This town is still bleeding. Did you expect them to thank you for ripping off the bandage?
--Harper Lee, Capote in Kansas
Writer: Ande Parks
Artists: Chris Samnee
First Published: July 2005
The 1959 murder of four members of a Kansas family shocked America, and became an obsession for Truman Capote. He headed to the rural village of Holcomb – where the eccentric, flamboyant author could not have seemed more out of place— shortly after the crime made headlines, and spent years researching the story. The result, In Cold Blood, is rightly considered a classic of the true crime genre. Forty years after the publication of the work, Ande Parks and Chris Samnee produced Capote in Kansas, a "drawn novel"1 inspired by the author’s experiences.
Chris Samnee’s black and white artwork captures the story's moods and the moments quite well. Truman in Kansas’s best panels feature little or no text. We see the actual murder briefly, from Nancy Clutter’s perspective. A few words and some sound effects appear; otherwise, we experience the crime through film noir-like stills, dark flashes of violence. Well-worn elements characterize the Midwest: a farm windmill, train tracks, picket fences, a broken tire swing and a village phone booth.
The story itself makes more sense if you’ve read In Cold Blood, though it then will seem thin by comparison. Parks has chosen to tell a slightly different tale, one in which the murders figure peripherally. We’re following Capote’s quest here. Gradually, he learns to connect with the rural folk, and gradually, he frees a ghost. As in real life, he is helped by his assistant, Harper Lee, but in this account she quickly (and somewhat awkwardly) disappears. For the rest of this fictionalized account, the ghost of murder victim Nancy Clutter assists Capote.
She’s a fascinating character, more like a flesh and blood teenaged girl, able to interact with the physical world, though only (it appears) in Capote’s presence. She picks up the bridesmaid’s dress she had been making for her sister’s wedding; she examines the crime scene photographs which Capote has left on the table. She can relate to the author, who feels as out of place in the village as she now does.
Capote in Kansas does a fair job of depicting its protagonist’s transformation, as he gradually wins the trust of those involved with the case. We also see some speculative depictions of his rocky relationship with the Clutters’ killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The work does not, however, capture the full complexity of Capote’s personality, not do we get any real sense of why he felt so compelled to investigate this crime. Perhaps these things are beyond the grasp of this "drawn novel."
Better graphic novels exist, but Capote in Kansas will appeal to those interested in Capote or the Clutter murders, and may make a passable night's reading for others. It also stands as a fair example of mature story-telling in comic-book form.
Portions of this review appeared in one I wrote previously for bureau42.
1. "A Drawn Novel???" "Graphic Novel" already sounds pretentious, but it has become the term of choice. If neither "Graphic Novel" nor "Comic Books" suits so serious a work of literature, why bother with any sort of subtitle? People will figure out that this particular "novel" has been "drawn" when they purchase it at a comic shop and open it up and see drawings.