Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two Takes On Murder & Suffering: Famous Players & Arlene's Heart

Rob takes a look at two very different looks at murder and violence: FAMOUS PLAYERS, by Rick Geary; and ARLENE'S HEART, by Victoria Frances. Both books are from NBM.

Rick Geary has long been comics' go-to man for grisly historical events, with his series of books on famous and mysterious deaths from NBM. After many books on 19th century deaths, he's only recently started to dip into the 20th century, and FAMOUS PLAYERS doesn't really solve a mystery as it does tear away a facade. It's about the death of Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor and the hysteria that resulted after his murder was discovered. In a very matter-of-fact manner, Geary first lays out a brief history of Los Angeles, how the film industry came to dominate it (much to the consternation of the locals) in the 1920s, and how Taylor figured into it. Our tabloid and gossip obsessed culture certainly didn't arise out of a vacuum, and Geary draws a pretty straight line between the murder of Taylor (along with the trial of comedian Fatty Arbuckle) as the events that gave rise to the overwhelming popularity of scandal sheets as well as a repressive film code that stunted film for nearly fifty years.

Geary's storytelling is both methodical and leisurely. He wants to make the reader understand the era, one that he clearly has some affection for. It's obvious that he spent a lot of time with photo reference of the era, given the loving reproductions of not only the principals of the event, but chapter-leading illustrations of other famous stars of the era. Of course, scratch the surface, as this murder did, and one can find all sorts of hypocrisy. This wound up being an unsolved murder, but Geary carefully takes us through all of the known (and substantiated) evidence in a methodical manner. He first recreates the discovery of Taylor's body by his cook/valet (and his subsequent hysterical reaction), the arrival of the police, a weird pronouncement by a "doctor" who subsequently vanished, and curious onlookers & neighbors who disturbed the forensic evidence. Throughout the book, Geary uses intense hatching to add texture and weight to his otherwise thin line. It also gives a certain power to his caricatures, bringing his comics a certain nervous energy that brings his characters to life. Lastly, it draws the reader's eye around the page, given his spare use of spotting blacks.

After stepping the reader through the craziness of the body's discovery, Geary then takes a step back and tries to recreate the night of the murder, based on witness testimony. Geary scrupulously tries to stick the facts as they were known and debunks gossip and outright scandal sheet fabrication that tried to fan the flames of sensationalism. Of course, there was no need for sensationalism, given that truth was far stranger than fiction. Details of Taylor's life eventually emerged, creating a portrait of a man who changed his name and left his old life behind (one hat included a wife and daughter) after he came to terms with the true nature of his sexuality. This would be a trend in Hollywood that continues to this day: the unfortunate closeting of sexuality to deflect press scrutiny and preserve public image.

That digging revealed a long list of potential suspects with all sorts of motives: jilted starlets, drug-dependent actresses, psychotic mothers, studio heads, past and current servants, former soldiers under his command and a host of others. Geary patiently noted how each of them were debunked or dismissed as potential suspects, given alibis and shaky motives. The fact that the case was unsolved, combined with the multiple trials for Arbuckle, drew a lot of national vitriol from various public morality groups for Hollywood. This led to the shackling Hays code, which restricted film content for decades. As an aside, it was an interesting coincidence that comic books rose to become such a cultural force within a decade of the code's enforcement, especially since they were rife with precisely the sort of images the code banned. This book doesn't really have an ending per se; instead, it posits the murder of Taylor as the first chapter of a bizarre series of tragedies and scandals--some coincidential, others self-inflicted--that the land of make-believe and fantasy continues to generate. It's telling that in the book's final image, Geary reveals that Taylor is interred in the Hollywood Forever cemetary under his real name--the illusion stripped away in the face of mortality.

If Geary's book plumbs the source of mystery and misery, Spanish painter Victoria Frances seeks to wallow in the pain of human misery so as to give it a name and exorcise it. In ARLENE'S HEART, Frances touches on nearly every kind of pain experienced by the downtrodden of the world as a sort of dark fantasy world that is experienced as a cleansing gauntlet by her doll heroine. Painting in the Japanese "dollfie" style, we are introduced to Arlene, a homeless girl who makes dolls and whose fondest wish is to become a doll herself. After she dies of cancer (which included a scarring mastectomy), she gets her wish and becomes a doll who starts travelling unseen through a world that has some magical qualities (like a woman reborn as a butterfly) but is mostly horrific. We are introduced to oppressed gay and transgendered people, abused women, women oppressed by religion, children with cancer, abused animals, junkies, homeless old women (who doubled as witches), people suffering the effects of war and landmines, and children suffering from poisoned environments. The doll empathizes with each of them as she searches for her heart, and she finally finds it in the city, a discovery that gave comfort to all.

This book (and it's illustrated prose, not a comic in any sense) is enormously heart-felt, earnest and well-meaning. Frances has great skill as a fantasy/gothic painter. Unfortunately, the book is as subtle as a sledgehammer, with Frances feeling that she needed to spell out her fairy-tale symbols that fairly screamed out their meaning on the page. It didn't help that she also tacked on an epilogue that further explicated the meanings behind her images. The other problem with the book is that her airbrushed and photorealist style has a cold, distancing feel. As a reader, I felt no empathy with the parade of woe that Frances relentlessly described on page after page. The book's climax, where Arlene befriended a seal only to see it clubbed to death by hunters, felt more like a Johnny Ryan joke than a definitive condemnation of cruelty visited upon the innocent. Frances was ambitious in trying to create a personal work that dealt with political issues, but she overreached from the book's start and wound up with a pretty-looking mess that bordered on kitsch.

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