Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of the ‘serial killer’ motif is how completely it has entered the public consciousness. The concept of an insane, rogue killer has so totally permeated our society that it is standard fodder for fiction, non-fiction, drama, and even satire. What does it say about us as a society when we have become inured to the thought of such random violence and death? When it ceases to become shocking and is, instead, merely a plot device or an aspect of modern life? In some ways, we become as bad as the killers themselves when we accept their depravity and move onto the next story, reducing the victims to the same nameless, faceless packets of flesh that the killers themselves perceive them to be. This is a by-product of the behavior’s study where, once objectified, it ceases to become shocking and is just another psychological syndrome.
It hasn’t always been this way, however, despite the limited historical retention of the average American adult. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the concept of such random, meaningless violence had yet to take hold. This is not to say that such things didn’t happen; it is just that there was nothing like the modern fascination with such killings during those times. This is why the few examples of serial killers that occurred during the early part of the century have retained an aura of mystery and awe. “How could such things be?” our predecessors would say never realizing that modern man would one day be able to simply shake his head and move on. Names like Jack the Ripper, Peter Kurten, and Ed Gein continue to attract attention and study. Even such lesser known cases as the Cleveland Torso Murders have become fodder for revision and repackaging as entertainment.
Which brings us to the graphic novel Torso, written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Marc Andreyko. Probably the most remarkable aspect of this graphic novel is that it has taken this long to showcase this idea. After all, the Cleveland Torso Murders have everything needed to make blockbuster entertainment: gruesome murders, a determined hero, high-level corruption, insanity, and cover-ups. Like the Jack the Ripper case, the Cleveland Torso Murders have developed their own mythology, and that primarily is what this novel explores. The actual facts of the case are simple. After his success against Al Capone in Chicago, Eliot Ness became the Safety Director for the city of Cleveland and promised to clean up the town. Despite his reluctance, he was forced to become involved in the investigation of several particularly nasty murders. Unable to bring the case to a visible conclusion, Ness lost his political power and eventually a bid for Mayor. As a result, Ness retired from public life and died a few years later before television would make him a household name with The Untouchables. The case, however, would live on. Because it was unsolved, the case has spawned several interesting theories over the years involving everything from an insane murderer protected by high-level political power to another infamously unsolved case, The Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles.
Torso ranks with From Hell as one of the best graphic novel adaptations of a real-life murder case. It is interesting, intriguing, and inspired. Like Alan Moore and his Jack the Ripper opus, From Hell, Bendis takes information from several places, blends in various theories and themes, and comes out with something quite original. Ness is a good man embroiled in events beyond his control even as he is drawn into a case he has no desire to pursue. The powers behind Cleveland have their own agenda that does not include Ness’ interference, especially as he gets closer and closer to their protected positions. The murders themselves become secondary as they are only the catalyst to bring all these elements together. So the murderer, in all his insane glory, is unimportant, becoming more of a tool for each side. He is a club that the conspiracy uses to disgrace Ness while, should Ness solve the case, the killer becomes a press bonanza that would catapult Ness into the big-time political arena.
It is a case that cannot, must not, and will not be solved, providing the primary frustration behind the novel. The inability to affect change against impossible odds drives the bulk of the story. Evil exists in many forms and is not as easily recognizable as the standard ‘serial killer’ stereotype. Are the greedy politicians as evil as the murderer? What of the rich social family that protects the killer Are they evil because of the protection their wealth and power provides? Is evil merely the taking of life, or is it also the preventing of justice and moral rights? These are just a few of the themes running underneath the narrative of Torso, and, in the end of the story as in life, there is no clear-cut answer. Ness knows the killer but cannot publicly state it. Power is used selfishly and as a shield. At the last, the only certainty is that people died and that is the only thing anyone can agree on. The irony, of course, is that the victims themselves become forgotten and unimportant; they are the pawns of both good and evil, becoming nothing more than numbers on a score sheet. Perhaps that is the curse of ‘serial killers’ syndrome we become interested only in the ‘high score,’ ignoring the human cost behind each number. By the end, we are all Eliot Ness, beaten down by impossible odds and unwinnable fights, fading into the darkness that lies waiting all around us; it waits for us to lie down because there is nothing left to be done.