Review: ‘J. Edgar Hoover’ by Rick Geary
J. Edgar Hoover: A Graphic Biography
By Rick Geary
Hill & Wang/Serious Comics, 2008, $16.95
Rick Geary has spent the last decade quietly turning himself into America’s most prolific and accomplished historical cartoonist, primarily with his long sequence of “[[[A Treasury of Victorian Murder]]].” (If I were Larry Gonick, I’d be very careful crossing the street, knowing someone so accomplished, so talented, so close in the alphabet, and so well-versed in murder methods was out there.) But with [[[J. Edgar Hoover]]] Geary branches out slightly – he’s still within the world of crime and criminals, but he’s on the side of the “good guys” (more or less) and telling one life story instead of focusing on a particular crime.
Hoover was an exceptionally divisive figure throughout most of his life: loved by the law ‘n order crowd and loathed by those he spied on (which was nearly everyone to the left of Spiro Agnew). These days, though, I’d guess Hoover is mostly thought of as a quaint figure – the supposedly cross-dressing boogey man of someone else’s youth.
Geary takes an old-fashioned approach to biography, starting at the beginning and running straight through Hoover’s life to the end, and providing little in the way of his own commentary or opinions. (He does take a moment, now and then, to weigh in on controversies like the supposed cross-dressing, which he finds unlikely, and the possibility of Hoover’s homosexuality, which is possible but not supported by any specific plausible evidence.) The result is a straightforward run through the life of a man who didn’t do very much, but who did one thing – one very important and influential thing, running the federal police force – for a very long time. I imagine schoolkids for the next generation or two will find J. Edgar Hoover wonderful, as it gives them the basic facts they need for reports and points them to fuller sources if necessary.
And Hoover’s life is pretty simple to tell: he grew up in Washington, DC, the son of a civil servant father. He studied law at George Washington University in DC, and took a job at the Department of Justice at the age of twenty-two, after his father retired due to mental strain and depression. And Hoover worked at the same Department for the rest of his life, taking over as head of what was then the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, when he was twenty-nine. He kept that job until the day he died in 1972.
Geary’s style, with its many parallel horizontal and vertical lines for shading, can resemble woodcuts, which well suits this very traditional story. It’s a story full of dates, facts, and names, so Geary relies on a lot of captions, but he breaks them up well and keeps them from overwhelming the pictures. Geary’s great strength of making people’s faces interesting is very useful in J. Edgar Hoover, with pages after pages of people standing around, talking to each other, or posing for photo ops. I can’t think of any other cartoonist who could have done as good a job with this material.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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