Comics and graphic novels have ventured into the grim landscape of real-world murder before — the gripping “Torso” and sprawling “From Hell” spring to mind — but there’s a new twist to the true-crime sub-genre with “Green River Killer: A True Detective Story,” the 240-page hardcover from Dark Horse that has hit shelves Tuesday. Hollywood journalist Jeff Jensen (a familiar byline to readers of Entertainment Weekly) has a blood connection to the tale that marks his first foray into the world of comics. Tom Jensen, the writer’s father, was the dogged detective who worked the case for two decades and then spent 180 days interviewing Gary Leon Ridgway, the man who confessed to 48 murders and is suspected in dozens more. Our Geoff Boucher caught up with the writer to talk about fathers, sons, cops, killers and the art of crime.
GB: The Green River Killer’s crimes and eventual capture have been covered in a whole shelf of books — including one by Ann Rule — and there have been movies and television productions as well. But you come at it from a very different angle. What was it like for you watching your father become the last detective on the trail of a killer most people thought would never be found?
JJ: My father came to the case in 1984 when I was 13. When I left Seattle for college in 1988, my father was still a member of the Green River Task Force, but this once-large team of detectives had been scaled way back. Around 1990, the task force was disbanded, and my father was the only full-time detective working the case. That was his desire; he couldn’t give up. There was part of me that worried. I had seen enough serial killer movies to be familiar with the “dangerously obsessed detective” cliche. My father never conformed to that archetype, at least not publicly. He acted like it was “just a job,” and nothing more. But during the ’90s, when he worked the case solo, my anxiety for him changed. I admired his dedication, but worried about his self-esteem. Did he worry he was wasting his time? I hoped not. How would he feel about his career and himself if he never caught the guy? I hoped he would know contentment, regardless of the outcome. In 2001, that angst turned to joy for him — and relief — when he finally nabbed Gary Leon Ridgway with DNA evidence. But later, in 2003, after the world learned that my father and his colleagues had been interviewing Ridgway in secret for nearly 200 days, I learned that this was never “just a job” for him. He had so many questions for Ridgway, and he needed the answers. As if the answers might help restore order the chaos that man produced.
GB: It took you a while to finish this project and do so in this medium; like your father you were on its “trail” a long time. Talk a bit about the path — it started as a magazine article, correct?
JJ: I’m a journalist, so when I got the idea to tell my father’s story, I thought: magazine article. It was a story with timely, relevant themes that I thought a lot of people would find compelling — the lasting impact of catastrophe; a confrontation with evil — so I pitched it to GQ. In the winter of 2003-04, I interviewed my father, his colleagues, Ridgway’s lawyer, and even got some written answers to written questions from Ridgway himself. But the first draft of the article was a mess. It was too long and the tone was all wrong. I couldn’t figure out if I was writing true crime or memoir. It worked as neither, or as a mutant hybrid of both. By the time I figured out how to approach it, I had missed the window of opportunity, and GQ and I parted ways. That was some hard failure. I remained determined to tell my father’s story. There some powerful moments that I wanted to share with the world — moments I began seeing as comic book scenes. I had written comics in the past for DC and Marvel. And it was my father who introduced me to comics as a little kid. He used to read them to me when he got home from patrol. The more I thought about the more I fell in love with the idea of telling his story in dramatic form, with a graphic novel. It would be a personal, meaningful, creative way to tell the story. It took me a couple years to get around to pitching it to publishers. Just about the time I was ready to do so, I became waaayyy obsessed with “Lost,” and my wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. Strange, tough times. In 2008, I approached Dark Horse about the project — I wanted to work with a Pacific Northwest publisher — and began working on the book, with my father’s blessing.
GB: From a pure writing standpoint, what did you find to be the unexpected challenges in this project once you did decide to pursue it as a graphic novel?
JJ: The biggest challenge — in general — was telling this story in a way that wasn’t sensationalistic, that didn’t exploit the violence done to the women or the emotional trauma experience by the families of the victims. My father made it clear: If we couldn’t figure that out he didn’t want this book to exist, period. The hardest two pages in the book to produce are in Chapter One, where we go inside Gary’s head while he explains how he killed every victim with the same, awful choking technique. I wrote multiple versions of that sequence — some very realistic, some more surreal — and Jonathan drew and re-drew the page. We finally came to a solution that works without being salacious. The unexpected challenge: just finding the time to write. But when I got the time to write, it was a real joy I loved how the work brought me closer to my father; I loved the creative work of writing the script.
GB: Not to be melodramatic, but as a writer you have to speak with the voice of your characters — what was that like for you when it came to writing dialogue for Gary Ridgway?
JJ: Gary’s head-space is/was not a pleasant place to go. I used transcripts from the interviews to develop Gary’s voice and dialogue. For most of the book Gary is a baffling riddle to the detectives. He either found it difficult to recall murders he committed 20 years earlier — or he was unwilling to. I think taking the inventory of his own depravity was harder, more shameful than Gary was expecting. He was a happily married man who felt he was no longer the monster who killed dozens of women 20 years earlier. In the he final chapter, Gary finally begins the process of taking responsibility for his atrocities. Working with his words to create dialogue, I felt gross and infuriated. My father had a very strong reaction to those confessions, too, and we show that in the book.
GB: You must have felt very protective of the project. How did that effect the choices you made when it came to picking a collaborator and then working together? Was it surreal for you to see the artwork once it started coming on?
JJ: Choosing an artist began with choosing the right editor. I pitched the book to Scott Allie at Dark Horse, and he set me up with Sierra Hahn, whose No. 1 concern throughout this process was protecting my father. She also has great taste, and her vision for what this book should look like matched my own. I wanted a strong, confident storyteller who knew how to draw emotion. I also wanted someone who was more interested in the human drama than wallowing in the violence. Jonathan proved to be the perfect collaborator. I knew that from our first conversation. He exuded great maturity, and he expressed great angst about the harder aspects of the book. I knew that kind of thoughtful struggle would serve the book well. I couldn’t be happier with the result. And it was very strange seeing it all come to life, to see my father, mother and family represented in comic book form. Jonathan captured them well, but made these characters his own, too.
GB: Like “Zodiac” or “In Cold Blood,” your book shows the real-world rhythms of crime and detective work. Those rhythms don’t always lend themselves to compelling storytelling; without giving too much away can you talk a bit about the structure of the book and how you got your arms around this long, wandering investigation?
JJ: The Green River Killer investigation stretched from 1982 to 2003. My father became involved in the case in 1984. Gary Ridgway was arrested in 2001, but ultimately was only charged with eight of the 48 murders attributed to the Green River Killer. In 2003, Ridgway’s lawyers became convinced their client was truly the Green River Killer and approached prosecutors with an offer: Gary would plead guilty to all 48 murders, plus lead detectives to the bodies of more victims that had never been found, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty. The prosecutors accepted the deal, on the condition that Ridgway could corroborate his confessions with sufficient, precise anecdotal evidence. The interviews with Ridgway were conducted in secret, in the offices of the Green River Task Force, over a period of nearly 190 days. Ridgway lived in a small office, just down the hall from my father’s cubicle, the entire time. It was very strange. The book takes the first five days of the corroboration process and uses them as a microcosm of the entire 188 day ordeal. Each day gets a chapter. Flashbacks in each chapter flesh out the details of my father’s life and his history with the case. I chose those first five days because of the drama that unfolded during that stretch of time. The first couple days were marked by excitement; my father and his colleagues were finally going to get the answers and closure they had been waiting for. But by the third day, my father began to worry about Gary’s memory. He couldn’t recall key details. They couldn’t find any new bodies or evidence at the locations where Gary said they would find both. By the fourth day, the team knew they needed a breakthrough — and on the fifth day, during an intense interview that prompted my father to have what he calls “a breakdown,” they got it. That interview culminated with my father asking the one question he wanted to ask the most: Why? As in: Why did Gary Ridgway murder all these women? As in: Why did he inflict all this horror on the world? In terms of storytelling choices, the guiding principles were these: Focus on my father’s arc and make the reader really engage and feel that “why” question, as if my father was asking it for them.
GB: What does your father think of the book?
JJ: My father and mother read the whole book, together, for the first time in late March. When they reached the end, my father — who is not comfortable with emotion, and who was becoming increasingly emotional during the experience — walked out of the room and shut the door behind him. After what seemed to be a very long time, he returned to the room, composed, and said, “Good work, Jeff. Good work.” High praise, coming from my father. I’ll never forget it.
– Geoff Boucher
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