July 2005

Elizabeth Kiem

nonfiction

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln by Rick Geary

True-crime graphic novelist Rick Geary has been hard at work on perfecting his muttonchop whiskers and sinister stares for a series titled A Treasury of Victorian Murder. The latest treasure is a shadowy 600-cell account of how Honest Abe went down. My, but the smoldering hatred of John Wilkes Booth looks good in thick black lines! Gadzooks, what a frightful hysteric that Mary Todd surely was with her accusatory piggy eyes! Geary may have had to tame a real-life sunny disposition and the occasional urge to introduce goofy bucktooth urchins to the plot (a knee-jerk reaction some MAD Magazine cartoonists never get over), but he has done a fine job in turning out these villainous portraits. With virtually every character (even the admittedly scant good guys) in The Murder of Abraham Lincoln a supremely shifty-looking bastard, history gets the Mystery treatment. Except Diana Rigg is missing. And we all know who did it.

But there is a twist to the plot – a little known nuance that is mostly untaught in 10th-grade history classes and is the crux of Geary’s treatment. More than a Presidential assassination, the events at Ford’s Theatre on April 14 represented the endplay in a wider conspiracy to bring down the government. A decisive moment in the original plot to abduct the president and ransom him with the release of Confederate prisoners comes when the conspirators, seven in all, are gathered in a room at Gauthier’s Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, and, writes Geary, angry words ensue. Those words are the book's best dialogue: “If you intimate anything more than the capture of Mr. Lincoln,” says Confederate courier John Surratt, “I, for one, will bid you goodbye.” To which Booth, blacker than black from eyebrows to suit coat, responds, “Gentlemen, I apologize. I fear I am the worse for the champagne.”

Geary’s play-by-play follows the action as it lurks through the Capitol, flees across the Anacostia, hunkers down in the thickets of Maryland and eventually, once the bad guys are all dead, travels the nation on the back of a funeral train. The narrative is quick and a little quirky, and bows before the illustrations for the honor of heightening the drama. Geary, as mentioned, has a light side and years of experience as a children’s illustrator. The covers of some of the other books in the series hint at this -- Jack the Ripper’s knife appears, for all the world, to drip strawberry jam. In the background behind serial killer Henry Holmes, the macabre boarding house resembles a tuba, maybe a French horn. But with the help of the footlights of Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln’s final moments are just exactly creepy enough. The ominous specter of Booth in the theater box is fabulous, as is the gothic suggestion of evil in the puritanical visage of Confederate safe house owner Mary Surratt (we are introduced to her unpleasant face just twice; the third time she hangs swaddled in an executioner's mask). We also must thank Geary for at least one image that has probably never been seen before -- that of Secretary of State William Seward in a neck brace, helpless and horrified by a madman’s plunging knife.

That April 14 saw coordinated attacks in Washington, D.C., that security was inexcusably absent even for its day, that Lincoln had a prescient dream of his death just one night before he was killed -- these are golden opportunities for Geary’s black-and-white world of cold blood. Seward in a neck brace and conspirators hatching plots over champagne are the finishing touches of an artist.

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln by Rick Geary
ComicsLit
ISBN: 1561634263
80 pages