Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Marc Andreyko
BW, 268 pgs
$24.95 US / Higher in Canada
The world has seen its fair share of serial killers, but nowhere on this planet have people been more fascinated with their homegrown killers than in America. Names like Ted Bundy, The Zodiac Killer, The Boston Strangler and The Son of Sam are as familiar to most Americans as the names of their favourite movie stars. Only in the good ole U.S. would the exploits of these ruthless butchers be chronicled in books and movies to great financial success.
I cannot deny there is a certain morbid appeal in learning what dark core can lie in the heart of a human being.
In From Hell, the venerable Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell delivered a history lesson laced with fiction. Inexhaustibly researched, and as thick as any school textbook, From Hell presented Jack the Ripper as a significant player in history. The Ripper was the world’s first serial killer (recorded anyway), and his arrival heralded the beginning of the 20th century, a harsh and cold future where humans would do onto each other a number of atrocities.
Torso is also a history lesson explaining another significant development in serial killer lore: The first serial killer in America.
A number of dismembered bodies washed up along the shores of Lake Erie in and around Cleveland in the 1930s. The headless torsos left little clue as to their identity, the cause or the reason for death.
During this same period of time, Cleveland was under the thumb of a corrupt police force and justice system. Fresh from his triumph over Al Capone, Eliot Ness assumed the role of Cleveland’s Safety Director. He vowed to clean up the city and wasted no time making good on his word. The media and the public quickly fell in love with this golden poster boy for a better future.
While Ness cracked down on dirty cops, a handful of dedicated detectives struggled to make sense of the grisly Torso murders. As more and more human torsos were discovered, the cops were no closer to an arrest. The public was gripped by fear, demanding answers and an arrest. Eliot Ness stepped in and vowed the killer would be found.
Like its predecessor, From Hell, Torso is well researched. The writers had access to hundreds of photos and articles pertaining to the case. This factual backbone is the strength of the story. Bendis and Andreyko focus on the police work, detailing the theories, failures, successes and the evidence uncovered in the investigation. The latter is given the most detail, and it is darkly fascinating. Actual photographs and newspaper clippings are used throughout the book, keeping the reader firmly grounded in the reality of these events.
A comic book filled with mere facts would be a dull history lesson indeed, so the writers fleshed out the story through the eyes of its principal investigators. The story offers an insightful look at the downfall of one of America’s most famed heroes. The Torso case marked an important change in the career of Eliot Ness. Ness threw himself wholeheartedly into the investigation, determined to find the killer. As years passed with no progress, the public’s faith in Ness began to falter. As the pressure for an arrest continued to rise, Ness would make a series of decisions that would cost him his marriage and his reputation.
Equally portrayed in Torso are Walter Myrlo and Sam Simon, the two prime detectives working the field. These two struggle to make sense of the methods and the motive behind the gruesome murders and Bendis and Andreyke show us the withering effect such an investigation can have on those who work the front line.
Bendis has painted Torso with a film noir brush. His palette is all shadows and light. From the very first panels, Bendis sets the atmosphere: cold, dark and foreboding. He aptly creates a sense of time and place, covering a span of years without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. Torso never loses its pace, a triumph of both the writing and the cinematic style of the art.
Anywhere from twelve to thirty victims have been attributed to the Torso killer. The case has never officially been solved. In order to wrap Torso with a dramatic finish, Bendis and Andreyko put on a fictional spin. It’s a chilling and satisfying conclusion, and it works because we’ve come to care for the principal characters. Torso may be an intriguing history lesson, but it’s the interpersonal relationships at its core that makes this one a winner. (Chad Boudreau)