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Stagger Lee may have been a bad man, but he’s also in a damn good comic

Sure, Cronin, Burgas, and even the less prolific than me Pol Rua have all reviewed this book, but I think enough time has passed now that my chiming in less redundant (despite the fact that, you know, I just linked you to three other reviews of the damn thing). That, and after I got the book (which its creators, Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, were kind enough to sign), I was in the middle of an internship that went from boring to excruciating hell in like a week, so it went in a pile of stuff and I didn’t fish it out and finally get down to reading it until August or so. 

With the preamble out of the way, you can find out if this book goes four for four in impressing our crack staff of reviewers, or if I turn out to be like the one dentist who doesn’t like Trident Gum. (As an aside, how weird is it that this was one of the top searches I found when I went looking for the previous link?) 

Well, someone else (maybe Bill, or Greg, or Tadhg) will have to be that dentist, because I liked this book a lot. At first, I thought Ed Brubaker’s quote on the back cover (which did indeed spoil the best damn part of the whole book; thanks, Greil Marcus!) would pretty much cover everything I’d have to say about this story. He calls it “Part essay, part fiction”. That stupid, spoiler dropping douche Marcus also gets in a pretty good line about how it’s similar to a Law and Order episode before being a spoiler dropping douche. 

All of that’s true. But it doesn’t really do the book justice. The historical interludes that make up a good half of the book are basically lectures on the evolution of the Stagger Lee myth(something I feel like a total culturetard for never having heard of before reading this book, despite the fact that everyone from Woody Guthrie to Tina Turner to Cronin’s beloved Bob Dylan has done a version of it), but they’re done in the style of the best lecturers; they’re leavened with a good helping of humor and analysis, and are brief enough that they don’t overstay their welcome. Much like Cronin, they were my favorite part of the book, although I liked the fictionalized segments quite a bit as well. 

The fictionalized part of the story jumps around a lot, both chronologically and with various subplots, but it’s not as hard to keep track of everything that’s going on as you might think. Shepherd juggles it all very well, and Hendrix’s art also helps to shift changes in time and place (it also helps that they’re labeled, too, although not in an intrusive”time, place, and date” way, or with clumsy transitions like “Why, I remember back when I was a boy…” So I was even impressed by that. 

McCulloch, who was an unknown quantity to me before this book, provides an impressive script, and Hendrix matches him with smooth pencils that balance the panel-to-panel storytelling demands of the fictionalized segments and the lectures, which are more like illustrated prose. I was already impressed by his work on the Shangri La Graphic Novel he did with Mark Bryant, which was also published by Image (but oddly not mentioned in the back cover biographical blurb about him, which calls this book his return to comics from animation), but this is head and shoulders above the solid work he did there. You can see that he’s spent some time in the animation field, as his line work has the same kind of smooth, fluid quality as other animators-turned-cartoonists like Darwyn Cooke and Bruce Timm exhibit, although his work is neither as dynamic nor Kirby influenced as theirs; at least not here, which isn’t a problem, since that’s not what the story calls for, although a Kirby-esque Stagger Lee would be pretty awesome, now that I think of it. Hendrix’s work isn’t flashy, but it’s not meant to be, and I think it shows a level skill simply beyond getting the job done, so I’d say it deserves more than my usual “solid storytelling” platitude. His use of facial expression and body language is expressive without being caricature or “too cartoonish”, but it mostly eschews the “tracing a picture” version of photorealism. 

In the end, this book reminds me a lot of From Hell, which is no bad thing. It’s not as exhaustive in its page count or subject matter, although it’s certainly got similar diligence in research (as McCulloch details at the end of the book). Again, it doesn’t have the volume of pages or source material that Moore and Campbell’s magnum opus did, but I think it’s in similar company with that masterpiece (although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s anywhere near as good, if for no other reason than that I think From Hell’s probably the best graphic novel ever, or at least of its kind). Think of it as a slimmer, American version of that book, an entertaining and engrossing piece of historical fiction about a myth and the society that spawned it and you won’t be far off. It’s definitely worth a look if you want to read something a little different than your usual comic book fair (unless there’s a lot of historical fiction about American folksongs in comic form out there and I just don’t know about it). You’ll be entertained, and hell, you might just learn something, too, and it’s hard to pass up that combo, isn’t it? You can pick it up via a link to Amazon at McCulloch’s page for the book, and hopefully that will give them a cut of your purchase, if you are so inclined. 

 

2 Comments

I have been confused ever since I learned about this comic: the Riverfront Times (St. Louis’ free weekly) published a comic version of the Stagger Lee story by Timothy Lane. Are these different comics?

Check out the the RFT Stag Lee story here:
http://www.riverfronttimes.com/2007-06-27/news/the-story-of-stagger-lee/full

Yup, they’re different. The one you mention is a 12-page chapbook by Timothy Lane reprinting his comic strip version from The Riverfront Times. The one reviewed in this column is a 200+ page graphic novel by me and Shepherd Hendrix, published by Image Comics. I’m fairly certain ours came out before Lane’s version started running in the RFT, but it’s not a contest. You can find another comics version of Stagger Lee in Shpilkes, by Frederick Noland (which predates our version, but again, not a competition). And a post about one in progress by David Lasky here: http://dlasky.livejournal.com/85621.html. Maybe we’ll eventually have as many versions of Stagger Lee in comics as there are in song. I’d like to see that.

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