I’ve been on a bit of a crime spree lately—in the library. It all started with my friend Krista Gehring’s new graphic textbook series, CrimComics. Each issue offers insights into specific aspects of criminology and criminal justice, including history, theory, biographical and case studies, and contemporary issues in crime & punishment, all told through the medium of graphic narrative. Gehring herself is a Criminal Justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown who specializes in women offenders, criminological theory, gender-responsive policies & practices, and risk/needs assessment. She also happens to be a great fan of crime and horror comics, films, and popular culture. Thinking that this might be a great way to combine her passions while also doing some creative teaching with students who had trouble grasping theoretical concepts in criminology, Gehring got together with an old friend from grad school, Michael R. Batista, who also happens to be a freelance artist, and began working on a graphic textbook concept in early 2010.
Having an artistic collaborator who also has a master’s degree in criminal justice made it much easier to develop a shared vision of the text. They produced a few pages of what would become the first issue of their series, CrimComics: Origins of Criminology, and began shopping it around later that year. They approached one large academic publisher who expressed strong interest—but after nearly two years without any movement on the project, they decided to look elsewhere. By chance, Oxford University Press made a visit to their campus in 2012, and Gehring decided to make a pitch. The rest, as they say, is history.
The comic itself is drawn in a blocky black-and-white style that’s reminiscent of classic noir detective comics like Dick Tracy or The Spirit, with plenty of shadows and dark corners to evoke the historic (and, as they point out, moral) terrors of the criminal “underworld”. But while visually plunging us into this dark world, the thoughtful scholarly narrative serves to shine a light of reason and modern theoretical understanding into those gothic corners.
If it were all just scholarly text imposed on comic book images, though, it wouldn’t really depart much from a standard textbook. What makes CrimComics more interesting and entertaining is how it takes us back to specific moments in history (like, say, the Salem Witch Trials) and offers dramatic scenes or re-enactments to illustrate its theoretical points, or uses famous figures in criminology as characters who tell their own stories, often through conversations with other recognizable figures (sometimes the creators’ own friends!). For example, the first issue tells the story of “the Two Cesares”—Beccaria and Lombroso—who established the competing Classic and Positivist Schools of criminology, respectively. The development of these different ways of viewing criminal behavior are shown to be a direct reflection of the lives, influences, and goals of these theorists.
At the end of each issue is a list of important terms, discussion questions, and suggested readings for students. This, of course, is the experienced teacher and pedagogue in Gehring that ultimately wants to bring the fun back into focus around the very real and serious issues addressed in the comic. Subsequent issues have looked at “Biology and Criminality,” “Classical and Neoclassical Criminology,” “Social Disorganization Theory”, and “Anomie and Strain Theories,” while a sixth issue on “Subcultural Theories” is coming soon.
After learning a bit about criminology, I figured it was time to test my new knowledge on some “true crime” graphic novels, two of which I recently came across in the library. The first was Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case’s Green River Killer: A True Detective Story (Dark Horse, 2011). This is a unique and harrowing account of the hunt for the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, and his subsequent arrest and confession, told through the eyes of one of the detectives, Tom Jensen, who pursued the killer for over 30 years.
Even more interesting is that the writer is Jensen’s son, Jeff, who had unrestricted access to his father’s memories, notes, and reflections, as well as those of others who worked on the case over the years, including Ridgeway’s own lawyer. Unlike most serial killer stories, this one doesn’t focus on the killings themselves–although they are recounted in chilling fashion–but rather on the psychological and emotional toll it takes on all the people affected by these killings, including the families, the public, and those, like Jensen, who devoted the better part of their professional lives to finding and capturing the killer.
What this graphic novel reveals is the intimacy of this kind of investigation, which, in a perverse and uncomfortable way, reflects the intimacy of the crime. The way the author parallels the lives and emotional states—the doubts, fears, longings, rage, and even love for their families–of Jensen and Ridgeway is enough to make you feel both sympathetic and sickened by how mundane and every day the act of murder was for a man like Ridgeway. It makes us wonder if Jensen’s obsession with catching this particular killer has as much to do with his need to understand what separates two men who, to all appearances, aren’t all that different from one another. The author never makes this question explicit (probably out of respect for his still-living father), but it is implied in the way the words and image often juxtapose the two men, and in Tom Jensen’s own admitted turmoil during his interviews with Gary Ridgeway. It’s not clear that he ever finds answers to all his questions, but the story gives us hope that he at least found some closure and resolution in his own life.
I also finally got around to reading Derf Backderf’s quirky and disturbing My Friend Dahmer (2012), and watched the film by Marc Meyers (2017) over the same weekend. Both take advantage of the unique perspective of the author, an actual friend of Dahmer’s from high school, who offers a portrait of the class “spazz” that isn’t all that different from the kinds of stories most of us have about our high school days, whether we were among the “weird” kids or the “normal”/popular ones. Dahmer, while certainly awkward and timid, a subject of some ridicule, but also some grudging affection, isn’t even among the more disturbing members of his class—unless you know what is to come, which, of course, we do.
Shifting between the author’s teenage perspective, an admittedly immature and thoughtless one at times, and his adult awareness of who his classmate is to become, the graphic novel provides a kind of grotesquely comical vision of a Midwestern high school in the 1970s, complete with absent parents, drug & alcohol abuse, teenage delinquency, and all the usual awkward horrors of adolescence. But beneath that layer of relative “normalcy” is the gradual dissolution of one young man’s family, emotional & social life, and ultimately, his sanity (or perhaps, his humanity). Backderf offers some speculation, and extensive research, to support his own understanding of the origins of Dahmer’s dark obsessions, but he stops short of trying to offer a “diagnosis” and instead lets the story as he remembers it speak for itself.
While the graphic novel retains a certain emotional distance from the subject of Dahmer himself—we learn as much about the author’s psyche as we do about Dahmer’s—the film takes a more intimate view of Dahmer’s own experience. It is both less funny and more sympathetic, perhaps because real actors bring a depth and humanity to the characterizations of Dahmer, his family, and his relationships that aren’t available on the page. But I think the film also wants us to have a deeper sense of the tragedy and horror that Dahmer finally comes to represent as he emerges from troubled teenager into the killer that we all know—for that, we can’t just see him as a sick joke. It’s definitely worth reading the novel and the film together, though, as a way to understand that, as Alice Sebold puts it in The Lovely Bones (2002),“horror on earth is real and it is every day.”
In Part II of this posting, I’ll take a look at a few fictional crime comics that might also be worth a read.
All of these titles are currently available at the Willis Library. Check them out!
Backderf, Derf (2012). My Friend Dahmer. New York: Abrams ComicArts.
Gehring, Krista and Batista, Michael R. (2017-) CrimComics. Oxford University Press.
Jensen, Jeff and Case, Jonathan (2011). Green River Killer: A True Detective Story. Dark Horse Comics.
Meyers, Marc (2017). My Friend Dahmer. FilmRise.
 Gehring, Krista. Correspondence with John Edward Martin. June 3, 2018.