lindbergh Baby coming up with a slew of others, he's ready to go back to the future in widescreen style.

Morphizm: What kind of comics did you grow up on, if any?
Rick Geary: As a kid I was never a huge comic fan or collector, but I greatly enjoyed the work of Carl Barks, though I didn't know it at the time, especially those epic Uncle Scrooge stories. At age twelve, I discovered MAD magazine, and all those artists were a great influence.  

Morphizm: Was Gorey an early influence, or a later discovery?
RG: I didn't come across Gorey until years later, when I saw his work in the form of his bizarre mini-books.  These gave me the inspiration to produce my own little cartoon books, which got me into the National Lampoon in 1979.  I contributed regularly to their Funny Pages through the final issue in 1992.  At about that time, I began to submit stories to Heavy Metal, which was then the Lampoon's sister publication, occupying the same offices in NYC.

Morphizm: Where did you develop your interest in lit, and did it go hand-in-hand with comics, or was it a separate development?
RG: I've always had an interest in literature both classic and contemporary, which was independent of my interest and work in comics. Both these worlds came together in my adaptations for Classics illustrated. In fact, I'm sure the process of adapting classic novels into the comic medium sharpened my storytelling skills, which were never that strong to begin with.

Morphizm: Do you think the tension between lit and comics, which were often supposed to be separate entities in practice and vaule, still exists? It seems like lit is increasingly written with comic or screen adaptations in mind these days.
RG: I've always felt that comics and movies are closely related, in that to produce them one has to solve the same formal problems of visual composition, narrative flow and spatial relationships. This is why comics, in recent years, have become a natural source of material for the movies. This has been the case with fiction for a number of years, written, as you say, with eventual movie adaptation in mind. I haven't noticed that many novels are adapted to comics, but I remember the days when movies (made from novels) and TV shows had their comic book versions. I'm not sure if that's done much anymore.
Morphizm: How would you describe your drawing style, if you go for such things?
RG: I can't really describe my drawing style (I leave that to others) other than to say that I strive for a certain feel or texture to the line that I rarely achieve.

Morphizm: How about your narrative style? The dispassionate reportage of the Abraham Lincoln and Victorian Treasury works really drive home the violence and tragedy of those histories.
You're right. I feel that with true crime stories, the material is sensational enough on its own without my adding another layer of gruesomeness. I affect a detached narrative voice and back away from the graphic depiction of violence not because I'm squeamish -- I don't mind it in other people's work -- but because I enjoy creating a tension between form and content.

Morphizm: How far does the Victorian Treasury project extend, and are you looking into other literary or historical adaptations?
RG: Actually, with The Saga of the Bloody Benders, I'm bringing to a close the Victorian series and moving into A Treasury of 20th Century Murder. The first entry in the series is The Lindbergh Child, due out next summer.  I'm also working on a follow-up to the J. Edgar Hoover biography, this time on Leon Trotsky.  After that, I'm always interested in new historical or biographical subjects, though nothing is set as yet.  

Morphizm: And are you still interested working with superheroes?
RG: I've never had a particular interest in them. I fell into the Spiderman children's books pretty much by chance, but I'd certainly be open to any new offer that came my way.

Morphizm: Finally, Hoover. Tell us something we might not know about the guy.
RG: Hoover was just as scary as you think. He'd fit perfectly in the Bush administration. In my biography, though, I endeavored to be evenhanded and non-judgmental, and I did find out some surprising things about him. One is that the infamous cross-dressing episode probably didn't happen. It was a story told by a single unreliable witness, long after the fact, who had a definite axe to grind against Hoover. Another is that, during the Nixon years, he was an unexpectedly moderating influence. He backed away from the eavesdropping and dirty tricks that the Bureau overdid during the Johnson years. This is one of the reasons why Nixon and his cronies wanted Hoover out.

February 13, 2008

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