Very few things titillate us like a good serial killer story. Those who kill irrationally have become our new movie monster, as the horror of a Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula has waned in our imagination over the decades. We see vampires and werewolves as teenage celebrities more often than not in today’s media, but serial killers. . . the spectacle of that is still moderately gruesome. Sure, we’ve begun to pick it apart with things like Dexter and Hannibal, primetime television that humanizes the psychology of mass murder to such a degree it can seem at times less than fascinating. That said, show me a photo of John Wayne Gacy as Pogo the Clown and I still get the shivers. Real life terrors still run circles around imaginary creatures.
Having spent a fair amount of time in graduate school researching serial killers, of both true crime and fiction, I’ve come to notice a particular rhythm to their tales that takes effect, as well as that of the heroes who pursue them. It is most often in the investigator, not the investigated, that we can actually know the depths of depravity to which these modern day monsters sink — for you can’t actually experience it in the killers themselves, so overwhelming is their psychosis. Pure sociopathy is a vacuum, and like the horror film tagline says, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” But the terror and frustration experienced by the obsessed cop or unhinged profiler is palpable and loud by comparison. And if their own psychosis is also on display? Well then, all the better.
In their 1998 mini-series Torso — published first by Image Comics and later collected by Marvel Comics — writers Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko unravel the events of Cleveland’s real life serial murder from the mid-1930s. Depicting the investigation into twelve unsolved murders, all involving victims whose heads and other body parts were removed, this true crime story begins, appropriately, with the arrival of new Public Safety Director Eliot Ness. Having developed his reputation as the leader of the Untouchables, a band of police who attempted for years to put Al Capone behind bars in Chicago, Ness is no stoic hero standing against an unknowable evil. His own insecurities and blind spots provide ample mirror for the unseen horror behind an increasingly bloody canvas of his new hometown.
Ness is clearly a man experiencing the dark side of fame, as his inability to finish the job he set out to do in Chicago still haunts him upon arrival in Cleveland. The Torso Killer, as he soon discovers, is his second chance at the brass ring — and one he can’t afford to leave untidy as he did with Capone. Jumping into the investigation already in progress by detectives Simon and Myrlo, Eliot Ness is not exactly a dynamic figure, but his own insecurity and failures drive much of the action moving forward. Torn away once again from experiencing normalcy with his too long patient wife, Ness’ own ego drives him to burn down the shanty homes of an entire community in poverty, keep communication with the serial killer a secret, and ultimately lose the battle once again against a criminal too many steps ahead of him. If the killer’s psyche can be imagined as an emptiness of sorts, then his pursuer’s decisions are a jumble of fragments — actions that, like clues which nag, repeat and magnify, remain scattered and doomed to incompletion.
Bendis is at once partnered with Andreyko on narration and solely illustrating the series, a rare exhibition of his significant artistic prowess of which we haven’t seen much in recent years. Combining dark inks with photo collage and repetition of panels, Bendis develops the look of the title to mirror a climbing psychosis, even in the quietest of moments. From panels that rotate like stairways in darkness to newspaper headlines superimposed on the spaces between panels, the intense layering effect the writer/artist employs perfectly captures the frustration and overwhelming nature of the investigation. The same clues stare back at Ness and his team, taunting them more severely with each new body that surfaces. And as politics conspire to confound the policemen all the more, pages of repeating images echo and shatter any sort of clarity the detectives could achieve. It’s only in the explosion of one seemingly careless detail that a lead on the killer develops, and the formerly dark landscape opens up to dramatic white.
Tonal shifts and compulsion aside, the magnificence of this story comes frequently in the form of creative layout, as Bendis truly harmonizes his sense of pacing and patter — core competencies for nearly every of his narrations for over twenty-five years — with the page itself. Every texture one might expect from a film noir classic is absorbed onto and spread across the two-dimensional surface. Titled camera angles and deeply drawn shadows cast every motivation into question, and create a harrowing atmosphere through high contrast rendering. What could come off as overly simple instead represents the icy façade of our killer, a gap between his intense darkness and the unblemished page he means to sully so completely. If Ness’s motivations are foggy and grey, certainly the Torso Killer’s are crystal clear, a division between good and evil as sharply severed as the head from one’s body, and in as few strokes as possible.
Worth noting is a strong subplot between detectives Simon and Myrlo, where the former confides in his partner, after much brooding, the reality of his own homosexuality, and defends (himself) against the presumptions his fellow officer makes about the criminality of perversion and vice versa. Simon stands out as a deeply honest portrayal of a good man living his truth long before social acceptability of one’s gayness could make its way to him. While the character isn’t necessarily portrayed as out and proud — something that would be a clear anachronism for 1930s Midwestern culture — Simon has a clear sense of his own identity, and Myrlo’s acceptance amid doubts is a wonderfully touching moment in an otherwise chaotic series of developments.
In standard true crime fashion, the events of Torso remain a cold case, never truly resolved in the case files, much less the minds of Ness’s constituents. The reader, however, is left with a deeply satisfying tale of how darkness comes to the unsuspecting, and mania is not the exclusive property of the criminally insane. It’s right that the killer never faces justice, in a sense, as the protagonists’ own flaws defy resolution as well. We do get to look into the face of evil by the story’s end, but all we’re left with is a central, captivating dilemma. What remains most disturbing — the monster’s ultimate success or the hero’s inevitable failure? This is the stuff of modern horror.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He is an art director for several non-profit organizations, senior editor for Comicosity.com, and still manages to find the time on dark nights and weekends to fight the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.