Category Archives: Torso

Torso: Biopsy

Torso:Biopsy from Jim Groom on Vimeo.

Two weeks ago the True Crime course Paul Bond and I are running discussed the graphic novel Torso. We’ve adopted a new approach for teaching this Freshman seminar. On a weekly basis the course is run by rotating groups of three students . I’ve loved this approach, students are working together, doing research, adeptly leading discussion, and take=ing ownership of their course. We’ve been asking them to make sure all their prep work for each week is added to the course wiki, and together they’re building a comprehensive document of what we’ve discussed throughout the semester.

The other side of this is because the students truly own the course discussion, it doesn’t always touch on various elements Paul and I might want to lecture about. Let’s face it, I love to talk. I have no problem dominating a course session with my views of what something means, but I’ve been resisting this impulse. That’s very much a side-effect of co-teaching this course, something I find has been awesome for pushing my teaching outside my comfort zone.  That said, the student-driven discussions don’t always cover certain themes, issues, close readings that we might thing are important. And while everyone talks during class, including Paul and I, we try not to hijack the conversation. This is where we use typically targeted posts, comments, etc., to cover anything we think has been missed.

Two weeks ago, while we were talking about Torso, it became apparent that a number of students were uncomfortable with reading graphic novels. Rather than this viusal medium being second nature, as folks might assume, more than half the class found the book confusing because of the format. Give that, Paul and I decided we would try and do a video discussion, like we did for 10 Mario Bava films over the past six months, talking specifically about how you read graphic novels.

Paul put together a presentation with the first 15 pages of the graphic novel, and he took me through doing a close reading in this visual medium on video. I learned a ton about reading graphic novels, and I love the idea of supplementing what the students are doing in their discussions with some follow-up, formalized video discussions like this one. I want to do more with Paul (which is always the case because I love talking to him about this stuff), and I think if we were to teach this course again this would be one way to do a back flip of a particular class. A post-facto wrap-up and recap of the discussion to highlight student points from the discussion they led, and also the opportunity to share our own ideas, readings, and thoughts more extensively. That said, I might just like it cause I can talk more :)

True Crime Course Wiki


Image from Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko’s Torso

I’ve been a bit quiet on my blog about the True Crime course Paul Bond and I are teaching, which is a shame because it is a total blast. Luckily Paul has been doing most of the heavy lifting on his blog, and teaching along side him is a real treat. This week we looked at Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Andreyko‘s graphic novel Torso (2001), a gripping, illustrated account of Cleveland’s torso murders during the 1930s. The text is a documentary account of Eliot Ness’s attempt to clean-up the corruption in Cleveland, using the fictional frame of two hardboiled detectives. The work is in the vein of Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999), but far more compelling given its brilliant noir minimalism and integration of documentary resources such as newspaper articles, photographs, etc. It also subtly weaves in various personal accounts of the barbaric murders occurring regularly over a four or  five year span in Cleveland’s lakeside shantytown—a neighborhood of forgotten, itinerant souls that were a product of the Great Depression.

One of the coolest things about the last nine weeks  has been witnessing how the Truecrimers have documented much of their preparation for leading the course discussions using the True Crime Course Wiki. Each week an alternating group of three students collaborate to frame the discussion they’ll be leading about the texts, and that is all laid out in the respective wiki article for each day’s reading(s). Bridget Johnson, Melissa Westfall, and Morghan Smith did a solid job this week on the Torso article as well as the articles on H.L. Mencken’s “More and Better Psychopaths” and Joseph Mitchell’s “Execution.”  They’re effectively using this space to aggregate information about the authors, historical context, summarize the text itself,  frame broader thematic issues, ask relevant questions, and link to various resources on the web.

What I really love about the wiki is that over time the format of the presntation gets fine-tuned and further honed as a result of it being a public, open space. They can (and do) view each others work, take note of how it’s being organized, and generally build better resources on top of what’s come before. Truth be told, the presentations and the use of the wiki was rough the first few weeks, but as of week nine the students are doing a far better job running the class, collecting valuable resources, and sharing what they’ve learned each and every class. None of it’s perfect yet, nor will it ever be, but it’s remarkable how much more comfortable they are with taking control of the class, and their learning, in nine short weeks.

Burning down the house

shantytown fire
torsopageIn the appendix to Torso, Bendis says that people often think that the shantytown fire was made up for dramatic purposes. Maybe the idea that police would burn poor people out of house and home is hard to believe. Because that never happens. Parts of the book are fictionalized, of course, like the two main police characters. In that way it reminds me of American Tabloid, which makes no pretense to true crime. But the basic facts of the tale are verifiable and supported by archival material. And we’ve seen embellishments in true crime before, like William Fly’s wobbly knees at the gallows, or Alice Mitchell as the bloodthirsty Amazon.

Bendis says Ness took a lot of criticism for the fire, and that many think it ruined his political career. I was curious what was said about the fire at the time. I don’t have access to Cleveland papers, but was able to check national news from the New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Looking at articles that mention “Kingsbury Run,” or “Ness” and “Cleveland,” from the day of the fire and the days that followed, I see no mention of it. The bodies get coverage, as do some of the leads, but burning down the encampment, which seems like it would be a newsworthy event, gets no mention. Why might that be? Was it not newsworthy? Or was it something the newspapers didn’t want to talk about?

NYT torsoWaPo torso torso survivor

“Find the heads.”

torso1Bendis tells the Torso story in a very cinematic fashion. The dramatic lighting and the camera angles all look like something out of film noir. Then there’s that repetition from panel to panel, sometimes with slight variations, that gives it a filmstrip feel. At the same time, each section opens and closes with a fade in/fade out, zoom lens effect, but the transition isn’t from image to blur but rather image to halftone dot. In one way this reminds me of the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein, probably because I’ve studied art history, but the intention is probably to tie the story to newspapers, which are becoming a thing of the past, at least in printed form. Bendis also incorporates photos from news archives in the illustration, in a very deft manner. It’s sort of reminiscent of Cold Case, although the graphic novel predates the TV show. There was a grubbiness to newsprint and ink. It would smear easily and get on your fingers and make you feel dirty. Bendis recognizes this in an interview: “Crime stories should be dirty and seedy and there is nothing dirtier and seedier than rubbing ink on the page.”torso2

Another atmospheric element Bendis brings into the design is the spiraling pattern of the panels on some of the pages. Maybe this is to show that things are spiraling out of control, or spiraling down the drain. It pulls control away from the reader, in that one has to turn the book to read it properly. It’s a little heavy handed and a little annoying, but I like the experimentation