[1 June 2010]
When the notorious serial killer Carl Panzram stood on the gallows in 1930, he’s reported to have told the hangman to hurry up: “I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.” That moment, along with the life of brutality that led to it, inspires one of the stories in Joe Coleman’s magnificent collection, Muzzlers, Guzzlers and Good Yeggs, published by Fantagraphics.
Not so much a comic as a book of illustrated stories, Coleman’s book adapts four autobiographies of people who led infamous lives of crime, and whose stories span much of the twentieth century: Jack Black (no, not that one), “Boxcar” Bertha Thompson, Panzram and Paul John Knowles.
Indian Larry’s Wild Ride
Accompanying each short, first-person account are Coleman’s mind-boggling drawings.: prose on the left page, art on the right, with occasional two-page spreads. Originally appearing in four issues of the magazine Blab!, the collection takes the form of a pocket-sized hardcover that recalls the classic Big Little Book series.
In form, content and effect, this is a hell of a book. Coleman‘s intricate line drawings capture phantasmagorical scenes of horror and pathos, mixing nightmares with satire and surreal portraiture. There a strange and powerful sense of vitality at play, and a feeling of obsession mixed with a furious sort of joy.
The first story adapts You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black, a book that another iconic outlaw, William S. Burroughs, cited as a powerful influence, especially on his early book, Junkie.
“Escapes, dungeons, floggings, hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts and beggars’ hangouts ... In my life I took all these things, and I’m going to write them down, and I am going to write about them as I took them—with a smile,” Black writes.
The second story is Boxcar Bertha, and it appears to be based on Sister of the Road, an “autobiography” of Bertha Thompson that was actually a work of fiction written by Ben Reitman, the lover of anarchist icon Emma Goldman.
Today, Bertha might be better known as the subject and title of Martin Scorcese’s 1972 film, which starred Barbara Hershey in the title role, and also featured David and papa John Carradine.
“I don’t remember when I didn’t know about wanderers, prostitutes, revolutionists,” Bertha/Reitman writes. “My first playhouse was a boxcar. Police and pinches, jails, bughouses and joints always seemed to be a part of my life.”
There seems to be a strong tonal division that occurs halfway through the book. The stories of Black and Bertha share several, clearly more positive qualities than the stories that follow: each is a raconteur, and even though we learn much about their individual tribulations, they also spend a good deal of time relating the stories of other characters they’ve met. Their stories also end on hopeful notes that suggest each found a way out of their personal hells.
There’s also a curious mirroring in the first two stories, involving the (awesome) nicknames of characters they tell us about. From Black we learn of “Foot-and-a-Half” George, a “grizzled old yegg” who was a “by-product of the Civil War, where he learned the disruptive force of explosives—useful to him in his profession of safe-breaking” (and also responsible for the disfigurement that inspired his nickname). A few pages later, in Bertha’s story she tells us of a prostitute named “Leg-and-a-Half Peggy” who “sold her poor mutilated body to a man” whenever she needed money. “And apparently there were plenty of takers.”
The second half of the book takes a decidedly darker turn, giving us first Panzram and then Knowles. Their stories also share qualities, being much more chilling and downright evil than the earlier two.
Carl Panzram, #31614 appears to be based on the novel Killer: A Journal of Murder, which itself was based on Panzram‘s autobiography. Coleman’s adaptation also details the events that led to the killer’s opportunity to tell his story.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” he writes. “I’m not. I know right from wrong. My conscience doesn’t bother me. I have no conscience. I believe the whole human race should be exterminated. I’ll do my best to do it every chance I get.”
The Final Days of Paul John Knowles puts us into the mind of the man known as “The Casanova Killer.” We also meet journalist Sandy Fawkes, who spent a short time romantically involved with Knowles, without knowing of his killing spree, and who later wrote a book about him, titled Killing Time.
Knowles represents the end of a sort of continuum of crime in this book. The first two stories in the book seem to revel in the anarchic underground life in the early years of the century, and even though they detail violence and pain, those are also the most hopeful stories here. While Panram’s tale doesn’t take place much later than Black’s and Bertha’s, his is more nihilistic and brutal. Finally, in the story of Knowles, we seem to have a thoroughly modern version of a serial killer.
“After a life of petty crime, of car thefts and burglaries, I finally made something of myself,” he writes. “I was a celebrity already being called one of the most heinous killers in history. I was the only successful member of my family…But it was time to join the demons I gave my life to so long ago.”
The description on Fantagraphics’ website says the book contains five stories, but the edition I have contains only four. It appears to omit the “manifesto on human suffering” titled The Wages of Sin. Maybe I have an earlier edition.
Regardless, Coleman’s book has a lingering effect, one seems to demand compulsive re-reading. In his introduction, Blab! creator Monte Beauchamp describes his first impression of Coleman’s work: “The imagery inside seemed born of the devil, rendered by a hand of the insane…Here was someone who’d been run through life’s meat grinder and now had something to say about it.”
Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.