Monday, April 14, 2008

J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography

J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
by Rick Geary
Hill and Wang, 2008.

HILLARY BROWN: Okay, so I'm fairly obsessed with Rick Geary as a writer/artist. He's best known, at least currently, for his "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series, of which I've read all but the Lincoln assassination one, so I was curious to see how his stuff would translate to a less macabre story. After all, the ToVM stuff features Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden and the Bloody Benders (a family in the American West that murdered passers-by in order to rob them), which means lots of knocking people on the head and gushing of fluids. The gruesome subject matter tends to be minimized to some extent, though, by Geary's art, which is exclusively black and white and looks more stylized and woodcut-like than realistic. It's strange and jumpy, but the way he lays out facts (clearly having done a tremendous amount of research, to the extent of creating elaborate maps and timetables, so that the reader knows just where and when each event in a chain took place) is both drily humorous and helps steadily lead one to the place Geary wants you to go without ever pointing directly. No one gets horribly murdered in his biography of Hoover (spoiler!), but the style is much the same on the whole, divided into short chapters that are both thematically and chronologically organized, drawing mostly on concrete evidence but mentioning the occasional juicy rumor. That is: was Hoover gay? He certainly never says so, but he does build a pile of evidence that could be used to reach that conclusion. The only major difference in this work as opposed to ToVM is that Geary doesn't get to do his lettering anywhere but in the chapter heads. Maybe he works faster without having to do it, but I'm a big fan of his fancy, wavery letters. But enough of an introduction. What did you think? I presume this was your first Geary?

GARRETT MARTIN: I'm familiar with Geary's work, but I'd never read any of his books before. I'm impressed by how detailed the art is, despite the relatively stark black and white design. The book remains visually interesting despite being a series of heavily cross-hatched drawings of white men and buildings. In that regard it's like a really long editorial cartoon, but one that's been worked on and pored over and not just dashed out on a cocktail napkin between Old Fashioneds. There doesn't seem to be a lot of people making non-fiction historical or biographical comics, despite the graphic novel's recent increase in respect and popularity. The fact that Geary can successfully create a straight-forward biography that is fact-based but not dry, remains unbiased despite a controversial subject, and entertains throughout despite a lack of traditional comic narrative is a testament to his skill.

So, having never read anything else by him, how does this compare to Geary's other books?

HILLARY BROWN: It compares pretty favorably. It's not as good as my absolute favorites of his, but, really, I haven't encountered any bad Geary so far. The weakest one I've read is the first Treasury of Victorian Murder, and that was mostly because he was still figuring things out and that book contains three shorter stories as opposed to one longer one. But he's managed to do new and interesting things with even fairly familiar stories. I would say that this biography is a little more direct than some of his other approaches (for example, in his book on the assassination of James Garfield, he draws parallels throughout between the lives of Garfield and his assassin), but it certainly doesn't suffer. I've been wondering what led Hill and Wang to recruit him for this story in particular. They've published a few of these contemporary history books done as graphic novels, but I can't figure out a trend as far as subjects or authors/artists. I did notice at least two references to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, which is the subject of his next book (he's apparently moving on to the 20th century), but other than that the only connection I can even think of is Hoover's own liking for comics, something David Hajdu covers a bit in The 10-Cent Plague:
"Comic books had carried accounts of realistic crimes, solved by people not wearing tights, years before Charles Biro went to work for Lev Gleason. One of the first, a feature based on FBI case histories, had been J. Edgar Hoover's idea. Hoover, who used the press to build a personal myth that he made the foundation of his empire within the federal government, subscribed to all five Washington newspapers, mainly for the comic strips, Hoover told writer Jack Alexander of The New Yorker. His favorite characters were Dick Tracy and Secret Agent X-9, because, as Alexander wrote, Hoover 'consider[ed] them highly important influences in creating a public distaste for crime and derive[d] a keen inward satisfaction from seeing their flinty-jawed heroes prevail over evil'." (Hajdu 61-62)
I wonder if there's any chance Geary got to pick his topic, or if Hoover was selected (by whoever) because of his connection to comics. He appears to be doing Trotsky next, according to this interview.

GARRETT MARTIN: Here's an article explaining Hill & Wang's Novel Graphics line, of which this volume is a part. They're pretty obviously angling for classroom use, and this book would be well-suited for that.

And man, Andy Helfer used to edit the awesome Giffen / DeMatteis Justice League comic. I hadn't noticed he edited this book, and almost this whole line of graphic novels. Apparently he picked the topic, according to this interview, where he also calls the Hoover book his favorite (I guess at one point he was scheduled to write the book, too). Hoover is a good subject for a series like this, because he's vitally important to his era, but generally gets glossed over in history class due to time constraints. I mean, shit, the kids gotta know every little thing about every single president, including the names of their dogs and how many times a day they shave; there's no time to talk about some random piddling bureaucrat, unless it's in the lesson about John Lennon and/or transgender issues.

It also makes great sense from a comics viewpoint, though, and not just because Hoover was personally a fan of the medium. The hard-fisted, straight-laced g-man has been a staple of comics and popular media for decades, and contrasting that fictional archetype with the real model had to be alluring to Geary (and probably Helfer, too).

HILLARY BROWN: Who conducted that second interview? "Is the Randy black?" Anyway, I'm glad you liked this, and I'd hope you'd give some of Geary's other stuff a try. He's not like anyone else making comics I can think of. I should also note that, if you like his work, you can email him from his website and he'll sell you a page for $80.

GARRETT MARTIN: That interview came from Newsarama, a site that's like a decade-long Rickroll, but without the catchy song. It's been scientifically proven to stagger even the stupidest of comics fans. Anyway, yes, I dug this book, and will probably jam some more Geary in the future.


Zig said...

As someone who doesn't know very much about comics/graphic novels, I have a dumb question for you: why isn't anyone commenting about this post? Is Geary not that popular among comic book geeks?

garrett said...

1. I don't think he is.
2. This book has a really low profile in the comics realm. My comic book store didn't even know it existed. And it's a good comic book store that orders almost everything, and not just superheroes. This book was marketed more to book stores and educational groups than devoted comics retailers, and thus there hasn't been much mention of it on the standard comic-related websites.

hillary said...

It don't have capes.

Danika said...

Thanks for writing this.