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Friday, December 23, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story
Author: Jeff Jensen
Artist: Jonathan Case
Dark Horse Comics
234 pages (hardcover ed.)

The story of one of America's most notorious killers is revealed in this true-crime comic unlike any other! Throughout the 1980s, the highest priority of Seattle-area police was the apprehension of the Green River Killer, the man responsible for the murders of dozens of women. But in 1990, with the body count numbering at least forty-eight, the case was put in the hands of a single detective, Tom Jensen. After twenty years, when the killer was finally captured with the help of DNA technology, Jensen and fellow detectives spent 188 days interviewing Gary Leon Ridgway in an effort to learn his most closely held secrets-an epic confrontation with evil that proved as disturbing and surreal as can be imagined. Written by Jensen's own son, acclaimed entertainment journalist Jeff Jensen, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story presents the ultimate insider's account of America's most prolific serial killer.

I never expected to read about the story of the Green River Killer in graphic novel form, but here I am, doing exactly that, from the mouth of the head detective's son himself. As someone who was born in 1990, the case is a rather distant one for me; I barely remember the news coverage that broke out when Gary Ridgway was convicted of his horrific crimes. What I found in Jeff Jensen's account of his father's work was a blood chilling tale of murder and violence without reason, and the story of a man consumed by this single man's acts even to this day. Told in a stark, detailed style, this graphic version of the Green River Killer's case, it's a book that is hard to simply walk away from at the end; even now, it lingers in my mind long after I've read the last page.

First things first, as you can well imagine, this graphic novel is, well, graphic. Illustrator Jonathan Case has no problem depicting the various crime scenes in all their bloody horror, or the occasional scenes of naked sexuality as the detectives explore exactly why Gary Ridgway killed so many, many women. The lack of color on the page somehow makes all the blood more vivid than it had been a shade of bright red against a white background. Case also does a good job of transitioning between the various timelines running through the narrative, from the interview of Ridgway to the initial investigations and the flashbacks inside Ridgway's brain. There is one point during the book in which Ridgway tells the detectives the story of how he would lure women to their demise in the woods - and as he tells them, the setting behind him literally starts shifting into that same patch of woods, until Ridgway is standing in this area of woods, illustrating with his body how he choked those innocent women to death. It is a powerful image, just one of many that Case uses to let readers into the mind of a serial killer without getting too grotesque.

The story itself is told out-of-order, but if you follow it closely enough, you can tell when the narrative shifts between the time lines and not lose track of where the story is at the moment. Having said that, there is a moment at the beginning of the book in which the pacing of the story seems lackluster and boggled down by all of these time periods, but after the 'second day', everything manages to streamline into one coherent piece and becomes less heady of a thing to keep track of. The book has two main characters, two dual stories, those of Detective Tom Jensen and Gary Ridgway, and the fact that Jeff Jensen can tell both stories without any of them being overwhelmed by the other is simply amazing. Jensen could have easily raised his father to the level of a saint, but chose to show his father as he truly is: a human being, face-to-face with an inhuman human being whose crimes cannot be understood by any normal rationale. By the end of the book, I swear, I just wanted to hug Tom Jensen and tell him how awesome he is because he really, truly is awesome. If any reader can read his story and not have some sort of emotional reaction, well, I just don't want to know.

What separates Green River Killer: A True Detective Story from many of its contemporaries is that the real questions posed never get answered; mainly, the question of why Gary Ridgway killed all the women he did never receives an explanation. It was just something he needed to do. Not only does Ridgway never answer for why he did the terrible things he does, the case never actually closes even after the man is in jail; Ridgway keeps telling police he knows where more bodies are buried. Detective Jensen still works in the cold case department, intent on making sure as many people as possible get to know the truth about their loved ones, even when it hurts. And this how the story ends, with people going on with their lives in the wake of one man's horrific actions, from the victim's families to the detectives who worked on the case from the beginning, no easy answers for anyone. And Gary Ridgway sits in his prison cell where he will spend the rest of his life, making the occasional call to his lawyer about yet another place where he may have buried bodies, another possibility of finding even more women dead in the ground.

But Green River Killer: A True Detective Story does not end on this note, because to be honest that is a depressing note to end on, even with a true crime novel. No, it ends of a note of hope. It ends with a second wedding in beautiful Maui, with a man coming home to his wife and saying he's trying. And in a world where men like Ridgway still live, unchecked, this isn’t a bad way to end. This graphic novel is a must read for anyone with a fascination of how investigations work and how they affect the people involved, as well as for those who remembers the Green River Killer case and is still looking for some sort of explanation as to why it happened. A brilliant, deeply impassioned account of a surreal set of crimes that simply can’t be ignored.

An electronic galley copy of this work was provided by the publisher for reviewing purposes.