Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
$24.99, 240 pages
by S.I. Rosenbaum
There's nothing remarkable about Jeff Jensen's father. He's an ordinary guy. He has a wife and kids. He's into home improvement. As far as we know, there's no great tragedy or trauma in his life.
But he's a homicide cop in Seattle, in 1983, when the corpses of young women are starting to turn up along the banks of the Green River. Some of them are buried, some not. Some of them are naked, some are clothed. Some have been dumped haphazardly; others are carefully arranged.
Someone is killing young women in Seattle, and Detective Tom Jensen is drawn into a mystery that will consume his career.
The graphic memoir Jeff Jensen wrote about his father's quest for the Green River Killer - elegantly drawn by Jonathan Case - is subtitled A True Detective Story, but it's not a whodunnit. Not far into the book, we skip forward to the surreal endgame of the case, as the cops install the serial murderer known as Gary Leon Ridgway in a makeshift safehouse inside their own headquarters.
Ridgway wants a plea bargain; the cops want a full confession and the bodies of victims who were never found. But as the narrative jumps back and forth in time, it becomes clear that for Tom Jensen - who spent decades as the sole investigator working the long-cold case - the object is something deeper and more elusive. He wants to know the truth at the dark heart of Ridgway, which even Ridgway doesn't seem to know.
As a kid, Jeff Jensen - now a journalist with Entertainment Weekly - wasn't privy to his father's professional life. He starts the book with a dedication: "For my father, with love, admiration, and deep gratitude," followed by the addendum, "This is what you get for teaching me how to read with Batman comics." The elder Jensen has the mustache and smoking habit of Batman's Commissioner Gordon, though if the resemblance ever occurred to young Jeff he doesn't say so. It was only in the early 2000s, when genetic sequencing broke the case open and Ridgway was finally convicted, that Jeff found out about his dad's work.
The book is written and drawn in a kind of uninflected deadpan. Case's art recalls Mazzuchelli's Batman work: no greytones, strong lines, and a flatfooted realism in his draftsmanship. There's no narration until the epilogue, when Jeff Jensen briefly lets us in on the story behind the story. Otherwise, events are presented without comment or sentiment. The effect is compelling. There are long wordless panels where we're left to decipher the expression on a character's face; the directness of the presentation preserves the ambiguities of real life.
I would have liked to see some kind of appendix, explaining how the story was reported and rendered into comics. This kind of thing has become popular at papers like the St. Petersburg Times, where I worked and experimented with comics journalism. On long-form, narrative stories, the paper often runs a "How the story was reported" box explaining briefly how the reporter knew all that stuff. It's a good way to maintain transparency without damaging the flow of the narrative.
So it seems that it would not be a bad idea to explain the reporting process - are the words in those speech bubbles approximations, or actual quotes? What visual references were used for all those supporting characters? Jeff Jensen offers only one comment, in the epilogue, saying that his father still doesn't like to speak about a certain part of the case - the part which forms the book's climax. "The details he gave me were few, and offered reluctantly."
It almost echoes the scenes in which the elder Jensen is interrogating his serial killer. So how did Jeff reconstruct that searingly dramatic scene? Alas, it's just another mystery.
S.I. Rosenbaum is a journalist and cartoonist from Boston.