As an enormous fan of Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, Derf’s My Friend Dahmer, a weekly Last Podcast on the Left listener, an owner of a framed Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster in his office, and an overall true crime junkie – to say my expectations and excitement were high for Eric Powell and Harold Schechter’s Did You Hear What Eddie Gein would be an understatement. And while Alan Moore’s classic and profound exploration of Jack the Ripper still towers above the rest (and is perhaps unfair to compare considering the scope of that work) this new graphic novel’s examination of Gein deserves quick consideration as a contender for one of the best in the serial killer / true crime genre pantheon.
Gein, in particular, is an especially tricky character to tackle. He is at once of the most truly depraved and bizarre in his crimes, while also perhaps the most atypical in his motivations. Unlike a Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, etc, that had much more sadistic compulsions and rationalizations that – as twisted as they may be – would allow an audience member reading about their works in fiction to cast them in a more black-and-white manner, Gein’s underlying psychological complexes are much more difficult and obtuse to translate across the screen or page.
While the fictional characters that he has inspired – most famously, Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill in Silence of The Lambs – all retain certain aspects of his notorious practices, it’s worth noting that each mostly takes one particular facet but leaves out the entire composite of his psychosis, as though the entire gestalt of Gein’s insanity would be too much for audiences to absorb. Psycho dramatizes the toxic relationship between Gein and his mother, along with aspects of the cross-dressing. Silence of The Lambs’ Buffalo Bill escalates the cross-dressing and introduces Gein’s skinsuits, but the grave robbing and “house of hell” aspect is left out (Bill’s pit is not quite the same).
Outside of the 1974 AIP movie Deranged loosely based on Gein’s life (which is compelling but has wild tonal shifts that ruin many of its otherwise ambitious and admirable attempts to adapt the story), Texas Chainsaw Massacre perhaps comes closest to fictionalizing the horrific reality of Gein’s daily life – that his practices were not just limited to the killing of his victims, but also in his compulsion to anthropomorphize the interior of his home as an extension of his inner reality. Coupled with the Sawyer Family’s practice of maintaining their dead and Leatherface’s generally confused sense of identity, the chainsaw-wielding slasher has perhaps come closest to depicting the truly otherworldly sense of horror that awaited victims within a isolated house surrounded by acres of empty land in the middle of nowhere.
And while that movie still retains its position as probably my favorite horror movie (alongside Rosemary’s Baby), and this is not a criticism of it whatsoever artistically but instead as an examination of Gein depictions in fiction, the Sawyer family is given motivation in its taking of victims for cannibalistic purposes that – again – almost reads as though the actuality of Gein’s otherworldly psychosis would be too vague and bizarre for audiences to grasp without including some extra motivation for its slasher. With Did You Hear…, however, Powell & Schechter’s for the first time present a full portrait of Gein that conveys a wide range of emotions and contexts for a glimpse into Gein’s psychology that is not only absent from those famous fictional characters based on him – but that is not often seen in the true crime medium at large.
Presented in atmospheric black-and-white, Powell’s drawings are an evocative exploration of the era, setting, and origins into Gein’s relationship with his parents that all contributed to his troubled interior makeup. Reminiscent again of Campbell’s work in From Hell – wherein the 1888 landscapes of London were rendered in panels that altered between stark black-and-whites and others that instead transported the readers into a more dream-like version of the Victorian era responsible for the birth of Jack the Ripper – Powell’s work similarly mixes moods that fluctuate between ethereal depictions of Wisconsin’s post-World War II landscape of Fargo-esque false niceties and Midwestern manners that are then often juxtaposed against harrowing panels inside the actual Gein home that are rendered with incredible attention to their horrific details.
Additionally, many panels are directly within Gein’s POV – positioning readers into his head with shots of Gein’s overbearing mother looming over him, or later, for Gein to hallucinate versions of his mother onto women that will be his eventual victims. And though almost comic at times, they allow for an interesting and intensely subjective portrayal of Gein’s world that takes advantage of the medium in a way that again recreates Gein’s world in a way yet to be portrayed.
These POV chapters reach their particularly intense apex during the eighth chapter “Isolation”. Following the nasty chapter “Archaeology in Hell”, which details the infamous mutilations of interior design seen throughout Gein’s house of horror, the next chapter deceptively walks the reader directly into Gein’s mind and the depths of his disturbed psychosis. Using the language and style of pulp novels that Gein apparently devoured and inspired some of his practices, the sequence culminates in an image on pg. 150 of Gein’s actual reality that is one of the most shocking splash pages that I have ever come across – right up there with the kind of unforgettable and disturbingly-detailed splash pages seen in the likes of Junji Ito.
Though Gein’s infamous reputation may cause readers to be impatient for more examples of these horrific images in the first hundred pages, the beginning takes its time contextualizing Gein’s upbringing and the almost unbearable dread of watching Ed’s disastrous home life and knowing its inevitable consequence. Never erring on the side of the melodramatic or necessarily sympathetic to Ed’s awful upbringing and directly blaming it for his later mental breakdown, these sequences depict his father’s constant anger mixed with Augusta’s inescapable religious zealotry during his developing years. More importantly, they depict how the latter parent in particular formed such an unbreakable bond on Gein’s brain. These pages slowly sink the reader into not only understanding, but feeling, the awful combination that warped the already mentally-challenged Gein into an increasingly unstable individual and eventually unhinged killer.
Moreover, unlike the other fictional characters listed above – this forces the audience to dwell with Gein in a way that most creators have unsurprisingly avoided, due to the almost unbearably uncomfortable nature of Gein’s inner world. Whether it’s Marian Crane in Psycho, Sally in Chainsaw, or Clarice in Silence, the typical approach – again, not a criticism of these works but an example of how this comic depiction yields a vastly difference experience – these female protagonists are stand-ins for the audience that progress away from the everyday world and then slowly discover (often unwillingly) the surreal nightmare that is Gein’s home.
Did You Hear…, however, takes the opposite approach. Except for the opening prologue and certain sequences near the end, Gein himself stands in for the audience – forcing the reader to watch his slow unraveling during his lowest, most isolated moments. These panels of Gein enacting his warped delusions within this unbelievably isolated house are particularly compelling and disturbing. For while Sally stumbling upon a couch of bones and face masks on the walls in the Sawyer house leaves the audience to privately wonder about the actual production of Leatherface’s grisly designs before her arrival, the comic’s presentation of such sequences are a deeply unsettling glimpse into the reality of their construction.
These dread-inducing sequence situate the reader alone with Gein during his darkest moments of delusion, where he was sure to be without interruption, and almost make the reader feel like a peeping Tom intruding on this deeply disturbed individual during his most private time. Consequently, these chapter remove the ‘slasher’ / ‘haunted house’ expectations of Gein’s other fictional portrayals and instead recreate the everyday unraveling of Gein’s psychosis to an even more disturbing degree – the living in absolute filth, the actual construction of the skinsuits, and the cumulative effect of this total isolation from anything outside this monstrous world created as an extension of his psychosis.
Moreover, there are very few fictional works willing to situate the audience with such a disturbing character, through their point-of-view, for such extended periods of time like these moments in Did You Hear…
Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, and Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer are some films that come closest to a similar experience, while Jim Thompson’s masterpiece The Killer Inside Me and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God are maybe the closest literary experiences. Derf’s My Friend Dahmer comic also overlaps with this type of material at times, but again, is a bit removed due to its ultimately being told from Derf’s point-of-view and before the peak of Dahmer’s monstrosities.
The writing itself also presents an atypical structure. The first third unfolds in a fairly linear manner – examining Gein’s birth, upbringing, and slowly warping mental state due to his turbulent home life – while the middle and end, however, unfold in a somewhat unusual manner. They instead start with Gein’s arrest, then work backward to show the grave robbings, murders, the amplification of Gein’s psychosis into the house of horrors, then ends with his imprisonment and a new theory of analysis (at least to me) by Schechter as to Gein’s MO and its overlap with primal religious rituals that perhaps speaks to something in the collective unconscious that cracked open during Gein’s mental breakdown.
Again, all this helps contribute to a unique examination of this infamous figure that has been thoroughly depicted over and over again both in fiction and non-fiction. The book even postulates that Gein is somewhat responsible for the slasher genre at large – making his influence on the genre and the villains inspired by him obvious. And in non-fiction, that Gein was one of the first to terrify normal citizens of their next-door-neighbor and eventually elevate himself into the prototypical boogeyman of the new era. As Gein also stands out as such an anomaly amongst other true crime figures, this book balances new insight with memorable storytelling devices that make it highly recommended for other true crime and comic fans interested in the life story of this figure that has cast such a long, dark shadow over the rest of the genre and popular culture throughout the latter half of the 20th century.