The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti
Consistency is a wonderful thing in a comic series. Once a year, out comes another chapter of Rick Geary’s A Treasury of XXth Century Murder, and each is an informative, impressively crafted read.
Moving into the more modern era (after his previous Victorian murder series) has allowed Geary to expand his approach to explore different facets of killings. The first two books were relatively well-known single cases (the Lindbergh kidnapping, a famous director’s murder), but the third explored a place through a series of murders, and this one tackles what’s commonly known as a miscarriage of justice. Although Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of murder during a robbery, there’s an ambiguity over whether the Murder in the title refers to that victim or the men of the title, sent to the electric chair for the crime in an environment of immigrant hatred and political bias.
The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti opens with the facts as they are known: In April 1920, the payroll of a major factory employer in a small Massachusetts town is being transferred on foot. The men carrying the cashboxes are shot by strangers, who escape in a waiting car. Then it all gets confusing. Sacco and Vanzetti are Italian immigrants, Socialists, and anarchists. This doesn’t please an admittedly biased judge and easily swayed witnesses and jury, fearful of foreigners and a political movement that used bombs to make their points.
Geary’s method of shading, using rows of pen-and-ink lines, feels old-fashioned, coordinating well with an historical story. In their period hats and clothing styles, the characters seem a world and era away, but there is much in the tale to resonate today, from anti-immigrant sentiment to political extremism. There’s even a “record-breaking heat wave” during the trial, as so much of the U.S. is experiencing now.
A significant portion of the book covers the aftermath of the conviction, including appeals and public reaction. This is what makes the story fit this series of unsolved and controversial crimes. The truth is still argued about today, although in my opinion, this case is more suggestive of a conclusion than in some previous books in the series. Although Geary is balanced in presenting the arguments for and against innocence, there are so many questions raised that the reader is left thinking that at least some aspects of justice were denied.
A small suggestion: Geary opens his books with a bibliography listing and hand-drawn maps. While the last map, showing worldwide locations where riots and protests took place over the refusal to reconsider the guilty finding, is eye-opening in its range, these supporting materials might have more impact for the reader later in the book. Putting them first makes the volume seem dry and boring when it’s not.
Although disturbing in the railroading it suggests may have happened in this case, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti is an enjoyable way to read history, making it easy to envision the time and place of this crime. The publisher has posted a three-page preview and an interview with the author. A special limited edition version of this book is available direct from them. (The publisher provided a review copy.)