GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: The Saga of the Bloody Benders
It’s been twenty years since Geary’s original A Treasury of Victorian Murder was published – and who would have thought, then, that a slim book of arch graphic short stories about little-known murders in Victorian England would be the beginning of the comics Geary would spend most of the decades to come creating? The first of the smaller-format, single-case volumes, Jack the Ripper, followed in 1995, with a new book every other year through 2005’s The Murder of Abraham Lincoln. Then 2006 saw The Case of Madeleine Smith, and this year yet another new Geary murder case.
Except for the first volume, each “Treasury of Victorian Murder” is a small book – about 5½ “ x 8¼” with roughly eighty pages of comics – about a particular, somewhat famous murder case from 19th century England or the USA. He’s covered the deaths of two Presidents – Lincoln and Garfield – and the cases "H.H. Holmes," Lizzie Borden, and Jack the Ripper. The remaining two books – about Mary Rogers and Madeleine Smith – are about famous sensational cases, crimes of passion.
The Bender “family” – there’s some doubt as to whether they were actually related, as they claimed to be – of Labette County, Kansas are not quite as famous as most of those cases (though I hadn’t heard of Madeleine Smith before, either). But they were certainly actively murderous and impressively mysterious, so their story gives Geary quite a bit to dig into. The Benders arrived in that raw, rural area of Kansas in 1870, very soon after the Civil War and not much longer after Kansas became a state in 1861. They set up a single-room (divided by a hanging canvas) inn and grocery on the major trail through the area, and settled into the community – considered eccentric, certainly, but basically accepted.
But then suspicious disappearances started adding up, and some clearly murdered bodies are found – by early 1873, the Benders are finally the focus of their neighbors’ suspicions…and so they leave, quietly and mysteriously, with a small fortune from the travelers they killed and robbed.
Those are the bones of the story Geary tells, but his lively art – particularly the very expressive faces of his characters – and his amazingly useful diagrams and maps makes his work unique and compelling. Geary has a very detailed art style, and apparently has done a lot of research: his 19th century is full of perfectly realized objects, backgrounds, and people. His figures have real body language, and their faces are very differentiated and real. There is sometimes a stiffness to those 19th century bodies and faces in Geary’s stories, as if they’re sitting perfectly still and composed for a daguerreotype, but he uses that style sparingly, usually when introducing characters, and lets them move more freely the rest of the time.
A Treasury of Victorian Murder, in its growing entirety, is a tribute to what one lone artist – working on his own, and on what he wants to, with little concern for the market – can accomplish. Who would have thought that one of the best comics series of the past two decades would be historical, non-fiction murder mysteries by a man from San Diego? It just shows that the long-underwear folks have had their stranglehold on the form for too long, and it’s long-past time for them to step aside and let stories of wider appeal take over. With any luck, Rick Geary will be in the forefront of that change.
The Saga of the Bloody Benders: A Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 9
NBM Publishing/ComicsLit, 2007, $15.95