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A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Saga of the Bloody Benders
posted July 10, 2007
NBM (ComicsLit), hard cover, 80 pages, July 2007, $15.95
1561634980 (ISBN10), 9781561635989 (ISBN13)
The ninth volume in Geary's extended series of Victorian Murder comics, The Saga of the Bloody Benders
turns out to be a little gem of a book. Is it possible there are eight others this good? The story of a 19th Century family of serial killers
living in Dick and Perry territory
almost 100 years before Truman Capote made murderers from the prairie into American icons, Geary precisely and in matter-of-fact fashion walks us through the elements of their roadside inn trap, reminiscent of the perils facing Theseus in Greek myth, while at the same time telling the story of their arrival and eventual discovery. It's an meticulously intertwined narrative much more difficult to pull off than the veteran cartoonist makes it look. The story stays with you. Something about the way Geary delineates the proportions of the living area gives the recurring crimes a horrifying intimacy, and when the nature of what's going on is revealed as the narrative progresses the thoroughness with which the Benders cleave to murder and atrocity astonishes.
I think what makes this book more effective than the usual solid Geary offering are those elements of dramatic flair that aren't totally central to the narrative. For one thing, Geary's skill with white space is put to excellent use in depicting the American Midwest, the way the awesomeness of the sky presses into the ground and crushes everything around it. It's an inspiring background against which to set such furtive, all-too-human wickedness. Geary employs a number of insets that look like the ovals in which we often see Victorian-era photographs, at times blending such flourishes into maps or diagrams. It's a fun comic that way; there's a playfulness to its presentation that's refreshing on a lot of levels. If there's anything that feels lacking in the work, it's that it doesn't feel ambitious. It has the urgency of a ninth volume in a continuing series, if that makes any sense. That, and a laconic storytelling style that makes the story seem shorter than it is may cause the book to hit with some readers as inflated, a talk that the author gives while briskly walking down a country road while you ride a bike alongside as opposed to something where he makes you sit down and pay attention to every word. Still, I don't think it's right to dismiss this kind of casual skill working to such a pleasing effect. This is an engaging comic, by an under-appreciated craftsman, and at the very least worth a pick-up-and-look.