The Comic Queen

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Stagger Lee GN Preview

Stagger Lee GN
Image Comics; $17.99; 205 pgs.; B&W
Writer: Derek McCulloch; Artist: Shepherd Hendrix

On Christmas night, 1895, a man named Lee Shelton, or “Stag Lee,” shot Billy Lyons in the heat of a St. Louis barroom argument. This seemingly insignificant piece of history would be the catalyst for hundreds of folkloric songs … and now a graphic novel.

In this unique book, writer McCulloch and artist Hendrix weave a semifictional depiction of the actual events surrounding the case in with the history of the tale’s countless retelling in song. Whether as Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stack-A-Lee, or Stack O’Lee, and whether sung by Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, or The Clash, Neil Diamond, or Bob Dylan, the heart of the song stays the same.

I found it very fitting that McCulloch takes the facts, changes a bit here and there, and creates a narrative to show the reader the essence of the events that led to the many songs. That’s the essence of the songs’ history, after all.

The actual structure of the graphic novel alternates between a few pages of historical information about the songs’ evolution and contents, and several pages of semifictional narrative depicting the story of the Stagger Lee incident and his subsequent trial, which follows a small cast of characters. Also woven into this mix is the history of two other historical events that would sprout songs of their own: “Duncan and Brady” and “Frankie and Johnny,” which interestingly are both based on murders that took place within several years and a few blocks of the Stagger Lee incident.

The balance between the “story” and the songs’ history was just about right – no one part dominated, and the two together kept the book from dragging.

The art alone is excellent. I really enjoyed Hendrix’s all-ink style, very realistic the closer the perspective, then more iconic as the perspective pulls away.

I also thought the back of the book was a nice addendum. Called “Notes on the Historical Characters,” it answered a few questions I had about the veracity of the characters and their stories. Really for as little as we know about the actual Stagger Lee and Billy, McCulloch’s retelling is a darn factual interpretation.

Just like the songs’ many incarnations, McCulloch takes an interesting yet minor piece of history and makes it truly fascinating.

Stagger Lee the graphic novel is due out later this month, and I highly recommend picking it up. I think this is one of those rare books that will appeal equally to seasoned comics readers and first-time visitors to the medium.

Bottom Line: A-


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