Stagger Lee (英語) ペーパーバック – 2006/5/3
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On Christmas Eve 1895, shots rang out in a St. Louis barroom. A hundred years and a thousand songs later, this ordinary little murder had become a legend. This is the true story of what happened after Stagger Lee shot Billy.
Stagger Lee is full of musicians, whores, and politicians whose actions make as little sense as - actually, come to think of it, less than - a morphine-addled lawyer's. The characters are uniformly flat, even Stagger Lee himself, who's left, perhaps intentionally, as a cypher at the center of his own story. A good deal of the book is spent wading through subplots that have nothing to do with the main story, and which lack an emotional hook to distract the reader from their irrelevance.
So full points for concept, but the execution was sadly lacking.
So I started reading "Stagger Lee" with high expectations, and the book certainly delivered. Writer and illustrator have teamed up to create a great piece of storytelling, mixing fact, fiction and folklore in a compelling way and presenting it with graphics that do a convincing job of conjuring up a place and time where it all happened. I just wish that more time would have been spent in developing the character of Lee Shelton, the man who shot Billy. I don't think that the book brings out the fact that Shelton was a pimp. It would have been interesting to probe his psyche and his relationships with his fellow pimps and the ladies who worked for him.
I had never read a graphic novel before this book. If you're in the same boat, don't be put off by the mistaken idea that you're reading a comic book. For me, it was like reading a script with the bonus of having it completely storyboarded. When I was a kid, comic books were for children and most movies were made for adults. It's a different world now: most movies are made for children, and comic books have evolved into an intelligent, new form of entertainment for adults. Reading "Stagger Lee" is a wonderful introduction to this new art form.
As writer Derek McCulloch lays it out, the underlying truth of the story, and the sole point upon which every version of the song agrees, is that Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons. From there the details vary, sometimes drastically depending on the teller, and McCulloch incorporates that variety into his own version of the tale as colorful, informative interludes to his main storyline, the defense of Stagger Lee, aka Lee Shelton, and the toll it takes on those involved.
Injecting several key fictional characters into the tale, McCulloch crafts a compelling take on the truth behind the legend -- equal parts courtroom drama, love story, and social commentary -- that deftly weaves together the corrupt political dealings of late-19th century St. Louis and the personal interactions of a handful of its negro citizens whose lives are touched by Lee Shelton's crime in various ways. Among those affected are Shelton himself, whom McCulloch wryly posits was likely to have heard at least one of the earliest interpretations of his crime first-hand.
In many ways, Shelton is a spectactor to his own story as Justin Troupe -- legal assistant to the morphine-addicted defense attorney, Nathan Dryden -- takes center stage in a sub-plot that pulls several of the underlying historical threads together into a story that would be noteworthy on its own, separated from the "musical" interludes. It is the ambitious, and mostly successful, weaving of the two, however, that lifts Stagger Lee above the crowd of a bumper crop of great graphic novels that came out this year.
Shepherd Hendrix' artwork is subtle and understated, perfectly complementing the densely layered storyline while bringing his own energy and flair to the proceedings. Effortlessly shifting styles as the tone of the story shifts (many of the "musical" interludes have a humorous slant to them, with Stagger Lee offering comical asides to his various crimes and punishments), his characters and layouts are very clean, working the one-color (brownish-black, faux sepia?) and coarse paper format to optimal effect. Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons are smartly defined by the patterns of their suits, and he's particularly good with facial expressions, an essential skill for a dramatic story with minimal "action".
There's no self-indulgent two-page spreads here; instead Hendrix packs every page with as much detail and story as possible, making this as fulfilling a read as you'll find in comics.
Determining a "best of the year" pick is always tricky because it's never an apples to apples comparison, and there's invariably something that came out early in the year, or at the very end, that slips under the radar. Also, 2006 was a particularly good year for original graphic novels, with American Born Chinese, Deogratias, La Perdida, Iron West and The Left Bank Gang among my absolute favorites, but for its outstanding combination of ambition, execution and re-readability, Stagger Lee gets the nod for my Best Original Graphic Novel of 2006.