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Geary, Rick

Rick Geary

Born February 25, 1946 (Kansas City, Missouri)
American author, illustrator

Graphic novelist Rick Geary has made a name for himself with a series of books that explore the dark side of life in the nineteenth century. The seven books in his Treasury of Victorian Murder series offer an extensively researched glimpse into some of the most famous and mysterious crimes of history, including the cases of Jack the Ripper (the nickname for a man who murdered five prostitutes in London, England, in 1888) and Lizzie Borden (a young lady who is reputed to have murdered her parents with an ax in Massachusetts in 1892). With Geary's deadpan narrative and his intricately detailed black-and-white drawings of the crime scene and its surroundings, the stories have all the qualities of the best documentary films.

"I tend to avoid the direct representations of gore and violence. Not that I'm squeamish about such stuff …"

Geary was born on February 25, 1946, in Kansas City, Missouri. Though his father had studied to be a lawyer he actually worked as a banker, and changes in his work required the family—including Geary's mother, Helen Louise, a housewife, and his sister—to move several times. Geary lived in Chicago, Illinois, until he was six; then the family moved to Prairie Village, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City. When Geary was twelve, the family moved to Wichita, Kansas, and it was there that Geary finished his high school education, graduating from Southeast High School in 1964.

Best-Known Works

"Treasury of Victorian Murder" Series Graphic Novels

A Treasury of Victorian Murder (2002).

Jack the Ripper: A Journal of the Whitechapel Murders, 1888–1889 (1995).

The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 (1997).

The Fatal Bullet: A True Account of the Assassination, Lingering Pain, Death, and Burial of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States; Also Including the Inglorious Life and Career of the Despised Assassin Guiteau (1999); reissued as The Fatal Bullet: The Assassination of President James A. Garfield (2001).

The Mystery of Mary Rogers (2001).

The Beast of Chicago: An Account of the Life and Crimes of Herman W. Mudgett, known to the World as H.H. Holmes … (2003).

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln (2005).

Books for Children

The Mask series. 3 vols. (1994–95).

Spider-Man series. 3 vols. (1995–96).

Illustrated Works

Keller, David. Great Disasters: The Most Shocking Moments in History (1990).

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (1990).

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights (1990).

Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man (1991).

Lakin, Patricia. Harry Houdini: Escape Artist (2002).

Richardson, Mike. Cravan HC (2005).

Searched for a career in art

"I don't know that I was a terribly good student," Geary told Graphic Novelists (GN) interviewer Tom Pendergast. "I seem to remember that I mostly daydreamed and drew scribbles in my notebook." Geary went to the University of Kansas in Lawrence; he was attracted to that school because both his parents had gone there and because the school's fine arts program had a good reputation. He received his bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1968 and liked college so much that he stayed on, completing his master's degree in film studies in 1971.

Geary had always been a film fan, but as he finished his degree it had become clear to him that he did not want to be a filmmaker. "The more experience I had making movies," he told GN, "the more I grew to dislike how mechanical, technological, and collaborative it was. I learned that I didn't like to worry about working with other people." He turned back to his art, especially illustration. "I'm essentially a pen and ink worker," he explained. "I use the Rapidograph pen pretty much exclusively." Armed with his pen, he soon got the break that would allow him to turn that hobby into a career.

In 1972, Geary got a job as an illustrator with a Wichita weekly newspaper called the New Newspaper. Geary was the paper's jack-of-all-trades: he penned a political cartoon, drew illustrations for stories that had no photos, and made brief comics. The New Newspaper folded after a year and a half, but Geary soon found similar work with another weekly, the Wichita Independent. It was while working for the Independent that Geary made a trip west to visit San Diego, California. "The small coastal communities were in their post-hippie, artsy stage, and they were so laid back," remembered Geary to GN. He so loved the lifestyle in the area that he stayed. On January 11, 1987, he married teacher Deborah Lee Chester; except for a four-year stretch living in New York City, Geary has always lived in San Diego.

Illustrations with a dark side

Drawing comics and illustrations for a weekly paper has never provided Geary with full-time work, so he combined it with a wide range of freelance work. In the beginning he worked for advertisers and small magazines in San Diego; he has done a weekly illustration for Reader magazine since he arrived in San Diego in 1975. In 1977, he began to work full time as a freelancer, selling his work to a variety of buyers. At first his cartoons followed no distinctive pattern, as Geary experimented to define his own personal style. "My work was too wholesome to be considered underground," Geary told GN, referring to a style of comics that was highly political and often depicted sexuality and drug use, "and too strange or weird to be mainstream." Geary has claimed as his biggest inspiration Edward Gorey (1925–2000), whose works are known for their sinister imagery and dark humor (see sidebar).

In 1979, Geary began to write a regular comic strip for National Lampoon, a New York–based humor magazine that became very popular in the 1970s. Geary had no set characters or themes, but was free to experiment in the space given to him, usually a half-page or a page. He worked on this strip, later called "Excursions," until the magazine folded in 1992. His work with National Lampoon was a springboard to more work, and he contributed cartoons to a variety of magazines, anthologies, and comic collections. The fruits of these labors can be seen in several of Geary's collections, including At Home with Rick Geary (1985), Rick Geary's Wonders & Oddities (1988), and Housebound with Rick Geary (1991).

Edward Gorey's Dark Vision

Years before Rick Geary published his first works on Victorian murders, Edward Gorey (1925–2000) was heralded as the master of the dark side of Victorian life. In a series of small books published over a span of nearly fifty years, and in the pen-and-ink illustrations he provided for several magazines (most notably the New Yorker) and for book covers, Gorey established a unique place in the world of comic illustration. He was known for creating thin, long-limbed characters who faced dark threats from a strange world. Among his favorite subjects were the terrors faced by children left unattended by their parents. In one of his "Alphabet" collections, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, for example, he noted that "M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui." Many of his works were written for young people, including The Doubtful Guest and The Hapless Child, yet he found most of his fans among adults, who perhaps better understood the dark sense of humor that lay beneath Gorey's depictions of the mishaps facing children.

Explores Victorian murders

Geary had learned a great deal during his career as a cartoonist and illustrator, and beginning in 1987 he began to apply all that he had learned to what would become a series of groundbreaking graphic novels. The first of this series—from which it took its name—was A Treasury of Victorian Murder, published by NBM. In it, Geary explored three different mysteries. The book and the series that followed "offered me a really good opportunity to indulge in my obsessions," Geary related to GN. He had long been fascinated with tales of true crime and with mysteries, and he had also nurtured a fascination with the history of the Victorian Era (1837–1901), a time period known for its rigid moral codes, but also for the explosion of modern cities and modern journalism, the latter two forces contributing to the rise in murder and a public fascination with the details of those murders. Geary developed a large collection of books and photos from the period, and he used those collections and this researchas the basis for his graphic novels.

Eight years passed before the publication of his second Victorian murder novel, Jack the Ripper: A Journal of the Whitechapel Murders, 1888–1889. Geary presented the novel as an adaptation of the journals of a resident of London during the time of the murders. The entire text consists of dated entries from this journal, which narrates a series of brutal murders committed by a mysterious butcher who called himself "Jack the Ripper." The immediacy of the text—which seems to be written by someone with extensive knowledge of the case—is well matched with the illustrations, highly detailed black-and-white images that are bathed in the blackness of the night in which the murderer worked. The drawings, which Publishers Weekly described as "brooding," capture not only the investigation of the murders, but the mounting hysteria of the public reaction to the murders.

Geary followed with The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892. In it, Geary recounts the ax murders of Andrew and Abby Borden and the trial of Borden's daughter, Lizzie, that ended in acquittal. As in his earlier work, Geary provided striking illustrations of the setting and the crime, paired with text that seemed to offer direct insights into the motives of those involved. A Booklist reviewer noted that Geary's concise narration "cuts away all but the essentials, thereby beating longer verbal treatments soundly at [offering] a basic understanding of the crimes and their context." As in all of his Victorian murder stories, Geary managed to evoke the horror of a brutal murder without resorting to graphic visual details. "I've always felt it best to use restraint when depicting physical violence," Geary told GN. "I believe in the old dictum that what the imagination conjures up is far more effective than that which is made explicit."

Following The Borden Tragedy, Geary released a new volume in the series every other year. In The Fatal Bullet: A True Account of the Assassination, Lingering Pain, Death, and Burial of James A. Garfield (1999) and The Murder of Abraham Lincoln (2005), Geary unpacked the mysteries surrounding the assassination attempts on two of America's presidents. In The Mystery of Mary Rogers (2001) and The Beast of Chicago (2003) Geary turned to lesser-known crimes, though he treated them with the same careful research and attention to detail. Upon the completion of the aforementioned, Geary was at work on the next two titles in the series: one would tell the story of Madeline Smith of Glasgow, Scotland, who poisoned her lover; another would tell the story of the "Bloody Benders," a family who ran a grocery store and wayside inn on the Kansas prairie and who are believed to have killed a number of travelers who visited their remote outpost.

In a publishing marketplace where muscle-bound superheroes or large-eyed manga characters tend to grab the most attention, Geary has established a quiet section for himself as the Victorian true crime graphic novelist. "My greatest goal is to capture the tone of the times with clarity and accuracy," Geary told GN. "That's why I love maps and overhead views." At the same time, Geary recognizes that it is his nature to tell his stories with a sense of detachment. "I like defusing the heat and emotion out of the stories," he mused. His concern for detail and his detached approach are part of what make the stories in this series uniquely appealing to readers.

In addition to his true crime work, Geary has also had success with adaptations of the work of several famous nineteenth-century literary works. He has adapted works by Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Emily Brontë into graphic novels. His goal with these adaptations has been to remain true to the original work while shortening the text dramatically. As always, Geary uses the detail of his illustrations to carry some of the work of the storytelling. Geary' illustrations, like those for his others works on that time period, were well suited to the detached, formal style of the authors.

For more than thirty years Geary has worked to perfect his craft. He rises early and works a full day at his desk. With his graphic novels he first writes the text, compressing it to get the most from every word. He then begins the laborious process of creating the illustrations, first sketching out the drawing, then inking in the broad outlines and solid black areas with a thick pen, and finally using a fine-tipped pen for fine details and texture. In his free time Geary reads and watches movies. Each year he operates his own booth at Comic Con, the annual comic industry convention, where he chats with fans, signs books, and sells illustrations and postcards.

For More Information

Periodicals

Booklist (December 1, 1997): 604–06.

Finz, Stacy. "Everything Under the Sun." Los Angeles Times (July 30, 1987): 10.

Publishers Weekly (October 13, 2003): 59; (June 6, 2005): 57.

School Library Journal (November 2003): 174.

Spikol, Liz. "Holmes Sweet Holmes." Philadelphia Weekly (November 4, 2003): 30.

Web Sites

Rick Geary. http://www.rickgeary.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).

"Rick Geary." NBM. http://www.nbmpub.com/mystery/geary.html (accessed on on May 3, 2006).

The Very Odd World of Rick Geary. http://tralfaz-archives.com/comics/geary/geary_pages.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Rick Geary on August 3, 2005.

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