Sunday, January 29, 2012

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

Written by Jeff Jensen
Art by Jonathan Case

This is one book that came as a bit of a surprise.  There hasn't been much of a tradition of 'true crime' in comics; crime comics abound, but graphic novels with journalistic weight behind them are pretty much non-existent.

The writer of Green River Killer, Jeff Jensen, is the son of Tom Jensen, a detective who worked for over twenty years on the Green River case, hunting a serial killer who left the bodies of prostitutes strewn along a stretch of river in Seattle's King County.  There were something like 48 bodies accrued over the years, and this case was the focus of Jensen's, and others' careers.

Eventually, as DNA testing added a powerful weapon to the detectives' arsenal, they had enough evidence to charge Gary Leon Ridgway for a handful of the cases.  Choosing closure over punishment, the attorneys made an arrangement for Ridgway to confess to all of his crimes, providing the cops with the locations of undiscovered bodies, and the circumstances of all the killings, in exchange for escaping the death penalty.

It's hard to imagine, after hunting the man for so long, that the detectives would have to more or less live with Ridgway (who they always called Gary).  Because of the sensitive nature of this case, they moved Ridgway into their offices, fashioning a cell for him.  It was expected to only take a while to go through this discovery phase, but in fact, Ridgway was there for 188 days.

Wisely, Jensen chooses to not chronicle the entire stretch of time that was given over to interviews and 'field trips' to places where bodies were dumped.  Jensen structures the story into five chapters, each representing a day's worth of interviews.  Within each of these chapters are a generous amount of flashbacks, as the entire twenty years of the case, and their repercussions for Tom Jensen, are shown.

It's hard to imagine the difficulty of having to spend so much time on this type of case.  Det. Jensen became familiar with the victims' families, and yet only rarely discussed the case at home, preferring to work out his frustrations through endlessly remodeling his house. 

This book is as much a biography of the author's father as it is about this deranged serial killer.  When the two men sit face-to-face and discuss some of the more depraved aspects of what Gary would do with the bodies, the emotion is palpable on the page.  Jonathan Case does a terrific job of conveying those emotions, and subtly aging the principal actors in this story. 

This is a very impressive graphic novel.

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