Rick Geary is easily one of the most underrated and over-looked creators in comics. His series Treasury of Victorian Murder and now Treasury of XXth Century Murder contain some of the most well crafted and innovative comics around. While they do make the year-end lists, he still seems somehow slept-on. Part of this may have to do with his inability to fit into narrow categories. Although his Treasury series has obviously serious content, his visual style is closer to something out of a comic strip. His website even lists him as a cartoonist and illustrator, and I think it’s this perception that helps him get overlooked on the grand comics landscape.
Housebound collects some of Geary’s early works from National Lampoon, Epic Illustrated, and some self published mini-comics. They are short, most are a single page, and they are far more personal than reading his other works. His Treasury series is so well researched that it can often take a hyper-objective tone, like an outsider carefully observing an event from all angles and perspectives, but in Housebound, many of the short comics seem to be events from Geary’s life.
Geary was born in 1946 and raised in the Midwest, and much of Housebound deals with life in the region and with the social climate of the 60s. Reading Housebound has the effect of reading a comics diary throughout the years, watching his style and composition improve, but also just more of an opinionated slant. Instead of the objective third person narrator, there is a main character and a theme or point to the stories that they are pushing. It isn't buried behind objectivity like in the Treasury series. Not to say that this objectivity is bad, it's what helps make Treasury unique and truly creepy, but it's nice to see his personality really shine through in these tales. As is common with personal stories, early works, and short comics, they sometimes fall flat, suffering from a lack of a real narrative core and ending up acting like quirky ruminations and nothing more.
There are still plenty of stories that give us the Geary we know and love. “Communal Life”(1,2,3) is a particularly good diary story where Geary tells about living with twenty-one other people and how things slowly devolved from a community to him isolated in his room. He gets a piece of cake for his birthday, which he shares with the house while saving a piece for himself. Geary draws it carefully wrapped in tinfoil with a wordless post-it emphasizing the betrayal you’ve probably already guessed at. The story doesn’t quite fall into this obvious trap though, because the main part of the story is him that night at a Peace Rally where he is abandoned by his peers. He mans his post holding his sign, getting berated by passer-bys, and no one comes to relieve him. The cake, eaten by one of his housemates, is just a coda in the larger comment on his generation that has the guise of ideals and community, but in the end is ultimately selfish.
Geary’s genius comes from his straightforward but complex storytelling like in “Communal Life,” but also from his panel transitions and imagination. “Let’s Get Organized”, “The Age of Condos”, and “American Motels” are the origins of his panel work showing various items or views from the titled categories. “America Motels” shows various motels from 1978, but only a certain part like an ashtray and lamp or five towels stacked on top of each other in the bathroom. Later he works these items and specific scenery into larger works providing for really interesting transitions that also add to the story. On the back cover Alan Moore describes it as, “a world seen in glimpses and remembered in fragments, where days or months or years may elapse between panels.” He's not afraid at all to put you out of your comfort zone and to use a panel to show something that might be weird or take you a minute or two to figure out exactly what's going on.
His imagination shines through in “Our New Dad”(1,2,3,4) and “In search of Dr. Einstein’s Brain." The former has a robot become the family's new father in a sort of typical sci-fi story, but his drawings, like one where they put a replica of the father's head on the robot, make it weird and hilarious to see --picture Short Circuit with a human head. "Einstein's Brain" has the same sort of imagination where a scientist tracks down pieces of Einstein's brain only to find a piece secretly powering an entire town. It's the premise itself, brain's apparatus, and the list of the things it powers--everything from commerce and industry to civic beauty and entertainment-- that make reading it actually exciting. We've talked about comics' ability to capture this sense of wonder about the world on this blog before, and how it's what differentiates comics from a lot of other mediums. Geary has it in spades, and it's definitely what makes his comics in a league of their own.