Great true crime comics are a rarity. In a medium known for adventure and horror stories, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story stands out. This is a story that emphasizes slow character development and explores its detectives as much as it examines their investigations. Instead of the macabre fascination that true crime stories often bring to the table, this tale brings a sense of frustration and dread to its subject. It’s also a story that explores its killer’s, Gary Ridgway’s, life and character. It strives to lend its audience an understanding of, if not sympathy for, unthinkable acts.
As the title implies, Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case drew on a notorious serial killer investigation for inspiration in this Eisner Award-winning book. Even more unusual, Jensen drew on his father’s, Tom Jensen’s, experiences investigating the case. As a result, he is able to capture an intimate portrait of a hero who never draws a gun and has to cheat to pass a physical fitness exam just to stay on active police duty. Tom Jensen’s also willing to learn new technology, read instruction manuals cover to cover, input data painstakingly, and never give up on his most important case. From 1982 to 2003, Ridgway killed at least 49 women and girls. Because many of them were sex workers, Seattle police were slow to act. In the end, it was the dogged determination of local police like Jensen, a member of the King County Sheriff’s Department, that led to Ridgway’s arrest. It’s after the arrest that the tale’s strangest twists take place.
Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case don’t tell this story chronologically but skip around through Jensen’s father’s life and the case itself. They begin by portraying Ridgway’s first known attempted murder as a teenager, luring a younger boy into the woods to play, then stabbing him and leaving him for dead “to know what it felt like to kill someone.” The boy fortunately survived, but Ridgway learned from this early experience and became even more dangerous.
The book then delves into Tom Jensen’s life, how he fell into military service and law enforcement, gaining an unexpected passion for his work on the job. Skipping between different moments in these lives allows readers deep knowledge of these principal characters and their apparent similarities. Ridgway is an apparently boring man: a father, a failed husband, not terribly bright. Jensen is similarly a family man, not an action hero, who demonstrates the power of determination over decades while living an almost painfully normal life. Even after he retires from law enforcement, he stays on as a civilian consultant on the Green River Killer case, making it his life’s work. This allows him an important role in the events that follow Ridgway’s arrest.
Once Gary Ridgway started confessing, he reached an arrangement with prosecutors. In exchange for his cooperation in locating his victims’ bodies, they would not seek the death penalty. It was a compassionate deal made to benefit victims’ families, but prosecutors and police knew it could spark public outrage. As a result, they did not announce Ridgway’s apprehension for months and did not jail him. Instead, they housed him in a vacant office at a police station, under guard at all times. Ridgway never attempted to escape and seemed to enjoy the attention from police, but he floundered when it came time to locate his victims. He said the landscape had changed over time, and that it had been too long. Jensen and other investigators suspected he was holding back for a surprising reason, though: shame.
Tom Jensen chose a curious and compassionate solution to this problem. He listened to Ridgway as a peer and tried to help the murderer come to terms with his own crimes. Whenever particularly disturbing details started to emerge, Jensen was careful not to shut down Ridgway’s disclosures by revealing his disgust. Instead, he nodded along as Ridgway admitted to necrophilia, to killing a mother while her son waited in his car, and to murdering a frequent sex partner when she made him feel a hint of awkwardness and shame. While many of Ridgway’s suspected victims have never been found, this approach eventually helped investigators discover 42 bodies. From prison, Ridgway claims that he killed over 80 victims, but it seems likely that he is inflating his numbers at this point, as he also still seems to like attention.
Jonathan Case’s black-and-white artwork is a brilliant contribution to this 236-page book. His cartooning style is sharp and his character portraits are expressive, accurate, and realistic enough to evoke complex emotions. His backgrounds are excellent as well, but the visual focus is always on characters. And, unfortunately, corpses. This is obviously a grim tale, but both Jensen and Case work hard to humanize their subjects. While Ridgway’s life seems to possess little humor, Tom Jensen comes across as funny and warm. His love for goofy jokes, his family, as well as Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote make him approachable, as does the tenderness he shows victims and their families.
In the end, it’s a story about an everyday hero and a mundane monster. It’s also a story about humanity and pain. Both Jensen and Case work hard to make sure Ridgway’s victims are allowed their humanity as well. The end result is a well-rounded story that calls into question a lot of media assumptions about police work.
The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story is intended for adult audiences. University and public libraries will want to collect it both as a rarity–graphic novel true crime is an underexplored genre–and for its excellence. It discusses a dark criminal case with humanity and decency, and never feels exploitative. Its focus on its unlikely hero provides direction in what could be a scattered narrative. School libraries will likely steer away from this volume, however, though high schools may want to consider its merits alongside other serial killer stories like My Friend Dahmer. Be prepared for book challenges on this one, though. It is grisly and doesn’t shy away from the horrors associated with old corpses and serial murder. The book was originally published in 2011 but was re-printed in 2019.
Green River Killer: A True Detective Story
By Jeff Jensen
Art by Jonathan Case
Dark Horse, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)