Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Harold Schechter and Eric Powell Dive Into a Twisted Mind With Graphic Novel ‘Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?’ [Blood/Ink/Staples]

Welcome to Blood/Ink/Staples, a recurring column which will shine a spotlight on creepy comic books new and old. Here, we’ll be taking a peek at forgotten graphic novels and hot-off-the-press floppies, buried indies and newly-released big labels. Some articles will be historical deep dives, others will feature interviews with creators, but all will attempt to steer our readers to the very best fearsome funnybooks to be found out there in the wild.

From Psycho to Three on a Meathook, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Silence of the Lambs, the story of Wisconsin graverobber and murderer Ed Gein has inspired numerous noteworthy horror films over the years, each providing hints and glimpses at the killer’s actual crimes without retelling the events in any straightforward, factually accurate detail (1974’s Deranged and 2001’s Ed Gein perhaps hew the closest to the actual events). In addition to film, the case of the Plainfield Ghoul has also also been covered in print, most notably in Harold Schechter’s Deviant: The Shocking True Story of the Original “Psycho”, which stands as the definitive account of Gein’s life and crimes. Now, Gein’s story is being told in funnybook form with Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?, a 224-page graphic novel penned by Schechter and comics legend Eric Powell (The Goon), who has also illustrated the book in gorgeous grayscale black-and-white.

”Did You Hear…?” painstakingly lays out Gein’s history, covering his earliest years through his ghoulish crimes and on to his eventual death in a psychiatric hospital in 1984. Along the way, Schechter and Powell take great care in portraying the people of Plainfield and their reactions to discovering they’d unknowingly lived alongside a graverobbing murderer, their tales of Gein elevating him from pathetic madman to something approaching urban myth. As extensively researched as the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell, ”Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” is a masterpiece of the form, standing as the best possible dramatization of Ed Gein’s tale in any medium.

In advance of the book’s release (August 11th in comic shops, August 24th in bookstores), Bloody Disgusting was lucky enough to chat with Messrs. Schechter and Powell about the project’s origins, the nature of their collaboration, and their unique approach to this well-covered story.

Bloody Disgusting: Gentlemen, can you tell readers how it was that this project came to be? What was your collaborative process like?

Eric Powell: So I was taking a road trip through Wisconsin. Being well aware of the Gein story, it was constantly popping into my mind as we drove through these pretty rural areas. I had the idea of doing a graphic novel based on his isolation in the farmhouse. There isn’t any definitive evidence, we only have his word on what was going on inside the farmhouse, and he was known to be somewhat evasive when it came to telling the truth. So the idea bounced around in my head for a few days. And then, being a huge fan of Harold and well aware of Deviant, the quintessential work on Gein … I thought if I did a graphic novel, it would never be better or up to par with what Harold had already done. So I let the idea drop, and then started thinking, “Well, why not try to collaborate with Harold? I’m sure since he had written Deviant a few decades ago that he’s come across some more information, or maybe had some new insights on the case.”

So without much hope, I contacted his agent and did not expect them to contact me back. I would have just let the idea die there had I not heard back from them, but luckily for me, Harold turned out to be a huge comic fan and was really enthusiastic about the project.

Harold Schechter: Yeah, I was actually thrilled when I heard from my agent that Eric Powell had reached out to me. I am a lifelong comic book fan. There was a period, late 60s/early 70s, where I was a very serious collector of mostly silver age Marvel Comics and comic book art. Actually, when I was young, I aspired to be a comic book artist.

So I was well aware of Eric’s work, The Goon in particular. I always considered him to be probably the best draftsman of his generation. So yeah, it was a thrill for me when I heard that he wanted to collaborate.

As far as the process went, we initially had slightly different ideas of how we wanted to approach the story. I would turn my material into a kind of movie script format, because I’d never done anything in comic book form before. Then I would send it to Eric. He did substantial rewrites on it. We would Zoom back and forth a lot, this obviously all during the height of the pandemic. Eric actually did plan to come visit me and go over all of the research material that I had accumulated while writing Deviant years ago.

Just as he was about to make those arrangements, everything shut down. So he still hasn’t done that. [laughs] But yeah, we did a lot of back-and-forthing over Zoom. I did Xerox or scan a lot of the material and sent it to Eric. Very gradually, the concept of how we wanted to represent the story and particularly what was going on inside Gein’s head and what might really have driven him [was developed].

As Eric said, I had come up with some new theories about that. Then at some point, we came up with the final script, and then Eric did his stuff. I always say it was really an ideal collaboration as far as I was concerned, because Eric did most of the work!

BD: Mr. Schechter, you’ve tackled the Ed Gein case in your non-fiction book Deviant and the fictional sequel of sorts Outcry. What is it about the Gein case that most fascinates you, and keeps bringing you back to its events?

HS: Well, it’s clearly not just me. This case has exerted this very, very powerful fascination ever since it first came to light. What first grabbed me about it, and this is going back to the late 1980s, I was writing a book on movie special effects. You know, my day job for forty-two years until my recent retirement was as a literature professor.

But in order to supplement my meager academic income, I’d started writing commercial books and was basically writing books about whatever interested me at the moment. At one point, that happened to be movie special effects. This was before the whole CGI revolution. When I was researching the chapter on horror, I came across the fact which was unknown to me at the time, that both Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which were my two favorite horror movies, had both been inspired by this real life case.

I was very fascinated by that. I began looking into the Gein case, then decided to write a book about it. So that was it in terms of what interested me, but the other part of it is, you know, there’s something about Gein … he’s like this real-life fairy-tale monster come to life. He seems like a creature out of myth and folklore, this kind of boogeyman that kids have nightmares about and are always telling folk stories about. I think that’s a great deal of what accounts for his lasting appeal.

BD: ”Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” deals with not only with Ed Gein’s history and the nature of his crimes, but also how those events impacted the community he lived in and the people involved directly and indirectly with the case, an approach which the title seems to underline. How was it that you both came to approach this well-known story in this particular way, and how important was it to you both to give a voice to the everyday men and women impacted by the fallout of Gein’s horrors?

EP: I remember about halfway through working on a book, we had the idea that the storytelling was pretty linear. If I remember right, we had the idea – a little bit from the title – to let the townspeople tell a lot of the story. So at that point, we changed the format a little bit and added the kind of jump forward in time about halfway through the book.

So you’re kind of uncovering the crimes as the townspeople are, and then hearing their voices retell it, so you kind of get some of that hearsay and exaggeration through their retelling of the story. That aspect was always a pretty big part of what we wanted to do with the book. I mean, when we start the book with the opening of Psycho and it bookends with that same kind of effect that he had on popular culture, it was always a concept that we wanted to hit on. His effect not only on the psyche of the the local people, but globally how he’s scared people to death over the years. As Harold said, he became a real life kind of a folktale boogeyman.

HS: Yeah. Again, part of the fascination with the Gein case is this incredible disparity between what was going on in his little farmhouse, and how he was perceived by the outside world. So we wanted to capture both of those things – what was going on inside his farmhouse and inside his head, but also how the community perceived him.

You know, when his crimes came to light, it was such an incredible shock. Obviously, not just on people of Plainfield, but the whole nation, and ultimately the world. That disparity between the inner world and the outer world was a large part of what we wanted to do in the book.

BD: Mr. Powell, your art is very distinctive, but can be more realistic or more stylized, depending on the project. How did you find the right approach for ”Did You Hear…?”, and could you talk a bit about your process and the decision to illustrate in grayscale?

EP: Even in The Goon I tend to alter the style of the art to match the tone of the story. If it’s a more humorous story, I tend to lean into the cartooning. Go a little more Jack Davis. If the story has a more serious tone, I tend to go a little more photorealistic. As much as I can anyway. Photorealism isn’t really what I do. It was hard for me to nail down the approach I wanted to take on the Gein book, but early on I decided it really needed to be in black and white. All of the reference material I was looking at, all of the newsreel footage was in black and white. And it was also done as a nod to Psycho. I just couldn’t picture it in color. It would have seemed garish to me.

BD: Many times in the past, whenever a take on Ed Gein has gone to the page, it was eventually adapted for the screen, and ”Did You Hear…?” surely has a cinematic feel and scope to it at times. Is there any chance that this graphic novel could be translated to film?

EP: Harold and I are open to it being adapted into a film. There would have to be some changes to the structure as I feel the approach we took works better in a graphic novel format that it would cinematically, but I think it could actually make a really good movie in the right hands.

HS: Yeah, I think it could be. Wait and see, you know. It’s obviously well within the realm of possibility that somebody might option it. Of course, as I’m sure you know, it’s a long way from optioning something to it actually being turned into a movie. But yeah, that’d be great.

Speaking of which, and I do want to stress this – whenever I’ve done recent interviews about the book, I’ve always talked about how amazing Eric’s art is. What I haven’t really emphasized, and this always strikes me when I look at the finished book, is how he structured the story. When I provided my initial script to Eric, it was pretty much straightforward, chronologically. Eric has done something really, really interesting with the way he has organized the chronology of the story.

And that was totally his. Once I saw what he was doing, I was able to make suggestions and alterations and so on. But the way he introduces very early on the evening of the killing and the discovery of Bernice Worden’s body, then goes into a flashback for the events of the day, that narrative structure which I think works brilliantly, was totally his.

BD: In addition to focusing on the townspeople and the grislier aspects of the case, I appreciated the fact that ”Did You Hear…?” humanizes Ed. He is a fairy-tale monster, he is the boogeyman. But he’s also a deeply sad figure.

HS: Well, it’s interesting. Virtually every interviewer we’ve spoken to made a similar point, about feeling sympathy on some level for Gein. Part of what I attribute that to, it’s not only the horrible conditions of his life, but … you know, people tend to talk about him as a serial killer. I don’t think of Ed Gein, strictly speaking, as a serial killer. The term “serial murder” entered our language in the late 80s/early 90s, maybe a little bit earlier than that, to specifically describe extreme sadistic sex killers like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy and the Hillside Strangler and so on. These were men who derived their extremely sick, sexual pleasure from torturing and then killing victims. That was not the kind of personality Gein was.

It’s true, he murdered two women. This is not at all to minimize those crimes, but the two women he murdered were very swiftly executed. He wasn’t really interested in dominating, and torturing, and making them suffer. He was just interested in gathering the raw material for these bizarre household projects. Gein was essentially a necrophile. Most of the bodies that he collected came from the grave.

So that makes it easier to feel some element of sympathy for him. I mean, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for Bundy or Gacy or those people. As far as I’m concerned, they personified evil. Gein does not quite fit into that category. Some people are apologetic or feel slightly guilty for feeling this way, given what he did. But as you say, it’s possible to see him as very pathetic human being, which you can’t do with these other notorious serial killers.

BD: It was noted earlier by Mr. Powell that he was curious about any new theories surrounding the Gein case that you might have come up with since writing Deviant. One such element seemed to be the inclusion of the Aztec deity Xipe Totec, and what role that figure might have played in Gein’s psychopathy.

HS: That’s one of the things I’m happiest about with the book. Over the years, that is the one main insight that I’ve come up with about Gein. You know, at the time of Gein’s crimes in the 1950s, it was a heyday of psychoanalysis. So everybody, including Robert Bloch, was diagnosing Gein in terms of these traditional Freudian concepts, mostly the Oedipal Complex.

But over the years, I’ve been thinking about it and being more and more emerged in the whole world of this kind of psychopathology. Also, I should add, my background as an academic was in the depth psychology of Carl Jung. In fact, I taught a course in it for many years called Myth and Archetype.

I started to become convinced that Ed’s schizophrenia – schizophrenia meaning “a shattering of the personality” – had sort of opened up a rift somewhere in his psyche that allowed all of this archaic material to come through. I think this is part of the fascination of the case, was that – without consciously knowing he was doing it – he was really performing these primordial rituals, this kind of pagan worship of the Great Mother Goddess. Performing these rituals that were a part of some of these ancient religions, like wearing the flayed skins of sacrificial victims, and the attempt at self castration was a particular Great Mother Goddess act, for example, where the priests actually did castrate themselves.

So I think that there’s that element, in terms of what was going on with Gein that has never really been explored before, and that I felt very strongly about introducing into this book.

BD: Ultimately, I would like to leave the final word with you both by posing and paraphrasing a pointed question presented to Alfred Hitchcock after the release of Psycho, as dramatized in your graphic novel – “What moral implications do you feel this graphic novel has? I mean, what was your intent?”

EP: Well, we had to take a little more care than Hitchcock because he was adapting a fictionalized story inspired by Gein and we were adapting a sequence of actual events. We never took that part of it lightly. But with every project I do, I do it for myself first. Something about it has to entertain me and spark my interest enough to invest the time to do it. This case has fascinated, or horrified me since I was a kid. So that was my motivation. But as far as our intent, I believe we wanted to examine how the crimes of this man shook not only his small community, but the entire country. And continue to do so today. And also show the inner workings of his twisted mind in a way that hadn’t been done before. I feel like we achieved those things and I hope the readers feel so, too.

HS: My intent was to tell the best story I could possibly tell. I didn’t have any particular moral intentions. I’ve actually written a whole book about this years ago called Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment which explores how, throughout history, entertainment that is aimed at the mass audience has always contained a lot of very graphic violence.

And, in fact, it used to be a lot worse than it is today, in the sense that there were times when people were actually killed for the entertainment of audiences. I tend to feel that stories about monsters and horror stories which people read from a very early age serve a very useful social and psychological function. They allow us to ventilate a lot of our own anxieties and really to indulge safely, in a socially acceptable way, some of our own forbidden fantasies.

You know, there’s a quote from Plato that I often cite, who said “The virtuous man dreams what the wicked man does.” That’s what distinguishes one from the other. All of us have a side of ourselves that’s very dark and possessed of forbidden taboo fantasies involving sex and violence, and so on and so forth, that we need an outlet for. That’s one of the things that horror stories and stories about monsters provide.

Obviously, a book like the one Eric and I have done is not endorsing graverobbing and corpse dismemberment. It’s portraying something that has to do with the outer limits of human behavior. The more you can become familiar with who and what we are, I think the better everything is.

Special Thanks to Harold Schechter and Eric Powell for their time.

Make certain to pick up “Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” at your local comic book shop on August 11th (available in bookstores everywhere on August 24th).


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