By Hussein Wasiti — I’m not terribly familiar with Brian Michael Bendis’ creator-owned work. I’ve read most of what he’s done under his new Jinxworld imprint since moving to DC, so my foray into this re-printed edition of Torso is my first exposure to Bendis’ and collaborator Marc Andreyko’s early work. My major takeaway from this book was that this felt very consistent with not only his indie books, but with his superhero romps too. The style of dialogue and the occasional bold storytelling choices in this comic are still very much present in his output today at DC.
Torso delves into a basically unexplored period of the prohibition cop Elliot Ness’ life. Ness was the man who, along with his team of Untouchables, took down Al Capone, the famous Chicago gangster. Following this massive and famous victory, he moves to Cleveland for a new position as the safety director of that city. It’s definitely an antiquated position by today’s standards, and there is an undertone of futility to this job since Cleveland at the time was notoriously corrupt, with a lax police force and an equally ineffective mayor who limited Ness’ actions as safety director. In this environment a serial killer stalks the streets of the city Ness has come to protect, preying on innocent victims—decapitating and dismembering them—leaving only a torso for the authorities to find (thus the name).
The plot here is a fairly traditional affair, since we’ve all seen these kinds of stories before. A character is connected to a crime, in this case the Torso Killer is actively sending Ness postcards throughout the comic, and any attempt at catching the killer is undermined by either corruption or an incompetent bureaucratic system. What makes this particular story come to life, however, are the interesting and wide ranging historical details, which I’m not going to spoil here. Ness makes interesting choices over the course of the narrative and the reveal in the supplemental material that this was indeed all true was quite mind-blowing. Many of these historical details come across very well in Bendis’ artwork, which I’ll be discussing in great depth later.
It’s hard to talk about Elliot Ness without mentioning Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables, arguably the most famous work about Ness’ life and one that provides a backbone for this story. Ness’ takedown of Al Capone acts as a specter hanging over Torso’s narrative; he’s frequently poked and prodded about his method of victory, which was busting Capone on tax evasion. This informs a lot of Ness’ arc throughout the comic: does he deserve the praise he’s received? Is he really the hero the public thinks he is?
Ness’ focus on taking down the Torso Killer stems from resultant insecurities, and his separate marriage issues stoke the flame of frustration he’s experiencing while working for the city. The outcome of this entire story is the perfect encapsulation of Ness’ character, in that he was too focused on what was in front of him instead of paying attention to the things that mattered, like his wife or his campaign to rid Cleveland of corruption. This is all so deftly handled by Bendis and Andreyko, whose depiction of side characters keeps the story from being an overly dark affair. Walter Myrlo and Sam Simon are the two detectives on the case, and their friendship is more or less the heart of this story. Their conversations together are trademark Bendis dialogue—snappy and witty—which works very well here.
The artwork by Bendis himself, however, is what really made this book stand out to me. Bendis handled every aspect of the art, from the pencils to the lettering. With Bendis in total control of the way the story unfolds, there are some impressively unconventional pages to be found here. Most of the time he operates with a basic double page structure, but he goes on to leave much of the top half of the right page completely dark while the final series of panels on the left page continues onto the next. One page early in the comic operated like this, and I found that to be such a bold and inventive way of highlighting tension and drama. This style of page layout achieves an intensive focus on the moment.
I mentioned earlier that the historical detail of the story lent itself to this art, and I attribute this to Bendis including real, historical images in the comic. City blocks to shantytowns to crime scene photos are all interwoven, another bold choice that cemented the realism on display. In filmic terms I’d consider it to be “cinema verité,” French for “real,” or “truthful” cinema. This technique also felt reminiscent of what famed comics artist Jack Kirby did with photo collages later in his life. The first few pages of the comic feature these images, and at first brush I found it to be a bit bizarre, but as I encountered them more I began to appreciate them.
Bendis also employs a lot of shadows, half-shrouding characters in ink. Bendis lettered the comic himself too, which was maybe my least favourite aspect of the book, or at least something I questioned while reading. I’m not an aficionado on lettering and what I know is primarily based on the standard of today’s lettering techniques. Overall, the lettering seemed thick and clunky. Bendis uses long and wide tracks to connect balloons, the size of which was rarely consistent. The placement of the balloons could have been better too, since there are some pages with absolutely insane layouts where I really needed the lettering to guide me through the sequence. Instead I was confused and sometimes read pages in odd orders. These issues were few and far between, however, and for the most part I was a fan of the general unevenness since it contributed to the indie aesthetic of the book.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the story of Elliot Ness, I’d recommend Torso wholeheartedly. The edition I read is part of a new line of republished Jinxworld material by Bendis, and I’m excited to read more of his early work. Bendis and Andreyko provide a full and real glimpse into the fascinating life of Ness here and into the brutal history of Depression-era Cleveland. The way the team told this story is both inventive and unique. Pair this some weekend afternoon with a viewing of De Palma’s The Untouchables and you’ve got yourself one strange prohibition era double feature.
Torso: A True Crime Graphic Novel
Writers: Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko
Artist: Brian Michael Bendis
Publisher: DC - Jinxworld
Release Date: Feb. 19, 2019
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Hussein Wasiti is a history undergraduate with an intense passion for comics. You can find his weekly writings over at comicsthegathering.com, and periodically on Weird Science. He is on Twitter as bullthesis, and he lives in Toronto with his hordes of comics.