The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti

By Rick Geary
80 pages, black and white
Published by NBM

There’s no mistaking Rick Geary’s comics from anyone else’s. Not only does he have a distinct art style, but his work on his series A Treasury of Victorian Murder and now A Treasury of XXth Century Murder tackles non-fiction material that few other cartoonists would brave, let alone do so with such skill. Last year’s The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti details a robbery/murder from the 1920s that sent two Italian immigrants to death row… but in learning about the holes in the case, it’s quite easy to imagine a version of this story taking place in the present day.

I’d never heard of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti before reading The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. A pair of Italian anarchists who were against World War I, the pair were arrested for an armed robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. At a glance, it looks like an open-and-shut case; twelve witnesses who between them near the scene, performing the murders, or in the getaway car after the crime. Bullet casings are left behind, as well as a hat that supposedly belongs to Sacco. People had come to the jailhouse and identified them. But then, piece by piece, almost every piece of evidence is discounted. Identifications were not in a police line-up but of the individuals sitting in a jail cell. Numerous witnesses were either known liars, or gave pieces of evidence that did not line up. (For example, one witness included that Vanzetti was driving the getaway car, but Vanzetti had never learned how to drive a car.) Other witnesses had evidence for each of the two being nowhere near the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. The judge was heard boasting about how he was going to make sure they were guilty. And appeals were listened to by the same judge, even if appeals involved judicial misconduct.

In short, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti details a court case that is so full of improper procedures, sketchy evidence, and outright tampering that reading Geary’s account makes you wonder how on earth this wasn’t declared a mistrial. That’s part of what makes Geary’s Treasury books so powerful; he has a gift of pulling you deep into these people’s stories and making you feel like you’re living alongside these news events. Geary structures the writing in The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti well; each chapter is carved out into an individual, specific element of the story. The first details the crime itself, with Sacco and Vanzetti not appearing until the end. From there we learn about the lives of the duo, then get two chapters where the first displays the prosecution’s evidence, the second the defense’s case. Next we learn about the legal appeals filed and what happened, and finally how the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti went global.

If this is sounding eerily familiar, it’s a reminder that well before the internet, Twitter, and Facebook, it was still possible for someone’s cause to become a worldwide concern. Hearing about the famous people who came to their defense was fascinating, and Geary’s telling of this international movement to free the pair will almost certainly make you rethink today’s movements and how revolutionary they supposedly are. And when it’s time to wrap the book up, I appreciated that the second-to-last page is a summation of how after all the evidence is tallied, the cases both for and against their guilt. While the case at this point will never be solved, Geary does a good job of giving us enough material to make up our own minds, as well as providing a bibliography of his sources if you want to do further reading on your own.

Geary’s art is, as mentioned before, unmistakable. I feel at times like this is what would happen if you mixed a comic book artist with an architect; very precise, meticulous lines that carve out not only people and place’s forms, but also create shading and texture. I can’t even imagine how long it must take to draw all those horizontal lines on people’s jackets, for instance, or the delicate crosshatching on the handle of a pistol. I adore Geary’s lettering, too; thee’s something about it with its precise nature that makes it stand out from everyone else’s. I don’t think this is true of almost anyone else in comics, but Geary’s lettering is as much a part of the overall look of his art as any other feature present.

The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti is another strong, memorable non-fiction book from Geary. He’s tackled a variety of stories over the years, some famous and others a little more obscure. There are two things that link all of Geary’s books together; the presence of murder, and a high level of quality and excellence in the storytelling. This is the kind of book that will not only grab the attention of comic readers, but are a good gateway for non-comics readers. (I’d love to see a big omnibus of some of Geary’s earlier books, by the way; they’d make an amazing gift for quite a few people.) Thanks to The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, I not only enjoyed a good comic, I feel like I know about an important case in our country’s history. Knowledge and enjoyment, what more can you ask for?

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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